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Is Humanity Endangered?

A species of animal is defined as much by its culture as by its genetics. By that criterion, humanity’s status is quite precarious.
lol ascent of man lol

(Photo: Kevin Renes/Shutterstock)

It turns out that a Hawaiian crow is more than the sum of its feathers. Scientists are doing everything they can to preserve the species, including a captive breeding program, but once a bird is raised in an artificial environment by scientists, the 'alala—as it is traditionally called in Hawaii—loses the basic marks of what makes it special: Without parents and peers to teach it the culture of songs and flight, the captive-born 'alala will share little with its namesake.

In her new book, Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things, science journalist M.R. O'Connor sets out to tell the story of the 'alala and of other species that face or have gone through extinction; in her research, O’Connor found that the definition of a species was a matter of significant dispute. There are at least 26 broadly accepted definitions of what constitutes a species, each one persuasive in its own way: whether the animals can mate and produce offspring; whether, morphologically, they look the same; what percentage of their genetic code is similar; and so on.

oconnor resurrection science

Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things. (Photo: St. Martin's Press)

And yet, throughout, one of O'Connor's key findings is that however we might aim to preserve a species as defined by these traits, a major element in what makes a given species recognizable—and viable—is its culture. Further, she not only finds that culture can be useful in classifying species, but also raises the question of whether we're in fact saving a given species when we alter or destroy its culture.

O’Connor visits underground genetic vaults where a frozen tissue sample that can fit in your hand is one of our best bets at preserving a whale the size of a small apartment building—the North Atlantic right whale. But even if we bio-engineered right whales, O’Connor finds, the creatures would be lost without an inherited culture of breeding grounds, migration pathways, and more. These would simply never re-emerge within a resurrected species of whale, even if we could Jurassic Park it back into existence from the genetic material found in tissue samples. A failure on humans’ part to communicate the culture of a species in the same way parents do to offspring within any one species is what has led to failure in countless conservation and re-introduction efforts.

Even when we’re talking about strictly genetic and morphological traits that define a species, we’re often also talking about its culture. Scientists are currently debating whether to consider the red wolf a new species, as it is a hybrid among gray wolves and coyotes. We know that gray wolves and coyotes mated to create the red wolf, but scientists are divided on the red wolf’s species status, in large part, O’Connor writes, because we can’t date that hybridization, and different dates would mean different theories of species; if the interbreeding happened thousands of years ago, via “natural” forces, then maybe the red wolf is more authentic as a distinct species; if more-recent human interaction with the environment is what led to interbreeding, then maybe the red wolf is an accident of the laboratory that humanity has made of the Earth, and therefore not deserving of the “species” denominator. Wound through that debate is a variety of concepts— authenticity, interaction, the very meaning of time—that represent cultural values far more than they do scientific principles.


There’s a dispute in Florida right now over conserving the Florida panther. Local hunters and some politicians see the conservation efforts as absurd, after conservationists introduced eight female cougars from Texas in 1995 to create “genetic augmentation” that would sustain an inbred and dwindling population of panthers. Those who oppose declaring the Florida panther endangered suggest it’s simply no longer the same big cat. Of course, the fact that the cougars and panthers interbred so well speaks to the fact that they’re quite similar biologically; indeed, the two populations “had shared a continuous range with Florida panthers as recently as the 1800s,” but had been split from each other because of “human-caused isolation,” O’Connor writes. They’re both, at most, subspecies of Puma concolor.

But therein lies the fascinating twist: Conservationists argue the Florida panther is genetically authentic and therefore must be preserved, but in order to make the argument that its genetic authenticity is real, they have to discount any differentiation between the Florida panther and the Texas cougar. It’s different because it is the same, and the same because it is different. If there is something special about the Florida panther, it’s less to be found in its genes or appearance than in its habitat, and how it responds to that habitat—which is to say, its culture. Indeed, much of what will determine the viability of the Florida panther in the future is whether a group of them will choose to cross the Caloosahatchee River, and establish a second major territory. “There has not been a single female sighted there in over three decades,” O’Connor writes, adding, “Without them, the few male cats who swim across are just stragglers and wanderers.” The Florida panther may live or die on the basis of its culture of adventurousness and the degree to which it can develop a lack of fear of the unknown.

But while we’re going down this road of discussing the novel argument that various wild species can be defined by their culture, we can’t ignore the one species we’d all agree is defined more than anything by its culture. A human is much more than just a hairless ape. Sure, we have morphological traits that make us different from any other species on the planet, but the first thing that comes to mind when you’re asked what makes us human almost certainly isn’t the fact that we’re omnivorous bipeds without natural protection against the elements. It’s obvious that what makes humanity truly different from other species is a set of cultural capabilities in the realm of language, building, science, art, mathematics, and more.

It’s hard to read O’Connor’s deep and inquiring work into what differentiates species and not see a reflection of human difference in it. From this perspective, there certainly seems to be far less difference between a Texas cougar and a Florida panther than there is between, for example, a Frenchman and a German. We could talk all day about differences in attitude, habit, work ethic, artistry, and so forth, between Jacques and Hans, whereas the foremost tracker of endangered species in North America, Roy McBride, couldn’t “discern any difference in the cats’ behaviors” when he examined cougars and panthers.

And then, beyond continental neighbors, what are we to make of the much larger cultural differences between human beings hailing from different regions, with different root languages, or with different religions? And what of the differences across time? It was certainly within the last couple of centuries that more than half of humanity was engaged in agriculture, whereas now more than half of us live in cities. And yet, if we were to take a human from several hundred or even several thousand years ago and place them in Manhattan or San Francisco, we could be reasonably confident that, after being a bit overwhelmed and bewildered for some period of time, they’d end up almost entirely indistinguishable from the rest of us.

We remain completely comfortable describing humans as entirely members of a single species. The founding fathers of the United States declared straightforwardly that “all men are created equal,” and even many horrible racists don’t go so far as to suggest that the targets of their ire aren’t actually human. We clearly believe that something unites all of humanity; what is it?

MIT psychology researcher and professor Sherry Turkle believes that she knows precisely what cultural element has defined humanity all this time—and she says it’s endangered. In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Turkle writes that “face-to-face conversation is the most human—and humanizing—thing we do.” For Turkle, conversation is the center around which we develop so much of what we consider “human” traits: empathy, the capacity for joy, and self-reflection. It is a cultural basis that spans across regions and ethnicities, space and time. Humans have always spoken face-to-face, and have used that experience to learn new information, and to learn about each other.

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. (Photo: Penguin Press)

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. (Photo: Penguin Press)

Two pieces of technology acting in concert—the Internet and the mobile device—are changing that, and changing it rapidly and in an accelerating fashion. Turkle tracks a 40 percent drop in empathy among college-student test subjects in the past 20 years, with most of that decrease coming in the last 10. She investigates a middle school where administrators and teachers have suddenly found that students “are not developing empathy in the way that years of teaching suggested they would.” She speaks to human resources professionals who are adding a second interview to the application process for entry-level jobs, because they know that young adults can practice enough to get through an initial interview, but frequently find that today’s applicants can’t extemporize within an additional conversation that’s meant to be spontaneous.

And the problem of our new, mobile-device-led culture is not just in how we relate to others, but also in how we understand ourselves and behave when we’re on our own. Conversation expands our ability to think and sit in solitude, says Turkle, a tendency similarly degraded by a new culture of mobile devices. Our failure to learn to be truly alone makes us, in turn, less capable of interacting properly when we’re with others. And we are, really and truly, unable to be alone: In one 2014 study cited by Turkle, college students were placed alone in rooms with electrodes attached to their ankles; rather than sit and do nothing, 64 percent of male students (but only 15 percent of women) decided to administer electrical shocks to themselves before the 15-minute observation period was over, even though they’d previously said they’d have paid money to avoid that kind of pain.

While conclusions based on such episodes are heavy on correlation and light on causation, Turkle offers concrete findings that relate specifically to phones and behavior. “We have learned that even a silent phone inhibits conversations that matter,” she writes, citing two studies that found significant differences in the quality of conversation and relationship-building among test subjects when a mobile device was simply sitting in the room. And then there’s the bulk of her work—her own field research: “Many hundreds of conversations about conversation make up the primary source material for this book,” she writes.

Turkle makes explicit the idea that humanity’s essence is on the verge of extinction; here, she cites Rachel Carson’s 1962 environmentalist cri de coeur, Silent Spring, which investigated the wholesale death of bird species and other fauna as a result of pesticides. “Distracted at our dinner tables and living rooms, at our business meetings, and on our streets,” Turkle writes, “we find traces of a new ‘silent spring’” in which “technology is implicated in an assault on empathy.”

Turkle finds frequent and real examples of digital messaging as an agent of change in our culture, increasing overall interactions while decreasing their depth. Couples are reserving their difficult interactions for texting and instant messaging, which require less emotional and spontaneous work, and thus these couples invest less emotion and intention in each other and in their relationships; students gather in large groups for dinner, while dropping out of the larger conversation to text, so that the conversation never gets too deep or complicated; grandchildren cancel appointments with their grandparents by text, and so never have to see or hear the emotional disappointment they generate; we post condolences and congratulations on Facebook, never given the chance to see any facial change in the profile picture of the person we’re talking to. Within digital messaging contexts, we’ve stopped interacting with people, and instead interact with their avatars, scratching the surface of emotional engagement because we let cartoonish emoji take the place of interpreting our human responses.

Turkle writes of teachers coming up to her to say “that they wholeheartedly agree” that “kids can’t talk anymore,” and so the teachers are “using messaging on the iPad to try to increase student sociability.” As Turkle notes, that works to “increase sociability on apps,” but does nothing to create “an ease with each other face-to-face, the context in which empathy is born.” There’s a prophetic note when Turkle writes that “empathy, too, will have its own technologies.” Shortly after the book was published this October (and months after its final draft was completed), Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced the alternative to the “Like” button: He called it an “empathy” button, in which one can choose from several animé-style images to communicate one’s full range of emotions; we will soon project with a handful of illustrated faces the countless feelings we have that no one gets to see any more on our own faces.

Like the ‘alala missing its song, the Florida panther missing its habitat, or a Northern right whale missing a mother’s guidance, humanity is losing a piece of itself. And though Turkle emphasizes that she’s simply sounding a warning bell—that things can be turned around—the lessons we learn from O’Connor are more sobering: in a species’ culture, what’s gone remains gone, never to return in quite the same way. If we listen to Turkle’s pleas for renewing our culture, we may well get back to face-to-face conversation, but an entire generation of preschoolers has already learned life one way, and whatever we might give them to refresh conversation in our species would be a simulacrum or an offshoot of what came before. And Turkle is surely fighting a losing battle, at least in the short term, with far more of us seeming to be immersed in our devices than concerned with the potential impact of such behavior, and devices only becoming more ubiquitous with each passing day. Still, we should all be able to agree that it’s worth trying to conserve what’s made us human, and learn to put our phones down.