Have humans evolved beyond nature?

Our society has evolved so much, can we still say that we are part of Nature? If not, should we worry – and what should we do about it? Poppy, 21, Warwick.

Such is the extent of our dominion on Earth, that the answer to questions around whether we are still part of nature – and whether we even need some of it – rely on an understanding of what we want as Homo sapiens. And to know what we want, we need to grasp what we are.

It is a huge question – but they are the best. And as a biologist, here is my humble suggestion to address it, and a personal conclusion. You may have a different one, but what matters is that we reflect on it.

Perhaps the best place to start is to consider what makes us human in the first place, which is not as obvious as it may seem.
Many years ago, a novel written by Vercors called Les Animaux dénaturés (“Denatured Animals”) told the story of a group of primitive hominids, the Tropis, found in an unexplored jungle in New Guinea, who seem to constitute a missing link.

However, the prospect that this fictional group may be used as slave labour by an entrepreneurial businessman named Vancruysen forces society to decide whether the Tropis are simply sophisticated animals or whether they should be given human rights. And herein lies the difficulty.

Human status had hitherto seemed so obvious that the book describes how it is soon discovered that there is no definition of what a human actually is. Certainly, the string of experts consulted – anthropologists, primatologists, psychologists, lawyers and clergymen – could not agree. Perhaps prophetically, it is a layperson who suggested a possible way forward.

She asked whether some of the hominids’ habits could be described as the early signs of a spiritual or religious mind. In short, were there signs that, like us, the Tropis were no longer “at one” with nature, but had separated from it, and were now looking at it from the outside – with some fear.

It is a telling perspective. Our status as altered or “denatured” animals – creatures who have arguably separated from the natural world – is perhaps both the source of our humanity and the cause of many of our troubles. In the words of the book’s author:

All man’s troubles arise from the fact that we do not know what we are and do not agree on what we want to be.

We will probably never know the timing of our gradual separation from nature – although cave paintings perhaps contain some clues. But a key recent event in our relationship with the world around us is as well documented as it was abrupt. It happened on a sunny Monday morning, at 8.15am precisely.