Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Human nature and wild nature

Edward Wilson, yet again with a startling insight, in the 25th anniversary foreword to Sociobiology: The New Synthesis:
Human nature – the epigenetic rules – did not originate in cities and croplands, which are too recent in human history to have driven significant amounts of genetic evolution. They arose in natural environments, especially the savannas and transitional woodlands of Africa, where Homo Sapiens and its antecedents evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. What we call the natural environment or wilderness today was home then – the environment that cradled humanity. Before agriculture the lives of people depended on their intimate familiarity with wild biodiversity, both the surrounding ecosystems and the plants and animals composing them.

The link was, on a scale of evolutionary time, abruptly weakened by the invention and spread of agriculture and then erased by the implosion of a large part of the agricultural population into the cities during the industrial and postindustrial revolutions. As global culture advanced into the new, technoscientific age, human nature stayed back in the Paleolithic era.

Hence the ambivalent stance taken by modern Homo Sapiens to the natural environment. Natural environments are cherished at the same time they are subdued and converted. The ideal planet for the human psyche seems to be one that offers an endless expanse of fertile, unoccupied wilderness to be churned up for the production of more people. But Earth is finite, and it still exponentially growing human population is rapidly running out of productive land for conversion. Clearly humanity must find a way simultaneously to stabilize its population and attain a universal decent standard of living while preserving much of Earth’s natural environment and biodiversity as possible.

Conservation, I have long believed, is ultimately an ethical issue. Moral precepts in turn must be based on a sound, objective knowledge of human nature…I am persuaded that as the need to stabilize and protect the environment grows more urgent in the coming decades, the linking of the two natures – human nature and wild Nature – will become a central intellectual concern.

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