The World As We Know It

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The World As We Know It

How people shape nature

In 2016, the International Union of Geological Sciences will decide whether or not the world has indeed reached the Anthropocene age, an era when accelerated changes to the planet have been primarily caused by human activity.  Whether or not we have entered such an age, it is clear that people have the ability to alter the natural world, either by design or by consequence.  

Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World (2015) by Richard Francis
Proper credit should be given to the plants and animals that made human civilization possible.  As Francis argues, without the domestication process, human beings would not have gained the resources of food, clothing, and transportation that made ours the dominant species on earth. This engaging and well-researched book is a good pop-science introduction to current concepts such as evo devo (evolutionary developmental biology) and genomics.  Francis discusses how physical traits piggybacked desired traits in domestication: we might have bred dogs for friendliness, but they got floppy ears as a side effect.  This examination of human-driven evolution asks the question: if domestication is evolution with a human purpose, have humans self-domesticated as well? 

The Soul of an Octopus : a Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness (2015) by Sy Montgomery
People and octopuses are animals so far removed on the evolutionary tree that we may as well be from different planets.  Our paths diverged "roughly 500 to 700 million years ago", so the idea that octopuses have developed consciousness raises a lot of questions.  For example, if there is an octopus consciousness, how does it manifest?  Is it anything like human consciousness?  Octopuses "think" along all eight arms, so their "self" isn't in a brain but throughout their body. This empathetic and philosophical take on the human connection to animals chronicles the author's personal relationship with several octopuses at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

How to Clone a Mammoth : the Science of De-extinction (2015) by Beth Shapiro
Every time someone unearths a frozen mammoth carcass, the question of cloning gets asked. The short answer is that with today's science it's an impossibility -- but it may be possible in the future.  Even in extremely well-preserved mammoths, the DNA is not well-preserved.  For example, if the full DNA found in a frozen mammoth was mapped, it might also map the DNA of the fungus decomposing the cells.  More feasible is the possibility of merging elephant and mammoth DNA.  But why? Shapiro goes past any mad scientist fantasies and imagines that cloning technologies could save existing species on earth, to revive ecosystems, and to "engineer species that are alive today so that they can act as proxies for extinct species".  Shapiro approached these questions in a TEDX talk about de-extinction.

The Sixth Extinction : an Unnatural History (2014) by Elizabeth Kolbert
Extinction as a concept did not exist until the 1700s.  Kolbert states that just as people are learning about the nature of mass extinctions, we have discovered that we are causing the sixth big one. She predicts that 30%-50% of all animal species are "headed towards oblivion".  Human behavior and changes people made to the world are the direct cause, unlike the previous five mass die-offs that have occurred on Earth. The only hope is to take the idea of a human-caused mass extinction seriously, but is it too late? 

This urgent call to action won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.  More on the subject can be found at the DCPL database "Science in Context".

Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010) by Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben argues that it is already too late; because of human behavior, our world has been irrevocably changed, and the only way to deal with it would be to act as if we are colonizing an alien planet: our own.  In Eaarth, McKibben famously writes "we're running Genesis backward, decreating".  All we can do as a species is "choose to manage our descent".  This book argues that large-scaled physical features of the planet are all changing, with a large amount of unpredictable consequences; therefore, the planet is becoming a new place.  Although McKibben takes a pessimistic tone, he says that the new reality is not a cause for hopelessness but a call to engage in the right direction.  Still, reading Eaarth feels like reading a requiem.  

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2011) by Yuval Noah Harari
While there were several species of human in the history of the world, only Homo Sapiens survived and conquered the world. This "Big History" book is a hybrid chronicle of human history and evolution.  Originally written in Hebrew, Sapiens has been translated into more than 20 languages.  It is a tour de force, but readers have to evaluate Harari's positions on the events and consequences of human history for themselves; for example, his biggest assertion is that "the agricultural revolution was history's biggest fraud".  Harari says that there have been three great revolutions that propelled Sapiens forward: cognitive, revolutionary, and scientific.  A fourth revolution, the biotechnological one, will be the last.  For another take on the subject, see Bill Bryson's book A  Short History of Nearly Everything (2003). 

For further information on the human effect on nature, one DCPL resource is the National Geographic Virtual Library, which includes the complete archive of magazines.  The National Geographic Society has explored the human relationship with nature since 1888.