A short selection from Essay Ten in Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice.
Look again at that dot … every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there—on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam … In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves … There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world [sent from Voyager I as it swept beyond Saturn in 1990]. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known. —Carl Sagan 
Nature obviously can’t adapt species directly for such unusual disturbances of such unusual magnitudes as End-Permian upheavals and End-Cretaceous comet impacts; however, in responding to the background stresses of local events, like fires, landslides, and windfalls, there is resilience built into successional pioneer strategies that lead to the repair of ongoing ecosystem disturbance. In much the same way as the handiest skills (fixing the step, doing the laundry, basket-weaving) promote recovery after emotional breakdown, or as broader interests, beyond the desperate focus of a flawed paradigm, make the ‘shift’, so the flexibility of opportunist species like black bears and phoebes, or of edge species like aspen and fireweed, naturally positions them to become (along with a few very lucky specialists) the evolutionary pioneers in a totally transfigured world after an ecologically ‘unfamiliar’ disaster.
So what about us? Should we suppose the pioneering flexibility of our technology will benefit Nature? Or is our capacity for unbridled opportunism a recipe for further disaster?
In normal times there are subtle strings attached to ecological flexibility. Physical endowments must, in Nature, be compromised to allow for versatility, making their opportunist phenotypes vulnerable to unrelenting specialist competition. And, what’s more germane perhaps to human origins, it seems only logical that versatility, without the coordinating power of language, does not lend itself to cooperative behaviour. Opportunists must naturally have more difficulty coordinating their wide-ranging interests than specialists do, and specialists derive more benefit from cooperation in a niche narrowly partitioned from other specialists (think of the opportunistic but solitary black bear in contrast with the highly specialized pack-hunting timber wolf). Our earliest unshared ancestors were probably opportunistic, and might even have contributed something back then to Nature’s bucket brigade of successional pioneers, but our technology has long since broken the genetic contract that once limited hominin ambitions. It’s an insane boast indeed to be at the top of the food chain when you get there by consuming or displacing every link along the way! How did we “go wrong”?
- Sagan, Carl. 1994. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. New York: Random House. pp, 6-7