Another Grand Synthesis

Mon, 29 Apr 1996 11:21:11 CST

A grand synthesis of biological and cultural evolution can be proposed
by way of the plausible speculation that evolution works, in the long
run, to select for species according to their ability to use energy. If
we grant that this energy use can be non-metabolic as well as metabolic,
we can synthesize the thermodynamictheorizing of A.J. Lotka with that of
Leslie A. White. My way of doing this is to define a species' total
enegy use E as follows: E = (Em/P +En/P)AD, where A denotes the total a
rea a species inhabits, D, the density of inhabitation, P, the total
number of organisms comprising the species; and where m and n are
subscripts denoting metabolic and non-metabolic energy respectively.
The equation's right side simplifies to E, making it clear that what we
have here is a definition, not a theory. Humans are the only species on
earth to make significant use of energy nonmetabolically (e.g. fire,
fossil fuel, nuclear). The components of the definition correspond
nicely with four broad phases of the human past: the evolution of our
ancestors into large-bodied primates consuming a lot of metabolic energy
per organism (Em/P); our radiation from the tropics into many
environments (increase in A); our increasing global density since around
10,000 BP (increase in D); and industrialization (increase in En/P).
Culture is the means by which organic evolution permitted a large-bodied
mammal to undergo the last three phases: unprecedented radiation into
environments beyond the one permitted by biological adaptation alone;
density increases that defied the density-dependent regulation we see in
other species; and use of non-metabolic energy through technological
evolution. I have given these four phases the user-friendly--but
slightly misleading--names Growing Up, Spreading Out, Crowding In,
Switching On; and my introduction to anthropology is organized in this
way. --Bob Graber
PS: I do not want to be cryptic: the algebraic simplification mentioned
above is because D = P/A, so of course AD = P.