The Anthropocene is a conceit of human exceptionalism

Peter Brannen has an interesting piece in the Atlantic, pointing out that the Anthropocene is more of a geological event rather than an epoch, at least so far.

Humans are now living in a new geological epoch of our own making: the Anthropocene. Or so we’re told. Whereas some epochs in Earth history stretch more than 40 million years, this new chapter started maybe 400 years ago, when carbon dioxide dipped by a few parts per million in the atmosphere. Or perhaps, as a panel of scientists voted earlier this year, the epoch started as recently as 75 years ago, when atomic weapons began to dust the planet with an evanescence of strange radioisotopes.

Brannen’s point is that human civilization so far is a speck in the geological record, 10,000 years (in the most generous definition of “civilization”) compared to 500 millions years of complex life, or about 0.002% of that history, or 0.0002% of Earth’s overall history.

Along those lines, he makes this point.

If, in the final 7,000 years of their reign, dinosaurs became hyperintelligent, built a civilization, started asteroid mining, and did so for centuries before forgetting to carry the one on an orbital calculation, thereby sending that famous valedictory six-mile space rock hurtling senselessly toward the Earth themselves—it would be virtually impossible to tell. All we do know is that an asteroid did hit, and that the fossils in the millions of years afterward look very different than in the millions of years prior.

Similarly, if we manage to wipe ourselves out in the next century or so (by climate destruction, nuclear war, or  some other means), or even in the next few millenia, virtually all evidence of human civilization would be gone in a few tens of millions of years due to the earth’s constant geological erosion, tectonic upheaval, and overall churn.  A geologist one hundred million years from now might be hard pressed to identify that any civilization in our time had actually existed.

(The situation might be a little more hopeful if our future scientists manage to make it to the moon, Mars, or other locations where perhaps some of our artifacts might still be around, although so far those artifacts are very limited in number.)

(It’s also worth noting that the asteroid strike causing the dinosaur extinction is more controversial than it used to be, although it doesn’t change Brannen’s point.)

Brannen finishes with this:

The idea of the Anthropocene inflates our own importance by promising eternal geological life to our creations. It is of a thread with our species’ peculiar, self-styled exceptionalism—from the animal kingdom, from nature, from the systems that govern it, and from time itself. This illusion may, in the long run, get us all killed. We haven’t earned an Anthropocene epoch yet. If someday in the distant future we have, it will be an astounding testament to a species that, after a colicky, globe-threatening infancy, learned that it was not separate from Earth history, but a contiguous part of the systems that have kept this miraculous marble world habitable for billions of years.

It does seem like human exceptionalism causes a lot intellectual hangups.  Contrary to a lot of misanthropic sentiment, I personally don’t see humanity as depraved in some manner, at least not in any way that other species aren’t.  We have those hangups for evolutionary reasons.  But we do have them.  And our long term survival, existing long enough to be something other than a blip in the geological record, may depend on us finding ways to overcome them.

53 thoughts on “The Anthropocene is a conceit of human exceptionalism

  1. I’ve seen articles debating the value of the Anthropocene, and it reminds me a little of debates about the Pluto (the planet). There is, on the one hand, a scientific view only barely subject to debate, but, on the other hand, there is what might be thought of as the “sensible” view — one that doesn’t ignore so much as co-exist with the facts.

    In my view, Pluto keeps its planet status purely on sentimental grounds. Once a planet, always a planet. Besides, nine planets is cooler than eight. (And Pluto has a blue atmosphere, for cryin’ out loud. And moons.)

    Likewise, I’m inclined to sympathize with the idea of an Anthropocene, not on human-centric grounds, but on the account of our having taken over the planet and leaving what I think will be a very noticeable mark.

    As you mention, there are already artifacts on the Moon and Mars, plus lots of stuff in orbit. Much of our work on Earth will vanish slowly, but much will remain.

    You once placed on par the millions of years of cyanobacteria activity with the 400 or so years of human activity. My point is that what we’ve done in the short term, with our conscious brains, is dozens of orders of magnitude beyond that.

    Maybe it does rate an “epoch” of its own.

    “I personally don’t see humanity as depraved in some manner, at least not in any way that other species aren’t.”

    Oh, no, nor do I! My misanthropy comes entirely from how animal-like most humans actually are. (A key thesis of mine is that our minds, our ability to think rationally, is exactly what elevates us.)

    “And our long term survival, existing long enough to be something other than a blip in the geological record, may depend on us finding ways to overcome them.”

    Agree. Our success thus far is due to that. (As I just said: rising above!)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My attitude about Pluto is if we consider it a planet, we should also consider the other small spherical bodies, dwarf planets, that orbit the sun to be planets. Of course, the fact that we call them “dwarf planets” but insist they’re not planets just shows how much of a mess the IAU made of the whole thing.

      “You once placed on par the millions of years of cyanobacteria activity with the 400 or so years of human activity. ”

      My point was in terms of consequences. If we destroy ourselves within the next few millenia, a geologist a hundred million years from now will discover the effects of cyanobacteria much more easily than they’ll discover the effects of us. All of complex life could be considered a side effect of the oxygenation coming from cyanobacteria

      Of course, if we’re still around in some form in a hundred million years, then our effects might be far more substantial by then.

      “My misanthropy comes entirely from how animal-like most humans actually are. (A key thesis of mine is that our minds, our ability to think rationally, is exactly what elevates us.)”

      The problem I see with talking about rationality, in and of itself, is that it’s always in service of values. From what I can see, our biggest issue are values mismatches, the tragedy of the commons, the fact that the rational course of action for individuals often doesn’t add up to the collective rational course for society, or humanity.


      1. “My point was in terms of consequences.”

        Understood, but we could include plate tectonics under such a broad umbrella. As you suggest, given an equal timespan, we’re likely to leave a far more obvious mark (like a Dyson swarm or something).

        I look also at what is accomplished and in what time frame. Humans have: harnessed the electron; harnessed the photon; harnessed information; and explored every niche including orbit and the solar system.

        I find that all quite astonishing. Evolution created a real whopper there!

        “The problem I see with talking about rationality, in and of itself, is that it’s always in service of values.”

        Unless you mean that understanding something is “in service of values” I disagree. I certainly do agree we use every available tool in service of our values, but that speaks to use, not the tool.

        Rational thought is grounded in logic, which is grounded in math, which is grounded in fundamental axioms. Ultimately, it’s just a template for thought.


        1. “Rational thought is grounded in logic, which is grounded in math, which is grounded in fundamental axioms. Ultimately, it’s just a template for thought.”

          Okay, but a mob boss can be utterly logical in pursuit of his goals. So can a ruthless dictator. I’m reminded of an old movie where the hero refuses a large bribe and the villain says something like, “You can’t reason with a man who turns down that much money.”

          It comes back to Hume’s statement:

          We speak not strictly and philosophically when we talk of the combat of passion and of reason. Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.


          1. “Okay, but a mob boss can be utterly logical in pursuit of his goals. So can a ruthless dictator.”

            Of course. And others can use logic for better goals. It has entirely to do with the person and the action, not the tool.


    2. This. My spin: call it “exceptionalism” if you like, but the power of high intelligence multiplied by language really is exceptional. Also, haven’t other eons been named or at least dated according to the presence of some particular organism?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I couldn’t find the one I was thinking of online, but found a copy in my own collection. It’s from a lesser-known Larsonesque cartoon series from many years back: Strange Matter by Nick Kim.

        Kim is apparently still active, but I couldn’t find this one on his site.


          1. WP seems to expand bare links to images, at least on the site. I’m ambivalent about that feature, because sometimes people paste something I might not mind being linked to, but would prefer not be rendered in the thread.


          2. I’ve had people post links to videos that I’ve gone and edited out due to content. There is, too, that they make the page take a bit longer to render (at least on some systems).


          3. I’m pretty reluctant to edit people’s comments unless they ask for it. (Except for minor html corrections.) I did once delete a comment someone posted with something like five or six videos of Deepak Chopra type talks.

            Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Hariod. How are you? It’s been a while.

      So you’re saying the possibility of artificial intelligence is also a conceit of exceptionalism? It seems the opposite to me. To say that an engineered system can’t do what a human brain can, seems to be saying that there’s something extremely exceptional about that brain.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. All good thanks, Mike, and yes, I’ve been away from the blogosphere for a good while, doing some long-form fiction writing. Or trying to.

        I take your point as regards AI (not the term I’d use for replicating human consciousness). But by my lights human (or any animal) consciousness isn’t solely a case of ‘do(ing) what a human brain can’, and that to get a replication/facsimile of human-type consciousness would/might (I dunno) require a faithful re-presentation of a dynamically-changing human organism, along with a representational capactity to create and introspect upon phenomena enactively with the world, with antecedent and genetic conditionings (where would they come from, or begin?), with memories and nervous system states that are constantly in flux (again, dynamically and enactively) both with the replicant organism itself as it responds to the environment and its own ever-changing condition. It seems a tall order. Perhaps even a bit fantastical?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It is a tall order. And I think anyone who takes it to be unquestionably possible, particularly that it’ll be possible in 20 years or something, is being too optimistic.

          On the other hand, if you believe that the mind is a system that fully exists in this universe and which operates according to the laws of physics, then to say it’s forever impossible seems overly pessimistic. We’re talking about taking a natural system, one that operates on fairly modest amounts of energy, and reproducing it.

          That’s not to say that it may not involve some steps that many people would say mean the copy isn’t the same person. You said you didn’t like the AI term, but I think that’s what a copied mind would inevitably be. A reproduction of an organic version, but optimized for whatever substrate it needs to run on, a combination of copied information, ported functionality, and inevitably some reconstruction.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Come on Harriod, you can’t tell us that you’ve been so engrossed in writing long-form fiction that blogging hasn’t been interesting enough for you to attend, and yet not even tell us the plot. At least give us that. I no longer read fiction (that is unless I’m helping my son do so), though I’m certainly interested in whatever’s good enough to take you away from dickering around here.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Bit of both really, Mike. I have a clear idea of structure before a word’s written, but feel that characters need to be allowed to emerge more fully (almost by themselves, as it were) as the process continues, and it’s perhaps a mistake to form them too precisely in any first, or even second, draft. They emerge in interaction with others, in response to exposition, so I backtrack and accommodate or incorporate what later has emerged. What about you?


          2. I don’t know yet. Most of the short stories I’ve written, I had a good idea where I was going, but no actual outline. The one novel I’ve written, I started out pantsing, but hated not knowing where to go next, so about halfway through I created an outline, and mostly stuck to it (although that might have been a consequence of it being a Nanowrimo sprint).

            I like the security blanket of an outline, but I suspect I’m going to be more like what you describe, maybe starting with an outline, even if only a brief one, but keeping the freedom to be spontaneous.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Does the creation of characters play a large part in your writing, Mike, and if so, how do they emerge fully-formed? I suppose with Sci-Fi it may be more about exposition, but I really wouldn’t know.


          4. In my case, the characters are constructed with backgrounds and challenges to elaborate the idea or setting. For example, in a society that has artificial people, to explore the implications I needed an outsider who might have reactions similar to the reader’s, so a character from an insulated religious order visiting the main society sort of emerged.

            That said, I wouldn’t call it a totally rote process. I think about what attributes the character needs to have, then there’s a jump as they suddenly form in my mind, with their own attitudes and personality, sometimes subconsciously modeled on someone I know or know of.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Quite agree we are no worse than other life on earth although certainly no better. We nees to evelove far far away from our evolutionary origins if we are to achieve decency, goodness, equality, as hoped for by countless thinkers and philosophers over the years. Because it has to be said we are not nice. I am not nice. And human life is still nasty and brutish. Unfortunately it is no longer so short.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve personally been recently reminded of how not nice humans are. But people do usually act in their own inclusive interests. The trick seems to be in aligning those interests with the greater ones of, not just the society’s, but of the species.


  3. Here’s a prediction about how things will go for humanity. Though certainly dystopian, this doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. Construct your points of disagreement carefully.

    Evolution created the conscious form of computer to value one thing in the end — personal happiness. Such purpose brought an autonomous form of function that standard computers of the “if… then…” and so on variety, couldn’t otherwise attain. The human is an exceptional example, and probably given that it developed advanced natural languages. Far more recently it gained specialized occupations, written languages, and finally hard sciences — the culmination of which make it extremely powerful and progressively more susceptible to killing itself off. So how do I believe that humanity will indeed expire? Environmental degradation and war? Not exactly.

    I believe that we’ll invent ways to wire ourselves up to machines that cause us to feel amazingly good, or thus circumvent nature in this regard. Apparently this is already possible for mice — when properly wired up they’ll continue working a pleasure lever until they pass out from exhaustion.

    Governments should generally make such machines illegal for human use given their implications, though that shouldn’t stop such development — nothing would be more valuable to us than such instruments. Certain governments should naturally permit them for a price. Furthermore these machines should be touted as instruments from which to actually reduce the impact of humanity upon our ecosystem. While normal instruments of pleasure, such as fine food, require tremendous resources, these machines should have tiny footprints and comparatively incredible rewards.

    As we progressively pass off more and more of the skills that it takes to maintain our species over to machines, there should be more and more opportunity to remain “juiced”. But the more time that we spend this way, the more practical skills that we should lose as well. Ultimately we should depend upon such machines for our existence entirely, from womb to our recycling. Thus we’ll live in ecstasy, that is until something goes wrong and so humanity is killed off.

    I suspect that pleasure machines will exist within a century. There should then be maybe a two thousand year conversion to perfect dependence upon them and technology for our happiness and survival. After that I can’t say. Such an end may spare much of the ecosystem however.

    Furthermore I’d expect another highly advanced species to evolve in perhaps three hundred thousand years for a repeat performance. Even nuclear war shouldn’t end life here in general. Sometimes it should simply take longer for a creature like the human to evolve and become tremendously powerful, and so kill itself off like all the rest.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Eric,
      I don’t know if you noticed the site Anthony Garner mentioned: I’ve only glanced at it so far, but it seems to discuss similar ideas, although it’s more concerned with actually modifying ourselves to be happy rather than hooking up to something. You might find it interesting.

      I think we’ve discussed this before, but I think we already have the technology you describe, just in chemical form: heroine, cocaine, ecstasy, etc. And there are definitely people who would just stay high on that stuff if they could. So far, society has kept the effect contained.

      You note machines taking over as a factor. I do think ceding all skills and productive activity to machines is a danger. Charles Stross, in his book “Saturn’s Children”, posited a future where humans have gone extinct, not because the machines turned on them, but because humans, with all their needs being met by the robots, including sexual companionship, simply didn’t bother to reproduce.

      To some degree this can be mitigated by modifying ourselves to find pleasure in productive pursuits. But it leaves the question, in a world where machines can do everything, what exactly do humans do?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks Mike. I’ve now had a listen to David Pearce’s talk, and yes in many ways it does resonate with my own ideas. I’m currently 50 and was 37 when this was written, but back in my 20’s I was big on his preferred mechanism, or parents choosing to use “superior” sperm and egg when they have children, and even thought that governments would eventually provide incentives for people with obvious genetic defects to go that route. This plan has tremendous obstacles regarding our morality paradigm however. Note that if people could change their own genes to be smart, healthy, beautiful, and so on, then that’s exactly what people would tend to do. But since we can’t change our own genes, and child welfare doesn’t quite equate with parent welfare, this plan should always remain relatively marginal, though some do tend to go this route anyway.

        He also mentioned what you have, or drugs. I’ve noticed that many or most of the billboards out here in Cali now advertise dope delivery given recent legality. Still current drugs do seem to compromise our ability to think effectively, as well as carry strong addiction potential. Modern psychiatrists have effectively changed their occupation from “therapists” to “drug dealers”, though I haven’t noticed them getting much praise for helping people. Thus I’m not convinced about this plan either.

        The first plan that Pearce mentioned was the one that I just did, which he gave the unfortunate marketing name of “wire heads”. But with this option no one becomes a “stoned junky” (as far as I know), and it’s for personal benefit rather than hypothetical children. Of course the ability for a human to be wired up to a pleasure switch doesn’t yet exist, though when it does should be huge!

        Then as far as Pearce’s thoughts about helping sentient creatures in general on our planet, well those are admirable sentiments indeed, but sorry… no. Of course we can and probably will progressively begin to treat our pets and livestock better through social mechanisms and legal policy. Nature, however, is what it is. The only thing that I can think of to help it (should nature be extremely unhappy, as I suspect) would be to nuke our planet as hard as we possibly can, and so set life back some millions of years. But even if we empirically determine that life sucks real bad for most of life, we still aren’t going to do that. We’re all about ourselves.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s worth noting that we actually can change our own genes today with Crisper/CAS technology. The problem is nobody really knows all the effects of doing that. It’s why gene therapy is currently restricted to treating severe situations, and not in any way that involves passing the modifications to descendants (aside from that guy in China). But over time I expect that to change.

          I haven’t read Pearce carefully, but I suspect if we modified creatures in nature to not suffer, it would probably screw up their motivations, and mess up the ecology. The problem is that suffering has an adaptive purpose. Without it, I suspect animals won’t do the right things that keeps the ecosystem functioning properly.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I’d forgotten about the CRISPR stuff Mike. Yeah that should improve, and so at least help some people with pretty obvious genetic defects. But then if everyone soon has their genetic profile all mapped out, then people planning kids who carry such genetic defects will need to justifying to themselves and potential offspring, why they still chose to use their own genes? (Not to mention forgoing other perks that the kids might have reaped.) So while CRISPR could potentially become a high tech band-aid given parental negligence, genetic substitution might be become thought of as a responsible alternative. This might get at least a bit of traction in this regard.

            Agreed on messing with nature. We might destroy it for a while, but we can’t turn it into “Disney” — it wouldn’t otherwise work.

            Liked by 1 person

    2. Larry Niven, Spider Robinson, and other SF authors, have written quite a few stories about “wireheading” — implanting an electrode to stimulate pleasure centers. In some versions, a timer is involved that both limits the time being stimulated and the delay before use is allowed again. Otherwise wireheads happily starve to death.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah that sounds about right to me Wyrd. That would be during the two thousand years or whatever when people need to still be productive and figure things out. Then a point would come where we don’t even learn to speak — cradle to grave juicing. It may seem horrible to us now, and I know it’ll be fought hard, but it seems to me how things will go anyway.


  4. I see it in exactly the opposite way. Human exceptionalism is, in my mind, the idea that we’re above nature, that we’re separate from it. The Anthropocene is a reminder that we are still very much part of Earth’s natural systems, and that our activities affect this planet, for better or worse.

    I’ve found the Anthropocene to be a useful way to make that point. Whether it will still be a meaningful or useful term to someone studying Earths strata a million years from now… I don’t know. But I think it’s a very useful term in the here and now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know that’s the motivation behind the Anthropocene concept, to impress on everyone how much we’re affecting the planet’s ecosystems. I think Brannen’s point is that calling it an “epoche” is inaccurate, a hijacking of scientific terminology for rhetorical purposes.

      He suggests calling it an “event”. He comes up with some names I find unwieldy, like the “Mid-Pleistocene Thermal Maximum.” A better name might be the “Anthropic Extinction Event”.

      A broader point is that if we destroy ourselves, the earth will survive us and move on, retaining little evidence we were ever here within 1% of its lifespan.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “A broader point is that if we destroy ourselves, the earth will survive us and move on, retaining little evidence we were ever here within 1% of its lifespan.”

        Ironically if we take the idea of the Anthropocene as a warning, humans will modify their actions and the Anthropocene might become a more than an event. If we don’t take it as a warning, you are right. Future intelligent beings on earth might only notice a spike in the concentration of the greenhouse gases as evidence we were here.


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