What, again? We managed it around 10,000 years ago following the last Ice Age when the retreating ice finally allowed us to access to the entire planet. But could we just be the latest dominant species on Earth? Prior to our brief stint as custodian, forgive the gross over simplification, the Earth was populated by proto hominids and before that, dinosaurs. Going further back our planet was populated ubiquitously by primitive organisms such as insects, early plants and microbes. What are the chances that another species will take over the world? And, actually, are we even in control now?
With the recent release of ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’, a prequel to the Charlton Heston/Roddy McDowell initiated film series, fresh in my mind I thought it would be an interesting idea to consider how likely our race could be overthrown. It all depends on how you define being in control of the planet.
We are ‘the fifth Great Ape’. The remaining four are gorillas, orang-utans, chimpanzees and bonobos. The human race is in control currently in so far as being at the top of the food chain, indomitable and so technologically advanced that no other species could overthrow us. Indeed the only thing stopping us from becoming even more advanced is our propensity for mutual self destruction.
No other species on the planet deliberately plots, plans and carries out so much harm to its own members. In terms of intelligence we have no equal; our ape cousins are tool users but possess no complex form of language – hardly a fair contest. Couple that with the fact that many apes are on the endangered species list thanks to us and, very quickly, we can rule out any other apes taking over the world. Any species remotely like us tends to get wiped out pretty quickly. Just look at the Neanderthals. Personally, I would dread to see what we would do to, say, a subspecies of bonobos that did begin to communicate on our level.
Speaking of these apes, it is remarkable how similar our physiognomies are and, behaviorally, how they share many of our emotional traits. As a species, bonobos are female-centric, live cooperatively, engage in regular mating and display empathic tendencies. They are one of the few creatures that can mate face to face.
As with us they can recognise a reflection of themselves (self awareness mirror test) showing that they are aware of themselves as individuals. A pair of bonobos in captivity at the Great Apes Trust in Iowa, USA, called Kanzi and Panbanisha, have been taught to communicate using an image-based keyboard. Peter Singer, a bio-ethicist, says this and their other behavioural attributes should compel us to grant bonobos ‘Human Rights’.
Since the 20th century many countries have developed a welfare system, set up with the best of altruistic intentions, that has finally become a millstone around our necks. In Nature, Charles Darwin put it best when he coined the much misunderstood phrase, ‘Survival of the Fittest’. Animals that are best suited to their environment are likely to succeed, reproduce and prosper. In our society’s ‘Benefits Culture’ where generation after generation are taking advantage of the system are being allowed to grow in numbers, not contributing and sapping the resources of the productive. A parasitic relationship continues to develop and until we can temper altruism with practicality this situation is likely to only grow worse. These ‘selfish’ humans are unfortunately becoming the ‘fittest’, at least in the West. Thankfully Eastern societies and the upcoming superpowers of India and China have societies that are less tolerant to shirking and it’ll come as no surprise that over the next few decades their star will continue to grow in the ascendancy: the human race will survive our Western blip as long as they don’t go down the same roads we have.
This may seem a political and right-wing diatribe but realistically the most ‘advanced’ human cultures have always fallen because of indolence or hedonistic complacency or by being taken advantage of. As a case-in-point, consider the Greeks, Romans, Aztecs and the Egyptians. West Europeans and North Americans are undoubtedly next.
One realm we don’t yet control is the oceans although we do our best to directly and indirectly cause so much damage to flora, fauna and habitat. So it would be very unlikely that any marine species could manage to adapt, develop and then take over the world. The obvious choice of intelligent species would have to be the dolphin and, thanks to Douglas Adams, we already know they’re brighter than us! Seriously though, it took us millennia to evolve out of the seas and although some of our early ancestors returned to the sea and evolved into dolphins and whales, we are in the best position to dominate the waters thanks to our technological expertise.
Insects have long been the subject of monster movies whether as an unstoppable marching colony invading a town or attacks by giant ‘irradiated’ beasts. Small scale incursions by ants are common in the Americas. In Houston, Texas, Crazy Raspberry ants invaded five counties in 2008, the second time in six years. Read more. These tiny ants damage electrical components, networks, eat beneficial insects like ladybirds and eat ground-nesting birds’ chicks. Many species of ants operate in similar ways and, if you can ignore the embarrassingly unscientific reporting of an otherwise fascinating story in this BBC article, these insects work very effectively as a farming collective.
Bees are the horticulturalist’s friend. These insects are essential for pollinating our crops and they’ve been unfairly denigrated in monster movies over the years. They pose little risk to human health except in large numbers and especially if you have the misfortune to come across African killer bees. Although being in proximity to swarming honey bees can be frightening, I would be more concerned if they were to gain a level of intelligence that made them realise that the honey we take from them could be put to better use by themselves.
There is no species called ‘locust’; the word is a term covering many grasshopper species’ that change their solitary behaviour to a more gregarious behaviour during their progression to adulthood and then swarm. Why swarming occurs was subject of an in-depth and interesting study carried out by Oxford University that identified the response as a reaction to overcrowding. The report found, ‘Increased tactile stimulation of the hind legs causes an increase in levels of serotonin [causing] the locust to change colour, eat much more, and breed much more easily. The transformation of the locust to the swarming variety is induced by several contacts per minute over a four-hour period. It is estimated that the largest swarms have covered hundreds of square miles and consisted of many billions of locusts’. Read more. Locusts aren’t a direct threat but through the massive damage to crops that feed us, could lead towards famine and starvation if they became more widespread and often.
‘Bird-brained’ is a derogatory word aimed at belittling someone’s intellectual ability. Out of all the species on Earth you may be surprised to learn that members of the crow family have repeatedly shown remarkable levels of memory, problem solving and tool-use. The photograph below shows a crow learning to open a door using a pencil as a makeshift lever. As we use hammers, spanners, drills as extensions to our own hands and limbs, so do crows. Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ may be closer than you think.
Bacteria and Viruses
Anyone who keeps animals will tell you that ‘low population density’ is integral to their health. Farmers, particularly battery farmers, who keep animals in far greater numbers in the area that can support them, are prone to disease. Farmed animals need to be fed antibiotics throughout their life to keep them healthy. Bovine TB, strangles, foot and mouth, and a host of other infections spread rapidly through livestock with distressing ramifications. Farmed fish or an overstocked home aquarium spells disaster for the animals. With our population approaching 7 billion and our population density in urban areas increasing, I’m one of many people who now view bacteria or viruses becoming our species’ downfall. Bacteria are hammering at our door again for the first time since the discovery of antibiotics briefly halted their danger. Combine methycillin resistant bacteria and overcrowding and it’s not surprising we’re seeing an increase in tuberculosis among our city dwellers and the danger of further MRSA-type infections.
Aside from microbial threats there is no real danger to Man’s dominance on Earth. This would leave extraterrestrial species as our only potential menace. Not likely though, is it?
If this article is getting too heavy then perhaps we should finish with mice (according to The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, the most intelligent species on the planet.) It’s Pinky and the Brain that we should worry about more than anything else…
Guest blogger, Greg Coltman, writes prolifically about science, evolutionary biology and technology. He tries to keep fit and enjoys learning all sorts of healthy eating facts. He is deathly afraid that your bacon may not be yours forever.