Humans as Apex Predators

Simon Winchester’s latest book, Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World (Harper, 2021), caused me to think about humans’ roles in the overall ecosystem. Are we apex predators, meaning that we regularly eat many other species but no other species regularly eats us?

The contrast that interests me is not apex versus non apex. It is apex predator versus social, caring animals. Winchester’s panorama of humans dominating geography and displacing (too kind a word) other peoples, ranging from native Americans to aboriginal Australians, certainly provides evidence of predation rather than social caring.

Beyond displacing others, Europeans enslaved millions of native Americans and many more millions of Africans. Seemed like predation to me. There is no way to spin this positively. Instead, it could be characterized as genocide.  These atrocities are brilliantly chronicled in Isabel Wilkerson’s profound book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Random House, 2020).

What is different about human predators is that we eventually realize what we have been doing. In democracies, the oppressed eventually get to articulate what they have experienced. Public opinion evolves to be sympathetic to these complaints. There are attempts to make amends, although not without strong forces attempting to defend that status quo.

That is perhaps understandable, but it still begs the central question.  To what extent are we apex predators versus social, caring animals?  It seems to me that the historical evidence supports our inherent tendencies to apex predation, followed by reflections on our dominance and entertaining the possibility of being social, caring animals. This is quite different than a lion regretting that he or she ate you.

This suggests there is hope that human animals might consider — in advance — the implications of their actions on others, whether the others be indigenous populations or other species. Thus, despite being apex predators, we can work to moderate our dominant behaviors to be less fundamentally disruptive to the overall ecosystem.  This work will be very difficult and progress will likely be quite slow, but it is what social, caring animals should do.

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