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Puny Humans: Can We Change The Course Of Nature?

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Recently I came across an idea I call “puny humans.” It wasn’t for the first time; in fact, it’s been quite a common one, probably qualifying as a ‘meme’—an evolving notion spreading by imitation, often through the Internet.

A gentleman calling himself “wilderness” posted the following comment to a Hubpages forum discussion:

...what seems lost is the ability (or willingness) to understand that large numbers of people are not likely to equate with the forces of nature in effect. Lots of people just does NOT equal global warming, no matter how many there are or how loud we shout that people are to blame. Outside of falsified, and/or conveniently ignored, data there is just no reason to think that we've the ability to change the course of nature.

"Crown of Creation"

A mixed-media collage by Jaqueline Elaine Gomez.  Image courtesy artist and Wikimedia Commons.

A mixed-media collage by Jaqueline Elaine Gomez. Image courtesy artist and Wikimedia Commons.

Well, apart from the canard about 'falsified data,' he has something of a point. For a long time, humanity was inclined to see itself as (in film director William Lang’s words) “the crown of creation.” The world, we thought, was made for us, and the rest of the Universe literally revolved around us. We were very special indeed—just “a little lower than the angels.”

That last phrase is quite ancient, found in the Bible and attributed by tradition to King David himself (Psalm 8, verses 4-8, as translated in the New International Version):

puny-humans-can-we-change-the-course-of-nature

Over the process that historians call the Enlightenment, however, this view was eroded. The world, we learned from Copernicus, Galileo and others, was not the center of the Universe; our world revolves around the sun, along with other planets physically rather grander than our little Earth. And that Universe kept expanding as we learned more.

Already by 1669 Blaise Pascal had famously written, “the eternal silence of this infinite space frightens me...” He was not the last to find the vastness of space terrifying; but that has not prevented astronomers from trying to measure what they can. According to one online source, the observable Universe is now 93 billion light years across, and the entire Universe an estimated ten billion times larger still.

Image by 'mblegacy', courtesy mblegacy & Wikimedia Commons.

Image by 'mblegacy', courtesy mblegacy & Wikimedia Commons.

Archbishop James Ussher, primate of all Ireland.

Archbishop James Ussher, primate of all Ireland.

Nor is the expansion limited to space; our Universe has expanded greatly in time as well. In 1650, Archbishop Ussher famously calculated the age of the Earth from the genealogies given in the Old Testament to be around six thousand years.

Today, the prevailing scientific view is that the Universe came into being 13.7 billion years ago. By contrast, anatomically modern humans are believed to have existed for about 200,000 years—just a little more than one ten thousandth of that time.

The ‘crown of creation’ appears to occupy a vanishingly small portion of that Creation. Accordingly, ideas emphasizing our tiny place in the scheme of things tend to have a becoming air of humility and reason:

“....there is just no reason to think that we’ve the ability to change the course of nature.”

Of course, that is just context. It still leaves the (as far as we can determine) uniquely human traits of language and reason—usually considered as the real essence of our ‘creation in the image of God’ and thus the real reason for our status as ‘crown of creation.’ Some might argue that these are more important than our size, numbers, or place in the cosmos in determining our ability to ‘change the course of nature.’ ‘Wilderness’ might disagree, but after all, if global warming is our concern, humanity’s ability to ‘change the course of nature’ on, say, Mars is not much to the point.

But arguments over humanity’s ‘exaltedness’ seem, in the context of changing the environment, to be not so much right or wrong, as simply irrelevant. For biology teaches us that creatures presumably ‘humbler’ than we puny humans do ‘change the course of nature.’

Consider the beaver. Though of impressive size for a rodent—individuals as large as 100 pounds have been recorded—they are not considered to be particularly intelligent. There is good reason to believe that their lodges and dams are constructed largely by instinct. For instance, European beavers released from zoos into natural habitats began building dams and lodges, despite the fact that several intervening generations of zoo-bred beavers had not been able to exercise—or teach their kits!—this behavior.

A beaver at work.  Photo by 'makedocreative', courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A beaver at work. Photo by 'makedocreative', courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Nevertheless, it’s fair to call beavers “eco-system engineers,” as author Terry Krautwurst did in an article for Mother Earth News (linked in the sidebar.) Instinctually-driven though it may be, their activity transforms considerable chunks of the territories which they inhabit, creating wetlands which:

...transform woodlands into diverse habitats that support a greater diversity of animals than before. Aquatic plants flourish. Insects abound, providing sustaining protein for birds. Frogs, salamanders, and small fish at the water’s edge draw herons, kingfishers, raccoons, and other carnivores. Larger mammals, such as fox and deer, also thrive.

A beaver pond and its marsh store and filter water, slowing runoff from storms, allowing heavier silt and pollutants to settle. Water downstream is clearer and cleaner, its flow more stable and less prone to drought and flooding.

Even after beavers abandon a dam, allowing the pond to drain and leaving only broad mud flats, their impact persists. Vegetation springs up rapidly in the rich accumulated sediment. The result is a beaver meadow, itself a wildlife magnet.

Definitely an alteration of the course of nature—albeit one more localized than those typically created by humanity’s activities (and considerably more benign, as well.) But beavers are just one example, and far from the most dramatic.

Consider the humble cyanobacteria. That’s a general term for a group of aquatic microbes that arose far back in the history of the Earth—in fact the oldest known fossils are cyanobacteria. Those fossils are 3.5 billion years old—for perspective, the oldest rocks so far discovered are 3.8 billion years old.

As you might expect, cyanobacteria seem quite primitive, from a typical human perspective. Not only do they lack intelligence, they lack nervous systems. They are unicellular, after all. And not only unicellular, but prokaryotic—that is, they have no nucleus in their single cell. That’s a big difference from most familiar creatures: fish, birds, and mammals all have well-defined cell nuclei. Quite a few unicellular creatures, such as protozoans, do too. Such creatures (including humans) are termed ‘eukaryotes.’

Modern cyanobacteria

Modern cyanobacteria