Valuing traditional ecological knowledge and indigenous wisdom
Daniel Christian Wahl
1963

Many researchers, I would suggest, still persist in interpreting human impacts on ecosystems as detrimental to their diversity and stability. There is a tradition of seeing mega-faunal extinctions as products of human hunting, for example. And with good reason, for the extinction of the Great Auk, the Dodo, the Passenger Pigeon, and many other species in the historical past set a clear precedent for such an interpretation. We humans arrived in many environments, such as Australia and the Americas, as an invasive species. Examples abound in wildlife biology of the damage an invasive species can do to native ecosystems. Not just multicellular species either, invasive microbes can cause havoc as well. So the review of “extinctions, extirpations, and shifts in species composition, diversity, and community structure…” was fully justified.

However, the prevailing idea that human beings always bring disaster to “pristine” ecosystems, and that we ought to exclude themselves from vast parts of “Nature” in order to preserve it, is absurd. It arises out of the false dichotomizing that sets Culture and Nature apart, as if human economies somehow exist outside of the planetary environment inhabited by all other species. Besides, it privileges the biased view that humans are somehow always bad for nature.

The current crisis of species extinction would be sufficient reason to try another take of our evolutionary compact within the natural world. 
 
 Are we plague species by our very nature? 
 
 No. That is far too harsh a judgment. 
 
 Look at how conveniently it lets industrial (and even older empires) off the hook: if it “scientific fact” that humans always destroy natural environments and kill off wildlife; if it is just “human nature” to be “a rapacious primate” there is no point in listening to tree-huggers and wailing defenders of whales and spotted owls, is there? These environmental activists are not the winners in the long sweep of human evolution: the winners are the realistic folks in hardhats, who care about jobs, and development, and getting on with profit-making industries, and who plan the colonization of Mars. 
 
 I think this is a dangerous conceit. Yes, we humans are responsible for some bad outcomes within ecosystems (species extinctions), but this is not due to something written in our genes. Our ecological niche, for good or ill, is not determined by our biology, it is not constructed out of evoked behavior, like beaver dam building evoked by the sound of running water. It is constructed out of culturally transmitted incentives. Ours is a niche within a niche, our ecology evolved to be “naturally” cultural. So we have a choice: we can take note of the negative effects and long term implications of our present economy, and do what humans always do best: a) tinker with our technologies, b) develop ways of working around negative consequences with intensified management, or c) we can ignore all the danger signals and stick with potentially ruinous practices until our ecosystem collapses. 
 
 The frequent, and rather ominous implication, is that we always chose option c. We didn’t. The fallacy of incorporating inevitability of extinctions and ecological simplification into “niche construction” evolutionary models, is that it implies that humans were extremely destructive to species diversity long before the present “Anthropocene”[i]
 
 The related idea, for example, that humans can be characterized as “super-predators”, raises a perplexing question[ii]. Why would Pleistocene hunter-gatherers have adopted practices that caused “the dramatic reshaping of the global bio-sphere” in ways that so often caused extinctions and harmed species diversity? Surely this would have been a short-lived mal-adaptive strategy? After all, why would the evolving human creature, unlike all others who have constructed ecological niches for themselves, do so in a destructive way? Every other keystone species and ecosystem engineering species creates positive effects on ecosystem diversity; many other creatures gain, after all, by evolving their specialized behavioral and dietary niches, even if they are not playing key roles. Why should humans be any different? Is this the human niche? To be a “plague” species? 
 
 The short answer to that is clear: No. If anything, the human way was the opposite: which is why hunting and gathering was a long-lived and highly successful adaptive strategy, and why even the inception of plant and animal domestication did not stray far from these fundamentals. 
 
 Not so different from other animals, then, only we have proven more vulnerable — if response time to negative trophic flows is hampered. Let me explain. We are evolved to be conscious of longer and more complex causal event sequences — meaning that we did it — at one remove: we did it via cultural, rather than purely biological, responses. So, no, is that it is not “in our genes” — or in our nature — to inevitably be destructive of ecosystems.

References

[i] “…the term was widely popularized in 2000 by atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen,[11] who regards the influence of human behavior on Earth’s atmosphere in recent centuries as so significant as to constitute a new geological epoch.

In 2008, the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London considered a proposal to make the Anthropocene a formal unit of geological epoch divisions.[3][12] A majority of the commission decided the proposal had merit and should be examined further. Independent working groups of scientists from various geological societies have begun to determine whether the Anthropocene will be formally accepted into the Geological Time Scale.[13]

The term “anthropocene” is informally used in scientific contexts,.[14] The Geological Society of America entitled its 2011 annual meeting: Archean to Anthropocene: The past is the key to the future.[15] The new epoch has no agreed start-date, but one proposal, based on atmospheric evidence, is to fix the start with the Industrial Revolution c. 1780, with the invention of the steam engine.[12][16] Other scientists link the new term to earlier events, such as the rise of agriculture and the Neolithic Revolution (around 12,000 years BP). Evidence of relative human impact — such as the growing human influence on land use, ecosystems, biodiversity, and species extinction — is substantial; scientists think that human impact has significantly changed (or halted) the growth of biodiversity.[17][18]” 
 ….” Human predation was noted as being unique in the history of life on Earth as being a globally distributed ‘superpredator’, with predation of the adults of other apex predators and with widespread impacts on food webs worldwide.[38]…” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropocene

[ii] http://science.sciencemag.org/content/349/6250/858

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