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Environment

Two Paths for Humanity

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJuly 18, 2011 6:54 PM

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Andy Revkin wrestles with Tim Flannery's new book, Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet, in a NYT book review:

An overwhelming majority of scientists agree that humans have upended hosts of ecosystems and are exerting a growing and potentially calamitous influence on the climate. Some, perhaps in response to public indifference, have a tendency to push beyond the data in arguing for action. "Here on Earth" places Flannery in this group. I had a moment, about halfway in, when I was ready to give up in the face of overheated descriptions of environmental problems. But I stuck it out and was heartened to see Flannery abandon the rhetoric of shame and woe and turn to a more reasoned assessment of a young, intelligent species that finds itself in quite a predicament. After all, it's not easy being the first life-form to become both a planet-scale force and "” ever so slowly and uncomfortably "” aware of that fact.

Despite Here on Earth's evident imperfections, I plan to read it. Flannery, who is Australia's E.O. Wilson, is similarly a gifted and brainy popularizer of science. In his new book (according to reviews), Flannery seems to make a case for the "rewilding" concept (just for Australia?) that has recently come into vogue. This strikes me as an ecological fantasy. I reviewed the North American version of this idea a few years ago. What interests me more are two biological worldviews Flannery puts in opposition, which Revkin describes nicely:

"Here on Earth" begins with the deepest biological context, as Flannery pits what he sees as the mechanistic, soulless conceptions of Charles Darwin against the more holistic, even hopeful, vision of Alfred Russel Wallace, the English naturalist who discovered evolution independently. Whereas Darwin "sought enlightenment by studying smaller and smaller pieces of life's puzzle," Flannery writes, Wallace "took on the whole," envisioning a transcendent human future in which evolutionary fitness is determined by more than simply the ability to out-reproduce "” or, according to the Social Darwinists, out-earn "” one's competitors. Flannery cites, too, Wallace's denunciation of the "criminal apathy" behind the choking urban pollution of the late 19th century, which stunted and killed the poor in particular. Tracking the rise and spread of the human species, Flannery contrasts two more contemporary visions of the processes in play. The "Medea hypothesis," developed by the paleontologist Peter Ward, holds that natural selection drives species to exploit resources to the point of ecosystem collapse, and thus ultimately to destroy themselves. While Flannery agrees that this theory describes some extinctions of species and civilizations, he instead embraces the "Gaia hypothesis," developed by the ecologist James Lovelock, which sees evolution as "a series of win-win outcomes that has created a productive, stable and cooperative Earth" "” at least until human selfishness got in the way.

Here's a good primer on the Medea Hypothesis, if you need to get up to speed on it. I'll have to read Flannery's book, of course, but I'm not exactly enthralled with the two choices--the Medea or Gaia hypothesis--that he's using to make his argument.

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