Becoming More Than Apex Predators (part 1)
My wife and I watched David Attenborough’s Witness Statement on Netflix the other night: David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet. If you’ve ever watched a BBC Nature documentary (e.g., Planet Earth, Blue Planet, Planet Earth 2) then you’ve heard David Attenborough. He is that calming voice with a British accent that narrates and helps you to understand nature, wildlife, and the world around us. He has been doing that since his 20s and, now, at 94, has created a documentary, his witness statement, on what he has seen happen to the natural world during his lifetime. His assessment is dire: we are destroying the biodiversity and stability of our Planet Earth. If we don’t stop, we will drive ourselves to extinction, along with the great biodiversity that exists today, but is failing because of us.
To say that I was moved is a deep understatement. Never have I heard so clearly and succinctly, the power of an “eyewitness testimony;” one generated over 90+ years of observation and reflection at the scale of our planet. While Attenborough’s witness statement is one of destruction, he does offer a mission for mankind:
We must “Rewild the Earth.”
He offers some concrete suggestions for Rewilding the Earth: improve the quality of life of humans across the planet to lower birth rates and, thus reduce our population; establish international oceans as the largest nature preserve on the planet; protect 30% of coastline waters from fishing, to give fish safe places to grow and thrive; stop deforestation and start reforestation; farm on less land, to enable the grasslands to regrow; and, shift our diet from one appropriate for apex predators to, instead, plant-based diets because our planet cannot sustain so many apex predators (i.e., us).
As a psychologist, I see a complementary mission statement to Rewilding the Earth; we must become more than just apex predators.
An apex predator, also known as alpha predators or top predators, is a species that eats other species and is at the top of food chain in an ecosystem. No other species eats it, save after it dies. Lions are apex predators on the savannah; orca are apex predators in the ocean; wolves are apex predators (and, interestingly, also a keystone species). Apex predators, as the wolf example is particularly illustrative, are essential for healthy ecosystems as, through predation, they keep other organism populations from getting to large and, thus, overtaking the ecosystem. On the flipside, the number of apex predators must be put in check, not through predation by other species eating them but, instead, through the ecosystem itself, via famine, dehydration, disease, or natural disaster (e.g., fires, volcanoes, hurricanes) or through in-fighting, such as different members of the apex predator species fighting to become the “alpha” of a group or different prides, pods, packs, or tribes fighting one another for control of an area.
We humans are not just apex predators, we are super-apex predators. We don’t just consume other organisms; we use lethal and efficient technologies that let us reap other organisms at a scale that is unfathomably large. We also fundamentally alter ecosystems to get the ecosystems to produce what we desire, via agriculture and the like. Finally, we short-circuit many of the ecosystem checks on us, particularly famine, dehydration, and disease, and, to a lesser extent, natural disasters. At this moment in time, the only major risk to humanity is us, as we vie and kill one another to be the alpha within groups or conquer other groups.
The story of Minor Keith is valuable for understanding what I would call apex-predator logic, which is what we need to get beyond.
Viewed from one perspective (arguably, the “normal” cultural perspective), Minor Keith’s story is one of a driven, ingenious businessman who wanted to change the world and leave his mark. He created order from chaos, transforming Costa Rica from a backwards place into a civilized area that produced great value for the rest of humanity, by bringing bananas to the masses. He created a railway system connecting the Capital to the east coast of Costa Rica, thus enabling trade with Europe. When he was done taming the rainforest, he then used the land to develop banana plantations, and, through effective lateral and vertical control of an entire supply chain, he developed a powerful, profitable, multi-national corporation to sell bananas to Americans. Minor Keith was an innovator, an entrepreneur, a businessman, a trail-blazer, a CEO of one of the first multinational corporations to ever exist, a political icon, and someone that is revered by many still in Costa Rica and beyond. Minor Keith was an alpha male among alpha males, who transformed nature through industry, out-competed others in the free market, and led his people to greatness.
From another perspective, the story of Minor Keith can be seen as an alpha predator among super apex predators. By creating the railway, he destabilized the delicate balance of the rainforest; which is balanced primarily through biodiversity. He also led thousands of black, brown, indigenous people and Italian and other European people to their death to destroy this biodiversity and to conquer the rainforest in the interest of the type of order he desired. After doing this, he replaced even more of the rainforest, cutting down all of the trees and plants and, in its place, creating monocultural plantations of bananas. In so doing, he further reduced the biodiversity of the area. He then built a business empire from this, whereby he had monopoly power over every part of the process; from growing and harvesting the bananas, to transporting them via land and sea and across the US again, to marketing of bananas and changing their image as exotic and hyper-sexual to a fruit that anyone can eat. He controlled it all. As nature fought back in the only way that it can, specifically disease that would attack the monoculture banana plant and devastate his crop, he chose to be even more alpha and squeeze the rights, power, and privilege out of his workers to both take greater risks and to funnel more profits to him. As he gained more economic power, he used it to gain more political power, thus enabling him to create ever greater sway over Costa Rica and also the United States and to compete with other banana producers, thus out competing other alpha groups, often by rigging the “free market” in his favor. All of his work resulted in deeply fragile political systems in Central America that are still felt to this day, under the label “banana republics” (unstable countries dependent on limited set of crops or resources). Minor Keith was an alpha male among alpha males, who destroyed biodiversity in the name of wealth, destroyed other people that would hold him back, rig systems to his advantage, and subjugate people to his goals and desires.
This story personifies the problem of being super-apex predators, both as a species, and as individuals. As an apex predator species dominates other organisms and reorganizes ecosystems, biodiversity declines. As individual and small group apex predators reorganize social systems to make themselves ever more alpha (more wealth, prestige, political clout), social diversity declines, resulting in unstable societies (what we might think of as structural inequalities via inequality regimes). Apex predators, both species and individuals, take as much as the broader context allows, until killed by famine, disease, dehydration, natural disasters, or a bigger alpha. The more biodiversity and social diversity is lost, the more fragile and unstable both systems become. Over enough time, that fragility and instability will lead to collapse, both of the ecosystem and the social system, as everything that the alpha apex predator is atop of, can no longer sustain the weight of that alpha apex predator. Put more simply, apex predator logic, in one way of describing it, is a Ponzi scheme.
According to Attenborough, for the human species to survive, we need to change. Otherwise, the checks on apex predators — famine, dehydration, disease, natural disaster, our self-destruction — will destroy us and, along with us, most of the biodiversity on this planet (something that has occurred at least 5 times already in our planet’s history). While Attenborough’s call to Rewild the Earth is right, that can only be accomplished if we also commit to becoming more than just super-apex predators. In particular, we must de-center the primacy of apex predator logic within ourselves and our societies.
In the next part of this series, I’ll seek to de-center apex predator logic by delineating how much it pervades our cultures, norms, traditions, stories, arts, religions, philosophies, and scientific methods.
 Keystone species are species that are particularly important for keeping an ecosystem in balance, as was demonstrated in Yellowstone when Wolves were exterminated.