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September 2, 2002

What Is Homo Sapiens' Place in Nature, from an Objective (Biocentric) Point of View?
Michael J. Vandeman, PhD

Many answers have been given to this question, but none, to my knowledge, based on science. Even scientists, apparently, often avoid applying their knowledge when it may be inconvenient (e.g., interfere with our preferred lifestyle). For example, open any biology textbook and find where it defines "exotic species". Do you see any mention of the fact that humans are, throughout most of our range, an exotic species -- or even a discussion of whether we are an exotic species? If biology is so valuable (which I think it is), why do we shy away from using it?

Another example: it is often claimed that humans are a natural part of our environment -- we are just an animal like any other animal. If that is true, then why aren't humans mentioned in the vast majority of natural histories? The fact is, we consider ourselves a part of our ecosystems when it's convenient (e.g. when we want to justify recreation in wildlife habitat), and not, when it's not convenient (e.g. when choosing where to live: in a house!). When you die, will you re-enter the ecosystem just like any other dead organism? No! We are either cremated, or buried in a box, specifically to avoid the natural process of decay.

It is obvious that we are a part of nature, or we couldn't touch and interact with it. The real question is Which part of nature are we?

Biology texts usually define an exotic species as one transported by humans to a new location, where it hadn't existed before. However, this is not a good definition, since the effect of the exotic species on its new surroundings has nothing to do with how it got there, but more to do with the fact that it is a newcomer. However, every species was new at some time in the past. So the question is, How long does it take to become a native species?

I would like to suggest that a length of time that makes sense, biologically, is the time that it takes for the other species in the ecosystem to evolve (i.e., make persistent -- "beneficial" -- genetic changes) to adapt to the newcomer -- say on the order of a million years. This would make humans (Homo sapiens) native only to (part of) Africa, and everywhere else, a relative newcomer -- an exotic species. (This is not a value judgment, but simply a statement of biological fact.)

Does this mean that we should all move back to Africa? I don't think so -- it wouldn't help! Even in Africa, our behavior changes so rapidly, on an evolutionary scale, that the only things that can evolve fast enough to keep up with us are bacteria and viruses! So even in Africa, we might as well consider ourselves an exotic species.

But what I do think it means is that we should act with restraint -- with the manners of a guest! What does this mean in practice? I think it means, first of all, to "listen" to other species, and what they are trying to tell us! For example, what is the first thing that every child learns about wildlife? That they don't want us around: that they run away whenever we try to approach them! And then, of course, because we are the curious animals that we are, we proceed to ignore their wishes.

Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas all had the same experience when they began trying to study apes in the wild: the apes didn't want them around! They "told" the researchers that clearly and unequivocally. Jane couldn't get close to the chimpanzees until she started bribing them with bananas. The gorillas charged Dian and tried to scare her away. And the orangutans pushed over trees toward Birute, apparently trying to kill or intimidate her. The apes desperately need us to deliver their message to the rest of humanity. Although the message is impossible to miss, most humans ignore it. Rather than arguing over to what degree the apes resemble or differ from humans, the most important message that we can derive from studying them is that they want to be left alone!

This is perhaps a bitter pill, but one that humanity urgently needs to take. With our population increasing rapidly, it is more important than ever to give wildlife what they want, which is also, therefore, what they need: freedom from the pressure, irritation, infection with diseases, and outright danger of the presence of humans. It is utterly inexcusable that we continue extending our hegemony into every square inch of the Earth -- and soon, other defenseless planets as well.

This is a tall order? Very well, then it is a tall order. But I do not see why we shouldn't aim for what is needed, instead of pretending that less is adequate.

Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
July 4, 2002


Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., Extinction: The Causes and Consequences of the Disappearances of Species. New York: Random House, 1981.

Foreman, Dave, Confessions of an Eco-Warrior. New York: Harmony Books, 1991.

Knight, Richard L. and Kevin J. Gutzwiller, eds. Wildlife and Recreationists. Covelo, California: Island Press, c.1995.

Noss, Reed F. and Allen Y. Cooperrider, Saving Nature's Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. Island Press, Covelo, California, 1994.

Stone, Christopher D., Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1973.

Vandeman, Michael J.,, especially, mjvande/india3.htm,, and

Ward, Peter Douglas, The End of Evolution: On Mass Extinctions and the Preservation of Biodiversity. New York: Bantam Books, 1994.

"The Wildlands Project", Wild Earth. Richmond, Vermont: The Cenozoic Society, 1994.

I am working on creating wildlife habitat that is off-limits to humans ("pure habitat"). Want to help? (I spent the previous 8 years fighting auto dependence and road construction.)

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