The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us

By Diane Ackerman

W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. | 2014 | 344 pages | $27.95

Reviewed by Amanda Martin

Surpassing human limits is so human a quest, maybe the most ancient one of all, from an age when dreams were omens dipped in moonlight, and godlike voices raged inside one’s head.”

Diane Ackerman is one of the foremost writers on the natural world. Possessed with a fierce curiosity, an enthusiastic sense of adventure, and the ability to clearly communicate the often complicated work and discoveries of the people who have dedicated their lives to various scientific and naturalist pursuits, Ackerman is an ideal guide, whether taking us through A Natural History of Love, or adventuring in Antarctica with penguins and swimming with whales in Patagonia The Moon by Whale Light, or recounting an incredible story of World War II Warsaw in The Zookeeper’s Wife.

She has great empathy for all her subjects, human and otherwise, allowing us to feel the excitement and joy they have in their pursuits. Above all she is a gorgeous writer of prose. It is worth noting that she is also a fine poet.

In her latest book, The Human Age, Ackerman is clear that humans are part of the natural world.  This may strike some as counterintuitive: Aren’t humans at war with nature, tampering with everything, leaving great swathes of destruction wherever they roam?

Isn’t it inevitable that we are headed to the kind of post-apocalyptic future so prevalent these days in YA fiction?   Ackerman is a realist: there is global warming and it is manmade; the climate is changing, species will continue to go extinct and the seas will rise. It is possible that we will destroy ourselves. But, Ackerman proposes, it is not inevitable. We humans are a clever species, able to adapt to a changing environment, and we have in the past come up with wonderful ways to improve the world and mitigate a lot of the unintended consequences of our collective actions.

For the 200,000 years it is estimated we have been around, human beings have been living in the Holocene — meaning “Recent Whole” — Age. Ackerman says that this is about to change. The powers-that-be —who, in this case, are a “distinguished panel at the Geological Society, the official arbiters of the geological time scale” — will be renaming the current age by the end of this decade. We will be living in the Anthropocene Age—the Human Age—so named to reflect our species’ impact on the planet.

As Ackerman recounted during a recent talk, one of the questions under discussion is when to actually date this new era from. Should it start with agriculture when our species first began manipulating nature? Or did the Human Age really begin in the 18th century at the dawn of the Industrial Age? Or is the Anthropocene Age even younger than that, born in the 1940s and ‘50s, decades of the atom bomb and petrochemicals? Whatever the start date, the impact of humans is undeniable, from changes in the climate, to the modification of animals and plants, to the modification of our own minds and bodies.

Ackerman takes us along as she explores this world made by us, introducing us to a host of sentient beings, not all of them human, not all of them even carbon based, but all of them playing a part in this new human age.

Among them: Budi the 7-year old orangutan who plays daily with an I-Pad, given to him courtesy of an international effort to improve the lives of captive apes by providing mental enrichment; the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky who has been taking pictures of manmade “manufactured landscapes” for the past quarter century; ocean farmer Bren Smith who is practicing “mariculture” (“think of it as 3D farming that uses the entire water column to grow a variety of species,” he tells Ackerman).

The world has been shaped by us, and we have invented technology to let us find out even more about it. Technology is now shaping us from our minds to our eyes — in the United States one-third of all adults are now myopic; a recent study shows that 95% of students in Shanghai and Seoul are also suffering from “urban eyes” —all this nearsightedness caused not by heredity but by spending too much time looking at screens. Articles also abound on the dangers of a sedentary life spent in the company of computers and television, and obesity is a modern epidemic.

Ackerman covers a lot in a few hundred pages - from seeing our planet in space to exploring the effects of the microbes that inhabit our bodies on our minds. What is the definition of a human anyway? How does a species define itself? Language, says Ackerman, was essential to the development of our species, modifying our grey matter. “. . . (L)anguage was our plumage and claws, The more talkative among us lived to pass on our genes to chatty offspring.” Reading and writing, however, is “pure luxury”, we are not hard-wired for it and it takes hours of practice. Communication is essential between humans; interspecies communication has begun. There’s “Apps for Apes”; musical collaborations (see Dave Mason’s YouTube recording); and development of an interspecies internet is ongoing.

If animals are communicating with us, if they are considered conscious beings, that brings up all sorts of ethical questions. The question of what exactly consciousness is is ongoing, but nonetheless “. . . On July 7, 2012, a group of neuroscientists met at the University of Cambridge to declare officially that nonhuman animals ‘including all mammals and birds and many other creatures, including octopuses’ are conscious. To formalize their position, they signed a document entitled ‘The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Non-human Animals.” Ackerman then brings up self-awareness, which humans are, but so, demonstrably, are other animals.
And what about robots?  “What about new webs of life?” wonders Ackerman “Why not synthetic life forms that can sense, feel, remember, and go through Darwinian evolution?”

She introduces us to the wonderfully named Hod Lipson, a professor at Cornell University, whose specialty is “evolutionary robotics” and who envisions a new species “Robot sapiens”. And then she explains how the European RobotCub Consortium developed a robot, the iCub, which has evolved a theory of mind.

The world of the future may be one where the walls of city buildings are replete with plant life and roof gardens as can already be seen on the rooftops of Los Angeles and Chicago, and the walls of buildings in London and Paris. Where animals who are now extinct or on the verge of extinction can be resurrected, thanks to worldwide efforts to protect the DNA of species and the breakthrough in stem cell development. Ackerman takes us to Nottingham University, home of the Frozen Ark, “which stores the DNA of 48,000 individuals from 5,438 different animal species.”

Which brings up another host of questions, such as, just because we can resurrect a wooly mammoth — and Ackerman says we can — should we? Just because we can breed cats who can glow in the dark —and we can — should we?

Ethical questions are being grappled with as what was science fiction comes closer to reality. The advent of 3-D printers may entirely change manufacturing; but what is already happening is that human body parts, such as windpipes, are being created and used in surgeries. Is Star Trek’s replicator far behind (all of this technological innovation so that a Captain Picard of the future can order a good cup of hot earl grey tea in space)? Body parts are being grown, injectable cell therapy instead of knee replacements seem close, and medicine advances in a race with new viruses which, basking in a warmer earth, expand their territory and attack us.

Ackerman is an unsentimental realist. She knows the state of the earth and its atmosphere; she knows how dangerous these new discoveries can be in human hands. But she is also an optimist, giving us not only a future to look forward to, but a pretty incredible present to explore. In Ackerman’s eyes, we’re a very interesting species with a lot of potential and this could possibly be a very good age to be alive.

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