Home Forums Deep Time Journey Forum Big History's anthropocentric bias Reply To: Big History's anthropocentric bias

James MacAllister

Our anthropocentricity is ingrained and often goes unrecognized since it is part of the unquestioned framework with which each of us views the world. The Modern Synthesis view of evolution which has been the stuff of textbooks since the 40’s is based in a big-like-us, post-Cambrian timeframe which ignores 80% of the history of life on Earth and the four most important evolutionary milestones: (1) the origin or antiquity of life, (2) the development of the eukaryotic cell by eubacteria and archaebacteria, (3) the incorporation of mitochondria for oxygen respiration, (4) the incorporation of chloroplasts (cyanobacteria) in algae and plants. People still consider themselves separate from apes and just below angels, their model of life is anthropocentric, mammalian or zoocentric at its broadest. That is an extremely narrow and incomplete idea of life on Earth.
An anthropocentric bias shows up in various forms–and there is nothing wrong with being anthropocentrically biased, in fact, knowing that we are anthropocentrically biased is necessary. We must train ourselves to be mindful of this bias if we want to think scientifically. Thinking that we are “bringing cosmic creativity along some of the path that we have” perhaps gives us a bit too much credit. The Cosmos is a big place, I am not sure how we would measure our impact, but in Universal terms, I think it is safe to say our impact is negligible. On Earth, I think our impact is stark and the nature of our impact very clear. We should not confuse our abilities with biospheric importance or with “being more evolved”. The antiquity of life is the same for all organisms on Earth. What can be said about us is that we are very recent.
We want to make sure that we acknowledge that we are talking anthropocentrically about ourselves and an environment that supports humans in any notion such as “now paradoxically we finally are central, central to the healing of Earth, if it is going to happen.” There’s the rub, paradoxically we are also the Earth’s illness. To quote Lynn Margulis, ““To me, the human move to take responsibility for the living Earth is laughable – the rhetoric of the powerless. The planet takes care of us, not we of it. Our self-inflated moral imperative to guide a wayward Earth or heal our sick planet is evidence of our immense capacity for self-delusion. Rather, we need to protect us from ourselves…We need honesty.” Lynn did not mince words.
We do tend to think in terms of big-like-us “horses, and deer, and birds, and even trees and insects.” We either do not think about the bacteria or we consider them “germs”. Pass the hand sanitizer. But 90% of the cells in our bodies are bacteria, and they are not dependent (i.e., obligate) or “parasitic” on our 10% animal multicellularity. It is our animal cells relationship to them that is obligate. We depend on them, including the fact that 30% of the metabolites in our blood, including neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, are manufactured for us by our symbiotic microbiota. Germs may control our thoughts. Germs-R-Us. In the terminology of the New Biology, each of us is a holobiont, the animal plus its persistent symbiotic microorganisms.
“As a chemist, I see bacteria as a complicated chemical system, but not a creature of importance. Of course, to ensure the survival of more complex life forms (wild horses, birds), we need to ensure the survival of the types of bacteria needed for life”. Bacteria are indeed complicated systems with the most complicated (complex) chemistry on the planet. It would be anthropocentric hubris indeed to think that we are capable of picking and choosing which bacteria the Earth needs. It is easily argued that bacteria are in fact the most important life on the planet. Their metabolic diversity is greater than all animals – in fact, animals and plants and fungi could not exist without the incorporated eukaryotic organelles of mitochondria and chloroplasts that were once free-living bacteria. Cyanobacteria manufacture the oxygen of our atmosphere, photosynthesizers and autotrophs are the primary producers who turn chemicals, chemical energy, sunlight and carbon dioxide into what we eat. Cyanobacteria also contribute something like 80% of the fixed nitrogen on the planet. Bacteria are critical parts of the life-support system on Earth. Bacteria are in no danger of extinction from climate change or nuclear war. It has always been a microbial world, bacteria are the building blocks of life, they invented and are still a part of us. Bacteria have been doing bio-tech for at least 3800 million years. When we landed on the moon, so did our microbiota. Most likely they have beaten us to Mars. All life, including bacteria, sense their environment and react. Bacterial reactions use “quorum sensing” to make decisions for populations of bacterial cells. Do not underestimate the prowess of bacteria.
Viruses are sort of “near life” but they lack metabolism and must use machinery of cells to replicate. Our own animal genome contains oodles of viral DNA so they too seem to have made contributions to the community we each call “me”.