The Dominant Animal

Human Evolution and the Environment


Over millions of years and through countless genetic twists and turns, humanity has evolved into the dominant animal. We have populated the globe, reshaped most landscapes, eradicated myriad populations and species of other organisms, and transformed the land surface, oceans, and climate. The vast environmental changes we have produced and the intricate cultures we have created are now shaping evolution. From the complex workings of our genes to what we eat and how we govern ourselves, we are changing our world and our world is changing us. We are creating our future. But what kind of future will it be? Today, we face the task of learning to manage the planet so that humanity can successfully transition to a sustainable future—or we will face increasingly harsh consequences.Quite an assignment, to give the necessary background for that in a single course, but by focusing on essential processes it can be done—enabling students to learn a body of scientifically grounded information that is both essential and too seldom presented at a level accessible to introductory as well as more advanced students. We believe that such basic scientific background is critical to understanding the most important processes of life and to functioning as a responsible citizen. In years to come, citizens will be called upon to consider and make decisions on topics as diverse as climate change, public health, racial and ethnic discrimination, biodiversity preservation, and building a well-governed, equitable, and sustainable society.

Homo sapiens is suffering today from a vast “culture gap.” Our distant ancestors living in hunter-gatherer groups all possessed virtually the same non-genetic information in their culture. The exceptions were few—perhaps a man had a secret technique for making sharp spear points, or a woman knew a certain plant had special medicinal properties. But all that began to change when the agricultural revolution allowed increasing specialization of tasks, and in part as a result, the culture gap has grown exponentially in the past couple of centuries. Even the most educated American can’t possibly store more than a minute fraction of Western culture. Given, for example, the parts of a TV set, how many of us could assemble a working set, to say nothing of describing the processes used to manufacture the parts, the sources of the materials used, or the methods by which those materials were gathered and processed?

Obviously, no one can be the repository of all of today’s culture, but there clearly is a need to close critical parts of the culture gap so that we can share some basic understandings about the world. If humanity is to attain a happy and sustainable society, common science-based perceptions of the human predicament and how it can be resolved will be essential. And that means knowing how the dominant animal achieved dominance, and what that dominance portends for the future. That’s where this book comes in. The Dominant Animal was designed as a teaching tool, based on a course Paul Ehrlich gives called Human Evolution and Environment. This Web site was designed to aid those who teach students in formal classes and to help enrich the experience of those students. It is divided into an open part, accessible to all, and a closed part, addressed to teachers.

Further Study for Students

Here we provide more information to give you the most up-to-date understanding of the basic concepts of evolutionary and environmental science. The goal is to help you think through the potential consequences of our actions as the dominant animal. As you already know, many of the topics covered in the book are changing rapidly. In order for you to keep abreast of what’s going on, we post here materials of current interest; as you read them, keep in mind your understanding of the basic concepts of evolution and environment. It will help you to think through what the future may hold if humanity continues with business as usual. When the articles apply to a certain chapter of the book, the number of that chapter will appear in {curly brackets} in the headers.

Included here in addition as aids for studying are (a) summaries, (b) key terms, and (c) a few study questions for each chapter.

For Instructors

The material in this teacher’s manual is designed to help you deal with a wide-ranging and evolving area of scholarship. You may very well be the first teacher in your school to attempt such a course, and you will probably find it as challenging as we have. But it certainly is the most interesting course that either of us has taught in fifty years on the Stanford University faculty, and it has the huge benefit of giving us an incentive to pay careful attention to what is going on the world—to the expanding knowledge of where Homo sapiens came from and where it is going. At Stanford, the course is given as a sequence of twenty fifty-minute lectures with a take-home midterm and final exam. But obviously, many different formats can be used.

Like the rest of human culture, this manual will evolve—and you can help direct that particular evolutionary sequence with your feedback. For starters, it contains:

  1. Summaries of the chapters, indicating what we think the basic messages are, as an aid in lecture preparation—and a guide for your TAs (if any)—along with a list of key terms for each chapter. These summaries and lists of key terms are available in the open access portion of the Web site, available to students as well.
  2. Articles that may be too technical to give directly to students but that also may aid in lecture preparation and be used as a basis for discussion.
  3. URLs of Web sites we have found useful.
  4. Suggestions for topics that might be helpful for directing classroom discussion or used as the basis for questions in essay examinations.
  5. A library of chapter-by-chapter multiple-choice exam questions.

This Web site “teacher’s manual” is a work in progress. Your experiences in teaching a course will help us improve it. Please let us know about your experience and any suggestions you may have by contacting us. If you would like to order a copy for evaluation or course adoption, please click here.