- Paperback: 480 pages
- Publisher: Island Press; 2 edition (October 14, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1597260975
- ISBN-13: 978-1597260978
- Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 26 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #634,794 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment 2nd Edition
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About the Author
Paul R. Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies and professor of biology at Stanford University and a fellow of the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics. The author of Human Natures, The Population Bomb, and many other books, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of numerous international honors, including the Crafoord Prize and the MacArthur “genius award.”
Anne H. Ehrlich is affiliated with Stanford's Biology Department and Center for Conservation Biology, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has served on the board of the Sierra Club and other conservation organizations, has coauthored more than ten books with her husband, and is a recipient of the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement and the United Nations Environment Programme/Sasakawa Environment Prize.
Top customer reviews
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The predictions probably would have come true, but Ehrlich's timing could not possibly have been more unlucky. He was blindsided by the unfortunately lucky efforts of Norman Borlaug, who tried to eliminate world hunger. His Green Revolution dramatically increased grain yields, leading to a dramatic surge in population, making the original problem far worse -- progress! Catastrophe was postponed for a few decades.
In 2008, on the fortieth anniversary of The Population Bomb, Paul and Anne published The Dominant Animal. They admitted that the original book had a serious defect -- it was too optimistic. The new book presents an extremely intimate "birds and bees" discussion of the facts of life regarding the immense challenges of the twenty-first century, including overpopulation, overconsumption, peak energy, global heating, toxic pollution, mass extinctions, and on and on. It neatly describes the hominid journey, millions of years long, which led to what we have become today.
This book is special because of its expanded discussion of cultural evolution. Genetic evolution is a slow motion process that modifies genes over the passage of many generations. Cultural evolution modifies and accumulates information, and it can happen with dizzying speed. Other animals learn behaviors by imitating their elders. Humans learn behaviors and ideas, via imitation and complex communication. Alas, cultural evolution enabled us to become the dominant animal on Earth, a backhanded honor, sodden with appalling consequences.
It's not a book to read for pleasure, but it should be read by everyone on the planet, two or three times. It fills many of the huge empty gaps in our education, and in the media coverage of our era. You don't have to be a propeller-head to understand it. Hopefully, it will make enormous throbbing consumer fantasies go flaccid, and reorient minds to life in actual reality.
On the bright side, we're not 100% committed to mass suicide. There are people all over who think that self-destruction is totally unhip. Most of them are far more interested in moving toward a survivable future. The Internet enables ordinary people to make their ideas available to billions of others, and everyone now has access to a much broader range of ideas. Sometimes the efforts of individuals succeed in sending cultural evolution off in a new direction -- all that's needed is a healthy imagination and good timing.
Ecological history has thoroughly compiled our major mistakes. In theory, we could study this history, change our habits, and break out of the centuries-long cycle of repeated mistakes. That might be fun. When luck is in the air, large societies can make huge changes with dazzling speed -- like the collapse of the Soviet Union. We don't need more technology; we need social change that's inspired by clear thinking.
The authors recommend a number of rational things we could do, but make no effort to mesmerize us with magical thinking. The Ehrlichs are not betting heavily on a future of endless "sustainable" growth. They are sharing two lifetimes of learning with the younger generations, and that's very thoughtful of them.
Daniel Quinn's work taught me that a segment of humankind went sideways with the transition to agriculture. Everyone agrees that our problems grew explosively from that time. In their 1987 book, Earth, the Ehrlichs wrote, "In retrospect, the agricultural revolution may prove to be the greatest mistake that ever occurred in the biosphere -- a mistake not just for Homo sapiens, but for the integrity of all ecosystems."
Other writers, like Shepard, Livingston, and Crosby, understood that the roots of our problems were older. They point to the Great Leap Forward, about 40,000 years ago, the cave painting craze. The Ehrlichs agree that the Great Leap "greatly accelerated our rise to dominance," but they also look even farther back. Our ancestors began making chipped-stone tools about 2.5 million years ago. "It was the start on the road to dominance that has produced technological `descendants' as varied as books, blenders, SUVs, antibiotics, and nuclear weapons."
Other animals sometimes use tools, like chimps fishing for termites with a stick. Hominids became increasingly innovative at making tools. Without stone tools, life would have been a struggle for Homo habilis. Modern consumers cannot survive without tools, but chimps without termite sticks would be just fine.
Further population growth, at any rate, is insane. In Earth, the Ehrlichs discussed China's one child policy, an impressive success that prevented 350 million births, and the corresponding environmental harm and social misery. The Ehrlichs recommended that all governments implement fertility control programs -- especially in over-developed consumer societies like ours -- because it was the moral and responsible thing to do. This notion was not repeated in the new book. The authors deeply lament the fact that overpopulation remains a taboo subject among world leaders -- inexcusable stupidity.
Just as destructive as overpopulation is overconsumption. Billions of people, both rich and poor, have been programmed to believe that nothing is better than shopping. I never watch horror movies. Whenever I have an urge to get really grossed out, I go to a mall and observe the super-trendy shopping zombies. Eeeeek! The Ehrlichs recommended creating an organization similar to Planned Parenthood to help us plan our acts of consumption with utmost wisdom and responsibility. Abstinence is usually the most mature option.
George Basalla now steps into the spotlight. He pointed out that technological innovation was almost never motivated by fundamental human needs. Everyone agrees that we were healthier and happier before agriculture. Cars were not invented because people had lost the ability to walk. What "need" is being met by cell phones, TVs, and computers? Phooey on frivolous stuff.
This book devotes loads of attention to the many serious problems that have resulted from our experiment in cultural evolution. One sentence hit me like a large stone hammer. The authors are celebrating our glorious achievements. Human brains have evolved capabilities "far beyond those of other animals, allowing us to become the dominant animal and (we hope) to remain so."
We hope so? Dominant is cool? Isn't "dominant animal" essentially the one and only reason why we're racing toward catastrophe? Play with the notion of the "formerly dominant animal." What might that look like? Could we live without tools once again, running around naked in the jungle? Could we shut down the asylum and go back home, to the family of life, and live happily ever after? That would be fun. Have a nice day!
Richard Adrian Reese
Author of What Is Sustainable
The Ehrlichs' tone in the Dominant Animal is both friendly and approachable. Again and again the reader feels as though she has had something logical and intuitive revealed to her. Natural Selection, in the Ehrlichs' hands seems obvious, as does much else in the story of life and the human domination of it. It is easy to find oneself nodding again and again with what this book has to say. The surprise is what the clearly explained facts lead to; the train wreck of our current situation. Every time I read the book, I find myself forgetting what is coming and then there it is, in front of me, the other train.
It is clear early in the book that much is wrong in the world and that those problems have tremendous consequences. Yet this not a doomsday book. Most of the book is actually about the basics of ecology and evolution. There are chapters on evolution, culture, cultural evolution, the interactions between genes and the environment, and even how we perceive the world and how that perception influences our decisions. The book, in walking carefully through those basics all framed around the story of humans, would be very useful for an undergraduate biology course. Each chapter is, in and of itself, a kind of essay or perhaps more so a kind of Ehrlichian lecture; wide ranging, thought provoking and ultimately wound together into a strong thesis. The book binds these essays into a broader thesis about who we are and can be as humans. The Ehrlich's have looked further into the future than most scientists are willing to. They have at times been proven wrong, but more often they have just proven ahead of schedule. To read this book is to see what they are thinking now and, if history serves, to see what, for all of us, lays ahead.
After laying a clear foundation for understanding built on insights drawn from ecology, evolution, anthropology, economics and lifetimes spent talking with others of the ecological intelligentsia, the Ehrlichs turn to what remains before us. Natural selection favored beavers who built damns that improved their environments and improved their odds of surviving. Dammed ponds are, to beavers, a better environment than the one they found when they arrived. Humans, instead of dams, built cities and roads and global networks of communication and commerce. Instead of making our environment better for ourselves we have, in many ways, made it worse, less conducive to our own survival. Beavers dam ponds, but we've, in our way, damned ourselves. Reading this book will make clear the complex causes of this situation, why we've arrived at this point in history and where, if we are wise, we might go from here. This book is full of nuance and joy but also the ecological and evolutionary realities of our situation.
In reading this book I was reminded of another new book, The Superorganism by Burt Holldobler and Ed Wilson (I recently reviewed the book for Natural History Magazine). In The Superorganism, Holldobler and Wilson consider the simple rules that ultimately hold insect societies together. They are rules about communication and division of labor. They are rules that are reinforced because those colonies that do not work efficiently and effectively to produce new generations, fail to pass on their genes. The organization of The Dominant Animal is similar to The Superorganism. In both there are chapters about the evolution of societies, about the rise and fall of populations, and about how societies shape the environment around them. The difference between the stories of humans and those of insect societies is pointed out by Holldobler and Wilson who indicate that unlike ants, humans are conscious of what they are doing and make decisions about their fate. The Ehrlichs are perhaps less optimistic about humans ability to make the right decisions about their societies and the environments of which they are a part. Yet the last chapter of The Dominant Animal is, in part, a foundation for the kinds of rules and governance necessary to sustain human societies. If human societies really are more self-aware and self-determined than those of ants then the ideas laid out in the Ehrlichs' chapters "Saving our Natural Capital" and "Governance: Tackling Unanticipated Consequences" are what we should be paying attention to. Dysfunctional societies of ants are rare because those that were did not pass along their genes. Let's hope that we can choose to determine our fate rather than, like the ant colonies that didn't make it, letting selection decide.
Department of Biology, North Carolina State University
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