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Evolution of Evolution — Text-only | Flash Special Report
Interview with Henry Huntington

Audio Transcript

BOBBIE MIXON:            Most of us have heard the predictions about how global climate change may impact our planet.  Researchers say an average rise in temperature of five and a half degrees Fahrenheit would lead to extreme weather events--droughts, forest fires and shrinking glaciers.  But could this be a cosmic evolution event, another in a long sequence of events that have radically shaped our planet?  One researcher, who says arctic environments may be experiencing Charles Darwin's theory of evolution in real time, is Henry Huntington of Huntington Consulting in Eagle River, Alaska.  Dr. Huntington, what do you think Charles Darwin would say about current discussions of global climate change?

DR. HENRY HUNTINGTON:           Well, the types of things that we're seeing, I think, are exactly the types of environmental pressures that he discusses as the forcing mechanisms of natural selection.  If everything stays the same, there's no particular reason to change if you're well adapted.  The question is, when things do change and change sharply, what happens, and being adapted to the old system or the old conditions may not be terribly useful in the new ones and what we're seeing in the Arctic, the big change, is the loss of sea ice and the potential disappearance of summer sea ice entirely, and the evidence we have suggests that that may not have occurred for 800,000 years, which is, in evolutionary times, enough time for many species and ecosystems to adapt and evolve, and so what happens next I think is anyone's guess.

BOBBIE MIXON:            Do you think he would've seen climate change as part of the normal process of evolution?

DR. HENRY HUNTINGTON:           I think so because many of the changes that have occurred in the--over the geologic time on the Earth have had to do with major climatic changes, and so we see the evidence of that in different mass extinctions or in things like, you know, the dinosaurs' extinction, though perhaps that was triggered by a comet, but one of the ways that that manifested itself was a sharp change in climate to which many species weren't able to adapt.

BOBBIE MIXON:            Now, in your work, you document changes in the arctic region and you trace them back to global climate change.  You record this sort of climate change chain reaction.  What have you observed?

DR. HENRY HUNTINGTON:           Well, I think the big changes are, and most of my work has to do with human-environment interaction so I do a lot of work with indigenous communities in the Arctic and trying to understand what they see and how the changing environment affects them.  Again, the sea ice--the changes in sea ice have been extreme and then have brought on a number of other changes; changes in timing of migrations of different animals, changes in behavior and distribution of those animals.  Walrus, for example, in northern Alaska, in the summer of 2007, they hauled out on land for the first time and this a big change and maybe it's something that will allow them to adapt to the lack of ice in the Chukchi Sea in the summers but we just don't know, and what the implications are of them being fixed in one point on land versus on a shifting, moving ice front, again, it's hard to say how it'll affect the way that they deplete the animals that they're eating near the haul-outs and so on.

BOBBIE MIXON:            Now, you also mentioned your research's focus on culture in the Arctic.  Is it legitimate to look at the evolution of culture in the same way we see evolution in biological organisms?

DR. HENRY HUNTINGTON:            Somewhat, and the reason I would put a condition on that is that, typically with biological organisms, they're not anticipating the changes that might come.  So, if you're a walrus, you don't necessarily sit around and think about what might happen if the ice disappears and you may not be consciously aware of the--that type of change.  You just adapt to the circumstances of the moment.  Humans, on the other hand, have the--either the gift or the curse of foresight in being able to see what's happening and therefore to react in anticipation and in addition, to sort of think about the ways that they might adapt that might be especially adaptive or, in some cases, you know, we get it wrong and wind up doing something maladaptive.  So, that's sort of a--I guess the element of conscious agency is a very different thing for humans and puts a little different spin on the idea of evolution when it comes to cultures.  On the other hand, I think some of the points that are valid are that, you know, we are constrained by our environment to a certain degree and our ability to react to that environment, to adapt, to come up with new strategies and so on, will affect, you know, how we’ll perform in the future.

BOBBIE MIXON:            Exactly.  You say that climate change will cause some societies to lose cultural opportunities and gain new ones.  What do you mean by that?

DR. HENRY HUNTINGTON:           Well, let's take an example of, say, the marine mammal hunting cultures of the Arctic.  If the animals that you hunt either move away or, heaven forbid, become extinct, you know, you're not going to have the ability to hunt the same animals that your parents and grandparents and ancestors did.  At the same time, if subarctic species move north, there may be other species that become available to you that weren't in the past, and so how people react to that, again, remains to be seen and I think one of the interesting things to me in terms of social constraints on adaptability is the fact that in the modern era, because we have permanent settlements with a lot of infrastructure and so on, people may be more tied to a particular location than they would've been, say, a few hundred years ago or before that when it might have been easier to move to a, you know, to a new place that was better suited for hunting of the new migratory pathways or the new species that are coming into an area.

BOBBIE MIXON:            Let me ask you one last question.  Is global climate change a cosmic evolution event?

DR. HENRY HUNTINGTON:           Well, I think that's a very good question.  Some of it will depend, of course, on the scale.  If it continues to – the planet continues to warm, it's hard to see how it would be anything else.  You know, again, this is where human agency and consciousness comes in.  If we're able to do something to slow down the warming, maybe we can prevent it from becoming one of the major geologic markers in the fossil record of mass extinctions and so on, but I wouldn't want to bet a whole lot of money either way until we see a little bit more how humans are likely to react.

BOBBIE MIXON:            Henry Huntington of Huntington Consulting in Eagle River, Alaska.

DR. HENRY HUNTINGTON:           Thank you very much for having me.