With the news cycle now available to us, 24 hours a day, it may sometimes seem like our species is in continuous crisis. Every issue, however small, is a battleground. From the screens of our TVs and smartphones comes an endless stream of discussion and contention. Often we are caught up in the minutiae of debates about pandemic restrictions, or the prevention of terrorism, or controls on immigration. It’s harder than ever to navigate through these debates, with truth so often distorted or denied. Perhaps it’s a good time to stand back from the battle, for a moment, and look at the bigger picture.

We are a species at a crossroads. The extraordinary world that we have created through our unique adaptive capabilities – a world powered by language, technology, and culture – also threatens our very existence, and the biosphere we inhabit. How we move forward, and the decisions we make in the coming years and decades, will decide the fate of our species and many others.

This is the focus of our online project – the Past, Present and Future of the Human Niche. Here, we aim to engage with leading thinkers, researchers, science-writers and communicators, to explore the extraordinary adaptation that is the Human Niche. While other species have been content to adapt to the world as they find it, human beings have systematically and unrelentingly altered that world. This process began thousands of years ago, and it’s accelerating at dizzying speed today.

We ask, how did we get here? Where are we going? And how can we use our immense and growing understanding of the human niche to shape a better future for ourselves and for our planet?

Over the coming months, we will introduce an array of participants, contributing from different backgrounds and perspectives. In the series, they explore the world around us and within to provide insights into our species and its planetary home. They examine how we have shaped evolutionary processes, how we have diverted energy flows, how we have reformed the biosphere and transformed Earth Systems, and how we have altered our very selves. The chronological breadth of their explorations is substantial, ranging from our deepest human ancestors to our current Coronavirus crisis, and extending to predictions about our future.

Adapting to a pandemic-shaped world, this series of diverse events – talks, interviews, blogs and short videos – will take place entirely virtually. It is aimed at a broad audience. Some events will take place live, some will be pre-recorded. We invite you to engage and provide feedback, on our website and on social media, enlivening this global conversation about the human niche.

Maybe sharing some of the science of Human Niche Construction will help us reflect on some of the issues that dominate our lives right now. Maybe looking at the bigger picture, globally and historically, will equip us to return more constructively to that smaller picture we inhabit, locally and individually. And if your screen is dominated by the bewildering cacophony of the contemporary news cycle, maybe this will be one way to hit “Refresh”. We hope you will join us!

Prof Nicole Boivin

Nicole Boivin is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. Her research is cross-disciplinary, exploring the ways that humans have adapted to and reshaped the planet over thousands of years. She is committed to bringing information about the past to bear on contemporary challenges, and her Department’s research explores how archaeological data can inform present-day issues ranging from climate change and the Anthropocene to globalization, food security and migration. Since June 2020, Professor Boivin is spearheading the reorientation of the Max Plank Institute for the Science of Human History.