Friday, August 5, 2011

Man's Gift Also His Curse

As I walked through a quiet nature trail in Vancouver’s beautiful Stanley Park, I noticed a sign indicating that a few foreign plants were spreading within the nature reserve.  These plants threatened to overtake the park, and perhaps replace certain species of the plant life over the coming decades.

The signs were written as a kind of warning not to introduce new plants into the park, but it prompted me to consider the following question: What is wrong with a little bit of biological competition?  If one species of plant should dominate another, is it not simply survival of the fittest?  By trying to control the local plant life, I feel as though mankind is overstepping its boundaries.

Life at all levels is in a constant struggle for survival, and it is through this struggle that it adapts or dies out.  Natural selection is merely nature’s “tough love”.

If survival were easy for hominids, perhaps Homo sapiens would never have evolved – these big brains of ours, which allow us to both understand and shape the world, would not have been required.  But man did evolve, and, the high intelligence that we have inherited through millennia of adaptation has placed us in a unique, privileged, but I would also argue, overwhelmed situation.

You know the way a certain standard of living always seems to accompany a certain level of wealth?  When a person gets a raise, the extra money usually finds a way to get used.  Similarly, as we grow smarter, we undertake a larger role within our ecosystem. 

Massive leaps forward in science and engineering technology over the past century has put us in a position to try to manage our biosphere on a global scale.  It is important to realize that in that short period of time, man did not evolve – our wealth of knowledge flourished and our toolbox became mighty, but we did not evolve at the biological level.

The difficult situation that man is in can be described by a classic quote from the Spiderman comic book series: “With great power comes great responsibility”.  Man has a massive advantage over all other life on Earth, and I agree that this power must not be squandered.  However, sometimes it is wisest to step back and let nature run its course.  Perhaps man’s greatest challenge when it comes to the world’s long list of ‘problems’ is to decide when to intervene and when not to.

We are the only animal that can see beyond the challenges of our individual lives or those of our families.  Rest assured that we are the only life form on Earth that cares about the extinction of another species, even if it is one that we do not eat.  We make everything our business – we can’t help but worry.

We often speak as though the Earth has been placed in our care, though we are in fact among its newest tenants.  Nobody put us in charge.  Any pressure we feel to maintain this planet is self-imposed.  We must not feel as though we are separate from our environment: we are simply a part of our environment, albeit, a distinctive part.

My feeling is that our instinct to observe every facet of this planet is a good one.  Where we go wrong is when we decide to step in and effect change.  A more appropriate approach would be to effect the least change that we can: “Leave only your footprints,” as the saying goes.

When we see a group of animals displaced due to some natural occurrence, I understand man’s urge to help them get re-established.  However, life got along fine when we were not around.  It is not blissfully ignorant to knowingly turn our backs on a pack of lions that are yearning for survival; I would argue that it is a sign of true wisdom.  It is a wise mother that fights her instincts and steps back to allow her children to try to solve a problem that they face on their own.

The real challenge for man is to minimize his impact on his environment, both locally and globally.  We are a fragile species, and we have spread across the land.  If a climate is not congruous to our needs, we manipulate it until it is.  Then, once we have made ourselves comfortable, we look out the window and ask how our actions have affected our environment.  Man’s motto appears to be: “Thrive first, ask questions later.”  Patience is not one of our virtues.

We cannot undo the changes we have imposed on our biosphere.  We can, however, move forward more cautiously, in a way that disturbs our surroundings to a lesser extent.  That being said, let us not make everything our problem.  Not every change in the environment is a crisis despite the media’s best efforts to portray them as such.

I have a better sign for them to put up in Stanley Park: “Some new species of plants are thriving within the park, and are threatening to spread and overtake other species of plants within this park – yet another validation of Charles Darwin’s teachings... May the best plant win.”

Our heavy brains are a gift, but they can weigh us down if we let them.

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