The Anthropocene and the Humanities

Marika Mäkelä, Soon the Wind Died, Oil, pigment and gold leaf on canvas, 201 × 281 × 4 cm, 1994.


Excerpts selected by the author of the newly released book.

The central object of this book is the reception, by the humanities, of the proposal of a new era, emerging from the so-called science of the earth system, the theme of the 2019 book. Such reception was far from being homogeneous, including the explicit rejection embedded in the expression 'Capitalocene' . The pun has been used to emphasize that increasing ecosystem damage is not to be blamed on the human species, but on capitalism.

Needless to say, such a protest came from humanities researchers most scandalized by the finding that part of their peers would be swallowing what sounded to them as an abusive imposition of the chronology of geosciences. Apparently, a typical case of mismatch between the “two cultures”.

There has been a tenuous, if at all, reduction in the distance that has separated what the British molecular physicist and novelist CP Snow (1905-1980) considered to be Two Cultures, in a famous Cambridge conference on May 7, 1959 (Edusp, 1995). The initiatives that really compensate for the reductionism imposed by the ever-increasing – and forced – fragmentation of knowledge into new disciplines are still too incipient.

It is convenient, therefore, to know the video of the conversation “Science and Humanities Sixty Years Later”, held at the IEA/USP, on the exact sixtieth anniversary of CP Snow's conference. With protagonists who have long been committed to transdisciplinary challenges: senior professors Sonia Barros de Oliveira (Geosciences-USP) and Ricardo Abramovay (IEE-USP):

The content of this book certainly shows the current stage of one of the main clashes between the two cultures, in the footsteps of CP Snow, when he proposed an analytical description of the reception of the idea of ​​the Anthropocene by the humanities.

However, what such an exercise seems to reveal most is the incipient knowledge of the two cultures with regard to the four historical dynamics of the Earth: the planet, life, human nature and civilization. Perhaps even more so: the theoretical weakness of most of the sciences and almost all of the humanities.


The exhibition follows similar patterns to the aforementioned 2019 book: three chapters, very different in content and style. The first proposes a synthesis, along the lines of scientific dissemination, of what needs to be known about the most relevant debates, inviting the reader to fly over what is most important on the subject, before learning about its intricate scientific and philosophical foundations.

The second is a deep dive into the evidence, through inspection of key documents, with minimal sacrifice of accuracy in the name of greater communicative effectiveness. Such is the nature of the two scientific articles on which it is based: 'The Science of Sustainability' (2021) and 'Anthropocene and Humanities' (2022). By presenting a selection of the most burning literature, the second chapter is an emphatic invitation to reflect on the most valuable contributions of the second culture on the Anthropocene.

The third, much more theoretical, seeks to unravel one of the greatest difficulties encountered in the reactions of the Humanities to the idea of ​​the Anthropocene: the relationship between the “new sciences of complexity” and Darwinian materialism. With findings that lead to several questions, presented in a style that just isn't as light as that of the first chapter because the inevitable dissection of certain ideas involves a higher degree of abstraction.

The reader will easily realize that this book cannot pretend to propose solutions to the many problems, of an epistemological nature, revealed by the investigations from which it results. Much less engage in discussions about ontologies and their eventual “turns”. Even so, it may open paths that may facilitate overcoming – eminently scientific, rather than philosophical – the identified gaps and challenge, title of the epilogue.

When approaching him, the reader will also have noticed that many passages in this book only confirm the need to banish reasoning like “if it is this, it cannot be that”. Almost always, such addictions must be turned upside down, thanks to the “also”, the “in the same way”, or “at the same time”.

More: often, instead of “yes or no”, “neither present nor absent” is imposed, as the Australian philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith emphasized in an interview with geographer Eduardo Sombini, in the Illustrious, from FSP, of July 2, 2022. It will always be preferable to look for what can be reasonable in each speech, since one of the main bets of this book is to persuade the reader that, with extreme frequency, contrary logics nourish each other, complementing each other. while opposing.

Evolution and dialectics

What has been said in this first chapter does not exhaust the disagreements about the link between evolution and dialectics. There is also, for example, a kind of addiction to leaving aside, or simply ignoring, the two types of non-antagonistic contradictions, in which opposites are reproduced in movements that can be wavelike or embryonic. Furthermore, philosophers who rejected the idea that some contradiction (or tension) could exist outside the human mind are still very fashionable, which scandalizes many scientists. For example, those who study cell development.

Two sciences in co-evolution

The review presented so far suggests that sustainability science and earth system science are co-evolving initiatives. Maybe they could even result, in the future, in a new unified science, the result of a kind of symbiosis or hybridization.

However, as it is not even a testable hypothesis, such a suggestion should only be understood as a useful conjecture for monitoring the results of future research, as they will certainly show the approximation or distance between such comprehensive heuristic proposals.

For the time being, these two candidates for transdisciplinary sciences seem to participate in a kind of dispute for legitimacy, in which earth system science is much more advanced, but at a clear potential disadvantage when considering the greater scope, pertinence, relevance and opportunity of a sustainability science.

Whatever the outcome, one thing already seems certain: everything will depend on the development of research on complexity. None of this can advance while it is not possible to undo the merely “systemological” illusion.

Foundation of scientific humanities

At this point, the most important question can only be focused on the possible ways of overcoming what was called above “linear and teleological evolutionism”, dominant among the best analyzes regarding the civilizing process, the foundation of what should be understood by Humanities, the start with science.

So, the third part of this book could not fail to present what promises to be clues for a future facing the challenge of going beyond a succession of stages of development, resulting from precarious interpretations of the relationships between technologies and forms of organization. An exercise that inevitably raises questions about what has been called “complexity”.

the ecology

It is in this fundamental sense that Ecology — as a science of intricacies, interactions and compatibilities — is constitutive of Darwinian thought and includes all components and evolutionary trends of human societies, reacting to pressures from climate, environment and history.

The permanent interference, or the relationship of mutual habitation, between “nature” and “culture” is — in the Darwinian text and in what is inspired by it — the crucible of understanding complex socio-evolutionary processes that today must constitute the program of a scientific ecology.

Especially in its necessary confrontation with the question of the limits and balances between the human components of the development of nature and what such "nature" (in the sense of a continuously changing global environment) cannot fail to impose as being, in its "metabolization" (Marxist notion, as it is better known today) of modifying artifacts, their ultimate conditions of compatibility and their own “reaction norms”.

It is this understanding of the limits that has not yet been able to reach, despite the incessant warnings, a scientific ecology that truly integrates the transforming parameters of economic activity and the analysis of its long-term natural and social consequences.

The great movement of civilization according to Darwin, the only true founder of ecological rationality, needs Marx today so that the Möbius strip does not cease to be a symbol of infinity. The problem is that Marx and Engels, from 1862 onwards, despite having maintained a materialist sympathy for Darwin, sought to characterize the central concept of natural selection as “ideological”. Such prejudice led many Marxists to attribute to Darwin the responsibility for the appearance of a bourgeois “social Darwinism”. The consequences can be measured by the failure to recognize, in the naturalist's anthropology, a true dialectic of nature that the two German revolutionaries would not have repudiated had they studied and understood it.

Regarding the very delicate relationship between Darwin and Marx, it is worth paying attention to the contribution of Lilian Truchon, in issue 407 of the magazine Thought. “Since Marx's fundamental contribution is on the side of social history, and not on the articulation of the “natural” and the “social” (which is due to Darwin), there is not necessarily a “confrontation” between Marx and Darwin, as many say. ”.

What exists is a difference between two points of view on history, one linked to the long dynamics of evolutionary events, the other to the much shorter dynamics of historical events. With regard to the future of humanity, both have in common the universalist objective of a fighting movement that tends to produce its own abolition.

Darwin, when he reports on an evolutionary tendency he called “civilization”, which is characterized by the tendency to reduce biological struggle in favor of an anti-selective ethics and institutions destined to neutralize its ultimate eliminative consequences (that is, by the “tendential elimination of elimination"). Marx, when he identifies the objective elements of communism as a “real movement” that abolishes the current social state in search of a “classless society”, that is, without struggle.

Contrary to what the theorists of the Frankfurt School (especially Horkheimer and Adorno) thought, the problem is not the excessive use of reason in human relations with each other and with nature. The short-term profit maximization system shows how much global rational intelligence and forecasting are absent, in favor of a myopic sectoral rationality that is “hypertelic”. That is, the situation in which something exceeds the purposes for which it was conceived.

What matters, therefore, is to unequivocally combat the regressive violence of a system that imposes unbridled competition on production actors in the thoughtless and irrational exploitation of vital sectors of nature. It is from this that humans, associating according to "a deliberate plan", should today, no less deliberately, free themselves.

impasses and challenge

Almost nothing is known about the social life of humans in times considered 'prehistoric', or even in the interval of a few millennia that separated the Neolithic turn from the emergence of the first civilizations. But, from then on, it is indisputable that the development of societies was greatly favored by the meteorological slowdown, after a glacial period that lasted about 100 years.

What can be said, with reasonable certainty, is that, before the so-called Neolithic revolution or demographic transition, or the “first agricultural revolution”, human evolution depended essentially on predation, plant extraction, fishing and hunting.

This means that the climatic attenuation of the last 12 thousand years allowed the so-called 'civilizing process', despite some abrupt and calamitous alterations. Like, for example, the one that, 4,2 years ago, disintegrated the Semitic Mesopotamian State, in the region of Acadia (the center of present-day Iraq); in the much more famous “Mayan collapse”, between the 1640th and 1715th centuries; in the collapse of Norse settlement in Greenland some six hundred years ago; or, between XNUMX and XNUMX, with the 'Global Crisis of the XNUMXth Century', in the midst of the so-called Little Ice Age, which wiped out a third of the world's population.

Even with such instabilities, the short lapse of the last 12 millennia was so different from everything that preceded it in the 4,5 billion years of planetary history, that the geosciences agreed to baptize them with the prefix Holo, to point out that this would be the most recent season.

However, the maintenance of such formidable ecological constancies that led to decisive social advances, driven essentially by reasonable degrees of cooperation and cohesion among humans, became very doubtful. Such comparative advantage has become deregulated by excessive artificial influences from its own activities.

So, to distinguish this new stage, in which the durability of life on Earth came to depend too much on the conduct of a single species - the human - most researchers who deal with Geosciences considered it much more appropriate to replace the prefix Holo, proposing that in the new warehouse.

Although it has not yet been made official, even at a world congress of Geosciences themselves, the proposal to call the Epoch after the Holocene the Anthropocene was very well received in several other areas of knowledge. Including with regard to the consensus that his date of birth was the beginning of the so-called “Great Acceleration”, in the mid-twentieth century.

However, as we tried to explain in the second chapter of this book, this was not what happened to various sectors of the Humanities, when they – with much delay – began to position themselves on the issue. As capitalism would be responsible for the damage to ecosystems, rather than humans as a whole, it would be more correct to call the new Epoch the Capitalocene, rather than the Anthropocene. But, as several conceptions about capitalism itself coexist, with the most divergent periodizations, everything indicates that this discussion has entered a serious and serious impasse.

Strictly speaking, this would have been the conclusive synthesis of a book devoted to the analytical description of the Humanities' reactions to the Anthropocene proposal, engendered in the 'Science of the Earth System'. However, the same finding resulted from the examination, separately, of the theoretical discussions of the concurrent 'Sustainability Science' (2.1) and of the Humanities, in general (2.2). In both, any advances depend on research on 'complexity'. Or, better said, both are in dire need of more substantial progress in the “new sciences of complexity”.

Everything indicates that this can be considered another serious and serious impasse, since, as the beginning of the third chapter showed, it is unlikely that the researchers involved in such a thorny imbroglio will be able to leave the Tower of Babel that, involuntarily, they helped to build.

Again, this could be the summary, a little more incisive, of this book. However, research dynamics also suggested that the main weakness of complexity research lies in its scant attention to Darwin's theory of evolution. Such a serious deficiency that two thinkers who, since the 1980s, have been making significant contributions to the subject remain in the shadows: Peter A. Corning and Patrick Tort.

So, the best conclusive summary of this book is perhaps the realization that the Humanities, like most of the sciences, remain pre-Darwinian. The challenge, therefore, is to carry forward the essential reconsideration of Darwin's and Marx's thoughts, which is prompted by the closing of the third chapter.

Mainly because the Humanities continue to understand the relationship between nature and culture as a sequence of two universes separated by some rupture operator. As already mentioned, the difference is that, for some, the border would not be in the possession of symbolic language, but in the invention of fire, in the prohibition of incest, in the external recording of memory in permanent supports, in the existence of funerary rituals or in tool making.

In all these variants, culture stems from some qualitative change, which has the irruptive character of a singular event, introducing the novelty. The only anthropology free of such an orientation was the one proposed by Charles Darwin, in his second great work, The Descent of Man, published in 1871. Unfortunately, disdained by Darwinists of all times and quarters, as well as by the Humanities as a whole.

For Darwin, the passage is not simple, but reverse. The nature > culture movement does not produce rupture. Culture is the opposite of nature and vice versa. What preceded culture subsists at all points of its development, given the impossible rupture with nature. The permanent interference — or mutual housing relationship — between nature and culture is, in Darwinian anthropology, identical to the most frequent of dialectical relationships: that of continuity in discontinuity.

Nor could the core of the theory exposed in his well-known first major work, The Origin of Species, from 1859. In the dynamics called “natural selection”, those responsible for reproduction, the so-called replicators, result from overcoming the contradiction between spontaneous random variations and persistent pressures from environmental circumstances. A simultaneously demographic and biogeographical dynamic.

It is a pity that Marx did not realize the scope of the two Darwinian scientific revolutions. He even praised the first great book, but rightly condemned the two subsequent ideological extrapolations of the idea of ​​natural selection, invented as early as the 1860s: the liberal one, by Herbert Spencer, and the interventionist one, by Francis Galton. That's why he didn't even read the second great work, missing the opportunity to find an ecological basis for his powerful materialism.

Nevertheless, by attributing very high relevance to the natural sciences, Marx was led to adopt a concept, from the still nascent biochemistry, to make incessant analogies about the relations between society and nature: metabolism. That is, the set of chemical reactions, inside cells, that guarantee life. Phenomenon that involves two dynamics: the biosynthetic (anabolism) and the degradative (catabolism), both irreversible, distinct, but interconnected, whose result is life.

Going against the current, current eco-Marxists, or eco-socialists, strive to recover and praise the use of the metabolic analogy as one of the most dialectical. It is a pity that they exaggerate when claiming that Marx foresaw the ecological crisis of the Anthropocene, just because he referred – only once and briefly – to the possibility of weakening such a metabolic process. The assertion that an ecology would already be present in Marx's own work is inappropriate.

In short: the desirable rapprochement between the theories of Marx and Darwin has not yet begun, a dynamic that perhaps makes the Humanities and Earth System Science co-evolve towards an Ecology that is, at the same time, social and natural.

*José Eli da Veiga is a senior professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo (IEA-USP). Author, among other books, of The Anthropocene and the Science of the Earth System (Ed. 34).


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

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