To Find our Proper Niche
We may never know exactly how it happened. A random, seemingly insignificant, genetic event resulted in a being with an enhanced intellect and the power of decision, the option to kill or not to kill, the ability to sin. We shed the chains of instinct that had enslaved our ancestors and became the only creature on earth with the mental capacity to determine our own destiny. Our new found intellect gave us superiority over the rest of life and established in our psyche the notion that we were meant to dominate the natural world, subdue it and bend it for our needs. We had, in our own estimation, risen above nature and were no longer part of it. We were humans, created by God and superior to all other forms of life.
At first our dominion over nature consisted of little more than hunting, gathering, subsistence farming and the use of natural materials for the construction of shelters. But as our intellect flourished we learned to appropriate a larger share of nature’s products for our own use. As our numbers grew and our culture evolved so did our prevalence over other life forms and with it our ability to survive and prosper.
In nature, predators pursue herds of herbivores and pick off the old and crippled or the occasional abandoned young. But the herd moves on, ever stronger from this constant purging of the weak, leaving only the fittest to pass on the genes. But human creativeness had inspired ways of evading nature’s laws, much as a lawyer discovers loopholes that permit a client to circumvent the constraints of statutory law. Our cleverness had insulated us from nature, protecting us from its harsh realities and allowing us to elude the consequences of natural selection, the so called "law of the jungle." Shelters made with natural materials protected us from the elements, herbal medicine from disease and agriculture from starvation in times of want.
Our inventiveness grew in leaps and bounds as did our numbers, and we mined the earth for minerals with which to manufacture better tools; iron replaced stone, coal replaced firewood and beasts of burden replaced human toil. These discoveries, in turn, provided the means to appropriate more of earth’s products for our own needs without regard for countless other forms of life. Nature was immense and her products many, and humans were so sure that the bounty could never end.
But in isolated places it did end. On Easter Island, for example, a natural richness once existed, and a wealthy culture thrived. They reaped the bounty of the forest for building homes in which to live and boats to traverse the sea for fish and trade. They reaped the bounty of the cliffs, where sea birds nested, for fowl and eggs. But came the day when swollen human populations felled the last tree and killed the last bird, and there was no more wood, nor boats, nor fish, nor fowl, nor eggs, and there was no more trade. The Easter Islanders starved and the population plummeted, and where a proud and prosperous people once thrived, a dismal few survived to eke out a living in any way they could.
Elsewhere humans continued on their quest, guided by the intellect and creativeness that separates us from nature. We first discovered and later harnessed the energy stored in the organic remains of ancient life forms, long buried within the planet. We created better tools, better medicines, better means of transport and communication. We invented chemicals that allowed us to produce more food, machines that rearranged the earth in any way that struck our fancy and weapons of unimaginable power. Our predominance over nature expanded at a frightening rate and nature’s laws became completely separated from human experience, something from our past. Our bodies were no longer vulnerable to nature’s whims. We learned to cut and suture and repair our different parts and replace our old and damaged organs. We learned to kill any other form of life that competed with us for space or food. We even attempted to completely annihilate certain species we considered "pests."
As our numbers and powers grew, nature paid the toll, only slightly at first; then certain species began to perish. But Mother Nature is a very clever lady with a few surprises of her own. As with the herds of herbivores, the weaker of her creatures and less able to adapt, were first to go, and the stronger species survived and grew ever stronger. So while we were busy slipping through the loopholes in nature’s laws, other living things were engaged in a battle for survival, confronting two sets of selective pressures, those wrought by nature and those brought on by human actions. The species and individuals that survived are truly super organisms able to resist our chemicals and medicines, and they continue to attack us and do us harm. Anopheles mosquitos and the deadly malaria parasites they carry, tuberculosis bacterium, and pneumonia causing bacterium are a few of their names. And while we were hiding behind the skirts of modern medicine, some new diseases such as HIV, West Nile Virus, Ebola, Hanta Virus and SARS have come along to test our worth. And now there is something science hasn't seen before, Mad Cow Disease, caused by tiny particle called a prion that can't even be destroyed by fire. But, during this time, one species, Homo sapiens, has evaded the forces of natural selection and thus become ever more vulnerable to nature’s whims.
Meanwhile, our chemicals have diminished the protective covering of atmosphere that shields us from cancer-causing solar rays. Accumulated gases from our incessant burning of fuel and forests have swathed the planet in an invisible shroud that traps the heat within and transforms our weather into a violent and unpredictable monster. We have changed the very dynamics of the way our planet works, as our chemicals have found their way into the soil in which we grow our food, the water we drink and the air we breathe. Our numbers have grown to over six billion, having more than doubled in half a century. The productivity of planet earth is nearing its limits. Our great reserves of basic grains are diminished. A prolonged drought or other extreme weather event could provoke worldwide famine; during the next decade, a single disease, AIDS, could easily extinguish a high percentage of our fellow humans from an entire continent; the elements that cause cancer, mostly byproducts of our own activities, are increasing faster than our ability to treat the disease; our polar caps are melting, our seas rising; our oxygen producing forests are going up in smoke. But most of humanity appears to be oblivious to the seriousness of the situation, as were the Easter Islanders immediately prior to their collapse.
But humans have discovered a new quick-fix, one which allows us to surpass some of these problems. We have once again outwitted nature and demonstrated our dominion over her. Our intellect and creativity has now given us the tools to change living things genetically. We can produce super crops that resist the diseases and even the pesticides that previously would have killed them. Now we can spray even more poison on the plants we eat for food. We can transform life itself and make it fit our needs. We can clone some of the species we use for food and may soon be able to clone ourselves. It has been said that this new technology will facilitate our total separation from nature allowing us to refashion the living world to fit our whims. Among other things it will supposedly increase food production sufficiently to feed our burgeoning population and bring on a new era in pharmaceuticals and the battle against microbes. In short it will solve our most pressing problems. I wonder what Mother Nature’s answer will be. Somehow, I don't think she is just going roll over and admit defeat.
Homo sapiens is only one of many millions of species that share this planet, but we happen to be the one at the very top of the edifice of life. As we have seen, our own activities are constantly destroying other organisms in the structure, chipping away at the very foundations that hold us aloft. And when a key stone is unwittingly destroyed and the edifice begins to sag and crumble, our pinnacle will be the first to topple. To avoid this fate we must learn to share the planet with other living things, rather than destroy, manipulate and dominate everything that gets in our way.
We have long been circumventing the laws of nature, but neither statutory laws nor those of Mother Nature can be eluded forever. Sooner or later we will be cornered by nature’s forces and made to face the consequences of our actions. Our intellect gave us the power to deduce and to decide, but when we chose to dominate nature, we followed a dangerous path, one that may lead us to our downfall, the end of another great civilization. But this need not be. Our intellect and power of reason can be used to transcend the errors of the past and discover another path, one that leads us to our proper niche within the intricate fabric of nature where we will function as an integral part of the structure of life on our planet.
Our scientists do not know, even to an order of magnitude, how many living species exist on earth. Those species are disappearing at a rate experienced only during the five great extinctions of the past. It appears that we are posed on the brink of disaster, yet continue to predict a rosy future, because we are ever confident that science will come up with a new loophole. If the many millions of other species that inhabit this planet could speak, not one would have such a degree of naiveté coupled with the audacity to ask the question: "Do we need nature?" And curiously, if catastrophe does befall humanity, those representatives of Homo sapiens most likely to survive are the few thousand hunter-gathers who have lived sustainably for thousands of years in the earth’s harshest environments. In fact these guardians of the human gene pool, who never separated from nature nor dominated it, won't even notice that there has been a disaster. "...and the meek shall inherit the earth."
Article courtesy of Jack Ewing