From megafauna extinction to the London Underground mosquito: how human activity drives evolution

A tragically extinct bit of megafauna. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

When scientists examine the impact of humans on the planet, the focus is mainly on the extinction of species. But increasingly researchers are looking at the idea that humans, through animal domestication, relocation and hunting, have become an evolutionary driving force that has led to new species, new traits and novel ecosystems.

A new paper, recently published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, argues that if we are to preserve the biodiversity of life that we value, we need to understand both the nature of this human-driven creation – a process known as speciation – as well as the effects of human-driven extinctions.


A drive to extinction

Look at humans’ effects on Earth’s plant life. Over recent decades, the amount of new plant growth each year across the world appears to have been relatively constant. However, between 25 per cent and 38 per cent of this fresh plant growth is appropriated by humans – for food and other purposes – reducing the amount available for millions of other species.

Thomas Crowther and colleagues at Yale University estimated that before the industrial revolution there were 6bn trees on Earth. There are now only 3bn. This deforestation and the conversion of land to produce food, fuel, fibre and fodder, combined with targeted hunting and harvesting, has resulted in a rate of species extinction some 100 to 1,000 times higher than would have been expected without human intervention. This probably constitutes the beginning of the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history – an enormous impact on the planet and one reason why many scientists have declared that we have entered the Anthopocene Epoch.

Species removal isn’t a random process: a disproportionate number of those driven to extinction are the larger animals, both on land and at sea. This “megafauna extinction” began 50,000 years ago: unbelievably, half of all large-bodied mammals worldwide, equivalent to 4 per cent of all mammal species, have been lost in that time. And extinctions are not just confined to mammals: since 1500CE there have been 784 documented extinctions, including 79 mammals, 129 birds, 21 reptiles, 34 amphibians, 81 fish, 359 invertebrates and 86 plants.

Domestication and relocation

Humans have also domesticated around 474 animals and 269 plants to meet their needs, and this has led to the emergence of new species. Of the world’s 40 most common agricultural crops, eight can be considered entirely new species, just as animal domestication has created new species of animals such as the dog and domestic pig.

Animal domestication has also led to a major shift in animal distribution. According to Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba, of the weight of all the planet’s land mammals, humans make up 30 per cent, domesticated animals make up 67 per cent, and wild mammals just 3 per cent. Organisms have also been transported around the world – including crops, domesticated animals, and pathogens such as viruses and bacteria. This movement has led to a small number of extraordinarily common species such as the brown rat, new hybrid species such as mules, and a general homogenisation of the animal and plant life found on Earth.

There’s more to animal domestication than you’d think. Image: XKCD/creative commons.

This biological relocation started in the 16th century when species from the Old World of Europe and Asia were exchanged with those in the New World (the Americas). This is known as the Colombian Exchange, which led to the globalisation of human food, with New World crops such as maize/corn, potatoes and manioc/cassava swapping places with Old World crops such as sugarcane and wheat. Domesticated animals swapped continents, too.

Many of these plants and animals have since undergone rapid evolution in their new environments, leading to the emergence of new species. Accidental transfers from Europe occurred, too: smallpox, measles and typhus killed over 50m people in South and Central America during the colonisation of the New World. These exchanges continue today, and invasive species have become a major concern on all continents. Mark van Kleunen and colleagues at the University of Konstanz suggest that 4 per cent of plant species have been relocated around the globe, equivalent to all the native plant species in Europe.

These changes are the first of their kind since the supercontinent Pangaea separated about 200m years ago, but in fact the extent of the current epoch’s trans-oceanic exchanges are unprecedented.

Something borrowed, something new

Most ecosystems have been altered by humans, to the extent that the concept of a “natural” biome, completely free from human influence, is obsolete. This has led Erle Ellis at the University of Maryland to suggest that we consider them Anthromes – those ecosystems where most of characteristics have been reshaped by human activity. While many have undergone significant loss of biodiversity, through change they also create environments that allow opportunities for the emergence of new species.

Culex pipiens f. molestus, the mosquito species unique to the London Underground. Image: Walkabout12/creative commons.

An interesting example is that of the common house mosquito (Culex pipiens) which has become adapted to London’s underground railway and established a subterranean population of mosquitoes distinct from any other on Earth. Now called the London Underground mosquito, it has diverged sufficiently from its cousins above ground that it can no longer interbreed with them and exhibits significantly different behaviour.

So through breeding, harvesting and transport of crops and animals, and the impact of higher air and surface temperatures that result from greenhouse gas emissions, humans have, and continue to, alter the evolutionary process of the other species sharing this planet with us.

If we consider also the scientific development of diverse new biological products such as antibiotics, pesticides and novel genetically engineered organisms, humans have indeed become the world’s greatest evolutionary force capable of shaping our world by creating new species and destroying others.

If we are to help preserve the millions of species on Earth, we must consider the impact of humans in terms of these creative and destructive forces.The Conversation

Mark Maslin is professor of Climatology at UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.