Updated: 7 July, 2000


Review - Eco Homo

by Noel Boaz

EcoFuture (TM) Population and Sustainability
Books, Non-fiction

Eco Homo, Noel T. Boaz; Basic Books, ISBN 0465018041, (288p, $12).
Eco Homo is the title of a 1997 book by Noel Boaz, subtitled, How the Human Being Emerged from the Cataclysmic History of the Earth. This book narrates the path of evolution that formed and shaped humans over millions of years, details the ecological changes that also forced evolution, and sounds a warning that we must maintain a balance with nature.
From the book jacket, the book's "message for the ecological future of the species is that we cannot escape nature. If we attempt to do so -- to step outside the bounds of our basic biological adaptations -- we suffer the consequences. culture needs to be brought under control and to be made to serve human adaptation, not vice versa. If we can tame runaway culture, we may be able to regain a measure of the ancestral equilibrium between our adaptations and a sustainable environment."
From the introduction, "Culture evolved as a means of rapid response to environmental change -- one much more rapid than the genetic response to natural selection. It is a powerful force and one that can be decoupled, albeit temporarily, from the laws of nature and natural selection. Futurists, who are particularly concerned with designing a sustainable ecological future for Homo sapiens, have a problem with predicting trends past the year 2010, when straight-line predictions of current trends become fuzzy."
The last chapter is of most interest to population activists.
It is titled, IMPLICATIONS -- Future Human Evolution, Overpopulation, Global Warming, Pollution, and Our Ecological Survival. Excerpts follow:
Ecological change has been the "prime mover" of human evolution. ...Human culture is a powerful adaptive force in its own right, but only if it ultimately serves natural selection. What nature gives it can take away.
Our fragile societies continue to exist at the whim of nature, and should culture fail to be up to the challenge of future environmental changes, then natural selection would simply come up with a different solution. ...Nature's solution may or may not be a good deal for the human species. ...We thus may benefit from using our brains, our most powerful adaptation to the environment , to figure out the rules for the continued coexistence of ourselves and the world around us. ...So we are not discussing altruistic "save the earth" campaigns. We are discussing "save the earth for us."
Malthusian disaster can therefore occur not only when the population increases past a point at which resources can support it but can also strike when resources shrink relative to the number of people in a static population. If world history is any guide, Malthus was essentially correct.
Increase in population numbers and greater population density are both implicated in the spread of disease. ...Overpopulation has a direct connection to war, usually expressed in terms of economic distress. ...Famine also occurs throughout the world with regularity.
In times of crisis our evolutionary tendency is to pull back to a defense of our most inclusive and smallest group -- the ancient kin-related extended family/tribal nucleus. ...When environmental resources were scarce and survival seemed tentative, the imperative from natural selection was to have as many offspring as possible, in the hope that some of them might survive. ...Today people in poverty in the United States and throughout the world are playing out this evolutionary strategy.
Legislating population growth by governments has proved historically to have been of limited success. ...There is evidence that this [one-child] policy has been effective in reducing the rate of population growth in China, but at a cost to personal freedom of choice that many in the West would abhor.
The threat posed by the ever-increasing world population means in Malthusian terms increased suffering, more widespread disease, war, and famine, not only for the affected population directly but for all of us indirectly as environmental degradation, pollution, disease, lowered economic productivity, and conflict can now easily spread globally. ...Solution requires that "rich" countries reorient their international aid efforts toward preventative aid, rather than after-the-fact disaster aid -- the effective distribution of technology, education, food, and medicine.
Legislatures answer to the "groups" that elect them, and these groups are primarily concerned with their "group" and no one else. This response is in a sense an evolutionary legacy, born of millennia of adaptation to small, closely knit groups. The human ecosystem of today and the future, however, are vastly different. ...Intellectually, it is clear that a pluralistic global society will have to evolve, and that in some manner "they" are going to have to be defined as "we" before any real progress toward solving the imbalance of world population and available resources can be made.
Today we would explain this [Darwin's] self-domestication of humans as adaptation to a cultural ecological niche -- humans having adapted to culture, which in turn adapts to the environment. ...Implicit in [Desmond] Morris's message was that the urban habitats in which modern humankind finds itself today are not its aboriginal or optimum environments. ...For a primate whose brain is prewired for cultural stimulation, a city becomes a mesmerizing population magnet. But, ecologically, cities are a bad idea.
Pollution is basically and "inside-outside" problem. People define some place as culturally "outside" and consider it as appropriate for dumping waste. ...The solution to pollution is to culturally define the entire earth as "inside." Our ancient hominid behavior of simply throwing things away so we do not see them anymore will no longer work. ...If we can somehow convince everyone that the whole earth is "inside" our cultural space, the technology exists or can be developed for long-term ecologically sustainable waste disposal and prevention of pollution. ...If not, we will fall back into the ancient pattern of competition and replacement of populations. ...This is the all-too-familiar ethnocentric, winner-take-all, rapacious adaptation of primitive culture.
Culture in fact is an ancient adaptation that changes its content but not its modus operandi from generation to generation. There will be a tendency for people to view their own ideas as right and correct far into the future. Ethnocentrism is a pan-human universal. We will either use our advanced brains to figure out that our ethnocentrism needs to extend to the entire human species, or one ethnocentric group will hold sway and eventually preempt the remaining global natural resources for itself, allowing the rest of the species to go to extinction.
One thing is certain about the future. Humans will be at the mercy of the environment, as they and their ancestors have been since the dawn of time. ...But as human population and the spin-offs of human activities have increasingly changed our world, both our physical and cultural means of adapting to environmental change have been pushed to their limits. To restore a balance, the pendulum of cultural change will have to shift back to a pattern consistent with our evolutionary adaptations: low population density, a demographic patter very different from that of today's maladaptive urban centers; environments that meet human needs, even at the massive costs of construction, environmental cleanup, and technological innovation needed for that result; and a shared cultural identity within the global human population.
Humans can take remedial steps themselves by directing their own cultural evolution -- the preferable way -- or natural selection will eventually do it for them, either crafting future human evolution as it has over the past 5 million years, or simply snuffing out another fleeting species, as it has done innumerable times over the last 2 billion years.
Environmentalism needs to be pragmatic but at the same time appropriately humble before the vastly superior power of nature. Pragmatic because we cannot expect humans, themselves a product of natural selection, to risk their survival and reproduction for the benefit of other species. Humble because a non- anthropocentric, long-term view also unambiguously shows that our survival as a species is ecologically linked with that of other species, and it is the only view that explains why we are up against a number of Thomas Malthus's checks on population growth. Other species, if allowed to survive, will not only function as indicators of environmental quality but their unique adaptations will be of great potential practical benefits to human beings in the future.
Unfortunately, the short-term, arrogant view is still prevalent. ...Surviving the environmental problems of our own making and living with our evolutionary baggage will be humankind's immediate challenge.
      -- Review by Ed Glaze III


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