Challenges of the Anthropocene

Published November 19, 2018-Updated July 19, 2020

This article was written by Vida Pavesich. More of her papers can be found on

I argue for a new account of anthropos—a new philosophical anthropology. My paper draws on early twentieth-century philosophical anthropology as well as cognitive science and evolutionary anthropology to examine how humans compensated for their biological underdetermination by becoming second-natured, empathetic, cooperative, symbol-using creatures. Examining the capacities for cooperation that emerged in our evolutionary history may help clarify our thinking about contemporary problems that require collective decisions.


The present age is often called the “Anthropocene,” putatively a new geological age or, at the very least, a reference to our outsized influence on the habitats of all species. A corollary is that we subject ourselves to an ever-accelerating pace of environmental, technological, social, cultural, and economic change, much of which disrupts stable structures, is psychologically challenging, and in the long run may be inimical to our own survival. The question I want to raise in response is: How are we to understand the Anthropos in the Anthropocene? I claim that thinking more deeply about the fragile interdependence between our species and the environment as well as basic needs for stability entails interrogating the space of an old philosophical question “What is a human being?” I argue that this question, which has fallen out of favor for philosophers, is critical for thinking through issues such as those mentioned above. What do I mean by philosophical anthropology?

Philosophical Anthropology: From Kant and Herder to Now

The historical origins of philosophical anthropology are in eighteenth-century disputes between Kant and Herder. Even though Kant had claimed that all questions of philosophy depended on an answer to the question “What is man?” his interest was in giving a purely rational account abstracted from empirical concerns. Herder, in contrast, argued in favor of a holistic conception of man: a person is not simply a res cogitans but also a homo naturalis et individualis, a “whole person,” a sensuous, physical, and animal being—one who was born prematurely and required language and culture for completion. This latter view influenced early twentieth-century philosophical anthropology in Germany between the two world wars. The main figures, Max Scheler, Helmuth Plessner, and Arnold Gehlen—despite their differences—all emphasized that the human lack of biological specialization was fundamental to giving an account of human existence. Writing about Plessner, contemporary philosopher Fred Dalmayr puts it this way: “Rather than being safely enmeshed in a life cycle or the stimulus-response nexus, man has to ‘lead’ his life by designing a web of cultural and symbolic meanings—patterns which provide him at best with a fragile habitat.” Hans Blumenberg, following in Scheler, Gehlen, and Plessner’s footsteps a few decades later, pointedly added that success is not programmed in. For Blumenberg, the first proposition of a philosophical anthropology must be: “it cannot be taken for granted that man is able to exist.” He refers to man as the “impossible being”—an “improbability made flesh.” So, how did we emerge and persist? Blumenberg, picking up the thread of the tradition that had been eclipsed by Heidegger and war, offered an “an existential description of the human being that science investigates as one particular species of the animal realm.” He exploited “the results of the positive sciences for the elaboration and development of anthropology.” Hence, rather than elevating our species or denying its overlap with other species, the aim was to realistically and soberly appraise the competencies that made human existence possible. Only then can we assess what helps and what hinders flourishing.

My contribution is to build on this tradition and to provide an anthropogenetic account that explains how humans compensated for their biological precariousness by becoming second-natured, empathetic, cooperative, symbol-using creatures. A cluster of adaptive capacities, particularly those based on cooperation and empathy, are at odds with contemporary forms of acceleration. Because the most critical challenges of the anthropocene require collective solutions, it behooves us to examine the capacities that made cooperation possible in the first place. Blumenberg’s claim that “Only an assessment of the risk involved in the human mode of existence makes it possible to discuss and to evaluate functionally the behavior that was serviceable in mastering it, and to take seriously the tentative inclination to be able to avail ourselves of such serviceability again” is more important than ever before.

By way of preface: addressing questions about anthropos must be interdisciplinary given the prodigious amount of new research on human origins in the sciences. This will not be a return to essentialism or a dissolution of questions about “man” into reductive naturalisms. My project is about discovering, what Dalmayr refers to as a ‘subdued, self-critical…nonhegemonic view of the ‘human,’” with the aid of advances in the biological and evolutionary sciences.

The Biology of Underdetermination

Contemporary biology is less mired in preformationist Social Darwinism than the biology available to Gehlen and Plessner, and it supports the underdetermination thesis. Theoretical biologist Mary-Jane Eberhardt points out that as organisms become more complex, they become more “detached” or less integrated into specific environments. Greater complexity means that organisms also become more involved in their own niche construction. Increasing levels of what Arnold Gehlen and other philosophical anthropologists called “world openness,” and which we now call “biological plasticity,” thus mandated an adaptive phenotypic plasticity. This leads to an increase in evolutionary novelty. She accentuates the role of epigenetic models of phenotypic stabilization and inheritance. Hand in hand with this is greater flexibility and degrees of internal freedom and greater potential for self-generated adaptability, at least in higher-level organisms. However, as organisms and animals become more complex, they also become increasingly susceptible to contingent relationships and formations. This process culminates in the most detached animal, the human being. Humans are more vulnerable in the sense that they are the most underdetermined and also the most emotionally labile species. They must become more self-directing as well as foster greater emotional ties to others so they can manage the ever more complex and variable circumstances to which they are exposed. Adaptations to a wide range of environments, climates, food sources, and so on, became necessary.

Cognitive science and Evolutionary Anthropology: Collective Intelligence and the Need for Attachment

For our species, becoming more self-directed involved increased cranial capacity. According to Merlin Donald, the human brain kept “the basic primate knowledge system,” but developed more capacities, which began with non-symbolic representational agendas. To bridge the pre-symbolic gap, cognition had to become a collective enterprise, which required developing the capacity to “[self-initiate] access to memory.” The upshot was less compulsion to simply react to circumstances, and an ability to transcend the immediate environment cognitively. These developments had great adaptive value as forerunners of devising long-distance strategies, such as hunting and constructing base camps. Donald understands this gradual transcendence as composed of overlapping stages that correspond to the development of cognitive capacities unique in the biological world: we are hybrids who have managed to free ourselves from the beck and call of impulses and we have developed sophisticated language capacity.

Language could not have developed before there was some voluntary memory retrieval capacity and a descended larynx. In addition, improvement in voluntary motor control and the development of mimetic skills, using the whole body as a vehicle for communication, preceded language development. Donald claims that mimesis “is an intermediate layer of knowledge and culture—the first evolutionary link between pre-symbolic knowledge systems of animals and the symbolic systems of modern humans.” Mimesis allows the body’s memory system to rehearse and refine movement voluntarily and systematically. We have retrievable body-memories—the first true representations.

Mimesis deploys some combination of modalities: eyes, hands, feet, posture, locomotion, facial expression, voice—singularly or together—the origin of rhythm and bodily expressiveness. These modalities translate into tool-making, where a series of actions can be imagined and then adjusted. Such imaginative, rehearsed activities and patterning are universal. The mimesis stage, which we have by no means lost, is integral to pedagogy. Teaching crafts, occupations, games, customs, social rituals, and athletic skills are based on mimesis and do not depend on language skill. This autonomous level of representation in the brain set the stage for other cooperative innovations: mythic culture, narrative, and language.

Language entailed even greater transcendence of the immediate environment; it uses true symbols and “constructs narrative descriptions of reality.” Again, this is an increase in both flexibility and precision, leading to standardization and shared, agreed upon versions of events. According to Donald, this cognitive change preceded further advances in toolmaking. Clearly, myth and stories provide “cultural glue” that holds societies together. Mimesis is the basis of the rituals and ceremonies, the channeling of “tendencies to form tribal alliances and hierarchies” (269), all of which are accompanied by stories portraying social roles and customs that integrate society as well as represent reality. Although mimesis and language refer to separate representational realms, they can work independently or in tandem.

In Work on Myth, Blumenberg adds something to Donald’s account: persistent myths and stories contribute to what philosophers call a life-world—a set of institutions that can be taken for granted—at least provisionally—supplying enough stability to counteract biological precariousness. A being whose main characteristics include a permanent biological insufficiency, great flexibility, and no fixed natural niche faces serious self-preservation problems that go well beyond a need for nutrition. We require stabilization and semi-reliable habits and institutions that will not be exhausted in a flux of irreversible events. Myths and narratives supply familiarity and meaning (self-recognition) that mitigate the arbitrariness of life. Of course, there are also practical concerns. We had to learn which mushrooms were poisonous, to control fire and cook food, how to protect ourselves against the elements, and so on, which had to involve pedagogy. But pedagogy was possible only after we were able over the millennia to provide ourselves with constants, whether as narratives or reliable practices that form the background stability of a “life world.” Yes, we can be led astray by dangerous myths and stories (ideologies), but stories are a necessary stage in human cultural development.

The next stage, which Donald identifies as “theoretic culture,” is based on the structural evolution described above, “our [now] gene-based cognitive inheritance.” For the last 20,000 years we have been externalizing memory. What began with pictograms has led to digital codes used today—despite having had the same brain for the last 50,000 years. The most recent changes are primarily technological and cultural, not biological. Yet, this and the reflective thinking now possible did change the brain in the sense that the “literate mind has…become externally programmable.” Societies become more complex and science and technology advance. The vast webs of symbolic ideas and the freedom to participate in them has a tendency to fragment experience and to challenge the constants to which humans are attached. People are exposed, at least in developed countries, to an overwhelming variety of messages that conflict with older unifying modes of being (mimesis).

Donald concentrates primarily on the evolution of executive capacity in the brain, but he emphasizes that regulating emotion through ritual and mimesis, which is a part of our collective heritage, was necessary for human cognitive development. I turn to evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, who speaks more directly to emotional bonding and attachment. According to Hrdy,

without the capacity to put ourselves cognitively and emotionally in someone else’s shoes, to feel what they feel, to be interested in their fears and motives, longings, griefs, vanities, and other details of their existence, without this mixture of curiosity about and emotional identification with the other, a combination that adds up to mutual understanding and sometimes even compassion, Homo sapiens would never have evolved at all.

After noting that natural selection does not aim for future payoffs and that adaptations solve emergent problems, she states that our species, more than any other—despite its often bellicose behavior—necessarily engages in elaborate modes of cooperation. Hrdy argues that, “the emotional qualities that distinguish modern humans from other apes, especially mind reading combined with empathy and developing a sense of self, emerged earlier in our evolutionary history than anatomically modern humans did” and that emotion sharing had to precede the emergence of language. Human babies, unlike infant apes, were cared for by more than one caretaker and thus became more aware of distinctions between self and others, better able to read mental states, and better able to seduce people into caring for them. They had same genotypes as apes but different experiences, and without help from others the large brained, slow maturing, needy, and long-dependent children, would not have survived. The individuals who were the best cared for and best fed would be better at meeting survival challenges.

Hrdy emphasizes the critical formation of attachment systems in human anthropogenesis, systems that must also form every individual’s life. It is well documented that human brain development is dependent on the formation of attachment systems. Those without reliable and tender caretaking are at great survival risk or the stunting of mental and emotional capacities. According to Donald, there are no records of late successful language acquisition in people who have been deprived of this early stage. Blumenberg highlights this functionally: the young need “specific environments” because of the “plastic variability of the capacity of this organic system” and that the mother/child relationship is a shield against the raw pressures of space/time contingency.

However, despite their helplessness, infants are not without resources, such as hardwiring to seek connection—we are born longing for recognition. At birth, humans seek to imitate what they see in the faces of adults. External reinforcement comes through emotional attachment that facilitates acquisition of symbols and language. Donald claims that mimesis is ‘closest to our cultural zero point’—leading to the ‘huge unwritten fabric of shared feeling, group bonding, and common behavior [that] underwrites the deep enculturation of each infant.”

Donald, challenging the “myth of the isolated mind,” states: a “relatively simple expansion of the executive brain” led us to become “culture-mongers, driven by the very nature of our awareness to seek refuge and solace in community.” Symbolic thought and language are both by-products of these mimetic, emotionally charged connections, results of conscious minds interacting with one another. Symbols, language, books, customs, and now computers and clouds connect minds. And the formation of crucial attachment systems is integral to how a species that has to manage its fight or flight impulses developed extensive modes of cooperation and inner stability to solve self-preservation issues that not only have not gone away but have taken on new and lethal forms in an age of accelerated change.

Modernity, Acceleration, and Anthropos

Philosophical anthropologist Kasper Lysemose notes the close relation between philosophical anthropology and modernity. Following a loss of faith in the progress narrative, a mounting concern for the human lifeworld, and the loss of traditional answers to the question of what man is, philosophical anthropology emerged not with a “new and better theory of man,” but with a “philosophical reflection on the historical experience of the loss of all such theories.” As Scheler remarked in the early twentieth century, ‘It can be said that man at no point in history has become so problematic for himself than is presently the case.” What Scheler said is still true. According to Lysemose, “the loss of essence—a characteristic of modernity as such—is the acute historical experience at the root of philosophical anthropology.” Understanding “how a being without a nature is possible within nature” then becomes a meditation on the conditions of our possibility in the midst of accelerating forces that Blumenberg explains functionally as “excessive demands” on the creature that must distance itself from absolutes, construct “detours,” and rely on institutions that contain possible points of attachment or recognition.

The need to “save time,” which Blumenberg identified as an anthropological constant, has produced astonishing technical achievements but now threatens the possibility of a humane world. Donald wonders whether our species’ brains can adapt to such rapid technological change. Hrdy points out that selection pressures on our species have accelerated—the “fastest-evolving genes in the human genome are those associated with the central nervous system.” Can our species adapt without preserving what is presupposed by this account of anthropos? Of all the primates, humans are most invested in sharing emotional cues, facial expressions, tones of voice, and intentions of others as evidence of ongoing commitment. Given the “prolonged dependency and highly contingent commitment set up in infants, who, unlike other apes, lack the same guarantees” as other primates, our species is particularly vulnerable. As historical beings, humans do not inherit “attachment styles,” which result from accumulated learning that is passed on culturally. Secure attachment in young children provides the “underpinnings for inter-individual communication and cooperation. Children cared for by responsive others exhibit a high potential for collaboration”—just as those infants who were best cared for and fed had the best survival chances early in our evolutionary history. Given that attachment styles are cultural adaptations, and therefore contingent, it is also true that human plasticity is always potentially “derailment.”

Hrdy notes the large increase in numbers of children with what is called “disorganized attachment”—unable to develop bonds of trust—in our individualistic, postindustrial, consumerist society with its high rates of dislocation. We cannot draw reliable conclusions about whether such patterns are permanently changing, but Hrdy says that prior to about 15,000 years ago this would not have been “compatible with [a] child’s survival.” She ponders: “If the empathic capacities of infants find expression only under certain rearing conditions, and if natural selection can only act on genetic traits that are actually expressed in the phenotype, perhaps we need to be asking how even the most useful innate predispositions can persist if their development is not encouraged?”

Like Blumenberg, Hrdy views our species as no more static than any other, and she links certain behaviors with the persistence of what we take to be species identity. She also points to research by evolutionary psychologists John Hawks and Henry Harpending, who date acceleration pressures on our species for the last 40,000 years—not just since the Enlightenment, when it became more visible—as “human activities and population pressure transformed local environments and as an exponentially expanding population generated many more mutations for selection to act on.” Some of those mutations involved disease resistance as well as digestive mechanisms for coping with novel diets, but there is no reason why “cognitive and behavioral traits would be any less susceptible to ongoing selection.” It will not matter “how spectacularly well prosocial tendencies served humans in the past if the underpinnings for such traits remain unexpressed and thus can no longer be favored by selection.” The removal of “an agent of selection can sometimes bring about rapid evolutionary consequences.” Will compassion and the need for emotional connection fade away? Hrdy wonders whether what we think of as human—its empathic behavior and curiosity about others, shaped by “our ancient heritage of communal care”—will disappear. As Blumenberg reminds us, the species may be overwhelmed by impulses, look away from the challenge, and fail at its task. The imperative implied in all this is not to say good mothering will solve the challenges of the anthropocene but to be vigilant and mindful of what is necessary to protect and nurture both a flexible internal and external stability that makes it possible to be a collaborative species. Given this conceptual foundation, we should be mindful of and direct attention to preserving and creating institutions and habits that foster resilience. This would go a long way toward reining in the excesses caused by the accelerating and often destructive pace of change to which we subject ourselves, other animals, and the natural world.