Anthroecology: A New Synthesis


Why did behaviorally modern humans and no other multicellular species in the history of the Earth gain the capacity to transform an entire planet? Biology alone cannot explain this – Homo sapiens is just another species in the genus Homo with a few distinctive traits- not including stone tools (common to all species in the genus) and fire (common to most). To explain the emergence of humanity as a “great force of nature” in the anthropocene (Steffen et al 2007) it should be crystal clear that this force is not simply biological, chemical or physical, but a novel social force emerging from the long-term upscaling of human societies.

Over the past several years I have been working on a theory explaining why humans and no other species gained the capacity to transform the biosphere and why different societies change ecology in different ways over the long-term. The result is a new synthetic evolutionary theory of anthroecology based on sociocultural niche construction, as I present in my recent paper:  Ecology in an Anthropogenic Biosphere (Ellis 2015) [long read warning!]. To help folks (including myself) handle so many theories at the same time (eg. niche construction, inclusive inheritance (The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis), cultural evolution, ultrasociality, world systems theory), the paper includes recommended readings, a table of definitions, and a summary of implications for ecological research, education and for ecological applications in environmental conservation and  management.

To fully digest this, I offer the the paper and a video of my presentation: Ecology in a Human Biosphere at MBL– below. Here I tell the story of how this work of transdisciplinary synthesis came about.

Like most ecologists whose work involves humans, my studies have tended to investigate the consequences of human activities: not the causes. For example, I’ve studied long-term ecological changes in village landscapes across China and I’ve mapped the global ecological patterns produced by human transformation of ecosystems – the anthropogenic biomes (anthromes)- but all of this work used empirical methods- direct analyses of data. On the other hand, biogeographers have long mapped the classic “natural” biomes based on their theoretical relationships with the global patterns of climate- for example, tropical woodlands form in warm and moist regions, tundra in cold and dry regions, etc. In classic biogeography theory, ecology is shaped by the global patterns of climate. From the beginning I had wanted to produce a predictive model for anthromes, but I never found an adequate theoretical model for an analogous “human climate system” that was reshaping the terrestrial biosphere into anthromes. One thing was clear however: developing such a theory was no small project – this would be a major effort at transdisciplinary theoretical synthesis. Daunting to say the least.

In Fall 2012, I gave a plenary talk on “Ecology in the Anthropocene” at the LTER All Scientists Meeting in Estes Park, Colorado. Afterwards, Aaron Ellison asked me if I would write an ESA Centennial Paper for Ecological Monographs to be submitted in Spring 2014. His question: “How would ecological concepts and ideas have to change if we (re)focused our attention on anthromes, not biomes, as an underlying biogeographic organizing schema?” Aaron had thrown down the gauntlet- and I took him up on it! Given the great venue, amount of time available and unlimited length of papers in Monographs , this was the best opportunity I was ever going to get to explore the ultimate causes of human transformation of the biosphere.

In truth- having all that time might not have helped so much- for the usual reasons the paper didn’t become my primary focus until early in 2014. Fortunately, I had been storing up relevant literature and notes for a decade before that. Another challenge was that I began this work as less than an amateur in the key disciplines aimed at understanding social processes- archaeology, anthropology, sociology, social psychology and history, and was no more than a novice in contemporary evolutionary theory. It would take months of reading- from journal articles to textbooks (very useful to amateurs) – before I began to gain a general grasp across the world of theories bearing on my subject. It began to feel like I was working on a second dissertation (I still feel this!).  It was soon clear that there was no way I would meet the deadline.

As I explored the literature, I found myself going down many different tracks, and almost every time a new world of theory opened up, demanding days of effort just to identify the key works I needed to understand. Even worse, one of the main things I learned was how many different theories – many of them dead-ends like “social Darwinism”- had already failed to answer the questions I was pursuing. This subject area is basically a quagmire. Why are behaviorally modern humans different from all other species? Why do behaviorally modern humans transform ecology more than any other species? And why do different societies change ecology in different ways? These questions are just asking for trouble! Truly, the very act of bringing together social, ecological and evolutionary explanations seems in many ways seditious- with each discipline demanding a different way of knowing why and how humanity and ecology come together.

Yet I kept to my goal of understanding the coupling of human social processes with the ecology of an anthropogenic biosphere. I worked hard to keep to ecologically-relevant explanations that would avoid rejection by experts in the human sciences. I am still working to determine how well I did as I present and discuss the work with colleagues across the ecological and social sciences. That is another interesting story now in the making.

I look forward to the discussions to come!

References cited

Ellis, E. C. 2015. Ecology in an Anthropogenic Biosphere. Ecological Monographs 85:287–331.

Steffen, W., P. J. Crutzen, and J. R. McNeill. 2007. The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment 36:614-621.