The tale of the human race is one of mistakes I suppose. Humans, along with some other animals have the ability to learn from experience, and making mistakes is perhaps the first step of the process. In fact, it’s amazing we’ve made it this far.

Iceplant was introduced to Anacapa Island in the 1940s and 50s, to aid in landscaping and to protect against erosion. It gradually took over the land area, reducing the diversity of native vegetation, and thus the food sources for native animals. At some point, a need for intervention was felt, and the authorities are now working on getting rid of the iceplant and restoring the native flora.


So also with wildfires. About a century back, timber was important enough to the economy that preventing wildfires was the policy of the US government. By the 1970s, experience and research showed that this wasn’t the way to go — massive wildfires continued to occur and it became clear that suppressing wildfires could increase the likelihood and intensity of future fires. (I believe one of the reasons for the increased intensity, and perhaps the increased likelihood as well, is that dry wood and undergrowth goes on accumulating in the absence of a wildfire, creating a much bigger stockpile of fuel for the fire to consume than would have been available if wildfires occured with regularity.) The policy now is to do some amount of prescribed burning, and to control wildfires when necessary, for example when human life is threatened.

In both cases, man presumes to understand and control some part of nature, realises that it’s a mistake, that his knowledge is incomplete, and attempts to backtrack. Another example, where the part of nature that is being poorly understood is in fact the human body, is that of the introduction of synthetic additives and substitutes in food, or of certain ways of processing food. Things that are originally thought of as harmless, or even beneficial (and they are almost always beneficial to the producers of the food involved) turn out to have negative side effects that are discovered decades later. Another example, also from Anacapa Island, is of DDE (a form of DDT) making its way into pelican eggs, causing the shells to become too thin, disastrously reducing hatching rates. Other fish-eating birds around the country were also affected before DDT was banned.


I wonder sometimes how our descendents will think back on us millions of years from now. It seems pretty certain that they’ll think of us as lower level intelligence, as we might think of chimpanzees, and perhaps many of the things I mention above will be fully understood (if indeed forests, pelicans and human bodies still exist). But the universe is a complex place, and though the human brain is pretty complex as well, I doubt that everything will be understood. Perhaps what will really be understood is the trade-offs involved in decisions, and whether a free lunch is at all possible in a certain situation. Making decisions will still be tricky, and there will be mistakes aplenty. But if the Q are to be believed (and of course they are) the quality of the humans to constantly aspire to something better means that they can potentially evolve beyond everything. And so in the very end, there may in fact be a very tiny amount of hope for us all.