Quirks & Quarks·Q&A

Why humans should embrace our role as meddlers of nature — so that we can do it better

In a new book, an evolutionary biologist explores how humans have re-shaped our environment for the past 50,000 years, but also how we’ve recently gotten much much better at it — to the point where we now have an opportunity to use our tinkering skills for good.

New book looks at the human history of remaking nature, from taming dogs to GMO foods

In a new book, evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro explores humanity’s unmatched ability to reshape nature. (Submitted by Beth Shapiro)

There's no doubt that humans love to meddle with the natural world. In fact, we've been tinkering with our environment for tens of thousands of years, since our ancestors were carving stone tools around the fire.

Humanity's unmatched ability to reshape nature is something that evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro wanted to unpack in a new book, Life as We Made It: How 50,000 Years of Human Innovation Refined — and Redefined — Nature.

In it, she explores how we shaped our environment in the past, but also how we've recently gotten much much better at it — to the point where we now have an opportunity to use our tinkering skills for good.

Shapiro is a professor of ecology & evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and she spoke with Quirks & Quarks' Bob McDonald about her new book.

Can you give me some examples of the earliest ways that we were transforming nature?

The first evidence that people are impacting other plants and animals is from the fossil record. We see that after people expanded out of Africa and they go to different parts of the world. There's this coincidence in timing between the first appearance of anatomically modern humans, and the disappearance of the mostly large mammals that live there. This, of course, wasn't deliberate, but it nonetheless had a pretty profound effect.

And then later, somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, we start to see some of the first evidence of farming and domestication. This is where we took species that we've been interacting with by hunting over several tens of thousands of years and started to realize that keeping our families fed didn't necessarily have to lead to extinction. 

According to Beth Shapiro's new book, some of the earliest evidence of human meddling with nature is how humans domesticated grey wolves, which led to the evolution of dogs. (Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images)

After that, we started bringing animals closer to our settlements and then deciding which ones got to reproduce and push their genes into the next generation. This was really us taking over the future of those animals.

In a world that's been shaped and altered by humans, what does it mean to be natural anyway?

Yeah, it's a good question, and I'm not entirely sure that it's a useful word to have a very clear definition of. I mean, is it not natural for something to be alive? Is our capacity to change and manipulate things somehow unnatural? I don't think so.

We are simply doing what evolution has made us able to do, which is to meddle with other species around us to make them more efficiently do what we want them to do, which means make our lives simpler and easier and richer.

Should we intervene or should we just stay out of it?

I think we've actually gotten to the point where we don't get to make that decision. It's a little bit late. The origins of the conservation movement, as we know it today, began when we decided that in order to save species from becoming extinct, we had to get more involved. 

It's really important that these conversations are had right now, before the technology is actually possible, before we can do this well.- Beth Shapiro, University of Calilfornia, Santa Cruz

So I don't think we really have the freedom of choice right now to say that we shouldn't get involved. We're already involved. And if we want to live in a planet that is both biodiverse and filled with humans, we have no choice but to learn how to meddle even better.

One of the controversial themes in your book is that you actually advocate more intervention just because we have the tools for it, and that we're wise enough to do it. So what sort of things do you think we should be doing from this point?

I think we do have to be careful about what we decide to do. Obviously, these are new technologies. We don't really know yet how powerful they will be, what the different risks might be. And for every potential intervention, we do have an important role.

A scientist holds a petri dish containing sprouting barley embryos that were genetically altered with the gene editing technology, CRISPR-Cas9, to make them more resistant to environmental changes. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

There are ideas like gene drives which allow us to introduce a trait into a population and have that trait spread faster than evolution would allow it to spread. These are being considered today, for example, for reducing the burden of mosquitoes in populations and communities where mosquitoes are carrying disease. 

One can imagine using gene editing technologies to identify traits in corals that allow them to survive in warmer waters that we can then spread to different coral populations or species that don't have those traits naturally.

There's lots of ideas out there about how we might be able to use these technologies. But we are talking about future technologies, and in most cases, we don't actually know yet what the genetic underpinnings of resistance to warming or resistance to disease are. So there's a lot of work that has to go on behind the scenes to discover what those gene sequences are that we might want to edit.

And this work needs to happen at the same time as we're having very open and honest conversations with local communities and other stakeholders about how far we want to go.

We can't, as Western scientists, make decisions for everyone in the world that are clearly going to impact their communities and their ecosystems. And so it's really important that these conversations are had right now, before the technology is actually possible, before we can do this well.

Public opinion is already divided on things like genetically modified organisms in our food that we've already introduced, and you're suggesting we use advanced tools like CRISPR and synthetic biology to push that biotechnology even further. How do you get people on board with that?

I am. Yes, it's a difficult thing and a lot of the objections that people have to genetically modified organisms for food are because of things that they have heard that aren't necessarily true.

Life as We Made It: How 50,000 Years of Human Innovation Refined — and Redefined — Nature by Beth Shapiro. (Hachette Book Group)

We do have some serious choices to make ahead of us. There's way less arable land today than there was even 50 years ago and way more people that we have to feed.

These are a suite of technologies, most of which don't involve moving genes between organisms, but instead using these technologies just to switch genes on or off in the same organism. So we're not moving genes between things to create these organisms that are more efficiently doing what we need them to do.

But this noise that obstructs real genuine discourse is getting in the way of our ability to fully evaluate these technologies that are there to help us to make it possible for us to survive and live in a world that is both diverse and filled with people. And I'm worried about it, for sure.

Q&A edited for length and clarity.

Produced by Amanda Buckiewicz. Click on the link at the top to listen to the full interview with Prof. Beth Shapiro.


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