May 26 • 12:03 PM

'Dominant Animal' an interesting evolution

September 24, 2008
My late mother was a lifelong member of Planned Parenthood. I never quite understood her dedication until after my wife and myself decided not to have any more children. For my birthday that year mother gave me a vasectomy and so, being a dutiful son, I marched off to the clinic. Later I decided there were better forms of entertainment and while I never regretted having the procedure done I must admit getting fixed will never appear on my wish list again. I think what really annoyed me most though was finding out that doing the family dog cost a lot more to fix than me. Talk about a blow to one's ego!

Over the years I have supported the work of Planned Parenthood and am convinced having only two children is probably best, in my opinion, since you are merely replacing yourselves. I'm also not saying the government should restrict how many children a couple should have, since this should be a matter of personal choice, but, it is time to change the culture a bit and recognize we need to set some limits to growth.

Recently Dr. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, wrote a provocative book entitled The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment, which is worth reading. It is co-authored with his wife Ann who, like her husband, is affiliated with the Biological Sciences and Center for Conservation at Stanford University.

The Ehrlichs' central thesis begins with the interrelated issues of food, energy, climate, toxic chemicals, and the ecosystem. It is not, as some critics of global warming suggest, a passing phase. The authors explain that our domination of Earth has prompted a period of rapid evolutionary change the scope of which the planet has not seen since an asteroid hit Earth some 65 million years ago.

"Human beings," they say, "live in a world of change and always have. But in recent decades, the world has been changing faster…" at an accelerating rate since World War II.

One result: earlier this year the World Bank issued a warning that record high food prices are pushing more than 100 million people deeper into poverty and malnutrition. Food riots have raged in several countries, causing governments to be deposed and battles over scarce food and water resources to take place.

Our species, according to the Ehrlichs, "has become so powerful that it can significantly undermine the ability of Earth's environment to support much of life." Through a process of genetic and cultural evolution, powerful technologies have been spawned causing dramatic environmental alterations.

"The same science however could also be used to create a sustainable civilization," the authors posit. To do so "we need to look at what science can tell us about topics as seemingly disparate as climate change, genes, sex, religion, epidemics, ethics, education, politics and nuclear war."

Admittedly this is a tall order since controversial vested interests, such as religion, government, and politics, will always resist the necessity for change The Ehrlichs conclude with the observation that science, the human activity "that gave us the power to dominate Earth, can help us better understand the predicament we have created for ourselves and thereby avoid its worst consequences." The question remains, however, if we are willing to accept the challenge the authors pose so that our civilization will survive.

The Dominant Animal is a book which both champions science and technology while taking care to recognize its strengths and limit-ations. Critics no doubt will see the book as somehow anti-religion and an assault on traditional values. It is intended to be however "a concise account of human beings' interactions with one another and the biophysical world in which we evolved."

Those who find the evolutionary hypothesis uncomfortable will no doubt reject the Ehrlichs' point of view but the book does add yet another layer to the debate began when Archbishop James Ussher confidently calculated the world was created on October 23, 4004 B.C. This weakening of belief in the "great chain of being" fractured our cosmology leading to the enlightenment, the age of reason, and ultimately to Paul Ehrlich's dominant animal.

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