The Human Age

atlas-and-the-hesperides-1925 John Singer Sargent

There is no writer now, perhaps ever, who is able to convey the wonder and magic of science with poetry comparable to Diane Ackerman. In some ways this makes a great deal of sense given that she is a poet by calling rather than a scientist.  To mix metaphors: our knowledge of the natural world is merely Ackerman’s palette whose colors she uses to paint a picture of nature. It is a vision of the world as magical as that of the greatest worlds of fiction- think Dante’s Divine Comedy, or our most powerful realms of fable.

There is, however, one major difference between Ackerman and her fellow poets and storytellers: the strange world she breathes fire into is the true world, the real nature whose inhabitants and children we happen to be. The picture science has given us, the closest to the truth we have yet come, is in many ways stranger, more wondrous, more beautifully sublime, than anything human beings have been able to imagine; therefore, the perfect subject and home for a poet.

The task Ackerman sets herself in her latest book, The Human Age: The World Shaped By US, is to reconcile us to the fact that we have now become the authors and artists rather than the mere spectators of nature’s play . We live in an era in which our effect upon the earth has become so profound that some geologists want to declare it the “Anthropocene” signalling that our presence is now leaving its trace upon the geological record in the way only the mightiest, if slow moving, forces of nature have done heretofore. Yet in light of the the speed with which we are changing the world, we are perhaps more like a sudden catastrophe than languid geological transformation taking millions of years to unfold.

Ackerman’s hope is to find a way to come to terms with the scale of our own impact without at the same time reducing humanity to that of the mythical Höðr, bringing destruction on account of our blindness and foolishness, not to mention our greed. Ackerman loves humanity as much as she loves nature, or better, she refuses, as some environmentalist are prone to do, to place human beings on one side and the natural world on the other. For her, we are nature as much as anything else that exists. Everything we do is therefore “natural”, the question we should be asking is are we doing what is wise?

In The Human Age Ackerman attempts to reframe our current pessimism and self-loathing regarding our treatment of “mother” nature , everything from the sixth great extinction we are causing to our failure to adequately confront climate change, by giving us a window into the many incredible things we are doing right now that will benefit our fragile planet.  

She brings our attention to new movements in environmentalism such as “Reconciliation Ecology” which seeks to bring into harmony human settlements and the much broader needs of the rest of nature. Reconciliation Ecology is almost the opposite of another movement of growing popularity in “neo-environmentalists” circles, namely, “Environmental Modernism”. Whereas Environmental Modernism seeks to sever our relationship with nature in order to save it, Reconciliation Ecology aims to naturalize the human artifice, bringing farming and even wilderness into the city itself. It seeks to heal the fragmented wilderness our civilization has brought about by bringing the needs of wildlife into the design process.

Rather than covering our highways with road kill, we could provide animals with a safe way to cross the street. This might be of benefit to the deer, the groundhog, the racoon, the porcupine. We might even construct tunnels for the humble meadow vole. Providing wildlife corridors, large and small, is the one of the few ways we can reconcile the living space and migratory needs of “non-urbanized” wildlife to our fragmented and now global sprawl.

Human beings, Ackerman argues, are as negatively impacted by the disappearance of wilderness as any other of nature’s creatures, and perhaps given our aesthetic sensitivity, even more so. For a long time now we have sought to use our engineering prowess to subdue nature. Why not use it to make the human made environment more natural?  She highlights a growing movement among architects and engineers to take their inspiration not from the legacy of our lifeless machines and buildings, but from nature itself, which so often manages to create works of beautiful efficiency. In this vein we find leaps of the imagination such as the Eastgate Center designed by Mick Pearce who took his inspiration from the breathing, naturally temperature controlled, structure of the termite mound.

The idea of the Anthropocene is less an acknowledgement of our impact than a recognition of our responsibility. For so long we have warred against nature’s limits, arrows, and indifference that it is somewhat strange to find ourselves in the position of her caretaker and even designer. And make no mistake about it, for an increasing number of the plants and animals with whom we share this planet their fate will be decided by our action or inaction.

Some environmentalists would argue for nature’s “purity” and against our interference, even when this interference is done in the name of her creatures. Ackerman, though not entirely certain, is arguing against such environmental nihilism, paralysis, or puritanism. If it is necessary for us to “fix” nature- so be it, and she sees in our science and technology our greatest tool to come to nature’s aid. Such fixes can entail everything from permitting, rather than attempting to uproot, invasive species we have inadvertently or deliberately introduced if those invasives have positive benefits for an ecosystem, aiding the relocation of species as biomes shift under the impact of climate change, or introducing extinct species we have managed to save and resurrect through their DNA.

We are now entering the era where we are not only able to mimic nature, but to redesign it at the genetic level. Creating chimeras that nature left to itself would find it difficult or impossible to replicate. Ackerman is generally comfortable with our ever more cyborg nature and revels in the science that allows us to literally print body parts and one day whole organs. Like the rest of us should be, she is flabbergasted by ongoing revolutions in biology that are rewriting what it means to be human.

The early 21st century field of epigenetics is giving us a much more nuanced and complex view of the interplay between genes and the environment. It is not only that multiple genes need to be taken account of in explaining conditions and behaviors, but that genes are in a sense tuned by the environment itself. Indeed, much of this turning “on or off” of genes is a form of genetic memory. In a strange echo of Lamarck, the experiences of one’s close ancestors- their feasts and famines are encoded in the genes of their descendants.

Add to that our recent discoveries regarding the microbiome, the collection of bacteria that live within us that are far more numerous and in many ways as influential as our genes, and one gets an idea for how far we are moving from ideas of what it meant to be human held by scientists even a few years ago and how much distance has been put between current biology and simplistic versions of environmental or genetic determinism.

Some such, as the philosopher of biology, John Dupree see in our advancing understanding of the role of the microbiome and epigenetics a revolutionary change in human self understanding. For a generation we chased after a simplistic idea of genetic determinism where genes were seen as a sort of “blueprint” for the organism. This is now known to be false. Genes are just one part of a permeable interaction between them, the environment and the microbiome that guide individual development and behavior.

We are all of us collectives, constantly swapping biological information and rather than seeing the microscopic world as a kind of sideshow to the “real” biological story of large organisms such as ourselves we might be said to be where we have always been in Steven Jay’s “Age of Bacteria” as much as we are in an Anthropocene.

Returning to Ackerman, she is amazed at the recent advancements in artificial intelligence, and like Tyler Cowen, even wonders whether scientific discoveries will soon no longer be the prerogative of humans, but of our increasingly intelligent machines. Such is the conclusion one might draw from looking at the work of Hod Lipson of Cornell “Eureqa Machine” . Feed the Eureqa Machine observations or data and it is able to come up with equations that describe them all on its own. Ackerman does, however, doubt whether we could ever build a machine that replicated human beings in all their wondrous weirdness.

Where her doubts regarding technology veer towards warning has to do with the question of digitalization of the world. Ackerman is best known for her 1990 A Natural History of the Senses a work which explored the five forms of human perception. Little wonder, then, that she would worry about what the world being flattened on our ubiquitous screens   into the visual sense alone. She laments:

What if, through novelty and convenience, digital nature replaces biological nature?

The further we distance ourselves from the spell of the present, explored by all our senses, the harder it will be to understand and protect nature’s precarious balance, let alone the balance of our own human nature. I worry about virtual blinders. Hobble all the senses except the visual, and you produce curiously deprived voyeurs.  (196-197)

While concerned that current technologies may be flattening human experience by leaving us visually mesmerized behind screens at the expense of the body, even as they broaden their scope allowing us to see into world small, large, and at speeds never before possible, Ackerman accepts our cyborg nature. For her we are, to steal a phrase from the philosopher Andy Clark “natural born cyborgs”, and this is not a new thing. Since our beginning we have been a changeling able to morph into a furred animal in the cold with our clothes, wield fire like a mythical dragon, or cover ourselves with shells of metal among much else.

Ackerman is not alone in the view that our cyborg tendencies are an ancient legacy. Shortly before I read The Human Age I finished the anthropologist Timothy Taylor’s short and thought provoking The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution. Taylor makes a strong case that anatomically modern humans co-evolved with technology, indeed, that the technology came first and in a way has been the primary driver of our evolution.

The technology Taylor thinks lifted us beyond our hominid cousins wasn’t the usual suspects of fire or stone tools but likely the unsung baby sling.  This simple invention allowed humans to overcome a constraint suffered by the other hominids whose brains, contrary to common opinion, were getting smaller because upright walking was putting a premium of quick rather than delayed development of the young. Slings allowed mothers to carry big brained babies that took longer to develop, but because of the long period of youth could learn much more than faster developing relatives. In effect, slings were a way for human mothers who needed their hands free to externalize the womb and evolve a koala like pouch.

To return to The Human Age; although, she has, as always, given us a wonderfully written book filled with poetry and insights, Ackerman’s book is not without its flaws. Here I will focus only on what I found to be the most important one; namely, that for a book named after our age, there is not enough regarding humans in it. This is what I mean: Though the problems suffered from the effects of the Anthropocene are profound and serious, the animal most likely to broadly suffer the impact of phenomenon such as climate change are likely to be us.

The weakness of the idea of the Anthropocene when judged largely positively, which is what Ackerman is trying to do, is that it universalizes a state of control over nature that is largely limited to advanced countries and the world’s wealthy. The threat of rising sea levels look quite different from the perspective of Manhattan or Chittagong. A good deal of the environmental gains in advanced countries over the past half century can be credited to globalization, which amid its many benefits, has also entailed the offloading of pollution, garbage, and waste processing from developed to developing countries. This is the story that the photos of Edward Burtynsky, whom Ackerman profiles, tells. Stories such as the lives of the shipbreakers of Bangladesh whose world resembles something out of a dystopian novel.

Humanity is not sovereign over nature everywhere, and for some of us not only our we faced with a wildness that has not been subdued, but where humanity itself has become like a unpredictable natural force reigning down unfathomable, uncontrollable good and ill. Such is the world now being experienced by the west African societies suffering under the epidemic of Ebola. It is a world we might better understand by looking at a novel written on the eve of our mastery over nature, a novel by another amazing writer who was also a woman.

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3 comments on “The Human Age

  1. […] journalists and scholars espousing those views like Andrew Rifkin, Emma Marris, or even the incomparable Diane Ackerman. For certainly the argument that even if the New Environmentalism contains a degree of truth it is […]

  2. […] realm of the hyperreal than Baudrillard could have foreseen. Today a naturalists and author such Diane Ackerman can be seriously concerned that experiencing nature through the lens of the hyperreal- via video and virtual reality- is […]

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