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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Human Natures

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood speaks with scientist and author Paul Ehrlich. Mr. Erlich acknowledges the importance of genetic evolution, but believes it is a concept called cultural evolution that truly determines who we are.


CURWOOD: The recent mapping of the human genome will go a long way in telling us who we are and who we may become, both as individuals and as a species. Scientist and author Paul Ehrlich acknowledges the importance of this event and the genetic evolution of the population. But he also believes that the key to unlocking our future may lie within a concept he calls cultural evolution. In his new book, 'Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect,' Paul Ehrlich explains that to understand how society works, we must first understand the difference between cultural and genetic evolution.

EHRLICH: Cultural evolution is change in the vast body of non-genetic information that human beings possess, and that can go on extremely rapidly. Cultural evolution is going on while I'm talking to you, because the wiring in your brain is changing if you're remembering what I'm saying. Not only that, besides being able to pass information on to my children, my grandchildren can pass information on to me. Plato can pass information on to me. Cultural evolution can go on essentially instantaneously and in many directions and across wide distances. So it's very different from genetic evolution.

CURWOOD: Why is it so important, then, for us to have a fundamental understanding of both genetic evolutionary history and cultural evolutionary history, if I can use that term?

EHRLICH: Yeah, sure. I think that it's extraordinarily important at this time, because, as you know, I and the rest of the scientific community are very much concerned with the so-called human predicament which generally is environmental. That is, we are wrecking our life support systems at a very rapid rate. But which includes things that some people don't think of as environmental as very unfortunate changes in our epidemiological environment, that is our ability to deal with novel diseases, for instance. And also, with the nuclear war situation, which is not as peaceful as many people would assume. So, the scientific community is very much concerned and understands a lot about negative trends in our general environment. But what we don't understand is how we get into it, why we persist into it, and how we can change. And that shifts the focus right back to cultural evolution, because the only way we can change in a reasonable time is by changing our cultural evolution.

CURWOOD: What role does cultural evolution play in determining who we are?

EHRLICH: I think cultural evolution is the main determinant of who we are, if we're asking who we are relative to other individuals in our society. That is, there is very little actual genetic variation between groups. There is genetic variation between individuals, but most of the variation we see from individual to individual is the result of their experiences in a cultural environment. And so, cultural evolution is absolutely critical to understanding our individual natures.

CURWOOD: Can you give me an example of trouble we've gotten into ignoring the phenomenon of cultural evolution?

EHRLICH: One of the problems we've gotten into ignoring cultural evolution is the population explosion, because people should have realized, and we should have studied more thoroughly, the fact that if we were going to intervene to lower death rates around the world by using such things as pesticides and antibiotics, that if we did not change our cultures, we were going to have many, many more people surviving. And that would lead to a population explosion. We ignored that. Gradually, we have corrected it because people have looked over the last 30 or so years into the kinds of factors that will bring down birth rates, and we've actually seen a positive cultural evolutionary trend, which has worked toward seeing to it that more women are literate, making sure that contraceptives are available, giving job opportunities to women. But if we had been thinking about cultural evolution, we wouldn't have had this enormous increase in numbers of people, which has put us in such a bind today.

CURWOOD: Now, how has the lack of evolutionary knowledge gotten us to where we are today in terms of the environment?

EHRLICH: Well, lack of evolutionary knowledge, for example, has pushed us to the point now where we have strains of tuberculosis we cannot fight with antibiotics, because they're resistant to all known antibiotics. That didn't have to happen. We could have made our epidemiological environment much more satisfactory if all MD's and all people were thoroughly familiar with evolutionary theory. Because the results we've had, the problems we're having, both with bacteria and with insect pests, were very largely avoidable if people had understood how resistance to our weapons evolves.

CURWOOD: In your book on page 329, you have almost an "I Have A Dream" speech about this notion that we could save ourselves. And what we need now to get us out of the human predicament is conscious evolution. What do you mean by that?

EHRLICH: I think we need conscious cultural evolution because when we just let it go in all different directions with our very diverse societies and all the factors operating on them, with for example globalization of the economy but ethnic fragmentation at a different level in our society, we need to face our cultural evolutionary problems more systematically. Because our ability to do culturally, that is our technologies, are evolving so much more rapidly than our ability to understand and our ability to make the many ethical decisions that we're going to have to make.

CURWOOD: Paul Ehrlich, your book is called "Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect." What is the human prospect as far as you're concerned? Are you an optimist? Are you a pessimist here?

EHRLICH: I am very optimistic about what we can do. We have wonderful brains. We have extraordinary cultures. There is nothing standing between us and a reasonably sustainable society. Not a utopia, but something much better than we're heading for now. I tend to be rather pessimistic, though, about whether we'll get our act together and do it.

CURWOOD: Paul Ehrlich's new book is called "Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect". Thanks for taking this time with us today.

EHRLICH: It's been my great pleasure.



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