Surviving the Anthropocene: Big Brains and Big Money at the Smithsonian

We welcome Lisa Sideris, of Indiana University, as a guest on the blog . . . click for her bio, or go to the “Who we are” tab. This is the first installment of a two-part post; please come back again Friday for the conclusion.

In late May this year, two related attractions drew me to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in D.C.  One was an ambitious-sounding lecture by biologist and pioneer of “evolutionary religious studies,” David Sloan Wilson. The other was the Smithsonian’s Hall of Human Origins, funded by climate-denial financier David H. Koch and denounced by some climate hawks as misleading and “deeply flawed.”

The title of Wilson’s lecture was loaded with words I find hard to resist, especially when thrown together: “Evolution and the Anthropocene: Science, Religion, and the Human Future.”  That the lecture would be delivered under the same roof as the Koch-funded Hall of Human Origins further piqued my curiosity.

A summary of Wilson’s lecture laid out a plan to address the Anthropocene as “foreseen by the scientist-priest Pierre Tielhard de Chardin.” He promised to demonstrate that cutting-edge evolutionary science is “catching up with Chardin’s vision” of global consciousness and his prophetic understanding of humans as a new kind of evolutionary process. Humans can become “wise managers” of planetary processes, steering evolution toward what Teilhard called “The Omega Point,” Wilson hinted. (I’ll say more about these ideas in a subsequent post).

A sense of excited optimism about human and planetary possibilities is palpable even from this brief summary. But when I learned that panelists would include Rick Potts, curator and defender-in-chief of the controversial Hall of Human Origins, as well as religion scholar and life-long Teilhard enthusiast  Mary Evelyn Tucker, I reached for my credit card.

I arrived at the Hall of Human Origins on an unseasonably cool and very rainy Sunday. Bad weather had plagued me since stepping off the plane in D.C. As I trudged through the Hall in sodden shoes, I was mildly consoled by the repeated assertion that inhospitable climates—hot, cold, wet, dry, eternally variable and unstable— have similarly plagued the entire human family throughout its long and arduous evolutionary struggle. Climate, in fact, has made humans what we are. And what we are is something extraordinary.

Or so Potts and the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins would have us believe.

david h koch

Upon entering the Hall, visitors are enveloped in a tunnel-like construction whose curved walls flash with colorful, filmic depictions of early humans doing early-human-like things. Their existence was defined by constant exposure to harsh and fluctuating climates, the exhibit explains.they experienced large changes

Text overlaid on moving images of brutish-looking ancestors makes the emphatic point that they “experienced large changes in climate” and “met the challenges they faced by being adaptable.”

brain graphNext, one encounters an array of enormous graphs that track our planet’s fluctuating climate from 10 million years ago to the present. Key points in human evolution—as when our ancestors began to walk upright, make tools, or hunt—are marked by vertical lines linking these advances with climate shifts.  One such line connects an episode of “rapid increase in brain size” at approximately 500,000 years ago to what appears to be a pronounced period of climate instability. 200,000 years ago, another display informs us, modern humans evolved in an African climate that “fluctuated dramatically.” Still another observes that “large, complex brains can process and store a lot of information” which proved a “big advantage” to our ancestors. “The modern human brain,” it boasts, “is the largest and most complex of any primate.”

Complex brains

Unless primed in advance (as I was) to engage the Koch-funded climate-variability shrine in a hypercritical mode, visitors will likely come away with the impression not simply that dramatic climate fluctuations are the norm for our planet and species, but that they are also a veritable wellspring of human creativity and smarts. From beginning to end, the exhibit stakes the claim that intelligence and innovation—often represented by physical, measurable changes like brain size increase–were forged in a crucible of climate change.

For all its excited speculation about the salutary effects of a shifting climate for brainy creatures like us, there is much that is downplayed or left unsaid in the Hall of Human Origins. No mention is made, for example, of how millions of other lifeforms might fare, or have fared in the past, when confronted with wildly fluctuating climates.  Should we assume that species that fail to sprout enormous brains and innovate their way out of climate trouble are simply losers in the evolutionary lottery, fair and square? Endorsement by a multibillionaire libertarian is bound to give rise to such questions. The Hall of Human Origins is evolutionary history as told by the victors.

And despite the exhibit’s almost total fixation on climate, only once, near the end of the exhibit, is mention made of the idea that human activity might be responsible for current fluctuations in climate change. Rising CO2 levels are treated, almost in passing, as our current “survival challenge,” arguably no different in kind from survival challenges our ancestors greeted with a can-do attitude. No space is given to obvious solutions, such as decreasing our reliance of fossil fuels or using our impressive gray matter to innovate in the direction of renewable energy. Extrapolating from the past to the future, the implication is that near-term climate challenges can be met with confidence that our species will adapt and innovate as it always has, growing ever more intelligent, accumulating and processing a wealth of information as we go.

In short, the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins presents an upbeat story of industrious humans and their hard-won status as “earth masters.”  The exhibit doesn’t exactly deny climate change. Indeed, one could say that it veers recklessly in the opposite direction, eagerly embracing changing climates as the secret to our species’ success. In doing so, it promotes something more insidious than garden variety denialism. It craftily insinuates that fluctuating climates, whenever, wherever, and however they occur, are a source of astonishing ingenuity, while also suggesting that, in the grand geological scheme of things, climate change is no big deal. The Human Origins “Broader Social Impacts Committee,” composed largely of religionists, would do well to attend more closely to these problematic moral and environmental implications.

Which raises a question: What exactly is in it—other than an enormous cash infusion—for curator Potts and the Smithsonian? We might also ask: Why are scholars with a keen interest in religion throwing support behind this particular exhibit and its unconventional message? And what does it signify that the same scholars gather in rooms just down the hall to lecture the public on similarly grandiose themes of the exciting, human-directed future that awaits us? Answers to these questions have to do with a certain style of Anthropocene advocacy that connects these thinkers to one another, and to a shared source of evolutionary ideology.

Take Rick Potts, for example. In addition to his role as curator, Potts is a paleoanthropologist who since the 1990s has promoted his pet theory of “variability selection.” The basic idea is that episodes of climate variability are linked to significant milestones in human evolution.  Potts’ theory is not exactly fringe, but neither is it anywhere near being so well-established (or paradigm-breaking) as to justify devoting a large and pricey exhibit at one of the world’s leading institutions of science to its exclusive propagation.

It seems plausible that Potts and Koch have made common cause in constructing the Hall of Human Origins, enabling each to advance his particular investment in scenarios of fluctuating climate. In interviews and essays, Potts exudes optimism about future challenges, notably the climate challenges that confront our species. His climate theory suggests that humans’ almost infinite capacity for adaptability distinguishes us favorably from all other creatures.

This optimism is underwritten not just by David Koch. It also finds support in the metaphysical musings of Teilhard de Chardin. Potts discovered Teilhard’s work as a teen, and is today an advisor and supporter of the Teilhard de Chardin Project, which seeks to introduce a new generation to Teilhard’s spiritual-scientific ideas. A noteworthy essay of Potts’ called “Being Human in the Age of Humans” is widely praised and passed around in Teilhardian circles. The essay cues several themes that are resonant of a so-called “good Anthropocene” and of Potts’ own theory of climate variability. He argues that while previous generations of scientists treated climate changes as background noise, a picture is now emerging in which instability and fluctuation are the roiling “cauldron of human evolution,” a source of creativity and resilience.

Potts believes this shift in perspective to have profound implications for how we think about the Anthropocene. Humans “live in the world by altering it,” he insists.  Echoing certain ecomodernist sentiments he proposes that we “need to get over our mourning” for an antiquated idea of nature as something pristine or static, or in need of human preservation and protection.

Potts shares his metaphysical commitments with the aforementioned scholars David Sloan Wilson and Mary Evelyn Tucker, with whom he gathered at the Smithsonian on a rainy Sunday afternoon in late May. Tucker and her husband John Grim direct the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology and head up the American Teilhard Association. The Association celebrates Tielhard’s prescient vision of “human consciousness encircling the planet as the noosphere,” and his anticipation of “the complex technological connection of human thought now evident in global communications and in the worldwide Internet.”

With these peculiar pronouncements, we return full circle to the proposed subject matter of Wilson’s lecture, with its intimations of an incipient global consciousness, human-directed planetary processes, and the ever-mysterious Omega Point. In what sense are these ideas finding support in modern evolutionary science, as Wilson claims? I’ll pursue these questions in a follow-up post. I will also explore a foundational and curious belief, widely held among Teilhard’s admirers: that in the mystical writings of a Jesuit scientist-priest who died a half-century ago, we find a clear prophecy of our dawning Anthropocene epoch, as well as the spiritual toolbox needed to ensure that the Age of Humans dawns bright and beautiful, and wisely and cooperatively managed by our big-brained species.

[All photographs taken by the author at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C.]


2 thoughts on “Surviving the Anthropocene: Big Brains and Big Money at the Smithsonian

  1. Very nice piece. It does an excellent job of weaving together the multiple strands of these seemingly separate projects to show how the work together.

    In regard to groups/thinkers which find in their own intellectual precursor someone who foresaw the Anthropocene, it is helpful to step back and consider whether all the dominant Western religious and humanist belief systems of the past 2000 years assumed the Anthropocene as the given or to be created reality. If so, Teilhard’s ideas are not a radical break from the past or remarkable insight into the future. They are simply one among many brilliant, subtle, persuasive, creative ways of renvisioning the ancient story of Christian Providence in light of current conditions, especially scientific knowledge.

    The truly dramatic deflection in the idea of Providence came with Martin Luther, Bacon and more generally the rise of belief in material progress and human agency. Prior to this, Christians lived on a planet made for humans by God. They were the masters, rulers, posessors and enjoyers of nature, not through their agency over time, but through their instant likeness to a benevolent God who created them and the world for them. With Luther, Bacon, and the first inklings of humanism, modern science, the middle class and democracy, the Human World gradually came to seem as something that God commanded us to create, not as something we had posessed and always possessed. And that has been the project of modern industry, philosophy, religion and governance ever since.

    The belief is so ingrained it is invisible as a belief to many. Thus Emma Marris’s published The Rambunctious Garden in 2014 presenting as novel, idea that are/should making a garden of the planet. As if the Bible did not tell us that the true, unspoiled world is a garden made for humans by God, and that through sin, imperfect knowleged and weakness, we were cast out of the garden into Nature. And as if Martin Luther had told us that the labour of perfecting the sinning soul is inseperable from the intergenerational labour of transforming nature back to God’s garden which is no longer a given garden, but an achieved garden.

    Prior to the simultaneous appearance of evolutionary theory and geology, Providence–whether given or to be achieved–was conceived of primarily spacially. The planet was a human domain from start to finish. With the discovery of deep time, it becomes primarily temporal. This is beautifully seen in Buffon who is perhaps the first to intuit (but not quite conceptualize) extinction and evolution, and the first to narrate a deep time Earth history. There have been seven epochs, he says, stretching for millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of years. Humans appeared in the Seventh Epoch. Each epoch has a characterization. The Seventh is that in which the forces of Nature are henceforth taken over by the labor Man. There follows an approving description of how this is being done, by clearing of forests, draining of wetlands, damming of rivers, eradication of wild species, proliferation of domestic species, and warming of the planet. (The last is an ultimately futile effort to ensure human habitability on a naturally cooling globe).

    So, the very instant it became logically possible to declare this the Age of Man, i.e. the moment we discovered the Earth is much older than humans and has a history, we did so. And have continued to do so ever since. I documented 24 different terms for the Anthropocene which have consistently and serially been used by geologists and evolutionary thinkers from Buffon to the present. Perhaps it is true that we have never been modern, but we have always been Anthropocene.

  2. Pingback: Consecrating Science: new book on science, myth, and the Anthropocene by Lisa Sideris – the anthropo.scene

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