I, like you, am a small piece of a community, which is part of a society, which is a piece of an ecosystem, which is part of a planet which is part of a solar system, which makes up a bit of a galaxy, which is one of a cluster, which is part of a supercluster, which is part of a universe. And yet, I am also a collection of individual cells, organized in differentiated organs, each with its own role and each of those cells is itself a small community of organelles, including the nucleus and the mitochondria that were once different species and each of which harbors a community of genes, which struggle individually and separately to replicate themselves through cell division, reproduction, survival of the individual person, survival of the community, survival of society and so on. I am a part of a larger whole and I am a whole of smaller parts.
The grand organization I exist in developed slowly, very slowly, over billions of years, beginning with the simplest genes, or so we assume, and developing more and more complex forms of organization. We now live in a multi-species community. It is hard to call it anything else. We convince ourselves that we are its masters, that we have molded it and not the other way around, that we have shaped the plants and animals around us into a world that meets our liking. Perhaps we have, but things are never so simple.
Since the Neolithic Revolution brought multiple species of plants and animals into permanent relationships with human beings in different parts of the world at similar times, we have come to depend on a variety of other species for our existence, and they have come to depend on us. It is more than symbiosis and it is something different than an ecosystem. Human beings and our numerous allied species have transformed much of the planet into something we find more suitable to the propagation of our genes. The plants and animals that evolved into human beings’ pleasures or pests have succeeded in propagating their genes in a way that would have been unimaginable to our hunter-gatherer forebears, if they ever thought to imagine such a thing.
Look at corn, or maize, as it is more properly called. It descended from the humble teosinte grass and is so different from its ancestor that its origins are still debated. Human beings bred and adapted this plant in Mesoamerica, as they bred and adapted wheat in the Middle East. Or did the plant evolve to take advantage of human agriculture, making itself more appealing to us so we would spread its genes far and wide? Did we choose corn or did it choose us?
I am more fascinated with the chili pepper, a plant that evolved long ago to be pleasant to birds, which spread its seeds, and unpleasant to mammals, which don’t, except for human beings, the only mammals that eat the fruit of the plant and have happily spread its seeds around the globe without once thinking they were doing the plant a favor. Did we choose chili peppers or did they somehow choose us?
There are some species that have clearly joined up with human beings voluntarily, especially pests, but also cats and dogs, two carnivores that seem out of place in human society. Cats’ participation in our communities appears to have been completely voluntary and some people believe dogs also domesticated themselves, joining up to get a regular lunch. Maybe someday a raccoon subspecies will tame itself in a similar way.
But what about cows? Cows no longer exist as a wild species. We feel sorry for them. I think that is appropriate, but at the same time, they are a spectacularly successful species mostly because human beings like to eat them and drink their milk. If people never ate them, never bred them, how many cows would there be? Cows may suffer, but their genes are fulfilling their one and only goal: reproduction.
In any case, human societies stopped being exclusively human thousands of years ago. We are now part of a web of interdependent species. Many of the species we rely on would struggle to survive in any other environment and we would struggle to survive without them. We are part of a new ecosystem that can pick itself up and move in toto from one continent to another, an ecosystem that has cut down forests, drained swamps, filled in shallow seas, terraced hills, irrigated deserts and paved over grasslands in all but the least amenable climates.
Trees, grasses and corals are among the species that have played similar transformative roles, making homes for numerous other species, but ours is just a bit different. In forests, grasslands and reefs, there are also complex relationships, but it is less important which species of tree, grass or coral is providing the home and which species play other roles, like pollinating flowers or spreading seeds. In contrast, human ecosystems require a specific set of species. Since the dawn of the Neolithic Revolution, when people move they take their web of species with them.
The hybridized human ecosystems that developed after Columbus have been more successful than the older ones. The new mix of plants and animals that we can’t live without is one of the reasons for the huge growth in human numbers during the last few centuries.
So, was the Neolithic Revolution spark a new way of life or a new kind of life? Was it cultural change like the Industrial Revolution or evolutionary change like multicellular life? Are we really separate from the plants and animals we rely on? Or do we need them as much as we need human society? And is there a difference anymore?