The Human Climate


To understand this massive and sustained human transformation of Earth’s ecology, it is necessary to consider human societies as a global force capable of interacting with and reshaping ecology across the Earth in ways analogous to that of the climate system. Just as a causal understanding of climate and weather is needed to understand the ecological patterns, processes, and dynamics produced by these across the Earth, a causal understanding of human sociocultural processes, analogous to a ‘human climate and weather,’ is required to understand the long-term ecological patterns and processes resulting from sustained interactions with human societies. (Ellis, p. 290, citations omitted)

Ellis’ project in the paper we are reading is ambitious and complex; the effort to integrate for oneself the range of sources he draws on can make it hard to grasp what he is doing in terms of a single intellectual goal. Going back to this quote, which introduces his exposition of “anthroecology theory” near the beginning of the paper with the metaphor of the “human climate,” helped me to better understand Ellis’ project as a whole. For it helped me recognize how, when he reiterates the metaphor several times toward the end of the paper (see pp. 312, 316, 317, 321), it functions in a literal (and literary) way as an organizing frame for his theory. In this post I want to say how I understand the metaphor, and then explore a question for Ellis’ theory that it raised for me.

The climate analogy is a way of articulating the general idea, associated with the Anthropocene, that humanity has assumed the role of one of the great forces of nature. The analogy poses human activity as a kind of pervasive and persistent background condition that interacts with and thereby influences processes in other aspects of the Earth system. With the Anthropocene that influence includes many abiotic aspects of the Earth system, the actual climate first on the list. But as Ellis is so well known for reminding us (see references below), human influence on the Biosphere in particular extends very far back in time. Thus, at least as far as the Biosphere is concerned, humanity has not just recently assumed a climate-like role . . . it has been part of the “climate” for other life forms since the appearance of behaviorally modern humans perhaps 50,000 years ago.

This comparison of human activity to the the actual climate system plays on the recognition of the need to understand the actual climate in order to understand “ecological patterns, processes, and dynamics.” By analogy, Ellis holds, we cannot understand ecological phenomena except by reference to the background of human activity. The analog to climate science within this broad comparison is the conjunction of sociocultural niche construction theory and sociocultural evolution theory to which Ellis devotes roughly the first half of the paper—the “anthro” part of his anthroecology theory. The account of sociocultural niche construction explains the fundamental dynamics of the human part of the system; anthroecology theory as whole couples those dynamics to other ecological processes, thereby explaining how they contribute to the shaping of observed ecological patterns through “anthrosequences” (see pp. 313 ff.).

But here is my question. I wonder about the conception of culture at work in Ellis’ account of the human climate—based as it is on sociocultural niche construction. In keeping with the Darwinian inspiration for the literature on niche construction and cultural evolution he cites, it seems to me that Ellis invokes a functional conception of culture. The function in question is evolutionary advantage. Culture, in the sense of information shared among members of a group, is used to engage in cultural niche construction—which Ellis defines as the “alteration of ecological patterns and processes by organisms through socially learned behaviors that produce heritable advantages and/or disadvantages to individuals or populations” (p. 293, emph. added). Evolution, when acting on culture, selects for those bits of information that support behaviors that contribute to survival.

It strikes me that this functional approach to culture looks at it from the outside, so to speak—in terms of observable behavior. In this sense we speak of animals having culture as well, e.g. with particular populations of birds sharing songs. But in this sense we could also speak of robots or zombies, i.e. beings with no consciousness, as having culture, as long as they could change their behavior in response to others. But it seems that using the term “culture” to cover the robot/zombie case is pushing it too far. For it seems to lose something fundamentally important, if not essential, about culture. Namely, culture has an internal dimension: in addition to being about behavior, it is something that is experienced, at least in the case of human beings (I am leaving animal cases aside). In sum, culture is not solely a matter of function, but also a matter of meaning.

This distinction between the external and internal dimensions of culture can be seen in a potential ambiguity in the term sociocultural niche construction. That term might be construed as the modification of the environment by a social group that shares information (niche construction by a sociocultural group). Here culture is used in the external sense of patterns in behavior.

But there is another construal: the construction of a niche that is itself sociocultural in character. As I learned from papers by Pinker and Sterelny, the human niche cannot be characterized solely in physical terms, but must be understood in social terms as well. For a niche is the suite of resources used for survival that an organism’s characteristics make it capable of obtaining. In the human case those characteristics include sociability. Thus the human niche is defined by what a society is able to obtain. For the individual, therefore, survival is a matter of having the characteristics needed to engage in social cooperation.

Ellis certainly recognizes this fact. He notes that the vast majority of human beings do not gain the resources they need directly from the natural environment. Rather, “most human individuals have come to depend more and more on complex networks of social interaction and non-kin subsistence exchange for their survival” (p. 300). This is why “cultural traits are what enable behaviorally modern humans to sustain themselves and their progeny within social groups and societies” (p. 298).

Those “cultural traits” must have to do with the ability to take in and respond appropriately to shared information; having language is obviously at the core of things. But with human beings information is internalized—it is experienced subjectively, as having meaning. This is why the internal dimension of culture cannot be ignored. We cannot treat culture as a black box which generates patterns of behavior. For the content of culture—the ideas members of a culture experience—help explain the patterns of behavior that are generated.

To indicate what I mean let me cite a quick example. Purzycki et al. have recently proposed an explanation for cooperation between non-kin strangers based on the specific content of their religious doctrines. They provide an empirical argument for the hypothesis that “cognitive representations of gods as increasingly knowledgeable and punitive, and who sanction violators of interpersonal social norms, foster and sustain the expansion of cooperation, trust and fairness towards co-religionist strangers” (p. 327). Here, the behavior of interest (cooperation) is best understood with reference to meaning of the beliefs to their adherents.

I’ve argued here that we can’t think about the function of culture without thinking about its content and meaning. But for Ellis, culture is, in effect, the human climate. The dynamic to which the rest of the Biosphere is forced to respond is human sociocultural niche construction—which is the effort by which a society manifests its culture as it pursues its survival by modifying the landscape. If I am right, understanding the human climate will involve a consideration of the internal effects of culture on individuals, i.e. understanding not just the function of culture in patterning behavior, but also how it fulfills that function. And this, I imagine, could make the explanation of specific “anthrosequences” pretty complicated.

E.C. Ellis and N. Ramankutty. 2008. Putting people in the map: anthropogenic biomes of the world. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6(8), pp. 439–447, doi: 10.1890/070062.
E.C.Ellis et al. 2013. PNAS 110(20), pp. 7978-7985. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1217241110.
B.G. Purzycki et al. 2016. Moralistic gods, supernatural punishment and the expansion of human sociality. Nature 530, pp. 327–330. do: 10.1038/nature16980.

6 thoughts on “The Human Climate

  1. Zev- insightful as always! Two clarifications:
    1) Human cognition and selective adoption & filtering are indeed part of culture transmission, selection, and adoption: humans are not robots running cultural software. I draw on structuration theory (e.g. Giddens) in the paper to clarify the relative role of individuals within social groups and societies. When we consider long-term, cross-generational changes in the “human climate”/ human systems / societies, however, as is the focus of anthroecology theory, the “software” (culture) is evolving faster than the “hardware” (people)- so sociocultural change is mostly about changes in culture (including material culture), in this long-term context.
    2) it is essential to consider natural selection / cultural evolution acting on cultural traits at individual, group and societal scales through processes of multilevel selection (e.g. Waring), and also to consider cultural inheritances as part of the suite of inclusive inheritances that are evolving- culture is coevolving with ecology, etc.

    I hope this is useful,

    • Thanks, Erle–I think I get the big picture, in particular the idea that culture evolves faster than the human genotype. I think my underlying question has to do with the nature of selection here–and I’m sure I’m going to betray my ignorance of a well-developed discussion of this point. So: does selection act exclusively on “outer” behavior, so favors forms of sociocultural niche construction that are adaptive? Or, is there a mechanism in play in cultural evolution that operates internally, in the sphere of shared beliefs, independently of the adaptive effects of those beliefs?

      Though I meant that as a general question, it strikes me that this might be an explanation of maladaptive niche construction: a practice might continue on for reasons having to do with fitness with an ideological scheme, even if it is not conducive to survival. Would this mean that cultural evolution, though fast, is not fast enough–because patterns of sociocultural niche construction might persist (for purely “cultural” reasons) even against the operation of selection pressure from the environment?

  2. Natural selection acts on behaviors of individuals, groups, societies. A classic example of a maladaptive behavior, from the biological point of view at the individual level, is birth control. Yet there are group and societal advantages, and even individual advantages, explaining why human individuals do engage in this socially-learned/cultural behavior. There are also strategic reasons why different individuals within the same social group may choose different socially learned behaviors. Natural selection can also be only weakly selective for many traits, and so random variations in traits can therefore predominate- biologically and culturally.

    • So I hate to drop a P-bomb (Philosophy bomb), but is your view that from an evolutionary perspective consciousness is epiphenomenal?

      I can see how that could make sense, on the view that relevant changes in the sociocultural niche occur at a slower pace than change within the cultural sphere. That is, whereas the internal dimension of culture is causally relevant in the cultural sphere itself, so could factor into an explanation of the changes in artistic style, those changes within the cultural sphere would occur too quickly to be selected for by the environment, hence would not have causal influence on changes in the sociocultural niche.

      Still, maybe the humanist in me wants to hold out the possibility that internal processes have some role some times, especially at moments of transition between broad sociocultural regimes. (I’m thinking of the idea that The Marriage of Figaro helped bring on the French Revolution.)

  3. Hi Zev,
    I really enjoyed reading this post about the human climate and the different aspects that cannot be overlooked as attributes to that climate. I do personally agree with your view that culture must be looked at in an internalized view as well in such that culture is created through internal reactions and thoughts.
    After reading Ellis’ paper, I really had more insight into the theory he proposed and how humans have been able to shape the earth. With the climate alone, the humans have had such a serious effect on the biosphere and have led to what we live in today. As well as the human aspect, we must also not ignore the natural causes to the biosphere.
    Towards the end when you talk about the social side of culture internally, I would like to ask what your views on the social network developing across nations having effect on the biosphere? Your writing speaks about the basic fundamentals of social culture, such as when only the people in north america were able to communicate. What I am asking is your views regarding the grander scale of social communication between, lets say America and Europe, and how that has effected the biosphere since the fundamental or simpler communication times.
    I would like to say once again, I really enjoyed reading your post and it definitely gives me much more insight on your perspective. I personally am not very knowledgeable about environmental studies, and found this blog because I was interested in learning more. So therefore I apologize for anything that may sound amateur-ish. I do appreciate you posting and very much look forward to more posts! Thank you!
    – Kourtni Bluj

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