Questions concerning the anthropocene, Darwin and Humboldt Watch

mysticalfluffy
Badges: 20
Rep:
?
#1
Report Thread starter 1 year ago
#1
So I'm writing this with a limited scientific understanding, having not dabbled much in science since my A-levels, though I wonder whether you’ll be able to answer a question (or the shadow of one—I understand what I want to know, but not quite what I want to ask) that for some strange reason has been on my mind. I apologise if these questions don't seem fully formed. They are quite vague in nature, but through discussion I hope I will understand better what it is I want to ask. These are I suppose questions that would require answers both from philosophers and scientists.

I’ve recently been reading about the anthropocene, Darwin and Humboldt. Humboldt and Darwin both saw humans not as the superior species but as part of a natural system. Humboldt recognised that humans were starting to deplete the environment, e.g. through quarrying, deforestation and the growth of cash crops. Darwin observed that species evolve through natural selection, depending on environmental circumstances e.g. food supply, climate, competition etc.

How would their theories fit into the present day belief of the anthropocene? Are we really influencing the world in such a dramatic way, or is this an exaggeration of our own importance. Are other species likely to evolve to survive in new environments made by humans (any examples so far? I know there have been numerous extinctions caused by humans)? Could the survival of species now be described as 'artificial selection'?And a more philosophical question, does our influence equate with our superiority? Are we not perhaps more like a virus, an astroid or natural disaster? Or does nature aim for homogeneity again after diversifying through natural selection.

Is the term anthropocene anthrocentric, or does it merely descriptive? Why do we now talk about natural vs artificial, when all things are derived from nature/natural processes? Why do we want to describe manmade things as unnatural? Also, would you say there is a relationship/common thread between Humboldt and Darwin’s about the (lack of) superiority of mankind? Are things different now that we have entered what has been described as the anthropocene?

Sorry if these questions seem banal; I just want to wrap my head around questions like "why is it we separate humans from other animals/nature?" and "why do we feel a need to influence the planet/put a label to our influence?", and "what are we (if anything) becoming?"

If you've got this far, thanks for reading. I definitely need to read more around the subject and I'd appreciate any books you might be able to recommend.
0
reply
OxFossil
Badges: 16
Rep:
?
#2
Report 1 year ago
#2
(Original post by lizfairy)
So I'm writing this with a limited scientific understanding, having not dabbled much in science since my A-levels, though I wonder whether you’ll be able to answer a question (or the shadow of one—I understand what I want to know, but not quite what I want to ask) that for some strange reason has been on my mind. I apologise if these questions don't seem fully formed. They are quite vague in nature, but through discussion I hope I will understand better what it is I want to ask. These are I suppose questions that would require answers both from philosophers and scientists.

I’ve recently been reading about the anthropocene, Darwin and Humboldt. Humboldt and Darwin both saw humans not as the superior species but as part of a natural system. Humboldt recognised that humans were starting to deplete the environment, e.g. through quarrying, deforestation and the growth of cash crops. Darwin observed that species evolve through natural selection, depending on environmental circumstances e.g. food supply, climate, competition etc.

How would their theories fit into the present day belief of the anthropocene? Are we really influencing the world in such a dramatic way, or is this an exaggeration of our own importance. Are other species likely to evolve to survive in new environments made by humans (any examples so far? I know there have been numerous extinctions caused by humans)? Could the survival of species now be described as 'artificial selection'?And a more philosophical question, does our influence equate with our superiority? Are we not perhaps more like a virus, an astroid or natural disaster? Or does nature aim for homogeneity again after diversifying through natural selection.

Is the term anthropocene anthrocentric, or does it merely descriptive? Why do we now talk about natural vs artificial, when all things are derived from nature/natural processes? Why do we want to describe manmade things as unnatural? Also, would you say there is a relationship/common thread between Humboldt and Darwin’s about the (lack of) superiority of mankind? Are things different now that we have entered what has been described as the anthropocene?

Sorry if these questions seem banal; I just want to wrap my head around questions like "why is it we separate humans from other animals/nature?" and "why do we feel a need to influence the planet/put a label to our influence?", and "what are we (if anything) becoming?"

If you've got this far, thanks for reading. I definitely need to read more around the subject and I'd appreciate any books you might be able to recommend.
Fascinating and important questions. I'm not going to attempt to answer them, but I would make a couple of observations. First, that the designation of the anthropocene need not be a product of human solipsism - there is a reasonable argument that human activity will be recorded in "natural" markers such as soil profiles, for ages to come, in addition to our impacts on global climate, atmospheric composition and the mass extinction event you have mentioned. Second, from a biological point of view, the distinction between the human species and our closest relativess is no more significant than that between - say - chimpanzees and gorillas. We happen to be a particularly noxious invasive species. But like many other invasives, we've already created the conditions - as well as the means - that will lead to a population crash in due course.

Frans de Waal's most recent book, "Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?" is a brilliant review that demonstrates how our efforts to show that humans are qualitatively different from other animals are looking increasingly unconvincing.
1
reply
mysticalfluffy
Badges: 20
Rep:
?
#3
Report Thread starter 1 year ago
#3
(Original post by OxFossil)
Fascinating and important questions. I'm not going to attempt to answer them, but I would make a couple of observations. First, that the designation of the anthropocene need not be a product of human solipsism - there is a reasonable argument that human activity will be recorded in "natural" markers such as soil profiles, for ages to come, in addition to our impacts on global climate, atmospheric composition and the mass extinction event you have mentioned. Second, from a biological point of view, the distinction between the human species and our closest relativess is no more significant than that between - say - chimpanzees and gorillas. We happen to be a particularly noxious invasive species. But like many other invasives, we've already created the conditions - as well as the means - that will lead to a population crash in due course.

Frans de Waal's most recent book, "Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?" is a brilliant review that demonstrates how our efforts to show that humans are qualitatively different from other animals are looking increasingly unconvincing.
I added that book to my to-read list on Goodreads a while ago. Glad to have a personal recommendation though, thanks!

I recognise that there is now geological evidence for the anthropocene; but have no other life forms had such an influence on the earth though? Trees, for example, and some of those sea creatures--zooplankton and algae--which fossilised to create petroleum? I suppose they do belong in numerous epochs. I don't really understand the scale of our impact, or why it has only now been recognised that we are entering this new epoch. I do worry that humans will see this as an argument for human supremacy even though it's not. To me it seems more like we've become a cancer on the earth that's lost all control.

I'm trying to think off the top of my head of other species whose habits have led to conditions that will ultimately lead to their own demise--maybe beavers? I can only imagine a world that bares resemblance to Cormac McCarthy's The Road that's been overexploited by humans or beavers.
1
reply
OxFossil
Badges: 16
Rep:
?
#4
Report 1 year ago
#4
(Original post by lizfairy)
I added that book to my to-read list on Goodreads a while ago. Glad to have a personal recommendation though, thanks!

I recognise that there is now geological evidence for the anthropocene; but have no other life forms had such an influence on the earth though? Trees, for example, and some of those sea creatures--zooplankton and algae--which fossilised to create petroleum? I suppose they do belong in numerous epochs. I don't really understand the scale of our impact, or why it has only now been recognised that we are entering this new epoch. I do worry that humans will see this as an argument for human supremacy even though it's not. To me it seems more like we've become a cancer on the earth that's lost all control.

I'm trying to think off the top of my head of other species whose habits have led to conditions that will ultimately lead to their own demise--maybe beavers? I can only imagine a world that bares resemblance to Cormac McCarthy's The Road that's been overexploited by humans or beavers.
Like you say, the blossoming of photosynthetic life that led to atmospheric oxygen rising from almost zero to 20% was as profound a change as could be imagined. I'm not sure why it isn't used to designate an era, but I have seen it described as The Great Oxygenation Event (with caps!)

You're also right in questioning my assertion that species bring about their own demise. I'm thinking of the proverbial lemming boom-bust cycles, where the crashes do appear to be caused by the lemmings exhausting their own food supplies (in contrast to cycling voles, which are driven by predator cycles). Other examples might include invasives like the snail A fulica (which tends to show a pattern of population explosion followed by crashes - due to disease - when introduced to a new habitat) and Canaadian Pondweed (Elodea) which also tends to explode then crash (although the cause of the crashes is unclear).

That we are so completely a part of the natural world seems to me to be a wonderful thing. Why so many people feel the need to see us as "superior" in some way is baffling and sad.
0
reply
Plagioclase
Badges: 21
Rep:
?
#5
Report 1 year ago
#5
(Original post by lizfairy)
X

I did my EPQ on this exact question whilst in the Upper Sixth three years ago, and studying for a degree in Earth Sciences, I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot since then. I’m quite pleased that you’ve raised a lot of the ideas that I also thought about here.

Firstly, just to get this out of the way, the question of whether to make the Anthropocene an official part of the geological timescale is not a purely geological question. The geological timescale is already slightly anthropocentric. For example, there is absolutely nothing geologically significant about the current geological Epoch, the Holocene, other than the fact that it is the interglacial period inhabited by humans and marks a kind of boundary between geomorphological and geological processes as far as modern humans are concerned. So this question of whether to make the Anthropocene ‘official’ is in part based on science but there is inevitably politics and practicality involved too.

Nevertheless, I do not think it is exaggerating our own importance to imply that there is something of geological significance about the current time period, and I do think there is merit to considering humanity as a new kind of planetary process. Thousands and thousands of chemicals that have never existed on this planet before and could never exist through conventional planetary processes suddenly emerge on geologically instantaneous timescales. Life has had a transformative impact on surface geochemistry over the Earth’s history but no species has ever had such dramatic effects on such short timescales. Our impacts on the planet in terms of climatic and ecological changes again also surpass any other single species. We are probably the only species in the planet’s history which has not only covered the entire surface of the planet with our trace fossils, but also the surfaces of other planets, and we have even left physical traces beyond our own solar system now. We have unparalleled abilities to change the natural environment for our own benefit, and on a planetary scale. You could also regard humanity as an extraordinary catalyst, using up hundreds of millions of years’ worth of natural resources practically instantaneously in exothermic reactions.

For me, it's less the impacts that humans are having on the climate and on biodiversity that are the persuasive factors (since we know that the earth has undergone more extreme climatic and biological disasters before) and more the chemical and philosophical arguments (the anthropogenic impact on planetary geochemistry genuinely is completely unique in the geological record, and so is the ability for a species to have planetary (and beyond) scale impacts with the express intention of making the environment more habitable for them).

I think this natural versus artificial distinction is valid. Of course humans are ultimately the process of entirely natural processes but as described above, I think there is a genuine difference between the kinds of processes that have occurred over the 4.5 billion years before humans came along, and the processes that we have introduced. Inventing this term called ‘artificial’ to describe processes that rival the ‘natural’ is justified, in my view.

That is not to say that ‘difference’ means ‘superior. It could mean that (and I think there are people such as Dr Stuart Armstrong who certainly would argue that we, or sentient life in general, are superior to nature), but not necessarily. We are indeed depleting natural sources but there is an increasing awareness of this and we are moving (slowly) towards a more sustainable society that is capable of operating within the natural boundaries of Earth.

If you’re interested in this question, there’s a great book written by Jan Zalasiewicz called The Earth After Us which, whilst not directly answering your question, considers what the permanent traces of humanity will be in the geological record. A good paper to read is Steffan et al 2015, or more generally this idea of ‘Planetary boundaries’.
1
reply
X

Quick Reply

Attached files
Write a reply...
Reply
new posts
Latest
My Feed

See more of what you like on
The Student Room

You can personalise what you see on TSR. Tell us a little about yourself to get started.

Personalise

University open days

  • University of Birmingham
    Postgraduate Open Day Postgraduate
    Wed, 20 Mar '19
  • King's College London
    Postgraduate Taught Courses - Arts & Sciences - Strand Campus Postgraduate
    Wed, 20 Mar '19
  • University of East Anglia
    All Departments Open 13:00-17:00. Find out more about our diverse range of subject areas and career progression in the Arts & Humanities, Social Sciences, Medicine & Health Sciences, and the Sciences. Postgraduate
    Wed, 20 Mar '19

Where do you need more help?

Which Uni should I go to? (50)
15.11%
How successful will I become if I take my planned subjects? (28)
8.46%
How happy will I be if I take this career? (63)
19.03%
How do I achieve my dream Uni placement? (51)
15.41%
What should I study to achieve my dream career? (39)
11.78%
How can I be the best version of myself? (100)
30.21%

Watched Threads

View All