The Anthropocene: We've Begun a New Era, and It's Not Looking Good

A group of expert geologists declared that a new epoch influenced by human impact has begun.

Genesis 1:26 assures human beings that we’ve dominated the animal kingdom. Mankind was fashioned of divine clay—that deity lords over livestock, fish, whatever else creeps and crawls. This singular sentence has echoed through the ages as scriptural proof that we can be as irresponsible and dangerous an animal as we choose.


The effects are catching up. Like advice from biblical writers, modern man’s planetary assault has had deleterious effects. And the chickens are coming home to roost—literally. Domestic chickens, symbol of factory farming worldwide, are a contender species for the fossil that future geologists will use to determine our current era’s impact.

On Monday at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town, thirty experts voted to dub this epoch Anthropocene; only three said nay, with two sitting it out. The term is derived from Greek: anthropo means ‘human,’ cene ‘new.’ Like in the bible, this coinage denotes man’s influence on the planet, only this time the citation isn’t so cheery. Regardless, it is another indicator of how highly humans think of themselves.

Anthropocene isn’t a new word—geologists have kicked it around since the seventies—but the urgency with which conference experts yelled it is a stark reminder of just how much humans have changed the physical structure of the planet. A few highlights:

  • Seventy-five percent of species will become extinct within centuries if our habits don’t change. We’re not very good stewards.
  • Atmospheric CO2 is climbing at the fastest rate in sixty-six million years.
  • Plastic is so pervasive it will be in the fossil record.
  • Fertilizers have had the largest impact on nitrogen cycles in 2.5 billion years.
  • There’s now a permanent layer of airborne particles in sediment and glacial ice due to our love of oil and coal.
  • The geologists were quick to point out that recognition should spawn optimism. We have the power to change course now, but it requires a serious reconsideration of our lifestyle.

    Habit formation is a neurological phenomenon, localized in our brain’s basal ganglia. Journalist Charles Duhigg writes that habits are not destiny. When habits are formed, our brains stop working hard to learn new tasks; it can then focus on other agenda items. He continues,

    Unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.

    Is this even possible in the most wasteful and consumer-oriented nation on earth? In which one of the two major political parties presents coal as a progressive and necessary resource? In which so many citizens distrust the government to the point that any intervention would instigate the boomerang effect? That is, how could we rewire a culture’s neural circuitry for the betterment of the planet, especially when a sizable percentage of that populace believes we have no impact on climate in the first place?

    Add to this our brain's ability to comprehend the overwhelming data. As John McPhee writes in his geological classic, Annals of the Former World,

    The human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time. It may only be able to measure it.

    Extend the above question to nations like China and India, whose energy harvesting and usage has been less than commendable. In the scramble toward economic prosperity it is the earth—atmosphere, resources, livestock—suffering most. Whatever geological experts choose as the fossil marker of the Anthropocene, the underlying hustle of expansive wealth will be the driver, regardless of effect.

    Tragic it is that geologists are right: we do have a nearly limitless source of energy, at least for the next four billion years or so. Historian Yuval Noah Harari tells us that all human activities and industries require roughly 500 exajoules of annual energy, an amount the sun offers every ninety minutes. But we’re not focusing on the proper avenues but comfortable habits:

    A lot of evidence indicates that we are destroying the foundations of human prosperity in an orgy of reckless consumption.

    From fossil fuels to domesticated chickens, the future fossil record is less about bones than manic habitual patterns that moved those bones around the world:

    If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.

    From Cambrian to Tertiary, planetary epochs are defined by life’s rise and fall. The Anthropocene is the first era consciously influenced by one of Earth’s creations. Like any rambunctious, ignorant child, we’re aimlessly rebelling for the sake of it, stuck in our ways before the species’ prefrontal cortex has had a chance to develop.

    It is fitting that today is also the author Mary Shelley’s birthday. Her great contribution to the annals of literature warns us of the dangers of unchecked ambition. Victor Frankenstein created his Creature in an attempt of birthing beauty, an experiment that turned against him.

    After demanding Victor create a wife for him, the Creature ends up murdering Victor’s fiancé, Elizabeth; the same evening Victor’s father dies of grief. Victor gives chase all the way to the North Pole, dying en route. Before perishing, Victor warns the ship’s captain to “avoid ambition.”

    The Creature, stowing away on the ship, is tortured by his creator’s death. His raison d’être is gone. The Creature makes his exit floating away on an ice raft into the darkness.

    Turning back to today, by the time that ice reaches most of civilization, the water will have warmed considerably, though it will be no less deadly. The Anthropocene needs a raft, soon. Where it travels next depends entirely on our navigational skills. One thing is for certain: we haven’t been steering very well.

    --

    Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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    Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

    A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

    Rethinking humanity's origin story

    The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

    As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

    David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

    The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

    Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

    He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

    It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

    "Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

    Migrating out of Africa

    In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

    Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

    The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

    The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

    Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

    Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

    Did we head east or south of Eden?

    Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

    Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.