The Anthropocene and the Humanities

Dame Barbara Hepworth, Ita, 1971


Comment on the recently published book by José Eli da Veiga

David Hume's disconsolation in his famous work Inquiry into human understanding, published in 1748, faced with the contrast between the simplicity, clarity and determination of the mathematical sciences when compared to the imprecision and ambiguity of moral philosophy.

No matter how hard Western thought has been to reduce this abyss, the truth is that, almost 300 years after David Hume's discovery, studies on human behavior and those aimed at understanding the natural world are trapped in the overwhelming most of the time, in separate compartments. And, as the French physicist Étienne Klein states in his most recent book court-circuits (Gallimard), "by decomposing things excessively, life is taken from them".

Twentieth-century sociology turned the vice of this separation into a virtue. This is how, for Émile Durkheim, for example, “the social explains the social”. Max Weber makes a point of distinguishing sociology from psychology, insisting that even when it comes to studying the intentions of human action, it is in social relations that its sources are found and what matters in the inner world of individuals.

In 1959, the British CP Snow gave the title of two cultures to his conference in Cambridge on the relations between “science"and "humanities“, noting the gap in procedures, methods and what can be called ethos of these two strands of knowledge.

More than a methodological posture, this separation reflects the pride of treating the human being as “metaphysically isolated”, to use Hans Jonas’s expression in The life principle: foundations for a philosophical biology (Voices).

Over the last 40 years, this picture has been changing due to the importance of contemporary socio-environmental problems and the evidence that their study would require an unprecedented process of collaboration between scientists from different areas.

The first NASA report on the depletion of the atmospheric ozone layer was prepared – at the beginning of the 1980s – with the exclusive participation of experts from the natural sciences. Since then, the presence of human and society science researchers has grown and become increasingly important in ambitious reports on climate change, biodiversity erosion or pollution, coming from public, private and associative multilateral organizations.

Appeals towards interdisciplinarity or even transdisciplinarity multiplied not only in the work of scientists of the caliber of Edward O. Wilson, but were also the object of monumental works such as that of Edgar Morin, and of global initiatives, such as those led by Unesco .

But the advances made by this gigantic effort do not seem to have reduced the distance between the two cultures. José Eli da Veiga's most recent book is not limited to exposing the state of the art in this strategic theme for sustainable development.

He makes a bold hypothesis about the reasons that keep putting “science"and "humanities” in institutional buildings that, it is true, open to joint cooperation, but continue to represent separate worlds. And this hypothesis is not supported by treatises on logic, philosophy of science or methodology.

It is the work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) that allows us to go beyond what contemporary knowledge never ceases to offer in tight blocks. The explanation of the importance of Charles Darwin's thought (already presented in previous books by José Eli da Veiga and in the Darwinian conversations that he animates at the Institute of Advanced Studies at USP) and the difficulties that oppose its acceptance in the scientific community (and not only among exponents of the humanities) make The Anthropocene and the Humanities a fascinating book.

Instead of appealing to transdisciplinary cooperation, detachment and the good will of specialists, José Eli da Veiga's book presents a theory and a method that, although elaborated in the XNUMXth century, remain ignored by most of the global scientific community today. .

A theme that could hardly be more arid is brought to the reader with a kind of drama whose actors are those who made Charles Darwin a relentless apologist for competition and who collaborated so that the most relevant contribution from a scientific point of view disappeared from his work. (but also political and, ultimately, ethical): the importance of cooperation and synergy in evolutionary processes.

For those who are used to the idea that “Darwinism” (a term that José Eli vehemently rejects, as it is not a doctrine) is the scientific explanation of the ability of the strongest to impose themselves through competitive processes, a statement whose weight ideology could not be more evident, reading José Eli da Veiga's book will open unprecedented horizons.

The most progressive segments of the humanities embarked on the reductionist interpretation of Charles Darwin based on the works of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), the founder of “social Darwinism”, which is based on the idea that society will be better the faster the process is. “natural” elimination of the weakest.

Also very influential was the reading of Charles Darwin by his cousin Francis Galton (1822-1911), who advocated nothing less than the elimination of the weakest (ie, eugenics) to aid natural selection.

The great exception to this gray and cynical view of Darwin's work is that of the Russian Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921), one of the exponents of anarchism, who saw in mutualism the secret of evolution itself.

In the first part of the book, José Eli shows the damage caused by excessive emphasis on interpretations of Charles Darwin's first work, The origin of species (1859) and the abandonment of the book that is its indispensable complement, the origin of man (1871)

In his second major work, Darwin shows that the civilizing process, in a way, is the negation of natural selection. Cooperation, empathy, a propensity to care for the weak (beyond the immediate family circle), and the rapid changes inherent in culture itself determined the emergence and evolution of civilization.

the origin of man is, in the expression of one of the several authors cited in the book, the “missing half” of The origin of species. “It was social instincts”, says Darwin, “that provided moral development”. Even in The origin of species, however, there is an overlap between competitive processes and cooperative processes in nature itself. The example is not only in social species such as ants and bees, but also in the plant world, as shown by recent work on the communication established between the trees of a forest.

However, it is in the origin of man that Darwin emphasizes the decisive role of human cooperation and institutions as part of the evolutionary process. José Eli's book begins with a chronology in the form of a building representing the 13,2 billion years that go from Big Bang so far.

To say that humanity is the result of this evolutionary process means that there is no break between the emergence of the planet, the emergence of life, the appearance of humanity and that of civilization. It is in reading Darwin's two books that we find the theoretical bases that allow us to overcome the dichotomy between nature and society, and thereby do justice to the classic quote by Blaise Pascal: “Man is not the only animal that thinks. However he is the only one who thinks he is not an animal”.

It is based on this recovery of what is most fertile in Darwin's thought that José Eli examines the two most important attempts to escape scientific compartmentalization in socio-environmental studies: the earth-system and the science of sustainability.

The diagnosis is clear: by presenting in a didactic way the synthesis of the gigantic bibliography on the subject, José Eli shows that the science of sustainability, despite its ambition to break with the walls of isolated disciplines, is not based, at least until now, on into a sufficiently robust theory. In the author's view, it is the sciences of complexity that can offer the foundations of a true theory of sustainability.

The link between evolutionary processes and complexity theory serves as an antidote to two politically crippling ideas. The first is the one that welcomes the arrival of the Anthropocene as a kind of blessing with which human intelligence, science and technology welcome humanity with the certainty that its trajectory can only be constructive and upward.

Welcoming the Anthropocene is an expression of this intellectual attitude, as well as exalting the love that is due to machines (or as Bruno Latour would say, to our monsters). Examining evolutionary processes in the light of complexity opens the way to a critical reflection on the place of science and techniques and not their exaltation, no matter how important science and technology are, of course, for human development.

The second paralyzing idea against which Darwin's work is a vaccine is that according to which the competitive nature of human behavior cannot lead the Anthropocene to any destination other than destruction.

Humanity's passage to civilization rests on the evolutionary advantages expressed in the institutions and feelings that derive from cooperation. This does not mean, of course, ignoring the social structures and economic interests that drive contemporary societies towards the climate crisis, the erosion of biodiversity, pollution and the advancement of inequalities. But approaching these problems in the light of the link between evolution and complexity avoids taking as an unavoidable fatality what can be transformed by social, technical and natural movements and forces whose interaction it is absurd to imagine that one can predict the results.

Enriching the ties between the Anthropocene and the humanities with theories that examine evolution in the light of complexity thus acquires fundamental political importance, as it opposes both the candid view that humanity is always capable of constructively facing its challenges and skepticism. and to the cynicism of those who already know from today that the future can only reserve the worst for us.

*Ricardo Abramovay is a professor at the Josué de Castro Chair at the Faculty of Public Health at USP. Author, among other books, of Infrastructure for Sustainable Development (Elephant).

Originally published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paul [].


Jose Eli da Veiga. The Anthropocene and the Humanities. São Paulo, ed. 34, 2023, 208 pages (

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