Sunday, 23 September 2012


          I happened to watch a video on YouTube recently. It is a stand-up comedy by George Carlin in which he digs on environmentalists ( There is a part in the video where he raps Our planet’s been through a lot worse than us. it’s been through Volcanoes, Earthquakes, plate tectonics, continental drifts, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles, hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic waves, recurring ice ages and we think…..some plastic bags” well, sure I was laughing, not at the uncertainty as it is intended but the irony. Plastics can alter our environment in future not far less than the entire geographical and astronomical phenomenon he has mentioned, considering the massive scale it’s been produced.

         And human meddling do not stop with plastics, of course, no animal that has ever lived this planet has burnt fossil fuels, unearthed metals, carried out nuclear reactions, introduced invasive species, transmitted radio waves. Sparing the mining every activity that has been mentioned above are hardly two centuries old and mining has never been up to this extent before last couple of centuries, not to mention the explosive population outgrowth which underlies all these. Commenting on the consequences,what we know might as well be just a fraction, for we still not have achieved comprehensive understanding of ecological interrelationship. Effect of radio waves on sparrows is one thing, true or untrue that doesn’t essentially make them harmless. Resting there unknown might be a thousand consequences; and timespan of fifty years is miniscule looking from evolutionary timescale for sensitive organisms to possibly evolve, bacteria perhaps might.

      While looking at human activities affecting and altering the environment, one must be aware that we are looking at activities of a species first and possibly the only to attain complete consciousness. With the dawning of consciousness we started contemplating and ‘man’ipulating our activities. The first alterations apparently are done in favor of our own species, the very reason for it to have evolved, to defy food chain. We destroyed, conned, fought back all those above us, and our food, in the food chain. So we not only freed ourselves from the food chain but invigorated a whole new artificial, invincible ecosystem,an ecosystem which enjoys our superior cerebral ability, only until they end up in our mouth or meet any other utility.

        A familiar argument is that humans are not the only to alter the environment, starting from corals, beavers the list goes on. In fact according to Gaia theory each species has equal effect on its environment as vice versa. Equal is the word to be noted here. Moreover after the attainment of consciousness our evolution has been cultural rather than genetic. Cultural evolution is too fast an evolution for nature to usurp any suitable balance, i.e. a feasible and enduring one.Beavers would have taken hundreds of generations of behavioral evolution to learn to dam water, this is just about enough time span for nature to adapt itself, find a balance; humans did it within a generation.


       I don’t mean to be pessimistic in my views on human evolution; I am more than convinced,thanks to haunting images from the opening sequence of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey which reached to me better than thousand spoken words,that human species are perhaps the hardiest mammal to ever live on this planet. We have been through hardships worse than any selective pressures that have shaped other animals around us. The opening scenes of the movie lead to a hard day’s night with an ancestral hominid tribe settling on a shelter rock nothing but eerie silence (in contrast with night time symphony of rainforest) to accompany them. They sit vigilant, pathetic and sleepless as if waiting for some miracle to happen. Well it did, not the mysterious alien monolith as movie conjures but eventual evolution of higher level consciousness or meta-representation.

A shot from the movie

        This higher level consciousness here is a tricky thing to possess, that as a species we don’t have someone as a forerunner, we are. Looking at evolution of life forms one would realise that evolution of consciousness is not a random event but a result of a number of evolutionary coincidences,starting with early primates evolving to grab, instead of gripping, as a way of arboreal locomotion. Locomotion by grabbing requires physiological adaptions like opposable thumbs, flat nails, extended limbs and so on, but just as important are visual adaptations such as binocular vision, to judge distance accurately. These visual adaptations involve more visual processing in the brain thus prompting evolution of larger brains. Primates’ food habit leads them to form social groups (here I would like readers to refer my previous article). Social groups along with larger brains would promote cultural knowledge; cultural knowledge in turn promotes larger brains. An individual with more cultural knowledge can easily work its way up the social hierarchy gaining more chances of reproduction thus sexually selecting larger, smarter brains. These reasons made primates the brainiest group of animals. Giving up their complete arboreal lifestyle larger apes tended to grow in body mass; this required them to possess greater cultural knowledge to satisfy their appetite further boosting larger, smarter brains.

Binocular vision

       Thus it can be concluded that evolution of consciousness is a continuation of neurophysiological evolution which started almost 65 million years ago from ancestral species ‘purgatorius’. Our ancestors 7 million years ago turned out to be the right species at right time in a right place (wrong place perhaps!) to give way for evolution of consciousness. While other large apes stand as possible candidates no other group of animals living or ever lived are known to be eligible for evolution of consciousness.

         Discussing above why human beings are the only to gain consciousness, we have reason to consider this phenomenon an evolutionary anomaly. Altering the environment to accommodate ourselves is something like eating up from one’s own bakery, bad business, and what’s worse we have raised a whole civilization on it. Nature cannot provide indefinitely if not given enough time to adapt itself for us. This raises the question where to draw the line? An honest answer would be 52,000 BP when we had successfully survived competition of savannah and an ice age that followed. But until 1800’s our environment has been more or less stable regardless of human activity as it’s always been limited to the extent of man or domesticated animal power.

       As we have seen before, last 200 years of industrialization commencing with invention of fossil fuels have propelled man to his exploitative disposition. Industrialization while hasn’t made, either spiritually or physically, life any easier for the majority, has brought resources exploiting nature which would support population more liberally. These resources are brought to us not using man power but bringing dormant subterranean energy sources of long lost ecosystem into active energy system, in case of  fossil fuels. In other words, we take more than what we give with the help of newly invented artificial energy sources, something which nature has never confronted.

        Nature always finds a balance and is never going to collapse, but it is as delicate and complex as it is strong and self-healing. In times of crisis it does not hesitate to trade off certain species to resurrect the balance and this is where an environmentalist’s concern lies. Western mind sees that concern as man’s moral responsibility, the stewardship man has over life on earth, a view their religion proposes. While I think this view is not a bad one to have,I am not in favor of the idea that man has stewardship over other life forms. I think the very consciousness itself is a boon to have, that it must yield awareness of its activities. This is, of course, not my personal philosophy but one we’ve had for thousands of years. As we are aware, we must try to regulate our influence on nature and negate every unusual activity.We don’t have sixth sense for nothing,my grandma used to say.

   For those who think saving species by controlling human activity does not make any sense awaits a bad news. Losing certain species would collapse our ecosystem that nature would dare retaining the balance at the expense of losing us. This we don’t mean as a doomsday spook but a slow downhill for us as a species and nature would still maintain its balance. Going at the current rate of COemission, by 2050 AD the projected COlevel in the atmosphere will be so high, which at last stable environmental equivalence point had the seas rise up to 300 feet above current sea level, are we ready for this?. And this is just one of thousand reasons threatening us that environmentalists cry for.

 It is easy to be ignorant and continue to be destructive but beware as George Carlin funnily puts it “the world would shake us off like a bad case of fleas”.


  1. dear aji,
    there is always a tendency to romanticize the unstoppable looting of resources by humans, the justification is that even these activities are also a part of nature's cycle and hence it can take care of itself. as far as plastic is concerned - i see it as a symbol of man's thirst for immortality. creating something indestructible had been his dream and vision.. how that ultimately alters everything had never striked him. read about attempts to make biofuel out of plastic.. am not sure whether it will work or not, but it will be a right move in right direction..

  2. Aji,

    Nicely articulated ! You started with consciousness , discussed cultural evolution , then environmental pollution. A fresh new approach with analysis. Good. As in your previous works, the starting came up very well. Human meddling, but not limited to plastic. Eliminating pieces is not the right way of correction as you ended.

  3. Nice article Aji. I have a lot of questions and many points of convergence as well as divergence. First a small question, 'cultural knowledge in turn promotes larger brains'. Is there really any evidence for this? Has our cultural evolution really exerted such a selection pressure so as to modify our brains biologically in the last 52000 years or so? Is there any empirical evidence? If so then that will be really great. If not this statement becomes dangerously neo-Lamarckian. Can you ple
    ase elaborate? Thank you. Second is a larger observation and sharing of my own confused thinking with you for your inputs for more churning: What you are essentially explaining here is the transition of the planet from being a biosphere to noosphere with the emergence of consciousness. Though I have been extremely dismayed by the rhetorical way in which Dawkins and his cult-followers destroyed one of his wonderful theoretical innovation 'memes' by their rhetorical usage, paradigms as memetic systems are important factors in noosphere-evolution. So here comes the importance of Gandhi. Our technologies can be seen as being selected by need for energy efficiency and resource efficiency. So are these two aspects act as selection pressures for our technology evolution...and if we consider technology as having embedded values (which are memes) then how these situations decide our memes which in turn select our technologies... and the stand-up comedian caricaturing the greens can be seen as one movement in this vast evolutionary dance of noosphere and in my personal opinion that movement (represented by that comedian)is a flawed movement. So yes this is a wonderful article Aji, as usual thought provoking and unsettling, and what I am sharing with you is my own reactions to that wonderful stimulus you have given. Have a great day boy. with love - AN

    1. Dear Aravind uncle,

      "one movement in this vast evolutionary dance of noosphere" rightly put. paradigms as memetic systems are important factors indeed. environmental paradigms painfully parodied,broken down hints an unhealthy(unscientific too) paradigm shift we are facing.

      I apologize that it must have been "smarter brains" instead of "larger brains". I think Lamarkian theory does not come in here that it is not the 'craving for cultural knowledge leading to increased brain size or activity' but as I have mentioned 'An individual with more cultural knowledge can easily work its way up the social hierarchy gaining more chances of reproduction thus sexually selecting larger, smarter brains' it is sexual selection that is referred here.
      and sexual preferences strongly depends on position in the social hierarchy(exist in almost all primates except some pro simians) which in-turn depends on cultural knowledge and social disposition. The ability to intake more cultural knowledge and be successful is directly related to brain's activity. So it is not cultural knowledge->increased brain size but sexual preference to higher social order->cultural knowledge(of course along with physical fitness)->smarter and larger brains. Dull-witted primates never got to give raise their progeny therefore eliminated from the gene pool. Cultural knowledge is vast and diverse in present day human beings to draw comparisons with prehistoric times in
      terms of selective pressures.

  4. nice article and nice discussions. i'm no expert in this, but a related question comes to mind. with the emergence of consciousness, and with the transition from biosphere to noosphere, how should we come to think of this notion of "selection environment"?. For one, with consciousness in place, selection environment is no longer exogenous, but rather is successively endogenized. moreover, how and where could we fit in concepts such as "foresight"? if we bring "foresight" into the equation, then the selection environment not just shapes but also is actively shaped by the species in question in ways that could facilitate/propagate its selection. To me, all of this suggest the following: while human evolution is Darwinian, human condition is very much Lamarckian. Be it due to mirror neurons or be it due to some other cognitive mechanism, we are endowed with its capability for social learning, from which culture emerges.

  5. hi i am vijayaragavan's son surya,its very nice i like this article,what is the final way to stop this?

  6. Thought provoking article, Ajithan. Nature is extremely complex and extremely delicate at the same time. As a student of biology *and* an environmentalist, I think you have this perennial paradox about the possibility (or even the necessity) of controlling the environment vis-a-vis just observing and be wonder struck at it.

    It is a perplexing question indeed and you have expressed it quite lucidly in this article.

    Isn't evolution into noosphere part of the solution also and not just part of the problem? Because, just like biosphere, the modern science and technology also heavily leverages the interconnected and complex web of human minds and intellects (unlike the case till 18th century). I do see the merit of arguments in favor of "small in beautiful" and Gandhian ideas of local, adaptable, scalable technologies. But I think technology and globalization has now brought us to a point where the societies that practice them excessively may get isolated and may even become major targets of exploitation, rather than the saviours of our planet and nature. We have to strike a balance somewhere.

  7. Very good article. For every environmentalist the basic question is "IS man so big to destroy almighty nature?'

    Some scholars always say that in the majestic structure of nature man is not more than a drop ripple and he is actually imagining himself as a creator and destroyer. One of my friend who is a Hindu sanyasin used to say that 'At 18th century the western man began to think that he is a creator of the world and now in 20th century he is imaging hims self as the destroyer of it. Both are his egoistic dreams. Nothing more'

    I answered him 'Yes Man is just a ripple in the ocean. He is not at all important. Bu mankind is important not to nature but to mankind itself. We are not fighting to save mother earth, but to save ourselves'