Why Do Humans Dominate?

From early humans rubbing sticks together to make fire, to the fossil fuels that drove the industrial revolution, energy has played a central role in our development as a species. But the way we power our societies has also created humanity’s biggest challenge. It’s one that will take all our ingenuity to solve. — Getty Images

Most people might think this is a dumb question. Our dominion over the Earth was the Divine plan. But scientists approach such questions from a different angle. Consequently, they get a different answer. From a purely scientific viewpoint, the key to humanity’s world domination is our use of energy.

First came our mastery of fire. This gave many advantages — fire kept us warm, defended us from predators and even provided a hunting tool. But most important, it allowed us to cook food. Cooking can be considered a way to “pre-digest” what we eat; heat unlocks the carbohydrates, proteins and lipids that provide nutrition, making our digestive enzymes more efficient. In a sense, this remade our biology. According to Professor Rachel Carmody of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “Anything that allows an organism to get energy more efficiently is going to have huge effects on the evolutionary trajectory of that organism.”

Thus cooking led to better nutrition, which led to the development of bigger brains and a dramatic increase in intelligence. We learned how to cultivate crops and domesticate animals, making our food supply more predictable and plentiful. A surplus of food supported a larger population. Now some of us could specialize into such fields as trade, construction, and metallurgy.

This transition into specialization ultimately led to industrialization, which required even more energy. Farming was powered by the Sun, but the transition to the next step required the introduction of fossil fuels. The result was profound. We moved into the Industrial Revolution and as a result we have become healthier and our civilization has advanced to levels unimaginable to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. To quote Vaclav Smil of Manitoba University in Canada, “Without fossil fuels, no rapid mass transportation, no flying, no surplus consumer food production, no cell phone made in China, brought to Southampton by a giant container ship with 20,000 containers.” Today, we live in a fossil-fuel society.

So at each step along the way, our mastery of energy made the difference. The great irony is our modern civilization has raised the specter of climate change. Will this prove our undoing? Or at least a major adjustment to our current lifestyle?

It appears that for civilization to continue to advance, we will need to demonstrate a mastery over energy once again, only this time in a different, more Earth-friendly way.

Taken from “The Real Reason Humans are the Dominant Species” by Justin Rowlatt & Laurence Knight (https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-56544239?).

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