March 8, 2024 | David F. Coppedge

Good-bye Anthropocene

Science cannot rid itself of
human nature and politics


Many aspects of science are not “out there” in the world to be discovered by unbiased minds. One example is the downfall of the Anthropocene Epoch, the most recent unit in the geological timescale, marked by the effects of humans on the earth. Did it ever exist? Was it “out there” in the geologic column? No; it only existed in the minds of certain geologists as a proposal. But after a vote, it has disappeared—at least for now.

Surprise decision not to define the Anthropocene shocks scientists (New Scientist, 5 March 2024). To the dismay of certain “shocked” scientists, the Anthropocene Epoch was voted down by a board of academics. Fallen, fallen, is Anthropocene the Great.

Efforts to put the Anthropocene on the geological timescale have fallen at the first hurdle, shocking members of the consulting scientific body who only learned of the official decision when it was publicised. The deciding group of academics voted down the proposal 12 to 4, declining to define a new epoch based on the planetary changes brought about by humans – though it appears there may be an effort underway to annul the result.

Earth’s current epoch is the Holocene, which began about 11,700 years ago and is marked by a time of progress and prosperity for humanity. However, some academics argue that the substantial changes to the planet due to human activity, particularly from nuclear weapons beginning in the middle of the 20th century, are enough to herald a new epoch: the Anthropocene.

One problem with the proposed epoch is its brevity: only 75 years, a single human lifetime. “This does not fit comfortably into the geological time scale, where units typically span thousands, tens of thousands or millions of years,” said one critic. Another problem with the proposal was when to mark its beginning: the nuclear bomb? the Industrial Revolution? the rise of civilization?

Some geologists unhappy with the decision will probably continue to use the term Anthropocene. Kim Cohen remarked,

But it is not a forbidden word, he says. “It will very much still be used across the natural sciences, social sciences and in the humanities and politics. The concept of the Anthropocene will continue to be useful and significant.”

Those descriptions of it being “useful” and “significant” are necessarily subjective. Many students of science may be unaware that all of the names and dates of all the units in the entire geologic column are matters of human convention. They do not necessarily “carve nature at its joints” (see 31 Jan 2022 about controversy over the naming of the Permian system). Which politicians, sociologists (most of whom are leftists) and academics in the humanities will use the term “Anthropocene” for propaganda instead of understanding?

Update 12 March 2024: The journal EMBO Reports gives more insight into the discussions (and bickering) between pro-Anthropocene advocates and their critics. Apparently written before the vote against ratifying the Anthropocene, one comment in this essay by Valenti Rull stands out as a bit humorous:

An interesting observation is that, if the current AWG [Anthropocene Working Group] proposal is approved and ratified by the ICS/IUGS, all humans born before 1950 will have originated in a past geological epoch, the Holocene. This means that more than 310 million humans, almost 4% of the total population, could be considered as genuine Holocene living fossils.

This doesn’t mean you should call grandpa a fossil, but it illustrates that political decisions like this can have unintended consequences. For more on “living fossils” see our reports from 29 Feb 2024, 11 Oct 2022, and 29 July 2021.

Update 14 March 2024: Nature weighed in on the formal rejection of the Anthropocene Epoch, claiming that the term has taken root outside of science.

The concept of an era of human-driven change also provides convenient common ground for him [Chris Thomas, a leader of the effort to define the Anthropocene Epoch] to collaborate with researchers from other disciplines. “This is something that people in the arts and humanities and the social sciences have picked up as well,” he says. “It is a means of enabling communication about the extent to which we are living in a truly unprecedented and human-altered world.”

This implies that the Anthropocene concept was not really about empirical science, but about modes of thought useful to certain political ideologies.

As with the taxonomy of plants and animals, the naming of geological strata is necessarily human influenced and theory laden. The names, once entrenched, are useful for reference, but not necessarily for understanding. That is, people from different countries and cultures can identify rocks at various locations by their consensus names, but that doesn’t mean they understand how old they are or how they got that way. To creationists, the whole concept of the geologic column seems deeply embedded with evolutionary theory. Young-earth creationists use the designations without the moyboy dates but sometimes that usage is confusing.

Not long ago, planetary science was juggling with concepts like planet, minor planet, dwarf planet, Plutoid, Kuiper Belt Object, and Trans-Neptunian Object. There were disputes about where to draw the line when other Pluto-sized objects were found. Any consensus today seems strained. One additional problem with renaming things is that it makes older publications obsolete unless the new names are clarified.

In chemistry, the chemical elements are more discrete, being designated by the number of protons in a nucleus, but there are many isotopes, ions and stabilities that are sometimes just as important. In subatomic physics, the “particle zoo” has become unwieldy to the point of confusion.

How many other terms are similarly subjective in geology and evolutionary history? The field is littered with various names, like Younger Dryas, Snowball Earth, Great Oxidation Event, and others. Scientists hang their speculations on these names but using them conceals controversies over their original designations. “Useful” does not mean objective. And when you see that word useful, always ask, “Useful to whom?”

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