Predatory Practices.

Oh, we are so fucking bad-ass. Even Science says so.

The paper’s called “The Unique Ecology of Human Predators” (commentary here), and it’s been getting a lot of press since it came out last week. “People Are Deadliest Predators”, trumpets Discovery News; “Humans Are Super Predators”, IFL Science breathlessly repeats. Even Canada’s staid old CBC, which has grown nothing but more buttoned-down and conservative since its Board of Directors were executed and replaced by all those cronies Harper couldn’t fit into the Senate, gets into the act: “Humans are ‘superpredators’ like no other species”, it tells us.

There are other examples— loads of them— but you get the idea. The coverage generally goes on to remark on how much more lethal we are than sharks and lions, how our unsustainable “predatory” strategies are driving species to extinction.

Really. We’re better than sharks at wiping out species. This is news. This is worthy of publication in one of the premiere cutting-edge science journals on the planet.

Our place among the bad-asses. From Daramont et al 2015

Our place among the bad-asses. From Daramont et al 2015

The paper itself— basically a meta-analysis of data from a variety of sources— justifies its existence by pointing out that previous models may have underestimated our ecological impact by treating us as just another predator species. Their results clearly show, however, that we are not mere predators: in many ways we are Extreme Predators. For example, while other predators tend to weed out the young, the sick, and the injured, we Humans indiscriminately take all classes— frequently targeting the largest individuals of a population, which act as “reproductive reservoirs” and whose loss is thus more keenly felt than the loss of cubs or larvae. This also creates selection pressure against large-bodied adults, meaning that we are causing reproductive individuals to shrink over time. (This came as news to me— albeit intuitively-obvious, not-very-surprising news— back when I took my first fisheries biology class in 1979. I was a bit taken aback to see it being marketed as a shiny new insight up here in 2015.)

The bad news keeps rolling in, hitting us in the gut with the impact of its utter unexpectedness. Most fish-eating predators just take one fish at a time. We Hu-Mans, with our Nets and Technology, scoop up Entire Schools At Once! Unlike other predators, we hunt for trophies! We are one of the few predators that hunts other predators!

Perhaps the highlight of the paper occurs when the authors, straight-faced, point out that other marine predators are limited in the size of their prey by how wide their jaws can gape— whereas we take prey that would be far too large to fit into our mouths. This, the authors suggest, “might explain why marine predator rates are comparatively low” compared to our own.

In Science. Swear to God. You can look it up yourself if you don’t believe me.

Larson nails it.  As usual.

Larson nailed it. As usual.

I don’t pretend to understand what this is doing in the pages of a front-line peer-reviewed journal, unless it’s some kind of social experiment along the lines of Alan Sokal’s Social Text hoax. As to why it’s received such widespread attention in the mainstream, I wonder if it’s because the subtext paints lipstick on seven billion pigs. After all, predators are cool. We paint shark mouths on our fighter planes, we airbrush cheetahs onto the sides of our fuck trucks. (Or at least we used to. Back in the day.) Outsharking the shark? Getting to be a Super Predator? Why, that’s almost something to be proud of! Nothing like a bit of sexy rebranding to distract us from the fact that we’ll have wiped out a third of the planet’s extant species by the end of the century.

Because it’s all bullshit, of course. We’re not predators, Super or Garden-variety, in any biological sense. Most predators wreak their havoc in one way; they kill and eat their victims one at a time. They don’t poison entire ecosystems before killing off the inhabitants. You know when you’ve been predated: your killer takes you out face-to-face, one on one. You don’t sicken and die, sprouting tumors or weeping sores or forced into some miniscule fragmenting refuge by invisible forces that don’t know or care if you even exist. You can escape from a real predator.  Sometimes.

“Superpredation” is the least of our sins. As a label, it doesn’t begin to encompass the extent of our impact.

So did the Wachowskis. The first time around,  anyway.

So did the Wachowskis. The first time around, anyway.

“Pestilence” might do, though. “Plague.” Just barely. At least, it would come a bit closer to the truth.

I wonder how long it’ll take for Daramont et al to put out a paper describing Humanity as a “Super Disease”.

I wonder what kind of coverage the CBC will give ′em when they do.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday August 26 2015at 08:08 am , filed under biology, eco, marine, science . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

30 Responses to “Predatory Practices.”

  1. I stand by my belief that antibiotics and nitrating fertilizer were the two biggest evils man has wrought.

  2. Even tumblr is getting in on the patting-humanity-on-the-back action: http://imgur.com/gallery/hINj1xf

  3. I think that the same principle applies as well – super-disease still sounds vaguely cool and appealing. Proof enough is how common are such declarations in media, Matrix being just one example. Imagining you’re a “cancer”, “pestilence”, “plague”, or just “super-something” makes being some sad schmuck sitting on a coach and stuffing themselves with bacon slightly more tolerable*.

    Where I live there’s this one saying which roughly translates as “well, maybe my shirt stinks, but at least it’s _mine_”.

    (*firmly in the schmuck camp, myself)

  4. Idealism is a very attractive trait in super predators, probably has something to do with signaling memetic resistance and cultural buy-in.

  5. I’ve noticed for a while that the news will occasionally package some fairly old insight as “news” if all that’s happened is some person who hasn’t said it before (or in a while) says it, to a couple of people at once.

    Just the other day I remember seeing a news story about how a scientist proved the “drink 8 glasses of water a day” advice was a myth and you should just drink when you’re thirsty. Great. But I’ve heard that so many times already, so I’m not sure why it’s news. I mean, I guess it’s always going to be news to somebody, but they don’t have to present it like it’s some surprising bit of evidence that’s come up.

  6. There was a big interview in the Science podcast, too.

  7. See, this is all a pretty big problem w/ the world, but something about your tone tells me that you actually don’t think that it’s badass as all hell that humanity looks to most animals like a Lovecraftian force-beyond-nature, and that the biggest problem here is that we actually aren’t, yet, and so still have to worry about dying out before we are.

    Besides, early oxygenators are clearly a more appropriate metaphor here. Our foremost victims are ourselves. Certainly, there is no species that is killed off by us that cannot be replaced by another in a few millions years. It’s happened several times before we arrived. It’s just that meteorites don’t have faces and so you do not feel the same moralizing impulse towards them.

  8. AR+: It’s just that meteorites don’t have faces and so you do not feel the same moralizing impulse towards them.

    Maybe not, but I’ve spent so much time talking to brick walls I bet I could probably wing it.

  9. I’ll settle for pestilence/plague as our main function. That describes us far too accurately. No one should be proud of it either, don’t care how badass it sounds.

    A true, as in top of the line, super predator would be one that starts keeping homo sapiens numbers in check. A spiteful part of me would love to see the day something like that finally raises its head, if only to even out the playing field. Who knows, maybe they’ll turn out to have the more interesting existence. Considering how smart they’d need to be to outsmart us and our technology. I’m sorry, but I’m very guilty of loving that idea. We’d probably be lemmings in comparison to them. Fun & macabre food for thought.

  10. Some version of this post is playing in my head most of the time, which is why I kind of give people a warning look when they ask me about anything at all mildly related.

    Ecologists: Super Fun at Parties.

    Also, I think the reason this is in Science is precisely because it would generate a lot of news. It’s a bunch of “Uh, yeah” to people who have paid attention to this at all, but that’s not most people. Most people are clueless about this stuff.

  11. It turns out, there is a deep evolutionary reason why even today some cultures have a tradition of trophy hunting, where they go after the largest individuals. It is that the males used to compete with one another to show strength and vigor. Can you imagine?

  12. Heh. I misread the title at first as ‘predatory parasites’, which kinda fits.

  13. Typical of Science (and Nature) – they published it because it gets press. People sure do love to read about how special we are. It’s the same reason the tabloid journals will publish a new homonid description from a tooth fragment (ok, perhaps I’m exaggerating), but lesser taxonomy would never grace their glossy pages (unless cute and furry). I’ve given up trying to publish in those rags (though I’m sure I’d change my mind if the opportunity arose!)

    Oh, and my vote goes to plague.

  14. Ok, this isn’t “Nature” worthy material but I think you are being a bit harsh. Unfortunately the fact that humans are disproportionately destructive is news to most humans.

    People like to think that they are getting on with their lives, not doing any harm. Environmental issues are important but it’s all about carbon caps isn’t it? A government problem. Not them/us/me personally eating their way through what is left of the biosphere.

    Maybe nature has gone soft, but the optimistic view is that it is part of a necessary PR drive.

  15. @dpb: “Unfortunately the fact that humans are disproportionately destructive is news to most humans.”

    But surely not to the majority of Nature’s readership? It’s Nature, not Discover or Scientific American – it doesn’t have much of a lay readership. Which in turn suggests the real audience (if there is one) is the people who read the popular media reports based on Nature’s press releases… It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve done this, though; it does seem that the journal’s selection criteria include (at least unofficially) media impact. As a former subscriber I noticed that most issues carried at least one distinctly media-friendly paper or research letter. It troubles me, actually. Nature has a gigantic impact factor, and to have its publication choices significantly skewed by the Press Release Factor is not especially healthy for scientific publishing.

  16. The above having been said… some of the article came as news to me. The conventional wisdom is that targeting adults is best practice for hunters because it allows the young to grow to maturity, providing the next generation of prey – this is evident in hunting and fishing regulations, for example, especially in game species. So the argument that killing adults actually exerts a deleterious selection pressure is at least under-acknowledged.

    I don’t withdraw my comment above, though. This would make an excellent article for SciAm, NatGeo, or Discover, or for the pages of a major newspaper such as The Guardian, but as Peter says, it’s not really novel enough for Nature. Everything Nature publishes for the sake of mass-media communication means another less popularly appealing paper left in the file drawer.

    Mind you, there’s a bit of damned-if-you-do to this. It could be argued that this is the kind of outreach that ‘everyone’ wants scientists to do, and it’s arguably a pretty good way of credibly communicating important ideas to the public at large.

  17. My my. Is our gracious host a deep ecologist?

    Recently I ran across a brief bio and some quotes by Pentti Linkola. It seems I have a sentimental fondness for taking grim things too far and like WH40K, Pentti is a master of that. He is someone who celebrates the Holocaust (a promising first attempt), and believes the salvation of man lies in his propensity for murderous behavior[1]. Unsurprisingly, his books sell well in Finland.

    Can’t help but like someone who takes the maxim “If one desires an end that implies he must also desire the means towards it…” to it’s logical conclusion. Not that I support his policies. It’s a damn shame though, in regards to nature. My suspicion is that it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

    At present, our status as ‘cancer’ seems.. well, to be a little uncertain. Which nations are still breeding exponentially? .Not that it matters.

    The middle-east, which had undergone a population explosion in the last century is so thoroughly fucked that it even stopped being funny. Turns out that not only are they running out of oil, the economies are all somewhat dysfunctional, but also out of water

    [1]: according to him, genocide is the highest form of love towards humankind. We must kill most of it so some can survive.

  18. I like to think of us more as an invasive species. We invaded the biosphere and started fucking things up for everything but microbes and a few animals that adapted fast(rats, dogs, seagulls, etc.)

  19. dingus:
    I like to think of us more as an invasive species. We invaded the biosphere and started fucking things up for everything but microbes and a few animals that adapted fast(rats, dogs, seagulls, etc.)

    These are generalist species that can thrive practically anywhere, I think. Except dogs, which were domesticated…

  20. Has there ever been a large-bodied species that was anywhere near as numerous as we humans are? Plenty of small organisms outnumber us, but have any with individuals over 10 kg each managed it?

  21. Johan Larson,

    There are about a billion cows. So not by number, but by volume they probably give us a run for our money and by mass do quite better. I understand ants also give us a run for our money in terms of mass.

  22. Not pertinent to the topic, but of possible interest given what you have said about your nest book

    http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-34129490

    Starfish-killing robot close to trials on Great Barrier Reef

    To protect the Great Barrier Reef (for its economic value) there will now be little robots swimming around, using their visual identification system to find crown-of-thorn starfish and kill them

  23. Dear Angela, I assure you that people can be proud of absolutely anything, including most sick things. I know that because I live in Russia. If you present them scientific evidence that humans are actually delusioned maggots living in a pile of hallucinogenic horse shit, in 5 years they will make it their ideology or even pray to that in churches.

  24. I have to hand one kudo to the folks who wax mystical about “Gaia”, the alleged superorganism of Earth. If each of the individuals of all of the species on Earth are cells within the metaphysical body of the alleged planetary consciousness, our role isn’t that of a predator or superpredator, but more of a cancer. The main characteristic is one of unbridled replication that destroys the greater (alleged) organism. Agent Smith, pictured above, covers it pretty well another way, as “virus”, though lots of viruses seem to have enough “sense” to reproduce their kind and spread to another host for more replication, instead of killing the original host. I suppose this is where I should say “if only we had space travel we could find another host and be viruses rather than cancers”, but either way, unlike our planet’s actual predators, we can make a conscious decision to try to conserve our fellow earth species and to try to stop destroying the ecosystems around us. More and more of us do seem to be making that effort. I wonder how long we’ll have to wait for a paper in Nature that says “everything is more or less okay now”. Did our gracious host mention something about brick walls?

  25. Off-Topic: Neil Tyson Interviews Snowden: Encryption and Alien Communications.

  26. To Mr. Non-Entity: please remember that cancer cells behave just like any free-living organism: “be fruitful and multiply”. They just make it inside your body, and by some coincidence have (almost) your genome. Single thing they did wrong is forgetting how to suicide – and suicide doesn’t seem to me as adaptive trait. They behave exactly like purely “natural” Entamoeba sp., therefore it is incorrect to refer to something as “cancer of nature”, because, you see, in nature everything is “cancer”. We, humans, just happen to be slightly faster strain, so, if you want medical analogy, think of us as of cancer cell with extra genes from Clostridium botulinum and Tardigrada and outer shell composed of prions.

  27. It’s only a plague or a cancer if we value the host’s individuality. But there are millions of hosts out there, some percentage of which are dying off due to cancer or plague, and we call this natural selection and thank no one for the grace that wrought us here. On the whole, the entire universe is much better off exploring all the options. This host got this far, and very likely won’t get much farther without some outside assistance or internal braking. This is all happening according to plan: the same plan that we call natural selection and that we only celebrate when we see something cool and innovative.

    If we were a cultural form who truly did value sacrifice, especially sacrifice out of love for one’s own kin, then we’d all gladly destroy our world out of love for all those who will learn lessons from its extinction.

    Or we’ll do whatever it takes to evolve.

    It’s on the whole the same thing in the end, right?

  28. Linking brains: Researchers at UW say they’ve done it.

  29. REM hacking device Napz uses mask with flashing light to stimulate eye movement, may help produce lucid dream state, induce sleep. Or not.

  30. You forgot to mention that normal predators also weed out the non-organized-anti-socials.
    If you are social you can mob other individuals lacking organisation, thus set another individual of your group up to be eaten the next time predators approach.

    I ve seen this behaviour several times with cows. There is always a wounded weakest member of the group produced, if no obvious food (calves, old cows) are existing.