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

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    • #2834 Reply
      James MacAllister
      Participant

      “In a time–lapse movie of the history of Earth, all the action takes place in the final split second.” Not.

      I grant you that the “he” in his-story is about mankind, but I would argue that a scientifically-based view of deep time, Earth and the biosphere in which we are embedded would not reverse the Copernican Revolution by mistakingly placing us at the metaphorical center of the Universe. Nearly all of biological “action” of evolutionary importance takes place in the Precambrian. It is a world turned upside down to view humans (“mammalian weeds” to quote Lynn Margulis) as more important than the primary producers and recyclers that make all life possible thanks to their autotrophic, photosynthetic or saprotrophic talents.

      Ours is a largely bacterial world and it has been this way for some 3800 million years. Microbes are the building blocks of life, including animal multicellularity. The New Symbiotic Biology recognizes that we–you and me–are not individuals in any sense of the word. We are “holobionts”, defined as our animal multicellularity AND our persistent microbial communities. The relationship is obligate: our 10% animal cells depend on our 90% bacterial cells, not the other way round.

      We are not masters of the planet, we are not even central to the biosphere. All life is sentient and intelligent. It is true that we are the only species to write history books, but we are also the only ones who read them. Humanity–and especially Big Historians–need to recognize the circular logic and hubris of our self-importance. Can we find the honesty and humility to really know ourselves and our place in the Universe? Mark Twain put his finger on our singular distinction, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”

      In The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, one of Lily Tomlin’s characters refers to us as “specks”. We are indeed late-arrived, short-lived specks. Carl Sagan speaks to this in his Pale Blue Dot which it is good for us specks to remember was inspired by a single pixel.

    • #2852 Reply
      Dr. Rich Blundell
      Participant

      I generally agree with you James and what you describe is a far too common perspective. However, I do grant humanity some credit for bringing cosmic creativity along (some of) the path that we have (the very realization you are proposing, for example). I think getting out of our own hubris can certainly be part of the narrative too. Don’t really want to argue with your main point though because I think you are right. Which is my case in point; I believe (a human) can sympathize with the way you feel. And I say that, of course, fully acknowledging that my bacteria and I are fully integral.

    • #2853 Reply
      Lawrence Edwards
      Participant

      Absolutely right. Many but not all, by any means, human societies have chosen creation stories which place the human in the center. I guess this is understandable. Anyway many cultures did not choose such creation stories. Thousands of years later we now know that we are not and have never been central to the Earth process. But now paradoxically we finally are central, central to the healing of Earth, if it is going to happen.
      So I have always never been sure how to express the two-sided reality: we have not been central to Earth life; we are (hopefully) central to healing Earth life.
      Yes, if we humans mess it all up and continue the sixth extinction, a couple of million years from now Earth will all be back to some new set of ecological relationships. But I find that a very sad and disappointing prospect. I just can’t grasp that we humans can be so intelligent yet embrace ignorance so enthusiastically.

    • #2854 Reply
      Karen Chaffee
      Participant

      I had some thoughts along this line when once some time ago I was discussing an unrelated topic–whether it is important to have privacy as a right in our country or any country.
      <br>
      My argument (not very popular!!) was that once humans came up with extremely destructive weapons, we needed to relinquish privacy as a species. Why?
      A nuclear weapon, for example, will kill all the wildlife and their community and society. I felt we need to protect the creatures who live on our planet, as a sacred duty. We need to make sure these weapons don’t get used to protect wildlife, not to protect us. Humans take second consideration in my view, because we caused the problem. To get off topic– my friends argued that spot checks would intrude more on some people and not others. What a dilemma–I felt (as a minority of one) still, first and foremost we need to preserve the earth and its life.
      <br>
      I bring this up because it seems that it is an example of when I supported the point you are making, if I understand you.
      <br>
      However, of course, I was thinking of horses, and deer, and birds, and even trees and insects. I was not considering bacteria and virus at the time–except in this sense: bacterial use the same genetic code we do. (There is only once universal genetic code.) So as a way to preserve a unique set of chemistry (which is how I think of the genetic code) I’d like to at least preserve a few bacteria if nothing else. 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, which is the same _to me_ as saying we need to ensure we maintain a moderate temperature range and a supply of oxygen, etc. In other words, I never saw the bacteria as important for their own sake–am I correct in thinking that you do?

    • #2857 Reply
      James MacAllister
      Participant

      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.
      <br>
      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.
      <br>
      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.
      <br>
      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.
      <br>
      “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.
      ,br>
      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”.

    • #2860 Reply
      Karen Chaffee
      Participant

      Thanks for the info! I do know that people with good health often have better bacteria in their intestinal tract than others.

      I want to digest all of this, do some reading. Hopefully I will reply again if I can sort it out; I have a certain way of viewing certain things, I want to explain it to you.

    • #2872 Reply
      Karen Chaffee
      Participant

      Okay, let me see if I can wrap my mind around this–I didn’t actually do any reading so I’ll just respond off the cuff!
      <br>
      Germs may control our thoughts. Germs-R-Us. I won’t dispute this –we are our bodies and the microbes are part of our bodies. I’m aware that many bacteria are beneficial, and so don’t simply think of them as bad things.
      <br>
      You make the point that bacterial can live without us, but we can’t live without them. (nitrogen fixing bacteria is an example.) This seems correct and indisputable. Plants, animals including one-celled, would go on without us, we would die quickly without the biosphere. .
      <br>
      Bacteria’s metabolic diversity is greater than all animals. I’m going to grant you this–animals evolved along a similar path (to each other) and have lesser diversity therefore.
      <br>
      I guess where I’d like your help is to understand your larger point. If I grant all these things about bacteria–they are more numerous, they were here longer, they are more self-sufficient than humans–how does that make me understand how to be a better person? Are you asking us to be more green and environmentally conscious? Are you simply asking us to be more humble? A mosquito can fly and I can’t. A fish can live underwater and I can’t. I can’t exist in extreme climates but bacteria can. I feel like you are aware of a paradigm that is unfamiliar to me. Perhaps you want us to say: I live in a mortal human body, somewhat frail, will certainly die some day, have no control over that fate, so I must be humble (all too true!) Or are you asking us to love the Earth better? I am asking with great respect, because I’d like to understand!
      <br>
      On a gut level, all you say may be true, but I still will ‘care’ about creatures with brains. (And in this I am not saying I want to destroy the biosphere and the bacteria in my gut because they don’t have brains; but I think you realize I don’t!) We, remarkable creatures, are nonetheless highly dependent on our surroundings. Is that so bad? Maybe our frailty (and our emotion and sense of loss) makes us endearing. We are capable of caring about bacteria, but bacteria is not capable of caring about us. If I knew that shortly after I died, all other life forms were to die, leaving only bacteria on the Earth, I would feel profound sadness, truly, and not, I guess, see it as a triumph for the more adaptable bacteria. (Have you read the book, “The Road” that describes just such an outcome?) The quote from Lynn Margulis was a source of confusion for me ( I did however go on line and read more–I think she means to say that we should clarify ourselves and say that we are ‘trying to save the Earth as a good place for humans and higher animals to live’, because the “Earth’ will go on without humans and higher life forms.) Granting her this point–she is right, but I feel in a in a sort of trivial way–surely we should try to save the Earth for our children (and horses and birds and insects and trees) who will follow us? We are natural creatures too, and we are part of nature–our aggressions come from the same place that bacteria’s aggressive colonizing comes from–a natural drive to live. Who is to say we are second best–maybe we are not, maybe humans are profoundly natural and our will to live is profoundly natural, and our gut feel that we too belong here is not wrong. (I am really happy to learn where I am wrong and also what Lynn Margulis meant!)
      <br>
      By the way–a new paradigm for you (and everyone) –Carbon! We, the bacteria, the virus, and all other creatures depend on carbon and wouldn’t be here without it. I am trying to discover how carbon came to its remarkable properties as a function of forces and symmetries that evolved in the first second of the Big Bang! It’s not my field so I am struggling to learn! It’s an adventure for me. Check out my post!

    • #2877 Reply
      Jennifer Morgan
      Participant

      The videos that Jim has added to the Resource Library are a terrific way to get a handle on the new paradigm he is presenting based on the work of Lynn Margulis. Here are the links:

      https://dtnetwork.org/resource/a-new-view-of-evolution-part-1/
      https://dtnetwork.org/resource/a-new-view-of-evolution-part-2/
      https://dtnetwork.org/resource/expanding-lynns-view-a-new-symbiotic-biology-part-1/

    • #2892 Reply
      Karen Chaffee
      Participant

      Thanks, Jennifer. I will watch those. It will have to wait until after my salon on Friday, though! James, do you have any reading to suggest?

    • #2893 Reply
      Dr. Rich Blundell
      Participant

      Great conversation!
      .
      I think a key thing here is the acknowledgment that we are integral. A lone bacterium is a different entity than one existing within a living system or ecology – just as we would be different without its presence. And frankly, sometimes I don’t see where one being begins and the other ends.
      .
      Correct me if I’m wrong James, but perhaps his point is equivalent to how being aware of the stories we live by makes all the difference. It’s ok to live by story, we are story creatures after all, but simply being aware of our stories (especially for Big Historians) is infinitely beneficial. I do agree with James, we need to be knocked of our ego-placed pedestals in order to truly manifest our greater opportunity (if that is indeed what you are saying).

      R

    • #2939 Reply
      James MacAllister
      Participant

      My original point was made in reference to Big History and its claim that it is science-based. That may be the intention, but it is obvious that there is a decidedly anthropocentric bias by Big Historians which is unscientific. Unlike religions, that each start with certainty in their Truth(s), science is a search for truth which acknowledges that science “facts” are not the truth. They are our explanations for things based on the current best evidence. Scientific facts remain corrigible and often change, and a scientific mind stays open to being surprised by evidence and making reappraisals. Scientists must avoid “the temptation of certainty”. The idea that humans are the pinnacle of evolution (higher, more evolved) is an expression of our anthropocentric bias and depends entirely on using measures that are also anthropocentric and “cherry picked”.
      <br>
      When I quoted Lynn Margulis, it was to point to out the hubris of thinking that it is we who care for the planet, rather than the planet providing for us. I would agree with Rich that “being aware of the stories we live by makes all the difference.” I would suggest that it is our anthropocentric notion of our lofty position and abilities combined with the belief by many that we have a supernatural ally that prevents us from being scientific when it comes to issues such as pollution, loss of biotic diversity, population control and global climate change. It is this idea that we are “in control” and can turn things around when we choose– that technology or a miracle will save us–that has us lulled into inaction for many decades.
      <br>
      I would agree with Karen that we are remarkable organisms, but not in terms of better, higher, more evolved (all anthropocentric, not scientific), but because we are different. We are part of nature’s diversity. Of course the same can be said of all organisms, all are remarkable and all, including we humans, are highly dependent on our surroundings including other organisms–we are communities living inside larger communities. Is being dependent so bad? Not at all, in fact, my point and Lynn Margulis’ is that the realization that we are dependent on the biosphere is essential if we hope to change course.
      <br>
      My naturalist friend, Elwood Root, likes to tell a story about pond scum which grows exponentially in its pond as long as the nutrients last and then suffers a complete collapse. Elwood then asks his audience, “ Do you know what the day before the collapse looks like to a pond scum?” Faced with quizzical looks, he provides the answer, “Like every other day.” If we are Homo sapiens (wise men), why are we acting like pond scum? Loving the Earth is good, but we need to protect ourselves from our own hubris and complacency.
      <br>
      If we are integral (necessary) to the planet is not the same as being a part of nature. We humans share the same common ancestry as all life on Earth, so we are natural. But it should be noted that species can be natural and still go extinct. No animal species from the Cambrian (542 may) survives today (although various descendent species do). My point is that being natural does not guarantee survival. According to Oxford Professor of Palaeobiology, Martin Brasier, extinction events appear to be cyclical and not necessarily dependent on cataclysms as triggers (a pebble can start an avalanche). Extinction would make sense as part of the Gaian regulation of the planet: a way of naturally selecting those species that make Earth hospitable for life from those that do not.
      <br>
      I hope that I have clarified why anthropocentric bias, which is often at odds with the reality of our place in nature and evolution, is a crucial flaw in Big History which claims to be scientific and is intended to help us to know our place in nature and history. Are you a better person because you are conscious of our tendency to be anthropocentric? You are certainly in a better position to think critically about what constitutes “green” or “environmentally conscious”.
      <br>
      To Karen’s question about what is the point of humility? Lynn Margulis used to have a slide in her presentations on which was written the ancient Indo-European word for Earth, “Dghem”, which is also the root for humus, human and humility. I believer her point was that humility is the awareness that we are of the Earth and dependent on it. This is distinct from a reading of humble as being weak, lacking control, incapable, deficient, ineffectual, meek, etc. Lynn often closed her talks with this Emily Dickinson poem about looking into a water well and finding humility.
      <br>
      What mystery pervades a well!
      
That water lives so far—

      A neighbor from another world

      Residing in a jar
      

Whose limit none have ever seen,
      
But just his lid of glass—
      
Like looking every time you please

      In an abyss’s face!


      The grass does not appear afraid,

      I often wonder he

      Can stand so close and look so bold

      At what is awe to me.
      

Related somehow they may be,

      The sedge stands next the sea—
      
Where he is floorless

      And does no timidity betray
      

But nature is a stranger yet;
      
The ones that cite her most

      Have never passed her haunted house,
      
Nor simplified her ghost.


      To pity those that know her not

      Is helped by the regret

      [at this point Lynn would point to herself]
      That those who know her , know her less

      The nearer her they get.
      <br>
      This is another idea of humility, which is one that acknowledges and takes into account that our knowledge (what we think we know) is far outweighed by what we don’t know. The search for scientific knowledge often produces more questions than answers.

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