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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
First Web Paper
On Serendip

The Evolution of Anthropocentrism

Reeve Basom

Evolutionary theory throws humans into a tizzy. Driven by the need to amass knowledge, we find ourselves surging forward into the exploration of a story where the more we know, the less we can feature ourselves. Eminent evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr contends that anthropocentrism and belief in evolution by natural selection are mutually exclusive (Mayr 1972). In other words, the Darwinian story of biological evolution rejects the notion of progress and replaces it with directionless change, thereby subverting the conception of human superiority on a biological scale toward perfection. Evolution by natural selection undermines the idea that humans are the culmination and ultimate beneficiaries of all nature. However, to say that anthropocentrism necessarily dissolves in the rising tide of evolutionary theory is to ignore the ways in which human centered humanness plays an intriguing role in evolution.

In his article, "Anthropocentrism: A Modern Version," W.H. Murdy integrates these two conflicting phenomena by tracking the evolution of anthropocentrism itself and proposing that Darwinian theory marks the shift from an old version of anthropocentrism to a new, modern version. This modern reconceptualization is able to situate human centered thinking within the story of evolution, but it also elucidates a complex and uniquely human crisis in which anthropocentrism becomes self-destructive.

The biological species concept is crucial to understanding both the reason why outmoded anthropocentrism is completely invalidated by Darwinian evolution and why Murdy's modern version is not only compatible with evolutionary theory but is an inevitable evolutionary phenomenon. It is important to note that the biological species concept was not initially articulated by Darwin, but has arisen more recently to become the most widely accepted way of defining a species. The crux of the biological species concept is the maintenance of a distinct gene pool through reproductive isolation from other species (Mayr 1996). This means that a species is defined by its ability to maintain itself, or, as Murdy asserts, "species exist as ends in themselves." Therefore, nothing evolves solely for the benefit of another species and anthropocentrism, in the sense of nature existing to serve the purposes of humans, must be abandoned. Indeed this conceptual dismantling has been successful and widespread. However, using this same line of reasoning that stems from Darwinian evolution and the biological species concept we find that as an end in itself, "the purpose of a species is to survive to reproduce" (Murdy 1975). In this sense, every species is necessarily centered on its own survival. This then, becomes Murdy's modern version of anthropocentrism when applied to the human species. Understanding nature in terms of how it affects us is a biological mandate and anthropocentric, but it is not the same as thinking nature exists entirely to fulfill human needs.

Of course, the human species is unique in that its centrism is interpretive and elaborated through culture. The result is a pair of expansions, the first toward an ever greater knowledge of our fundamental ecological niche as humans and the second toward a more and more expansive actual niche. In other words, like all species, humans exploit their environment in order to survive, but understanding the effects of our exploitation lags behind our ability to exploit (Murdy 1975). Murdy proposes that the anthropocentric exploitation of nature to increase reproductive success is "anti-anthropocentric" when the exploitation reaches unsustainable levels. Culture, understood as systems of knowledge, allows humans to manipulate their interactions with the environment to such an extent that, "man is the first living species, animal or plant, on this planet that has ever been threatened by its own reproductive success" (Murdy 1975).

At this point in the conceptualization of modern, or what I will call biological, anthropocentrism, Murdy makes a leap to the conclusion that, "nature outside of man will not act to preserve human values; it is our responsibility alone." Culture is clearly a complex combination of beneficial and detrimental forces and we have seen how the adaptive anthropocentricities of culture are not keeping pace with the unsustainable, over-exploitive anthropocentrism gone bad. But to what extent can we disengage culture from biology? Although culture itself is not coded for within the gene pool that we maintain as a biological species, is it possible that survival/biological centricity could manifest itself as anything other than culture in humans?

Despite the fact that cultural change and biological evolution operate on distinctly different time scales, there are compelling arguments for the applicability of natural selection to cultural evolution (Dennet 1995). However, by concerning ourselves with the role of anthropocentrism in the definition and survival of the human species, we seek to understand the extent to which culture, driving a set of counterbalancing but out of synch trends/expansions, is both the necessary condition for and ultimate threat to human species survival.

As a biological species, humans are equipped with the ability to create culture- an ability that infuses our struggle for survival through reproductive success with unique potential. Systems of knowledge are a means of exploiting nature to our reproductive advantage, but they are also a means of destabilizing our relationship with nature. Suppose humans reach a level of cultural evolution where accumulated knowledge illuminates a clear boundary at which anthropocentrism becomes anti-anthropocentrism. Will we be able to abandon Murdy's version of anthropocentrism and embrace a third incarnation of the phenomenon in which stewardship of our ecological support system becomes the human priority? Whereas other species are unable to step outside of the immediate ways in which they interact with the environment, culture allows humans to interpret these interactions and potentially to ensure reproductive success through protection of the support system rather than through an increasing capacity to exploit the system. Only a species with culture can achieve this systems level approach to survival, yet cultural inertia also continues to drive the unsustainable expansion of exploitation.

Ultimately, probing these dynamics is not a means of clarifying the relationship between biology and culture but rather succeeds in moving away from a complete dichotomy in order to pursue an understanding of their complex implications for one another. Given their drastically different time scales, we must be careful not to conflate cultural evolution with biological evolution, but a brand of anthropocentrism that will not backfire must negotiate a careful course through both biology and culture.

Works Cited

Dennet, Daniel
1995 Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Mayr, Ernst
1972 "The Nature of the Darwinian Revolution." Science, New Series,
Vol. 176, no. 4038: 981-989.

1996 "What Is a Species, and What Is Not?" Philosophy of Science, Vol. 63, No. 2: 262-277.

Murdy, W.H.
1975 "Anthropocentrism: A Modern Version." Science, New Series, Vol.
187, no. 4182: 1168-1172.

Additional Sources

Dare, Ron J., J.S. Rowe, Robert L. Olson, W.H. Murdy
1975 "Anthropocentrism and Evolution" (in Letters) Science, New Series,
Vol. 189, no. 4203: 593-96.

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