the unBalanced ecoLOGist

2 March 2016

The easiest way to start a blog appears to be to link and comment on postings I’ve done elsewhere.

20081213sagging_elm_in_ice
After the storm. Royalston, Massachusetts, 13 December 2008

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to write a commentary about an online essay written by Erle Ellis for the Social Evolution Forum (a project of the Evolution Institute). In his essay, Humans: The Species That Changed Earth, Erle writes that

Global climate change, widespread extinctions, and pervasive pollution are just a few of the many symptoms of the global environmental changes produced by human activities. There is a growing consensus that human societies have emerged as a “great force of nature” that is shifting Earth into a new epoch of geologic time, the Anthropocene. Why? Biology alone cannot explain this.

Erle goes on to explore a new evolutionary theory, which he terms sociocultural niche consruction, and its link to the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, to explain the origins of the capacity of Homo sapiens to transform the Earth (see also Mesoudi 2016).  In my commentary, Are humans really different and does it matter if they’re not, I reflect on whether Erle’s new evolutionary theory and the ongoing global anthropogenic transformation of the biosphere can fit comfortably within our standard theories and models of ecological and evolutionary dynamics or whether the patterns and processes of sociocultural niche construction in the “Anthropocene” necessitate new ways of thinking about and practicing evolutionary ecology.

Although Erle and I have some differences on the need for a new evolutionary theory, we agree on the fundamentals.

The persistent myth of the balance of nature will not rescue humanity (see also Kricher 2009, Botkin 2012, Ellison 2013). This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges for contemporary ecological theory, which, either out of mathematical convenience or wishful thinking, remains dominated by equilibrium models and stable states. Ironically, that part of ecological research that currently focuses the most on transient, non-equilibrium dynamics – the study of tipping points and regime shifts – implicitly assume that either before or after the regime shift that ecological conditions are broadly stable. Daniel Botkin (2012: xii) expressed this cognitive dissonance most succinctly: “[i]f you ask ecologists whether nature is constant, they will always say ‘No, of course not.’ But if you ask them to write down a policy for biological conservation or any other kind of environmental management, they will almost always write down a steady-state [i.e., ‘nature is stable’] solution.” I conclude:

If the natural world ever was stable or balanced (in any ecological or evolutionary sense) – and the available data are at best agnostic on this point – the evolution of modern humans and their ongoing transformation of the Earth demonstrably illustrate that we live in a non-equilibrium present and future. We already have non-equilibrium theories and models. Now we need to start using them.

References for further reading and exploration

  1. Botkin, D. B. 2012. The Moon in the Nautilus Shell: Discordant Harmonies Reconsidered. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
  2. Ellison, A. M. 2013. The suffocating embrace of landscape and the picturesque conditioning of ecology. Landscape Journal 32: 79-94. [ pdf ]
  3. Kricher, J. 2009. The Balance of Nature: Ecology’s Enduring Myth. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, USA. [read my review of this book ]
  4. Mesoudi, A. 2016. Cultural evolution and the Anthropocene. Social Evolution Forum, online here.

 

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