Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The World Without Us

The World Without UsThe latest issue of Scientific American interviews science writer and journalism professor Alan Weisman, author of a new book, The World Without Us. The title pretty much sums up the premise: what would happen if all humans vanished tomorrow? Weisman looks at the subsequent fall of New York City and the regrowth of wilderness.

"To see how the world would look if humans were gone, I began going to abandoned places, places that people had left for different reasons. One of them is the last fragment of primeval forest in Europe. It's like what you see in your mind's eye when you're a kid and someone is reading Grimm's fairy tales to you: a dark, brooding forest with wolves howling and tons of moss hanging off the trees. And there is such a place. It still exists on the border between Poland and Belarus*. It was a game reserve that was set aside in the 1300s by a Lithuanian duke who later became king of Poland. A series of Polish kings and then Russian czars kept it as their own private hunting ground. There was very little human impact. After World War II it became a national park. You go in there and you see these enormous trees. It doesn't feel strange. It almost feels right. Like something feels complete in there. You see oaks and ashes nearly 150 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter, with bark furrows so deep that woodpeckers stuff pinecones in them. Besides wolves and elk, the forest is home to the last remaining wild herd of Bison bonasus, the native European buffalo.

Of course our remaining wilderness doesn't tell the whole story, since even the wild corners of the globe are affected by pollution and climate change. And there would be an open niche for the rise of another intelligent species. Weisman's vision would fit right into the Planet of the Apes.

According to Alan Weisman, baboons might have a reasonable shot. They have the largest brains of any primate besides Homo sapiens, and like us they adapted to living in savannas as forest habitats in Africa shrank. Writes Weisman in The World without Us: "If the dominant ungulates of the savanna —cattle—disappear, wildebeest will expand to take their place. If humans vanish, will baboons move into ours? Has their cranial capacity lain suppressed during the Holocene because we got the jump on them, being first out of the trees? With us no longer in their way, will their mental potential surge to the occasion and push them into a sudden, punctuated evolutionary scramble into every cranny of our vacant niche?"

Of course we'll never know if it happens, but it's kind of fun to think about.

* The place Weisman refers to is Bialowieza National Park. There are some great photos of the forest's mighty oaks.

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