Here’s a bold statement for you. We are now in charge of evolution on this planet. Eons of natural selection and chance mutation have surrendered control to the human race, and what we do with it is going to say a lot about who we really are.
Don’t scoff, you saw this coming. Who hasn’t at some time heard the story of the peppered moth, which changed from a mostly white to a mostly dark species when soot from the industrial revolution blackened the trees it rested on? For years, this was the prime example of how humans can dictate the change in a species.
What we’re finding out now though, is that the effects of human development on natural selection is already much more widespread than we had thought, and it’s moving fast.
A recent paper by Marina Alberti, director of the Urban Ecology Research Lab at the University of Washington, weaves a tale of these recent changes to our animal neighbors: city-dwelling swallows that can navigate traffic with their new, more maneuverable wings, urban trees that no longer bother with long-distance seed dispersal, and robust earthworms that can survive in the high metal content of polluted soil. The changes expand outside of city limits as well, where tuskless elephants, shrinking salmon, and hornless bighorn sheep seem to be adapting to be less attractive to human hunters.
For millennia, our race has been busily designing a world of buildings, roads, and networks that fits us well. With our habitat now stretching across the globe, any animal or plant that hopes to survive along with us must adapt to our decisions. It’s still a matter of survival of the fittest, but the force that decides what “fits” is now we humans. It’s kind of like the dream-world rules of the movie Inception: the architect builds an environment to suit his or her own needs, which is then organically populated with people and creatures that would realistically live there. For the organisms of the future, we are – very literally in the case of city-dwelling animals – the architects.
Of course, this isn’t to say that there will be anything conscious or intentional about natural selection from this point on. Genetic mutations will continue as randomly as before, and that’s the really interesting part. Instead of designer animals, we will end up with rugged, resilient creatures that can survive on what we have left, that can fill the vacant spaces people haven’t taken for themselves. They will be a reflection of what we prize as valuable and dismiss as worthless, an x-ray of the subconscious preferences behind our actions. In other words, the future of animal phenotypes will be like a mirror to the human condition.
Consider it this way, we design our surroundings based on our needs and desires, (i.e., we need shelter, and we want it to be comfortable). Our needs and desires are in turn made from a mix of basic human nature and cultural values (i.e. because we used to be persistence hunters on the savanna, comfortable means spacious, warm, and offering a nice view). For this reason, we build high-rise condos and sprawling cities instead of, for example, the underground complexes some experts suggest would be far more energy and space efficient, and as a result, the pests of our cities are fat, omnivorous pigeons, instead of prairie dogs.
Or how about the modern adage that bigger is better, a belief brewing in western culture since the ancient Greeks clamped onto the concept of heroes. A person’s pride in mounting that ten point buck or record breaking salmon on their wall is akin to Persus’s larger-than-life conquest of the sea serpent Cetus, and demonstrates a uniquely human belief. While most predators pick off the weak members of a herd, humans hunt trophies. The result is a new generation of animals that survive by ditching their headgear, and shrinking in size.
In this way, often-hidden human values lead to preferences which lead to choices, which lead to consequences, which in some cases reveal the original values.
So, what comes next? Will the next hundred years see the rise of sewers that truly are full of mutated alligators, or tropical insects that can only survive in the temperature controlled micro-climates of our buildings? Who knows, at some point, there may even be something higher on the food chain than us once again.
Regardless of the final outcome, I believe that our future will result in the unwary creation of the human race’s most telling work of art. After all, true art tends to be a commentary on the human condition, and perhaps even an observation of changes to come, which is what these changing organisms demonstrate. In this case however, perhaps it’s nature painting a picture of us.
David Cowley is a writer and photographer living in the natural splendor of Southern Utah. His work frequently focuses on the unseen factors driving modern life.