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Chapter 1: Roots of the modern environmental dilemma: A brief history of the relationship between humans and wildlife

Marine Conservation Home / Essays on Wildlife Conservation / NEXT: Marine Conservation Organizations »
Edited by Peter Moyle & Douglas Kelt
By Mary A. Orland1

Why exactly do we humans have such an incredibly large influence on other species and the natural world? We are unique among animal species in that we survive and reproduce in a wide variety of environments through cultural adaptations (Richerson et al. 1996). In contrast, other species are primarily able to survive and reproduce due to biological adaptations that result from eons of natural selection and biological evolution. The cultural adaptations of humans have allowed them to colonize nearly every ecosystem type on Earth. In addition, cultural innovations have allowed the human population to grow exponentially for millennia. Such sustained population growth is unparalleled by any other species on the planet. The population of a typical species grows until it reaches the carrying capacity of its environment, then levels off or declines. In other words, it grows until it is fully utilizing the available resources, such as food and space. At this point mechanisms such as disease and starvation keep the population from continuing to grow. However, we humans have responded to resource scarcity with cultural practices and technologies that increase the availability of resources. We raise our food on farms and live in multi-story apartment buildings, increasing the carrying capacity of the environment for humans. This growth eventually requires yet more cultural adaptations to increase resources, and the alteration of the natural environment and the rate of cultural evolution is accelerated. Currently the global human population is large enough and the technologies that allow humans to manipulate the environment are potent enough that human-caused alterations to the biosphere are causing the extinction of innumerable wildlife species. If present trends continue, there will be an eventual crash in the human population that will bring great suffering and cause widespread environmental damage. This is the root cause of the modern environmental crisis. This chapter deals with how we got into the present situation from the perspective of cultural interactions with wildlife and wild lands.

The following is a brief description of the various types of human societies, grouped according to their main mode of acquiring food and resources. Each of these types of societies is generally associated with certain types of social conditions and attitudes toward wildlife and nature. This way of organizing and describing human societies comes from a subdiscipline of anthropology called Human Ecology, which seeks to understand humans by how they interact with the natural world and with each other in order to survive (Richerson et al. 1996). This is essentially the way that ecologists understand other organisms, so Human Ecology fundamentally sees humans as another species of large social mammal living in the biosphere, while still recognizing their incredible uniqueness as cultural animals. Understanding the history between resource acquisition and attitudes toward nature provides a context for the history of wildlife in North America, which is discussed in the next chapter. It may also provide some clues about how our global culture needs to change if it is to create a sustainable world in the future. The sections below divide societies into five convenient categories for discussion, but they represent a continuum of culture and values, and there are of course exceptions to the sweeping generalities that are made. The important thing to know is the general trend in how different societies relate to nature, rather than how to categorize any given society.

Hunter-gatherer societies
Food acquisition and social structure
Hunter-gatherer societies obtain their food directly from “natural” ecosystems, by hunting wild animals and collecting wild plants (Richerson et al. 1996). This requires intimate, detailed knowledge of plant and animal species in the local environment. A hunter-gatherer lifestyle can support a relatively small number of people in most landscapes, so population densities of hunter-gatherer societies tend to be low. Most hunter-gatherer peoples also are migratory, traveling frequently in search of food rather than living in settlements. Generally each individual in the group is responsible for procurement of food, so there is little division of labor within the sexes. As a result, the social structure of hunter-gatherer cultures tends to be fairly egalitarian. However, this egalitarianism does not necessarily translate into peacefulness. Anthropologists have shown that the incidence of murder in hunter-gatherer societies is generally several times higher than even in the most violent modern cities, which is attributable to the lack of a centralized authority for settling disputes. There tends to be considerable division of labor between the sexes, with men usually responsible for hunting and women for foraging, in large part because it is difficult to take small children hunting. The status of women relative to men in hunter-gatherer societies tends to be roughly correlated with how important foraging is relative to hunting for supplying food, and disparity between the sexes is generally not as large as seen in agrarian societies.

Beliefs and attitudes toward nature and wildlife
The direct dependence of hunter gathers on natural ecosystems for their food, and the intimate knowledge of the natural world that this requires, is generally reflected in their beliefs and attitudes toward nature and wildlife. Such peoples commonly view themselves as inseparable from the natural ecosystems and wildlife around them (Gottleib 1996, Wilber 2000). Animals are often regarded to be another kind of people, or as spirit beings, who can be appealed to for help and protection. Rituals are commonly performed to show respect, gratitude and reverence for the animal-spirits, with the hope of promoting continued hunting success. Other rituals to influence natural events, such as the coming of rain, are also not uncommon in hunter-gatherer cultures. These literal beliefs in magic, ritual and fusion of humans with the natural world are often termed animism (Richerson et al. 1996, Wilber 2000). Examples of such beliefs toward nature are shown in both the traditions of numerous Native American cultures, and in the beautifully executed portraits of bison, deer, salmon and other animals in the caves of France by the hunter-gatherer ancestors of modern day Europeans. Humans worldwide lived in tribal, hunter-gatherer societies for most of their evolutionary history, and some anthropologists argue that we therefore feel most at ease in circumstances that mimic such societies. These circumstances include open settings with views of wildlife (or livestock as substitutes for wildlife), living in areas near water, and egalitarian social groups with frequent interactions with close family members and at most a few dozen members of the same culture (Wilson 1984, Richerson and Boyd 2000).

Influences on natural ecosystems and wildlife
Overall, hunter-gatherer societies are generally regarded as the best of all types of societies at coexisting with natural wildlife populations, because human population densities tend to be low and because this way of getting food involves the least manipulation of natural ecosystems. The much greater abundance and diversity of wildlife in North America as opposed to Europe at the time of European colonization, in spite of the roughly equal latitudes and areas of these continents, speaks directly to the relatively greater ability of hunter-gatherer societies to coexist with wildlife. It has been suggested that the ability of hunter-gatherer societies to coexist with wildlife is attributable to their magical, reverent attitude toward nature (Gottleib 1996). However, alternative arguments assert that hunter-gathers had relatively small impacts on natural ecosystems simply because they did not have the technologies to further manipulate nature, or the population densities that require such manipulations (Wilber 1996). It is known that the hunter-gathers of Asia, Australia, and North America caused the extinction of numerous large mammal and bird species by over hunting and altering the landscape through extensive use of fire, which suggests that even humans living in hunter-gatherer societies can have considerable ecological influence (Flannery 1994, 2001, Warren 2003). This is discussed in more detail in the next chapter.

Early Agrarian Societies
Food acquisition and social structure

Early agrarian societies obtain food not just by foraging in natural ecosystems, but also by planting species that are important food items and/or raising livestock. They may supplement the food they raise with hunting and foraging. Those early agrarian societies that focus on planting are called horticultural societies, whereas those that focus on livestock as the primary food source are called herding or pastoralist societies (Richerson et al. 1996). There can be considerable differences between these two types of societies, but we have grouped them both under early agrarian society for this discussion. Early agrarian societies are distinguished from late agrarian societies by the lack of metal plows, and beasts of burden to pull them. Most early agrarian societies have domesticated animals, although the indigenous civilizations of North and Central America and Australia kept only dogs. Examples of extinct horticultural societies include the Aztecs, the “mound building” Native Americans of the Ohio Valley, and the early agriculturalists of the Middle East of 10,000 years ago. Many wet tropical areas of the world still support horticulturalist societies that practice small-scale slash and burn agriculture. The poor soil of such regions usually cannot support the permanent, large-scale, plowed farming style of more advanced agriculture societies.

The greater efficiency and predictability of agricultural practices for obtaining food means that such societies generally have higher population densities than hunter-gatherer societies (Richerson et al. 1996). Permanent villages and small cities usually first occur in agricultural societies. The greater productivity of agriculture can support a more complex social structure with greater division of labor, because not everyone needs to work to procure food. This can result in the development of a ruling class, a religious class, and artisans, which further accelerates cultural evolution. This division of labor means that early agrarian societies often are less egalitarian than hunter-gatherer societies. The few human societies that are matrilineal, i.e. where family lineages are passed on by the mother and women have high status, are usually horticultural, a prime example being the matrilineal horticultural societies of SubSaharan Africa. In these societies, the stationary settlements and relatively easy physical labor needed to procure food allow women to contribute greatly to the food supply, and their status and economic power is greater as a result.

Beliefs and attitudes toward nature and wildlife
The gods and goddesses of early agrarian societies begin to take on a human face rather than animal face, compared to those of hunter-gatherer societies. However, animals are commonly associated with particular gods and goddesses, and are often symbolic of a deity's power. Encountering a particular species of wildlife may be construed as an omen from a god, but the power usually does not reside in the animal itself, but rather in its relationship to a deity. Animals often play important roles in the mythology of such cultures, and gods themselves may take the forms of animals. The "pagan" religions of Northern Europe are one Western example of an early agrarian religion. The mythology of the classical Greek gods and goddesses is also an example of these themes, although ancient Greek society itself was too technologically advanced to be properly categorized as early agrarian. A common religious theme in early agrarian cultures was the need to makes sacrifices to gods to incur their favor and ensure continued bounty (Wilber 2000). In herding societies these were usually animal sacrifices, and the Old Testament actually gives instructions of how to perform these. However, in horticultural societies human sacrifice was surprisingly common. Some of the early agrarian cultures of Europe and the Middle East practiced human sacrifice, as did the Aztecs and Ohio Valley horticulturalists of the New World (Richerson 1996, Wilber 1996, Warren 2003).

Influences on natural ecosystems and wildlife
Because their mode of procuring food involves manipulation of natural ecosystems, early agrarian societies tend to have greater negative impacts on wildlife. Areas used to tend desired crops are not available to support the full species complement of the surrounding natural plant community, and livestock often compete with other animal species for forage. Denser human settlements may over-exploit wildlife in the surrounding wild areas, even if they are not directly manipulating the habitat. However, horticultural and herding societies are generally confined to only certain climates and habitat types, and their population densities are still relatively low, so often with these societies there are still considerable undisturbed areas that provide habitat for wildlife. Increased birth rates are commonly observed when people transition from hunter-gatherer to early agrarian societies, and the denser, growing human populations place ever-increasing demands on the surrounding wildlife and natural ecosystems.

Table of Contents

1. Roots of the modern environmental dilemma: A brief history of the relationship between humans and wildlife
2. A history of wildlife in North America
3. Climatic determinants of global patterns of biodiversity
4. Biodiversity
5. Natural selection
6. Principles of ecology
7. Niche and habitat
8. Conservation biology
9. Conservation in the USA: legislative milestones
10. Alien invaders
11. Wildlife and Pollution
12. What you can do to save wildlife

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