Author: A Hannah Spadafora
Fear and hope tinge our generation’s desperate pleas to imagine a future where we’ve overcome the multiple disasters facing human beings and the planet. We fear extinction; we hope for survival. Whether it’s acknowledged in these terms or not, we need successful adaptation—effective collective responses to each species level crisis threatening humans across our globe.
Species adapt—successfully or not—to a changing world. This is true from the first bacteria to spread in the ocean 1.5-3.5 billion years ago to the Cambrian explosion of multicellular animals 600-800 million years ago, to the eventual development of primates and humans—including the relatively recent entrance of homosapiens during the last 300,000 years, the result of many adaptations, and yet, never quite a result—an ongoing project, more so, where we slowly gain additional information and tools at our disposal. These tools could, in the most idealistic expressions of our imagination, create a utopia, but instead often are used to destroy the only planetary home we have in reach.
It doesn’t have to be this way, however; anthropologists and biologists in particular offer a unique and on-point framework to identify the pressures which threaten us and the adaptations that may save us from the disasters that fill our news feeds. Whereas science fiction and fantasy are popular in our era for a reason--they show us fear, hope, and creative ways to fight off disasters--science itself does the same, with data to back up claims of potential evidence-based solutions. We all love a good fictional dystopia; it makes us think critically of how to avoid it in reality, but—even while sources from sci fi series to NASA plans increasingly explore otherworldly ideas of non-earth human planetary living and salvation[i], we still have yet to develop feasible resources to reach such. We also still have yet to organize a solid plan to save the world we have.
Considering this under the umbrella of needed adaptations, this provokes certain pressing questions: how do we adapt now? What will happen to humans if the earth adapts us? Also, more terrifyingly: How will we go extinct, if we fail to adapt?
These questions form the backbone for one of my favorite class activities I designed to teach during biological anthropology units of Introductory four-subfield Anthropology classes.[i.i] During the activity, students are given hypothetical future situations--our current disasters taken to their max assumption of continued uninterrupted destruction from now until this future point. I ask students to determine what selective pressures are likely to be present in these doomsday scenarios—that is, the events/factors that stress species/individuals/groups into adaptation. Then, I challenge them to consider the unchosen adaptations that might change humans facing these pressures—as well as the chosen adaptations that humans could employ to successfully avoid extinction (if any).[ii] I make a quip about it, to try to make it more fun for a first level course made for students who may or may not go further into Anthropology—they are being asked to save the world.
Or, more cynically, to predict its end.
Most students take this in a positive and creative direction, possibly because science offers the opportunity to make educated guesses that rest on what we’ve already observed and amassed information on. When the odds seem insurmountable, science offers empirically verifiable and experimentally testable information—scientists gain information on past events and their human impact through examinations of human skeletal remains (one type of fossil), soil layers (horizons), artifacts (portable human made items), buildings (and other features—all uneasily moved structures), and DNA samples of our predecessors. Whatever else may be said about human beings, given our destruction and exploitation of our natural living environments, the fact we know so much about past adaptation, extinction, and species-changing events—and that we have developed scientific methods to guide our predictions and evaluations of evidence-- has us at an advantage that no other species facing adaptation or extinction has come into as of yet.
This advantage means we can give it our damnedest, or go down trying, to avoid massive loss of human life due to these disaster events. Biological anthropologists present a particularly helpful framework to identify selective pressures threatening animal and human life. Ultimately, adaptations in living creatures are responses to predators, pathogens, parasites, toxins, psychosocial stressors, and environment—and these attempts to deal and to hopefully overcome may be genetic, physiological, developmental, behavioral, or collective.
Often, humans are predators, especially since the advent of guns. There have been isolated incidents of animals still attacking humans, though,[iii] and the more common case of humans being predators to each other. Terrorist groups ranging from al queda to proud boys white supremacists[iv] are a public disaster and predators to peace, to people they deem unfit, and--in a world with black market trade of arms that sometimes include guns (including assault rifles like AR-15s and machine guns), and in some places, missiles--a predator to species survival. Sex traffickers, misogynists, and rapists—as well as their protectors/apologists--are predators to women.
We have enough pressures facing us, as humans, but somehow this is eclipsed in group fights caused by those wanting to prove their superiority, gain others assimilation to their vision of a perfect world, force others to behave in ways that bow to them and their power, and eliminate anyone who doesn’t fit that picture. Predators in human form are also known as assholes, bullies, security forces turned against protesters, cops turned against residents (and, against people of color / black individuals in particular), and in more subtle forms, politicians who speak of good will but deny the impact of their violent rhetoric , offering propaganda of security to bring peace but employing warlike methods again good will but target constructed enemies, real or harshly, unfairly scapegoated and mistreated (as well as, broken promises to end torture as military / detention practice), and corporations who advertise equality but make their profit on the back of others living in poverty, advertise sustainability but are guilty of polluting, targeting sales to vulnerable customer bases (i.e. kids), and more. Also, mosquitos. Annoying enough to be both parasite and predator, in my book.
Which brings us to pathogens--viruses and bacteria—and also to parasites—organisms that live off other organisms–that at their most problematic threaten human and animal health. Mosquitos are parasites that bring pathogens such as malaria, west Nile, yellow fever, encephalitis, and dengue fever. A contemporary pathogen threatening human survival also includes antibiotic resistant bacteria that lead to infections which are increasingly difficult to treat and can lead to dangerous conditions such as sepsis.
In the case of mosquitoes, their expanded habitable zone is the result of another type of selective pressure, that of environment. Global warming means increased tropical and temperate areas of the earth. This expansion of the heat-zones grant a larger roam field for mosquitos and disease-carrying-pests to survive in, flooding of coastal cities due to arctic melt, and drought from scorching temperatures that disrupt food chains.
Beyond this, the ways we poison the earth are the ways we poison ourselves; toxins increase in our bodies as we put them into our environments, and dangerous levels of carbon and methane are elevated for people as the arctic melts. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating island of trash killing whales and other sea life, returns to us in our rainwater and our food. The smoke spewed by manufacturing factories and disposal/deposition methods for everything from trash/regular waste to nuclear waste to more air pollution from cremation of our loved ones—all of this raises our air above the threshold shown to be safe for humans—leading to increased lung disease risks, even among those who do not smoke. Though we’ve reversed some of the damage, the aerosol in women’s hairspray in the 70s and early 80s contributed to ozone degradation that threatened the literal atmosphere on our planet. Additionally, pesticides used on farms and lawns, as well as embalming chemicals from (some) cemeteries[v], amongst other pollution to the land, cause runoff which reaches water sources and irrigation sources for farms—where pesticides may also be sprayed directly on our plants, leading to consumers and farmers being exposed to greater risks for cancers and other health challenges.[vi]
Lastly, we have psychosocial stressors--poverty, violence, and self-awareness over mental/physical health challenges or over being targeted for identity (due to racism, sexism, gender/sexuality and identity discrimination) Psychosocial stressors disproportionately are a threat to communities that have less social/economic/political power—basically groups who are discriminated against/harassed/threatened/killed on basis of their identity, that are poor—especially in societies that have high inequality (as opposed to everyone being equally poor or wealthy, and where poverty equals lack of healthcare availability--and for whom political dissent is forbidden, suppressed, or lacks the opportunity to gain sway due to targeted measures preventing their voice in a matter that affects them.[vii]
Once a problem is identified, predictions and solutions—both forms of successful adaptations-- can be set into motion.
Physiological adaptations at first glance seem the least interesting in this conversation; they refer to short term bodily responses to stimuli—the easiest example being that your body sweats when hot to cool down, and shivers when cold to warm up. That being said, there is possibly a case to be made for it's relevance when humans use collective/behavioral adaptations that alter the body's physiologically adaptive properties, such as using medicine to activate the adaptive immune system or using a mimicry of human body-fat to deliver cancer treatments.
Developmental adaptations, likewise, while being social rituals of adaptation that people participate in during particular transitional phases of life—make it hard to imagine as primary responses in doomsday situations, though not impossible. These adaptations include tattoos, teeth-braces, foot-binding, piercings, neck-stretching, and other practices usually done during puberty or childhood. These changes made to individual bodies include socially constructed rites of passage that respond to selective pressures such as physical/health pressures (fixing imperfect teeth) or psychosocial pressures (encouraging expressions of belonging or identity that can offer communal connection)—which don't really seem prescient for our discussion of saving the world [viii]--until, perhaps, you consider the ways smartphones, computers, and other technology that represent collective adaptations have also becomes rites of passage which one day in the future may involve bodily alteration/more integrated cyborg-human adaptation.
The more interesting predictions for the future look to genetic changes that have altered the human response to pressures faced in the past—or which have split the species line between one generation and the next. [ix] More on the mechanisms of genetic change can be found here. As a quick overview: in natural selection some people have traits that predispose them to survive stressors that others die early or can’t reproduce due to; in gene flow, a populations descendants gain survivor traits due to population mergers (or influx)/people lose or gain genetic variety of traits due to population decreases (outflux, major disease/tragedy), in gene drift, survivors have traits passed on due to reasons outside of natural selection (random, rather than exposed to a pressure), and in mutation, people have gene reactions to stressors (think, like an allergic reaction to environment) causing alterations in the DNA and bodies that are passed down to various expressions in the next generation (either in helpful or harmful ways, adaption being a neutral assessment.) At the most extreme, mutations can lead to speciation events—whereby descendants can no longer successfully produce offspring with the members of their parents species, and a new animal is identified.[x]
These predictions are based on genetic adaptations humans have developed in the past—everything from sickle-cell anemia[xi] to lactose tolerance[xii]. Other genetic adaptations to specific environments have been shown in studies of oxygen processing in mountain dwelling populations—notably, different adaptations in groups in Tibet, the Himalayas, and the Andes mountains. Tibetan populations have genetically adapted to facilitate processing of oxygen due to higher blood flow and processing of nitrous oxide, whereas Nepal populations have been shown to have equal hemoglobin levels to those living at sea level, possibly due to shortened torsos, whereas Peruvian populations have both purported genetically adapted chest differences and differential hemoglobin processing, as well as behaviorally adapted to the altitude by chewing coco leaves. [xiii]
Behavioral adaptation is the first significant place where choice informs response to selective pressures correlated with our doomsday scenarios—most notably in response to environment. This can be inspired by group wardrobe practices; it’s no coincidence that the Eskimo and indigenous tribes utilize caribou and sealskin clothing, or that we have different shoes available for different terrains/environments/foot types. We adapt to the occasion presented or the circumstances given to us individually, though trends and sales of good ideas often catch on throughout the collective/our communities.[xiv]
Collective adaptations are the most interesting, given the potential based on human achievement to date. Collective adaptations are all group or organizational responses to challenges of existence. This includes technology—all the specialized tools that fit the communities and physical environments they’ve been produced in, whether that be stone flakes and harpoons for hunting, or smart phones that give people constant access to all the technological tools we hold for granted today—calculators, cameras, information, material goods, food, social connection, news, medical information, learning opportunities, stock market investments, a flashlight, a panic alarm, a personal assistant, a music player, and more likely left out in this list. It also includes bigger things—architecture of cities, with streets, sewage systems, farms, schools, and all organizational activity humans engage in to shape their space in the world and respond to difficulties.
Anthropology is a field uniquely positioned to help us answer the question that remains—what are we going to do? Likewise, this article begins our exploration of effective activist techniques through The Living Earth, The Ethical Scorecard, and The Activist Platform. These columns look at selective pressures ('stressors') ranging from climate change and pollution to corporate exploitation to social discrimination—as well as the many responses to these issues from local researchers, activists, and teachers. Collective adaptations that anthropology deconstructs include the way we organize our social, economic, and political systems that sit at the heart of structural power.
In our current age of realizing that laws written over the past few centuries have been composed and enforced by slim groups of power that have often misused their privilege, abused groups of people who were not granted equal power or input, and exploited others hard-given labor for their own easily gained profit, it becomes especially prescient to discuss the collective adaptations necessary for countering the selective pressures facing us. This is the heart of activism, explained by the field deemed most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities [xivv]—fields dually needed to be front and center in proposals to save the world.
The original class activity I used during two years of teaching anthropology at a local university can be viewed here and downloaded here. If you wish to re-use my class activity, I only ask that you give credit/keep my name on the copyright (A. Hannah Spadafora)
A note on sources: Links above are from official sources, including American Anthropological Association, NASA, university information sites, NPR, CNN, PBS, research journals and established news publications. News stories of interest are linked alongside informational sources designed for the non-specialist to have resources on hand in case of unfamiliarity or increased interest in discussed topics. (One deviation of this is noted in the footnotes.)
Hannah Spadafora is the founder and editor of The Conscious World, and a researcher currently focused on economic anthropology, public policy, and social change (see: The Meaningful Work Project.) Trained as an applied/social-cultural anthropologist (M.A.) with a heavy background in social political philosophy (B.A.), comparative religion (B.A.), English (minor), psychology (minor), and journalism/mass media (HS), secondary scholarship and teaching interests include history, bioanthropology, critical theory, cyborg anthropology, cognitive philosophy, and identity studies. Additional work experience includes research, teaching, tutoring, writing, non-profit, office, sales, service industry (retail, restaurant), graduate, and editorial assistant roles. Writing projects in the works involve manuscripts for visual anthropology and public performance, an editorial overview of the benefits of applying Buddhist and Anthropological ethics to public policy and social practice, a fantasy/sci-fi influenced dystopian novel series, and a more informal funny/self-help centered book, How to Fail at Buddhism. These are written around remote jobs that pay the most basic of bills, but not the soul. An Idealist to the end, clearly.
[i] that golden ticket of a planet in the ‘goldilocks’ (habitable) zone of a glowing sun, with rocky and watery terrain, that we can magically hypercharge our current technological capacities to reach—and to reach with people safely on board, despite the extreme problems radiation causes for returned astronauts and Chernobyl regional survivors alike (to differing degrees.)
[i.i] my specialty in graduate school was applied social cultural / praxis-based research, but I also completed graduate seminars in bio-anthropology, which sparked my own reading interests further, and was fortunate to have the opportunity to teach introductory anthropology for two years at a local university (with four themes connecting the four subfields of biological, archaeological, linguistic, and social cultural anthropology, and a fifth unit on applied anthropology across these subfields.)
[iii] a less tragic event when the humans in question were cruelly hunting their endangered last members of the species for sport. Not sure if this is 100% checked, but relevant: https://nypost.com/2019/08/22/hunters-bones-turned-to-mush-after-alligator-attacked-him/
[iv] (they don’t deserve capitalization.)
[v] (thank you Jewish, Muslim, hipster, and modern eco-friendly communities for generally rebuking this trend.)
[vi] Though, there is debate about the extent of the evidence and which foods are less contaminated versus which are a part of the ‘dirty dozen’ / more contaminated to a dangerous point where they should be substituted with organic alternatives—and an active related debate on GMOS, which many scientists do assert the safety of, but which does not answer the question of pesticides on non-organic foods.
[vii] In the latter case, consider, disproportionate policing of black neighborhoods/filling of prisons with people of color, with attendant disenfranchisement of anyone with a felony conviction—even if the conviction was a non-violent drug offense, which the person then was stopped from having the opportunity to vote for candidates with more empathetic and drug policy proposals.
[viii] Some of these practices actively are a psychosocial stressor—or indicative of one—in need of adaptive response due to their incredible harm to the people who are (often forced) into them (though some have indicated their consent, others might counter that consent is conditioned upon brainwashing of deserved or justifiable harm.) Foot binding and FGM—are banned in many areas, with an activist focus on banning them worldwide for human rights violations in their selective targeting by biological sex and harm caused to female individuals. A rare case where you’ll hear me use the word female, as this happens based on biological sex and does not tell us about the gender identity a person facing this might self-choose to categorize themselves under—and whenever I hear anyone use the word female, I instantly picture Quark from Star Trek, a rather misogynist Ferenghi (or alternatively hear mentally clips from Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex that won’t let me approach the word the same.)
[ix] In anthropology terms, we are anatomically modern humans. There are at least 20 recognized former hominid species that have walked the earth, more or less, as there is some internal debate of where we draw the line between classifications of humans versus great ape cousins of ours in species with features of both.
[x] (though there are some interesting and disturbing middle stages for some animals—if you look at early land-dwellers who may have adapted partial legs, partial fins, as evolution is not always a pretty process in the creation of new stable forms.)
[xi] (both a problem in itself, leading to malformed red blood cells, as well as a protective adaptation that protects many individuals from malaria in the regions it is most prevalent carried by mosquitoes.)
[xii] which is actually less common than lactose intolerance, unless your ancestors raised cows and survived famine and drought+- by having the genetic mutation that allows the processing of cow’s milk past the age of 8 or 9 without issue.)
[xiii] yes, the same leaves cocaine is processed from. It doesn’t have the same effect if you grow accustomed to the practice / live in the mountainous environment where it has medicinal purposes.
[xiv] On a more common level familiar to US and other readers outside of extreme temps, but still dealing with weather shifts—putting on a jacket or donning an airy outfit, based on the forecast.