By Jing de Visser
Even though climate change, war and refugee crises are things we have on our minds, we still seem pretty optimistic about our future as a human race. Are the experts too however?
We are living in the Anthropocene age, also known as the ‘human age’. What this means and how we ended up here is something that expert Lars van den Hoek Ostende has studied for a very long time. He works as a senior researcher, on biodiversity discovery, fossil micro vertebrates at Naturalis in Leiden.
How did you find out that you wanted to learn about evolution and the history behind it?
‘’When I was younger my mum gave me books about dinosaurs and I really like those. I also watched a television show called Daktori, which really emphasized the whole biological/geological aspect. Then finally I have a brother who shares the same interest.
I started learning about this properly in Utrecht where I studied, I thought it was interesting, and my school, Utrecht University, was most specialised in this specific direction.’’
Over the years, is there something you learnt about humans to predict the future for them?
‘’To be honest, it’s very difficult to predict. But what you can do is start with the basics and history. With valid research in mind you can imagine what could or should happen in the future.
A human is a mammal. Humans started off as the human ape species in Africa. Because of the climate change the human apes started adjusting to this. Humans always kept adjusting themselves to the climate and environment.
You can also speak of nature selection, the ones who survived gave their characteristics to their offspring and so on. Survival of the fittest! Evolution has to be given a chance to actually happen. But we humans, we could be a plague to evolution.’’
Why are we a plague to evolution?
‘’The average species lives around one million years, it’s an average lifespan. And we, humans, are a species. Most species adjust to their environment, but what we humans did, we changed the environment instead of ourselves. Because of warm clothing and a heater, you can live normally in winter for example. Also, we want people to expand their lives when there ill. If we would have let nature do her work, a lot more people wouldn’t survive, but we as humans can’t just let this happen.
During the evolution, we developed more feelings and systems and we’re trying to be the strongest species to survive. You could say that we stopped our evolving.’’
As you said, we stopped evolving, does this mean that we won’t survive at one point?
‘’It doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t survive. It has been predicted that there is a new ice age coming because of the way the earth moves. The earth moves in a circle or an oval form and finds its own way around the sun. Milankovitch, a Serbian scientist, discovered how time develops and how ice ages match with this. This ice age would come ten million years from now. If this ice age arrives and humans are still around in the north, as they are right now, it will be almost impossible for humans to live. So they have to move to the south, there it’s easier to survive because of casualties. Species tend to make groups when it comes to surviving. Our intelligence has always been what helped us, so why not in the future?’’
Can you predict anything specific about the human species in the future?
‘’It’s very difficult, because this is something new. Some people talk about the Anthropocene age, the human age. Mentally humans made huge steps, especially culture wise. Religion connects people to each other and made it possible to live in communities. You can say: ‘evolution created the human, but God made humanity.’’’
Lars van den Hoek Ostende
His fascination for lost fossils started with dinosaurs. “In order to understand the history of our planet, you cannot focus on one, exceptional fossil; you need many.” For trying to understand the development of (mammal) biodiversity in history, Hoek’s research revolves around the 4-questions: “What was when where and why.”. He tries to connect and interconnect with as many colleagues in the field as possible in order to gain the wider scope. “Science is a state of mind, not a profession. If that is true, I am a scientist working at Naturalis for over 20 years.”