Why are humans ecologically dominant?

Part Of: Demystifying Culture sequence
Content Summary: 1100 words, 11 min read

Ecological Dominance

Compared to the erects, sapiens are uniquely ecologically dominant. The emergence of hunter-gatherers out of Africa 70,000 years ago caused:

  • The extermination of hundreds of megafauna species (more than 90%)
  • Dwarfing of the surviving species.
  • A huge increase in the frequency and impact of fire (we used fire to reshape ecosystems to our liking)

12,000 years ago, we began domesticating animals and plants. The subsequent agricultural revolution unlocked powerful new ways to acquire energy, which in turn increased our species’ population density.

  • 9000 BCE:   5 million people
  •          1 CE:   300 million people
  •   2100 CE:   11,000 million people

200 years ago, the industrial revolution was heralded by the discovery of energy transduction: that electricity can be used to run a vacuum, or freeze meat products.

These population explosion correlates with a hefty ecological footprint:

  • We have altered more than one-third of the earth’s land surface.
  • We have changed the flow of two-thirds of the earth’s rivers.
  • We use 100 times more biomass than any large species that has ever lived.
  • If you include our vast herds of domesticated animals, we account for more than 98% of terrestrial vertebrate biomass.

Ecological Dominance_ Vertebrate Biomass

Three Kinds of Theories

As with any other species, the scientist must explain how ours has affected the ecosystem. We can do this by examining how our anatomies and psychologies differ from other animals, and then consider which of these human universals explain our ecological dominance.

Pound for pound, other primates are approximately twice as strong. We also lack the anatomical weaponry of our cousins; for example, our canines are much less dangerous.

So, strength cannot explain our dominance. Three other candidate theories tend to recur:

  1. We are more intelligent and creative. Theories of this sort focus on e.g., the invention of Mode 3 stone tools.
  2. We are more cooperative and prosocial. Theories of this sort focus on e.g., massively cooperative hunting expeditions.
  3. We accumulate powerful cultural adaptations. Theories of this sort focus on e.g., how Inuit technology became uniquely adaptive for their environment.

Let’s take a closer look!

Intelligence-Based Theories

Is intellect the secret for our success? Consider the following theories:

First, generative linguists like Noam Chomsky argue that language is not about communication: recursion is an entirely different means of cognition; the root of our species’ creativity. To him, the language instinct (as a genetic package) appeared abruptly at 70 kya, and transformed the mind from a kluge of instincts to a mathematical, general-purpose processor. Language evolution is said to coincide with the explosion of technology called behavioral modernity.

Second, evolutionary psychologists like Leda Cosmides & John Tooby advocate the massive modularity hypothesis: the mind isn’t general purpose processor; it is instead more like a swiss army knife. We are not more intelligent because we have fewer instincts, but more. Specifically, we accrued hundreds of hunter-gatherer instincts in the intervening millenia and these instincts give us our characteristically human flexibility.

Third, social anthropologists like David Lewis-Williams argues that a change in consciousness made us more intelligent. We are the only species that has animistic spirituality, these are caused by numinous experiences. These altered states of consciousness were the byproducts of our consciousness machinery rearranging itself. Specifically, he invokes Dehaene’s theory that while all mammals experience primary consciousness, only sapiens have second-order consciousness (awareness of their own awareness). This was allegedly the event that caused fully modern language.

Sociality-Based Theories

Is sociality the secret for our success? Consider the following theories:

First, sociobiologists like Edward O Wilson thinks that the secret of our success is because of group selection: that vigorous between-group warfare created selective pressure for within-group cooperation. As our ethnic psychology (and specifically, ethnocentrism) became more pronounced, sapien tribes began behaving much like superorganisms. A useful analogy is eusocial insects like ants, who became are arguably even more ecologically dominant than humans.

Second, historians like Yuval Harari thinks that mythology (fictional orders) is the key ingredient enabling humans to act cooperatively. Political and economic phenomena don’t happen in a vacuum: they are caused by certain ideological commitments e.g., nationalism and the value of a currency. To change our myths is to refactor the social structure of our society.

Culture-Based Theories

Is culture the secret for our success? Consider the following theory:

Anthropologists like Richerson, Boyd and Henrich argue that cumulative cultural knowledge comprises a dual-inheritance system, and propose a theory of gene-culture coevolution. They are that an expanding collective mind gave individuals access to unparalleled know-how. This is turn emboldened our niche stealing proclivities: “like the spiders, hominins could trap, snare, or jet their prey; but the latter could also ambush, excavate, expose, entice, corral, hook, spear, preserve, or contain a steadily enlarging range of food types.” Socially-learned norms induce our cooperation, and socially-learned thinking tools explain our intelligence.

My Take

Contra Chomsky,

Contra Cosmides & Tooby:

  • I agree wholeheartedly with the massive modularity hypothesis. It accords well with modern cognitive neuroscience.
  • While selection endowed us with hunter-gatherer instincts (e.g., folk biology), I don’t think such instincts provide sufficient explanatory power.

Contra David Lewis-WIlliams:

  • I need hard evidence showing that animals never hallucinate, before appropriating numinous experiences as a human universal.
  • Global Workspace Theory (GWT) enjoys better empirical support than integrated information theory.
  • I don’t understand the selective pressure or mechanistic implications for changes to our conscious machinery.

Contra sociality-first theories

  • Group selection is still immersed in controversy, especially the free-rider problem.
  • Why must myths be the causal first movers? Surely other factors matter more..

My own thinking most closely aligns with culture-based explanations of our ecological dominance. This sequence will try to explicate this culture-first view.

But at present, culture-first theories leaves several questions unanswered:

  • What, specifically, is the behavioral and biological signature of a social norm? For now, appeals to norm psychology risk explaining too much.
  • How did our species (and our species alone) become psychologically equipped to generate cumulative culture?
  • If erectus was a cultural creature, why did the rate of technological innovation so dramatically change between erectus and sapiens?

Someday I hope to explore these questions too. Until then.

References

  1. Tim Flannery. The Future Eaters
  2. David Lewis-Williams. The Mind in The Cave.
  3. Yuval Harari. Sapiens.
  4. Henrich, The Secret of Our Success
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3 thoughts on “Why are humans ecologically dominant?

  1. I notice that at the end you speak of “culture-first”. So is the intent of pitting these theories against each other to identify the initial catalyst rather than to treat the theories as mutually exclusive explanations for the full breadth of relevant data? It seems that all of them are likely to contribute to the story as a whole in some regard.

    Like

    1. I agree with the general integrative research strategy of “take best elements of competing traditions, merge and simplify”. Seems to work well because 80% of “disagreement” are simple divergences of attentional budget (driven by confirmatory reasoning).

      I also suspect a more complete account of anthropogeny intellectual history would describe a kind of “tradition clusters” analogous to Domingos concept Five Tribes of Machine Learning (which I summarized a couple years ago here).

      Re: specific accounts of phylogenetic origins of sapiens, the one presented in Secret of Our Success is a decent starting point. I hope to summarize & add my own take shortly.

      Liked by 1 person

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