Introduction to Physical Anthropology

by Arnie Schoenberg
version: 24 March 2022

a kid holding a sign that says: Every Disaster movie begins with a Scientist being Ignored

Figure 8.1 "2018 San Diego March for Science" by Arnie Schoenberg (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Section 8 Contents

Full Table of Contents

8    Homo sapiens futures; Doom, Gloom, and hope?

8.1    Doom and Gloom

8.1.1    overpopulation

8.1.2    loss of biodiversity

8.1.3    global warming

8.1.4    pollution

8.1.5    speciation by class

8.2    hope

8     Homo sapiens' futures: Doom, Gloom, and hope?

I don't know a better way to say it, but as a species we've pretty much permanently fucked-up our planet. The real question is "What now?" Do we continue our nihilist craze to destroy the rest before going extinct, or do we try to salvage and restore as much we can? Most people in the Abrahamic Western tradition (Judeo-Christian-Islamic) have been enculturated to regard nature as something that needs to be dominated. Many Christians believe the hastened destruction of our world should be encouraged because it is a prerequisite for The Second Coming. Our current capitalist economy translates the domination of nature into the inalienable rights of the individual to exploit natural resources, even non-renewable ones, without taking into consideration the consequences for future generations. And to better use up those natural resources, capitalism creates a culture of consumerism, where our happiness is measured by conspicuous consumption. How could a sane hominid have such low self-esteem that they would take a credit card to a shopping mall to buy things they don't really need, from a factory in China that uses slave labor and bribes its way out of pollution controls, to the point where they're in debt and need to burn non-renewable fossil fuels sitting in rush hour traffic for hours every day to pay off the interest on their card, to the point where if you asked them to help solve some of the problems that effect their fellow hominids, they would respond that they don't have any free time, or they're afraid of getting fired if they speak up?


So where's the hope?

I hope you got a sense in this class of the difference between culture and biology, and in this case, the difference between biological change and cultural change, especially in terms of time, the rate of change, how much faster culture can change compared to biology. When we talk about drastic biological change we can talk about evolution and the adaptive radiation of large groups of species into ecological niches over millions of years. When we talk about drastic cultural change we are talking about revolution. In an instant of geological time, our species went from crude tools to stunningly beautiful cave art in what we studied as the Upper Paleolithic revolution. I find hope in knowing how fast culture can change, that in the blink of an eye, the crude ideology of our dominant hominid could be replaced by something much more beautiful.

8.1     Doom and Gloom

we must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system—with all these exalted powers—Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin. [Darwin 1871:405]

8.1.1     overpopulation

The word overpopulation is very subjective. Malthus' predictions of catastrophes leveling population growth never happened, so far we have just increased production to meet increased demand, and will probably be able to continue in the near future.

There is no scientific way to decide how many people is too much. It is more of an aesthetic question: like would you prefer to live in a huge mansion all by yourself, or in a one-bedroom apartment with 10 roomates and the kitchen and the bathroom in the same room? Most people would choose something in between, probably leaning towards the mansion.

The science of population change is called demography, literally a "map of people/districts", and the science has mapped a population explosion in the last eye-blink of human evolution. We are rapidly heading towards the one-bedroom apartment with 10 roomates, and the ensuing drama is taking place on a global scale.

World Population from Population Education on Vimeo.

Review K-selection   vs.  r-selection

* a classic critique of Malthus by Ester Boserup

* population growth

* where do you fit into the 7 billion?

* bioanthropological perspective: McKee, Jeffery 2012 "The Human Population Footprint on Global Biodiversity"

* video on transhumance

* Demography lab using cemetery data

8.1.2     loss of biodiversity

"Without the animals the earth would be like dead, but now the dogs hunt the hare, the gadfly the ox, the falcon the dove, the grebe the fish, the stork the snakes, the eagles the chickens, and everything moves quickly."
-Carolus Lineaus

Should we care about any other species besides our own? This question is like asking "Should I care about anyone else besides myself?" on a larger scale. Most people care about at least some of their family members. Through the genealogical emphasis of anthropology, many people can extend their altruism to include broader categories of people they're not related too, people of different "races", and hopefully other species.

To me biodiversity is an aesthetic question. Complex ecosystems are beautiful. Do you want kids to grow up in a world where the only other life they know is cockroaches, mosquitos, rats, and pigeons?

review the section on primate extinction

* megafauna extinction due to humans

* humans as super-predators

* Meat Planet: Artificial Flesh and the Future of Food by Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft 2019

8.1.3     global warming

If you compare a graph of population growth and average temperature you can see the correlation between human overpopulation and climate change. How much CO2 was produced by 6,000,000 (6 million) hunter-gatherers sitting around campfires? Almost nothing! That's about the equivalent of one campfire every two hundred square miles. How much CO2 is produced by 6,000,000,000 (6 billion) people who are driving, consuming, deforesting? Our ecological footprint is massive compared to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and there are thousand times more of us.

We should expect both massive extinction and some evolution as variations in populations are selected for in the new ecological niches caused by extreme weather, drought, flooding, acidification of the oceans. Global warming will cause more people to die of starvation and infectious disease. Many plants and animals will go extinct, humans will use cultural adaptations to survive, but it will be very painful and expensive, and the longer we put our heads in the sand and ignore the problem, the worse it will be.

* the American Anthropological Association Statement on Humanity and Climate Change


* Comparing human caused extinction to other mass extinctions

* economic sustainability, the environment as an "externality"

8.1.4     pollution

Geological periods are usually bracketed by climate change and major extinction, and they are based on empirical evidence that a geologist with a rock hammer can go out and find. Human effects on the environment have begun to show up in the field of geology:

* "An anthropogenic marker horizon in the future rock record"

8.2     hope

Is there hope for the human species? I think so. We have millions of years before the sun engulfs us. One of the lessons of evolutionary psychology is that we do have free-will and we are not slaves to our instincts.

The Upper Paleolithic revolution is a prime example of how quickly we can change when we put our minds to it.

I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? [King James Bible, Ecclesiates 3:18-21]

Reread the section on primate ethology. I believe understanding the primate origin of human behaviors keeps us humble and helps us make better cultural choices about which of those behaviors to suppress or embrace.

We are starting to grant legal rights for non-human primates:

here's an example in Argentina

If you haven't already, read the report on retraining bush meat hunters as bee keepers for primate: * The Lebialem Hunters' Beekeeping Project

* if non-human primates can have a sense of justice and reconciliation, so can we:

Orphaned apes can be taught how to live full lives in the natural habitat.

And, if other apes can do it, why not us? If orphaned apes can find ways to move beyond their traumatic upbringing, learn how to make the most of their situation, find joy and satisfaction, than I don't doubt that we Homo sapiens, just another kind of ape, can do likewise, both as individuals and as a species.


* Jane Goodall podcasts: "Hopecasts"

* "Get Whacked for Wildlife " 2016 campaign:

Not all human activity contributes to global warming. Agriculture has been destructive, but it could also be regenerative. These are choices we can make in our daily lives.

* organic agriculture can reverse global warming

* sustainable and just food systems through agroecology

Don't let anyone tell you it has to be all Doom and Gloom; the great thing about belonging to the species Homo sapiens is that we get to imagine our own future.

three panel comic strip. in the first panel a professor asks - TELL ME WISE ONE, WHAT DOES YOUR CRYSTAL BALL FORECAST ABOUT THE FUTURE OF ANTHROPOLOGY? and the Lone Ranger looking into a crystal ball responds - HMM. THE BALL SHOWS THE FUTURE IS CLOUDY. THAT'LL BE TWENTY BUCKS! In the second panel the professor asks - OH SAGE OF SAGES, WHAT DO YOUR CARDS SAY ABOUT ANTHROPOLOGY'S FUTURE? and Tonto with cards on the table and one in his hand responds - OOPS! THE WILD CARD! IT COULD BE GOOD. IT COULD BE BAD. THAT'LL BE TWENTY BUCKS! The third panel shows the professor at a table with two students: ONE DAY LATER, IN THE ANTHROPOLOGY SEMINAR CLASS. One student says - WE WANT TO HELP SOLVE HUMAN PROBLEMS. The other student says - YES! WE ARE READY TO TAKE THIS ON. The professor thinks - I FOUND THE FUTURE OF ANTHROPOLOGY. AND IT'S PRICELESS!

Figure 8.2  "Future Anthropologists" by Bernard Perley Anthropology News website, © August 31, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.960

Imagination actions

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
-Margaret Mead


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