The case for re-naming the human race

It is time the human race had a new name.  The old one, Homo sapiens – wise or thinking man – has been around since 1758 and is no longer a fitting description for the creature we have become.

When the Swedish father of taxonomy Carl Linnaeus first bestowed iti , humanity no doubt seemed wise when compared with what scientists of the day knew about both humans and other animals. We have since learned our behaviour is not as wise as we like to imagine – while some animals are quite intelligent. In short it is a name which is both inaccurate and which promotes a dangerous self-delusion.

In a letter to the scientific journal Nature (476, p282, 18 August 2011) I have proposed there should be a worldwide discussion about the formal reclassification of humanity, involving both scientists and the public. The new name should reflect more truthfully the attributes and characteristics of the modern 21st century human – which are markedly different from those of 18th century ‘man’. Consider, for example, the following.

Humans are presently engaged in the greatest act of extermination of other species by a single species, probably since life on Earth began. We are destroying an estimated 30,000 species a year - a scale comparable to the great geological catastrophes of the pastii

We currently contaminate the atmosphere with 30 billion tonnes of carbon equivalent a yeariii.  This risks an episode of accelerated planetary warming reaching 4-5 degrees by the end of this century and 8 degree by the middle of next century – a level at which food production would be severely disrupted, posing a serious risk to all members of an enlarged human populationiv.

We have manufactured around 83,000 synthetic chemicalsv, many of them toxic, and some of which we inhale, ingest in food or water or absorb through the skin every day of our lives. A 2005 US study found newborn babies in that country are typically contaminated by around 200 industrial chemicals, including pesticides, dioxins and flame retardantsvi . An EU study (2010) found compelling evidence that even harmless chemicals can recombine with one another to form poisonsvii.   These chemicals are now found all over the planet, even at the poles and in the deep oceans and new ones, of unknown hazard, are being produced all the time. Yet we wonder at the rise in cancers and ‘mystery’ illnesses.

Every year we release around 121 million tonnes of nitrogen, 10 million tonnes of phosphorus and 10 billion tonnes of CO2 (which causes acidification) into our rivers, lakes and oceans – many times more that the Earth recirculates naturally.  This is causing the collapse of marine and aquatic ecosystems, disrupting ocean food chains and replacing them with ‘dead zones’ that no longer support life. The number of these found has risen to over 400 in recent yearsviii.  

We are presently losing about one per cent of the world’s farming and grazing land every year to a combination of erosion, degradation, urban sprawl, mining, pollution and sea level rise.  The situation has deteriorated in the last 30 years, confronting us with the challenge of doubling food production by 2060 off a fraction of remaining land. At the same time we waste a third of the world’s foodx.

Current freshwater demand from agriculture, cities and energy use is on track to double by mid century, while resources in most countries – especially of groundwater – are drying up or becoming so polluted they are unusablexi.  

Humanity passed peak fish in 2004xii, peak oil in 2006xiii and is likely to encounter growing scarcities of other primary resources, including mineral nutrients, in coming decades. Yet our demand for all resources – including minerals, energy and water – will more than double, especially in Asia. If all the world were to live like contemporary Australians or Americans, it would require four planet Earths to satisfy their wants, says the Global Footprint Networkxiv.

Humans invest $1.6 trillion a year in new weaponsxv – but only $50 billion a year in better ways to produce food. Despite progress in arms reduction, the world still has around 20,000 nuclear warheads and at least 19 countries now have access to them or to the technology to make themxvi.

Finally, we are in the process of destroying a great many things which are real – soil, water, energy, resources, other species, our health – for the sake of something that exists chiefly in our imagination: money.  To trade something real for something imaginary hardly appears wise.

Finally, as growing number of eminent scientists are now saying, these things carry the risk of catastrophic changes to the Earth’s systems, deleterious not only to our own future but that of all life.

When these issues are considered, it is difficult to justify a single epithet of ‘wise’, let alone two of them. Our official sub-species name is Homo sapiens sapiens (‘wise wise man’), which now looks not only like conceit – but insecurity. Such a name sends a misleading signal about the capacity – let alone the will – of humanity, as a whole, to manage the consequences of its own actions. It invites us to overestimate our abilities and underestimate the difficulties we are creating.

This is not to deny or belittle any of the great, creative, artistic or scientific achievements of humans today or over the centuries, which are indeed wonderfulxvii.  Rather it is to recognise that our present behaviours combined with our numbers now have the capacity to nullify or even eliminate all other human accomplishments.

The human population is currently on track to reach 10 billion or more by the end of the century xviiiand this is a primary concern. An even greater one is our ungovernable appetite – for food, for material resources, for energy, for water, for land – and our lack of wisdom when it comes to managing and reusing these resourcesxix.

A creature unable to master its own demands cannot be said to merit the descriptor ‘wise’. A creature which takes little account of the growing risks it runs through its behaviour can hardly be rated thoughtful. The provisions of the International Code on Zoological Nomenclature provide for the re-naming of species in cases where scientific understanding of the species changes, or where it is necessary to correct an earlier error. I argue that both those situations now apply.

However this is not merely an issue for science: it concerns every one of us. There needs to be worldwide public discussion about an appropriate name for our species, in the light of our present behaviour and attributes.

Further down the track I would not rule out an eventual return to the name Homo sapiens, provided we can demonstrate that we have earned it – and it is not mere flatulence, conceit or self-delusion.

Two years ago another Swedish scientist, Johan Rockstrom and his international colleagues (including Australians Will Steffen and Terry Hughes) identified 10 planetary ‘boundaries’ which we ought not to transgress because of the damage it will cause to our world and our chances of surviving in itxx.  They found we had already crossed three. These boundaries can be used as a report card on the human race: our success in remaining within them will be a direct measure of our wisdom - and of our determination to survive both as a species and a civilisation.

The wisdom to understand our real impact on the Earth and all life is the one we most need at this point in our history, in order to limit it.

Now is the time humans get to earn – or lose – the title sapiens.

Julian Cribb is a science writer.  He lives in Canberra, Australia.

References

i Homo sapiens Linnaeus 1758. http://www.eol.org/pages/327955
ii See, for example, Eldredge N., The Sixth Extinction, http://www.actionbioscience.org/newfrontiers/eldredge2.html
iii Harvey F. Worst ever carbon emissions leave climate on the brink. The Guardian, 29 May 2011.
iv See Schnellnhuber HJ, Climate Change – the Critical Decade. (video) http://www.aclimateforchange.org/profiles/blogs/climate-change-the-critical
v US EPA Chemical Substances Inventory (2011)
vi Environmental Working Group, 2005. http://www.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden2/execsumm.php
vii EU State of the Art Report on Chemical Mixtures, Universities of London and Goteborg. 2009
viii Diaz RJ and Rosenberg R, Spreading Dead Zones. Science, June 2008.
ix  See for example Bai ZG, Dent DL, Olsson L, Shaepman ME, Global Assessment of Land Degradation and Improvement, FAO LADA & ISRIC 2008
x  Global food losses and food waste, FAO, 2011
xi  Chartres C and Varma S, Out of Water, FT Press 2010
xii  FAO State of World Fisheries 2010
xiii  Birol F, IEA 2010.
xiv  GFN 2010. http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/world_footprint/
xv  SIPRI 2011, http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex/resultoutput/trends
xvi  Nuclear weapons: who has what? Arms Control Association 2011. http://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat
xvii  See for example Civilisation by Kenneth Clarke and The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski
xviii  UN Population Division: World Population Prospects – the 2010 Revision.
xix  Cribb JHJ, The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. University of California Press 2010.
xx  Rockstrom R et al. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475; 2009

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