Adaptation and Climate Change

While there may still be an argument as to what is causing it, there seems to be a general agreement that, despite the current wild variations in the weather, we are undergoing significant long-term climate change. The Arctic Ocean is warming to the extent that it may soon be possible for shipping to pass all year round from the Atlantic to the Pacific by the “ Northwest Passage” that explorers and navigators sought for centuries in vain. The Antarctic ice shelves are collapsing into the ocean, and the Greenland icecap is melting at a rate that few imagined possible.  Some small island nations are already disappearing, as well as large chunks of fertile river deltas are becoming permanently flooded, while other areas are turning into desert, all of which in turn is already causing widespread famine and serious population shifts.

So what can we do about all this?  Optimists hope that we might be able to slow all this down, or that even if we can’t, that nevertheless we might be able to find some unexpected benefits (like a new bread-basket in Siberia?) in the trend.  Pessimists, the other hand, seem to not even want to try to lessen the impact, or even affect the attitude that they really don’t care. This latter extreme, it seems to me, is neither a socially or morally acceptable position if we claim to care at all about the future of the human race.

Sober-minded realism would console us, I think, to learn a lesson from the distant past. According to the paleoanthropologists  (those scientists who study the most ancient forms of human life) there have been at least four different human-like species that can be distinguished from the other species of ape-like primates.  The earliest of these to appear (in Africa about 300,000 years ago) was homo habilis – the first of our predecessors to regularly fashion and use tools. Next, and maybe directly descended from them, was homo erectus, who took his tools and knowledge of fire-making up into the Middle East and clear across Europe and Asia.  Then there appeared, again in the Middle East and on up to the ice covered regions of Europe, the Neanderthals – a heavy-bodied race of big-game hunters who seem to, after 200,000 years of existence, mysteriously died out, their place being taken by modern-type humans (homo sapiens, sometimes called “Cro-Magnons” after the location where the earliest remains were first discovered in Europe) but whose origins, like all the rest, were in Africa, about 100,000 years ago.

Now, and this is the most startling part about this: the scientists now seem to be leaning toward the opinion that although all four of these species originated during different time periods, that there nevertheless once was a period of time when all four of them coexisted on the face of the earth! Yet today, only one of them, ourselves, has survived. What happened? We don’t know for sure, but the best guess seems to be that this was the result of massive climate change.  It seems that only those who were wise or intelligent enough to adapt to this change, particularly through the domestication of animals and the development of agriculture, survived. The Neanderthals, even though they had existed for nearly twice the amount of time than we homo sapiens have so far, simply died out when they ran out of big game, were out-smarted by our Cro-Magnon ancestors, and could no longer support their primitive way of life.    

Surely there is a lesson for us today in this. We could be facing a climate change that is just as profound, and if not now, surely in the long-term future, even if it is not our fault, it will come about. What happens then? Will the only remaining human species itself die out? Perhaps so, but I’m betting that the really wise among our descendents (shall we name them homo sapiens sapior?) will have adapted and some how will survive, while a new, but this time short-lived sub-species of humans (homo sapiens obtusus), will stubbornly resist any change in their manner of living, no matter how necessary it may be.

R W Kropf   1/9/10                                 Adaptation.doc  10-01-09.html