06.02.2019 change 06.02.2019
Ludwika Tomala
Ludwika Tomala

Biologist: Man is an invasive species; altruism is our chance

Photo: Fotolia Photo: Fotolia

Man meets the criteria of the invasive species. But we are capable of predicting the effects of our global expansion and prevent them, says biologist Dr. Andrzej Mikulski. In his opinion, altruism, an approach that has long been giving us advantage in evolution, can protect us and the Earth from the destructive effects of our invasion.

Invasive species include American mink, raccoon dog, ash-leaved maple or European goldenrod. "But man also meets all the criteria of an invasive species" - says Dr. Andrzej Mikulski from the Faculty of Biology of the University of Warsaw.

According to biologists, a species must meet several criteria to be considered invasive: it must cross an environmental barrier, survive in a new area, reproduce, create a stable population, continue to spread and have a big impact on the new ecosystem.

All the pieces fit: the Homo sapiens expansion is global. People not only live on all continents, including Antarctica, but also have their representatives in the Earth`s orbit. They live on thousands of islands, in the tropics, desert oases, mountains, wilderness of the primeval forest, they reach the highest hills and explore the oceanic depths.

It is believed that our species has existed on Earth for about 140-200 thousand years. Dr. Mikulski says that the first people lived in Africa. From there, about 85,000 years ago they got to the Indian Peninsula. Then they spread in different directions: to Europe, all of Asia, Australia and the Americas. While the human population 75,000 years ago was 1,000 to 10,000, now there are over 7.5 billion people.

"The success of our species resulted from the fact that man was able to adapt to very different conditions thanks to our cultural transfer capabilities" - says Dr. Mikulski. He explains that the ability to communicate and share information about innovations that made life easier gave our species better survival capabilities than adaptation through evolutionary genetic changes.

Another trait that he mentions is altruism - the ability to act for the benefit of others. "It was altruism that made groups strong and resistant to the influence of external factors" - he says.

But the invasion of the human species did affect the ecosystem. Migrating people carried diseases and hunted for species that, for example, did not have natural enemies in their areas and had not adapted for defence. With time, the destruction of habitats of other species was added to the effects of migration. Dr. Mikulski quotes estimates, according to which about 130 thousand species have already died off as a result of human activity.

The invasion of Homo sapiens is not the first situation in the history of the Earth when one group of organisms dominated life on Earth, causing mass extinctions. "Approximately 3.5 billion years ago, for example, the Earth was conquered by cyanobacteria. Previously, anaerobic conditions prevailed on Earth, and cyanobacteria changed the atmosphere on our planet to oxygen. All species that were adapted to anaerobic conditions had to die or adapt to the new conditions, which was not easy" - says the scientist.

According to a recent hypothesis, https://www.pnas.org/content/111/15/5462https://www.pnas.org/content/111/15/5462. They were producing huge amounts of methane, which oxidized, absorbing huge amounts of oxygen.

"The upside was that those invasions were very slow - on a geological scale. The human invasion began only a few tens of thousands of years ago. This rate does not give the organisms that are in our way a good chance for evolutionary adaptation" - comments the scientist.

According to him, the deterioration of living conditions on Earth related to our expansion will not directly lead to the destruction of humanity. "We`re a resilient species, we can handle extreme conditions, and if we try, we`re even capable of living on Mars" - he says. But he warns against other threats related to expansion. "The world is certainly radically changing. We might face extinction for a number of reasons, including global conflicts related to the fight for limited resources" - he says. He explains that due to global warming, many places in the world where food is now being produced will no longer have conditions for such production.

"We are facing an unprecedented migration of millions of people to the north, and we are not prepared for it" - he says. He believes that this could lead to great conflicts. "This is one of the reasons why I feel a threat against myself and my children" - he says.

According to the biologist, these global changes may indirectly lead to the extinction of our species. "There are people who think that this is a natural course of events and that human succession is only one of the stages in our planet`s history. According to their view, after our species disappears, the Earth will look differently, and other species will take our place" - he says.

"It is all up to us" - says Dr. Mikulski when asked if it is possible to make our "invasion" - now that it is already happening - proceed in the mildest possible way for us and for the Earth.

Dr. Mikulski mentions altruism among the possible changes in the way of management on our planet. "Once we have satisfied our basic needs, we humans reveal exceptional layers of altruism and compassion for organisms other than just our family, group or even our species" - the scientist says. He adds that at this point this is particularly visible in Western countries. "When we have more time, more resources, we start to care for the weaker - also for animals and the natural environment" - he says. He adds that he sees it in his environment, for example in the changes of consumer choices. "A simple matter - people start to buy free range eggs instead of eggs from caged chickens" - says the biologist.

According to Mikulski, our ability to communicate effectively and share innovative ideas is still very useful. It helps us understand what is happening around us. "And yet we know that our health and well-being depend on the contact with natural environment" - the biologist notes. He says that large companies are already changing their attitude towards technologies that destroy nature and are starting to be pioneers in managing environmentally friendly resources. Governments and city authorities are also beginning to recognise the need for water purification and reclamation of over-urbanized areas.

"Man is a unique species. We have developed culture and means of rapid exchange of information between individuals living in different parts of the globe. Our adaptation to changing environmental conditions is unprecedented" - says Dr. Andrzej Mikulski. He advises us to proudly take advantage of the important traits of being able to communicate and altruism. He notes that these traits that gave us an evolutionary advantage can also help us in the future.

PAP - Science in Poland, Ludwika Tomala

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