Anthropogenic Evolution as a Two Way Process

As the Russell article, “Evolutionary History” points out, our understanding of human history is enhanced by looking at how humans have interacted with the environment to shape the evolution of many species of plants and animals and their own evolution.  Russell put forth the idea that domesticating plant and animal species was not a one way process of humans simply selectively breeding plants and animals for their own gain, but a two way process in which the domesticated species also affected the ways humans behaved and evolved.

In the article, Russell described how humans breeding plants for agriculture allowed for agricultural surpluses that led to larger and larger human settlements and more complex human social networks.  The domestication of plants and animals for agriculture laid the groundwork for modern human society by making it possible for early humans to change the way they spent their time.  Since not every member of a group had to engage in hunting or gathering for food, some early humans were free to paint cave walls and other similar endeavors.  The human influence on plant evolution allowed humans to evolve as well.  The chapter on “Energy and Ecosystems” described how one group of early humans survived and thrived because their food source was more secure because they engaged in agriculture.  Agriculture allowed early humans to grow and store their own food and be less susceptible to scarcity in wild resources.  Upper Paleolithic populations thrived and evolved because agriculture allowed their environments to consistently yield a higher amount of energy.

The adoption of agriculture was a process that affected both the plants and animals that humans domesticated and early humans themselves. In a book called An Edible History of Humanity author Tom Standage described how the domestication of corn led to a species of corn that could not survive in the wild and was dependent on humans to plant it and make it grow.  It also led to humans who were less able to hunt for their food.  According to Standage, agriculture led to less diversified diets that made individual early humans less healthy and less successful at hunting for food.  This description is consistent with the idea presented by the previous two articles that agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals was a process that affected the evolution of those being domesticates and those doing the domesticating.

This idea of anthropogenic evolution as a two way process is interesting because it challenges a common theme of the narrative of early history, that human history is a story of humans conquering their environment.  This idea is brought up in the “Energy and Ecosystems” chapter, in which the historian Jules Michelet’s views on nature are summarized.  For Michelet, history started when humans began using the environment for their own benefit.  This idea of humans conquering nature and making the environment productive is an important part of many historical works, if not always explicitly.  In my experience, many historical processes are deemed significant in the context of expanding the productivity of land and resources.  The Industrial Revolution, for example, is significant because humans made their resources more productive with new technology.  It was a process of humans gaining more mastery of nature.

If anthropogenic evolution, the adoption of agriculture, and domestication in general are not cases of humans simply imposing their will on their environment, but are instead processes of change on the parts of all involved, then this narrative falls apart.  Humans become not victorious conquerors subjugating nature to their will, but parts of a system that is always evolving.  Humans are simply a part of ever-changing nature instead of using nature like a tool.  Revising the common narrative of history could allow for a deeper understanding of human history.  As Russell’s article pointed out, using a deeper pool of knowledge allows for an enhanced understanding of history.