How humans telling stories causes climate change

Published in history, climate change, storytelling, on Jan 10, 2021

Humans, homo sapiens our unique genus and species is remarkably different from any other creature on Earth. We cross oceans and setup limited liability corporations, tame animals and breed crops. We've altered the climate of the planet through our activities. We've altered the Earth's ecology and are the only species to have escaped the food chain. All these things happened because something flipped genetically in Homo Sapiens, giving us the ability to tell stories. This development set up the sixth extinction event in the history of the earth that's happening right now. Throughout eath's history rapid (on the scale of millions of years) climate change causes species to go extinct. Human storytelling is what sets us apart from the food chain; it's also the cause of climate change and mass extinction. In this lighthearted essay we'll dive into the history of our species and planet Earth up to the present day. Buckle up.

πŸ•’ Time

So Earth is hella fucking old. Here's a timeline of some notable events we'll explore more in the next section:

  • 3.5 billion years ago: Earlist known life on earth.
  • 335 million years ago: Giant landmass called Pangea formed. All continents are "together as one"β„’
  • 210 million years ago: First mammals
  • 245 - 66 million years ago: Dinosaurs πŸ¦• This time is called the Mesozoic Era, it's further broken into the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods.
  • 175 million years ago: Pangea begins to break apart
  • 66 million years ago: Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-T) extinction event. Asteroid hit earth eliminating 80% of all species.
  • 55 million years ago: First monkeys πŸ΅
  • 30 million years ago Modern continents pretty much formed. πŸ—ΊοΈ
  • 6 million years ago: Last common ancestor between humans and chimpanzees πŸ’”
  • 2.5 million years ago: Genus Homo comes into existence, uses stone tools β›οΈ
  • 2 million years ago: Genus Homo spreads from Africa to Europe and Asia. Different species within the genus Homo evolve. πŸ’
  • 500,000 years ago: First Neanderthals
  • 300,000 years ago: Genus Homo is using fire on a regular basis πŸ”₯
  • 200,000 years ago: First Homo Sapiens evolve in East Africa πŸ’ͺ
  • 100,000 years ago: Homo erectus goes extinct βŒ
  • 70,000 years ago: Cognitive Revolution πŸ’‘
  • 70,000 years ago: Homo denisova goes extinct βŒ
  • 45,000 years ago: Homo Sapiens settle Australia πŸ‡¦πŸ‡Ί. Australian megafauna extinct βŒ
  • 40,000 years ago: Homo Sapiens settle Europe πŸ‡ͺπŸ‡Ί. Neanderthals go extinct βŒ
  • 16,000 years ago: Homo Sapiens settle Americas πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ. American megafauna go extinct βŒ
  • 13,000 years ago: Last different species from us in our genus (Homo Floresiensis) goes extict βŒ
  • 12,000 years ago: Agricultural Revolution πŸŒΎ
  • 500 years ago: Scientific Revolution πŸ”­
  • 200 years ago: Industrial Revolution πŸ­

πŸ•Ί Are we human or are we dancer?

For the last 10,000 years our species, Homo Sapiens has been the only species of human (genus Homo) around. The rest have gone extinct. Homo denisova and Neanderthals were close enough genetically to interbreed with Homo Sapiens but otherwise are extinct. How did Homo Sapiens beat out all the other species of human. What makes us so different?

The genus Homo first appeared in East Africa 2.5 million years ago. Modern humans (Homo Sapiens) have only been around for about 200,000 years. There were over 2 million years of humans wandering about, just chilling, evolving into separate species in different parts of the globe, using stone tools and fire. 2 million years! Humans evolved in this time but we were still part of the foodchain. We didn't have much impact on extincting other species. We stayed confined to the landmass where we evolved. On an ecological level we weren't a factor influencing all life on earth. Neanderthals were the most successful species other than us. They used fire on a regular basis, had bigger brains than we do and were bigger and stronger than us on a one on one basis. Neanderthals took care of their sick and their old too. If the Neanderthals were so great why did they got pwned by homo sapiens? Though Neanderthals had bigger brains we had better brains. Homo Sapiens have genetic coding that enables us to make crazy combinations of teams based on shared beliefs. We developed a unique linguistic ability to share stories about things that don't exist, enabling us to build teams, ships, nuclear warheads and beanie babies.

🀝 Teamwork makes the dream work

The first humans that lived millions of years ago specialized in cracking marrow from bones after other animals made the kill. Though we used rocks as tools to crack open bones we were still solidly in the middle of the food chain. During the Cognitize Revolution 70,000 years ago Homo Sapiens began to create imagined realities similar to how we do today. Once an idea for a concept exists it cannot die only move forward. Instead of being able to communicate "I am hungry" or "there is a mammoth over there" we could bind together and recognize the mammoth is our tribe's spirit animal and fire is actually a spirit who interacts with nature's other forces. This jump to fiction allows Homo Sapiens to create imagined realities that exert force on the world. Homo Sapiens store information about relationships. We gossip. In a band of fifty humans there are 1,225 one on one relationships and many more group dynamics. Our language and species has a unique ability to convey info about things that do not exist at all. Fiction enables us to imagine things collectively. We can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Large numbers of strangers in the millions can cooperate by believing common myths that exist in the collective imagination. It's a truly stunning superpower that's allowed us to stand out.

It takes a tribe to raise a human. There are unique social problems to support the young not being as formed as they are in other species. When a baby giraffe or other mammals come out they're ready to rock and roll, their brains are more or less fully formed. When a human comes out they "emerge like molten glass from a furnace" ready to be molded. We soak up the environment around us. Anyone who's raised a child can testify to how fast humans learn in their early years. It's simply incredible. This propensity for learning combined with our suple language enabled humans to cross open ocean, build stories across generations and escape our biolgy and the food chain. It allowed us to be the most proficient hunters that ever existed and expand our populations to take advantage of all of Earth's natural resources, oftentimes at the expense of other species.

Scientists believe that about 150,000 years ago East Africa was populated with Homo Sapiens more or less the same as humans today. Around 70,000 years ago Homo Sapiens expanded out of Africa and encountered previous species of Human that had already settled Eurasia. As Homo Sapiens expanded across the globe the other species of human died out. Homo Sapiens ventured where no other human had gone before -- to Australia and North and South America and islands throughout the Pacific Ocean. 45,000 years ago Homo Sapiens crossed open ocean and landed in Australia. When humans entered Australia and the Americas they encountered species that had never encountered the genus Homo. Humans had been around for millions of years but none had made it to Australia or to the Americas. When Homo Sapiens ventured to these new territories they cleaned up. Large species went extinct rapidly. Homo Sapien storytelling kicked off the sixth major extinction event in the history of earth. It's still going on and accelerating to this day.

πŸ“š Resources:

  • If you're at all interested in human evolutionary history I'd recommend Sapiens as a must read and starting point.
  • To learn more about Homo Sapiens impact on the environment I recommend The Sixth Extinction book.
  • This article has a pretty disturbing rendition of what a Neanderthal might have looked like, but is otherwise a solid read.