Does Pristine Nature Exist?

“You think I am not used to change?”

Some ecologists are arguing that humans and alien species have been churning up ecosystems far more intensively, and for far longer, than we assume:

We like to think that most nature was pristine and largely untouched until recent times. But two major studies in recent weeks say we are deluded. In one, Erle Ellis, a geographer at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and colleagues have calculated that at least a fifth of the land across most of the world had been transformed by humans as early as 5,000 years ago — a proportion that past studies of historical land use had assumed was only reached in the past 100 years or so.

The human footprint was huge from the day, perhaps 60,000 years ago, when we began burning grasslands and forests for hunting, according to the Ellis study. It extended further with swidden “slash-and-burn” agriculture, and became more intense when farmers began to domesticate animals and plow the land.

And if that is right we should change the way we think about stewardship:

Far from reaching some equilibrium state with niches filled, ecosystems have always been in a constant state of flux, says Stephen Jackson, of the Southwest Climate Science Center in Arizona, in Novel Ecosystems. “Change, including rapid and disruptive change, is a natural feature of the world.” Humans may have dramatically speeded that up, but novelty is the norm.

In that light, we need to look afresh at conservation priorities. Novel ecosystems cannot be dismissed as degraded versions of proper ecosystems, nor can alien species be demonized simply for not belonging. If novelty and change is the norm, Hobbs and colleagues ask, does it make sense for the growing business of ecosystem restoration to try and recreate static historic ecosystems? By doing that, you are not creating a functioning ecosystem; you are creating a museum exhibit that will require constant attention if it is to survive.

Ecosystems can be hardy, and no doubt have always been in a state of flux and evolution. The big issue now is that humans are turbo-charging the rate of change. And that will be a severe test of how fast ecosystems and the species within them can adapt. No doubt some will, but it could get ugly.

“[W]e now know that as much as a tenth of the trees in the Amazon rainforest grow on man-made “dark earths,” or terra preta, which archaeologists believe were created by pre-Columbian farmers who added organic wastes and charcoal to improve nutrient supply and boost yields. Much of the Amazon, Ellis concludes, is actually forest regrowth.”

Are Humans Special?

Nautilus, an interesting new online science magazine, uses an entire issue to dig in on this most profound question:

When we sat down to plan our first issue of Nautilus, we asked ourselves a simple question. What is the biggest statement that science has made about humans and our place in the universe in the past few hundred years? The answer suggested itself immediately: it seems we’ve been told that we just aren’t very important.

This was a bit of a surprise. We’re fans of science, you see. And some of our best friends are people. Where was this narrative of mediocrity coming from, and, more importantly, was it true? Our story seemed to kick off with Copernicus, who around 1514 understood that the heavens do not revolve around us. In fact, they more or less ignore us completely.

Over the next half millennium, things got worse. Genetics revealed that we are a script written in the same language as rats and slugs, and with mostly the same words. Social psychology shook our faith in our rationality. Zoology painted a picture of complex, human-like animals. And artificial intelligence nipped at the heels of some of our most cherished abilities.

But the story turned. We learned that cooperation, fashion, metaphor, and energy set us apart in surprising ways. While science has indeed undermined the most naïve versions of our self-importance, we began to understand that it has replaced them with others that are more complex and deeper.

Finally, the opposition between unique and not-unique imploded. For one thing, we found that the category of “human” is a moving target—especially for cyborgs—and that makes it hard to ask what makes humans unique. For another, the very biggest science there is—cosmology—is answering the question with a big fat question mark.

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The issue includes an interview with Frans De Waal, who talks about the blurry line between humans and apes:

Most people assume that humans are fundamentally different from the rest of the animal world. What do you think?

Many people believe that. But to biologists we are animals. It’s hard to believe we are fundamentally different because there is no part of the human brain that is not present in a monkey’s brain. Our brains are bigger and we certainly have a more powerful computer than any other animal, but the computer is not fundamentally different.

So there’s no fundamental divide between humans and chimpanzees?

No. If you were to ask what the big difference is, I would say it’s probably language. But like all capacities, once you break them down into pieces, you are going to find some of these parts in other species.

Why are so many people wedded to the idea that humans are special?

We’re raised with those ideas. It’s an old Christian idea that humans have souls and animals don’t. I sometimes think it’s because our religions arose in a desert environment in which there were no primates, so you have people who lived with camels, goats, snakes, and scorpions. Of course, you then conclude that we are totally different from the rest of the animal kingdom because we don’t have primates with whom to compare ourselves. When the first great apes arrived in Western Europe—to the zoos in London and Paris—people were absolutely flabbergasted. Queen Victoria even expressed her disgust at seeing these animals. Why would an ape be disgusting unless you feel a threat from it? You would never call a giraffe disgusting, but she was disgusted by chimpanzees and orangutans because people had no concept that there could be animals so similar to us in every possible way. We come from a religion that’s not used to that kind of comparison.

The deeper you look, the more you realize that we are all related on some level, and that the traditional hierarchy that places humans high atop the list of earthly species leads to terrible consequences for non-human animals.

Anthropomorphism And Film

I’ve been laying off posting about every review of Blackfish that comes across my Google alerts.

But I just came across a fascinating review of Disney’s movie “Chimpanzee,” which dives into a deep discussion of how animals are portrayed in feature films and documentaries:

You could say cinema and nature got off on the wrong foot, or paw, right from the start. In 1926, to much excitement, an adventurer named William Douglas Burden brought back two komodo dragons to New York’s Bronx zoo – the first live specimens the western world had ever seen. Most of that excitement had been generated via a movie Burden had made depicting these semi-mythical reptiles in the Indonesian wild, voraciously devouring a wild boar. By comparison, the real, live komodo dragons were something of a disappointment. They just lay about lethargically in their cage, and died a few months later. It later transpired that Burden’s film had been heavily edited and staged to amp up the drama. The dragons hadn’t actually killed the boar; it had been put there by Burden as bait. The slow reality of nature was no match for the drama of the screen, it turned out. The science couldn’t match the fiction. One of the first to learn this lesson was the film-maker Merian C Cooper. He went on to incorporate elements of Burden’s Komodo expedition into a fictional movie: King Kong.

We have come a long way since Burden’s day in many respects, but that tension between rigorous natural history and populist entertainment is still very much at work in the nature genre, especially now that it has migrated on to the big screen in a big way. Where once we flocked to see animals painted as man-eating monsters in the movies, Jaws-style, now we want to get closer to them, physically and spiritually. There could be several explanations. Maybe it’s guilt at our destruction of their habitats, the proliferation of internet-related animal cuteness or because there are parents keen to give their children something more edifying than Iron Man 3. Or maybe it’s just because we’ve got so much better at filming wildlife. Nature films are one place where all the technological advances of film-making really come into their own: high-definition, 3D, surround sound, lightweight cameras.

But while cinema has made all these advances, nature itself hasn’t really got with the program. Unlike characters in Madagascar or The Lion King, real wild animals haven’t learned to take direction any better than Burden’s giant lizards. It can take years of uncomfortable, patient, expensive observation to gather enough footage for a feature-length documentary. And although it was common practice in the past, faking it is very much frowned upon. We like our wildlife cinema authentic, but we also want it exciting and dramatic, and that is still a challenge.

My view, based on the fact that the more we learn about almost any animal, the more we realize that their thinking and social lives are more complex and sophisticated than we assumed, is that we should err on the side of anthropomorphism. But perhaps “anthropomorphism,” is not even the right word anymore. It is a concept that is based on the idea that humans are unique in the animal world, and so to assume nonhuman animals have intelligence, or emotion, is to assume they are like humans. Instead, I think what science is showing us over time is that intelligence and emotions are to greater and lesser degrees universal among animals. And so perhaps we should start thinking of emotion and intelligence in the animal world as qualities which don’t necessarily set us apart from other animals, but connect us to other animals.

One of the elements of Blackfish that strikes audiences is the degree to which the orca brain has an architecture that suggests cognitive abilities we don’t yet comprehend, cognitive abilities which may in certain respects be superior to human cognitive abilities. So maybe one day as we come to better understand orca cognition and the relative quality of human cognition we will find ourselves orcapomorphizing.

I’m happy to say that this article picks up on exactly that, because Blackfish should make you think, for the first time, that the hierarchy of intelligence and cognition might not always have humans at the top:

Another new film in this vein throws the anthropomorphism debate into fresh relief. Blackfish by Gabriela Cowperthwaite deals not with animals in the wild, but in captivity, namely killer whales at the SeaWorld chain of resorts in the southern US. These creatures are essentially coerced into performing entertaining tricks for the benefit of a public audience, but one whale has been linked to the deaths of three people. Free Willy it ain’t.

As the story progresses, ex-trainers express regret over the treatment of whales, and the lies they routinely trotted out about how “happy” the whales were. There is much sinister footage and gruesome description showing just what killer whales can do to humans if they feel like it.

Blackfish makes no attempt to anthropomorphise its whales and it doesn’t need to. Like chimpanzees, they are evidently highly intelligent and social creatures, and they clearly don’t like what SeaWorld is doing to them – which is in effect imprisoning and torturing them until they snap. Where once they roamed the open ocean, they are now confined to tiny pools, mothers are separated from their calves, and they are forced into unnatural, violent behaviour towards themselves and us. If anything, we empathise with the whales more than the humans because they’re treated like animals. Does that mean they haven’t been anthropomorphised enough?

Like the other nature docs, Blackfish is a gripping movie, with drama and characters and emotion, but unlike them, it’s one that reminds us how much of a gap there is between humans and animals, and between movies and reality, which often amounts to the same thing. Thanks to cinema, we’re able to see nature better, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re any closer to it.

During filming, one of the ideas we used to joke about a lot with the former SeaWorld orca trainers is the idea that Blackfish is like “Planet Of The Apes,” except the humans are the apes who are incarcerating a being who they don’t really understand or credit with intelligence and emotion. After a few beers, we’d have Tilikum banging the tank walls, protesting “I am not an animal!”

The idea that an orca, say, or a chimpanzee, might have intellectual or emotional capabilities that exceed a human’s obliterates the idea of anthropomorphism. That makes it a revolutionary, and thrilling, idea that can completely change how you think about, and relate to, animals.