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What does it mean to be human?
When I got to the top of one of Colorado’s 14,000+ peaks, I encountered a few mountaineers who arrived at the same time. Upon reaching the summit, one climber pulled out his cell phone and placed the all important victory call. He started yapping so loudly, that I couldn’t help but think of this funny 60 second MP3.
When you ask a thru-hiker, “Why do you backpack for six months?”
Many will give you a vague answer like, “To reconnect with nature,” or “To see where I fit in nature,” or “To understand our relationship with the universe.”
Are humans part of nature?
So where do humans fit in nature anyway?
Nature = World – Humans
In short, we’re an ugly foreign species that has invaded planet Earth. Some argue that we have done nothing but nasty things to rip apart the “natural ecosystem” that had been in beautiful “balance” before we came along. The human species is nature’s worst enemy.
However, the alien would ultimately clump us in with the rest of the biota of this planet. We’re simply another living thing that is doing our best, as a species, to reproduce to the maximum extent we can get away with. And, like any other species, we’ll do whatever it takes to achieve this end, including lying about our age and income.
Is that evil? Is that wrong? No, it’s just what life does.
Do we have free will?
As individuals yes, but as a species, not really. As a species, we do what every species does: utilize every power we have to maximize the propagation of our DNA. That programming runs deep. Some think that since we’re sentient, we ought to rise above our base genetic programming and behave in a more “enlightened” way. However, it’s a bit crazy to believe that our brains, which are only 100,000 years old, would be capable of overriding three billion years of programming. Of course individuals can do this, but as a species, we can’t.
All three examples show that a species keeps reproducing until it hits a population wall. Our job, like any species, is to keep reproducing and spreading until we hit that wall. Perhaps that wall is 20 billion humans on the planet (we’re seven billion now).
Think about beavers
Some people think humans have an “unfair advantage” over all other animals because of our brains and so we should scale back our actions to fit more nicely in the “natural world.” Let’s consider that argument …
When I’m hiking the CDT, I have little interest in getting “beaver fever.” Beavers poop next to their dams and I get the water downstream. Then I enjoy a waterborne disease and the associated frequent trips to the toilet. Notice the beaver couldn’t care less of the environmental impact its actions are having on humans (and other species).
Once the Europeans started trapping beavers, invading their environments, and disrupting their dams, the beaver population dropped 90%. Today there are about 12 million beavers. Why not more? Because that’s the maximum that the ecosystem can sustain. Humans are part of that ecosystem and we’re limiting their growth, just like cats limit the growth of mice.
Reproduce to the carrying capacity
I love to ask myself odd questions when I’m walking in the CDT. Why are blades of grass so tightly packed? Why aren’t they thinly spread out like trees in alpine terrain? Why aren’t trees in alpine terrain packed like blades of grass? The answer is always the same: that’s the maximum the environment can sustain.
It's what is called the carrying capacity. The carrying capacity is never stable forever (because the environment is never static), so that graph on the right is a bit misleading. However, it's true that all populations grow to meet that carrying capacity.
How many strawberries, corn, and chickens would exist in the world if humans weren’t around? We’re doing those species a favor by modifying the ecosystem so that they reproduce more than if we weren't helping out. We’re farming them just like leaf cutter ants that I saw in Costa Rica that farm fungi. The fungus the ants grow, like the mangos that humans grow, benefit from the natural behavior of ants. The citrus trees whose leaves are harvested end up losing, just like all the species we annihilate to make room for fields of corn. Leafcutter ants deforest massive numbers of trees (see video below). Indeed, humans aren’t that different from leafcutter ants; we just cut down more trees. In fact, there are species of ants that herd aphids, in much the same way humans herd cattle, and those ants live off the sugary excretions of the aphids. Other species farm too. All these farmers are as natural as Willie Nelson’s hair.
OK, so we help some species, but doesn’t the quality of life for these species that we help suck? We grow plants and animals in confined environments, packed like sardines. It's cruel, but all species that farm do this. If you don’t like it, become a vegan like me. You’ll only be abusing plants.
Moreover, all species continue to reproduce if there are enough resources to sustain them. If they could, deer would reproduce to the point that they would be living on top of each other. That’s what bacteria do. They live on top of each other, because they can. So do New Yorkers.
Biologists like to talk about “invasive” species that take over an ecosystem. They’ll refer to some plants on the CDT as “not native.” They love to blame humans for introducing “non-native” species into ecosystems and destroying the “natural” environment.
I’ve camped next to frozen alpine lakes in Colorado and seen wildflowers fighting to peek through the snow that has buried them all winter. This delicate wildflower “invaded” this alpine region at some point. Indeed, as my last email mentioned, the continental divide was hardly a mountain range millions of years ago; instead, it was a massive canal teeming with fish.
Genetic modification is natural too
If bears could genetically modify or breed berries that are 10 times bigger than the current ones, they would do it.
We expect that because we’re sentient that we should behave differently than an amoeba. However, how can we deny three billion years of evolution? The urge to reproduce to the maximum extent is so embedded in our minds that we don't have a choice but to follow it. Individuals can resist, but the human race can’t.
But isn’t the environmental havoc we’re causing unnaturally fast?
Not compared to the “natural” asteroid that pummeled our planet 65 million years ago. The day it hit, more changes happened than all the changes humans have caused in the last 3 million years. Earth has sustained far more devastating disasters than what we’re doing lately.
Nevertheless, we are having a dramatic impact on the planet. We’re certainly causing more change than all the beavers of the world. However, the impact is not “artificial.” It’s just a byproduct of what our species is doing to spread its DNA.
But we’re losing so much species diversity!
Yup. But our species is still growing exponentially, and that’s all that matters to our DNA. It’s hard to take over the world without breaking a few eggs.
Again, why backpack?
Like other backpackers, I too like to “reconnect with nature,” and “to see where I fit in nature,” and “to understand my relationship with the universe.”
As my previous article showed, the timeline of our planet is longer than we can imagine. Our species is just a blip in the timeline and we’re doing what every species before us did, including think that we’re really special.
So what does this mean?
Let’s say you’re crazy enough to understand what I’m saying and that you (gasp!) even agree with me. What do you do?
To read reactions to this article (and write your own), visit my WanderLearn Forum. You may also enjoy this article about what other species have over 7 billion individuals.
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