Book Reviews

Mass Extinction? Us?

By December 1, 2013 No Comments

Venkman: “This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions!”

Mayor: “What do you mean biblical?”

Stantz: “What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor. Real wrath of God type stuff. Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!”

Spengler: “Forty years of darkness, earthquakes, and volcanos!”

Winston: “The dead rising from the grave!”

Venkman: “Human sacrifices, dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!”

— Scene from Ghostbusters 1984.

Humans long appear to have a fascination with the end of times. The eschatological religions which believe that time is linear and will have an end have been predicting that this will occur since the Zoroastrians first mentioned it around 500 BC. The non-eschatological religions like Hinduism and that of the Maya merely see a repeat of cycles, but expect darn exciting times whenever the cycle is reset.

There may be good reasons to believe in such things. Aside from the bit about the dead rising from the grave (nonetheless, a popular entertainment theme these days), and perhaps the bit about house pets, most of the dire developments cited in the Ghostbusters excerpt have been witnessed in the geological past of our planet. There have also been several spectacular episodes in the last million years, which threatened our own species in its infancy. On our planet, bad things happen, and if we stick around as a species long enough, they will happen to us.

Annalee Newitz does not concern herself with the religious dimensions of mass extinction events. She is a popular science journalist and stories about mass extinction are indeed popular science stories. She points out there have been five ‘mass extinction’ events in which at least 75% of the life forms on our planet have vanished within a million years or so. It is a debatable point as to whether or not another such episode is currently underway.

Newitz has the optimism that tends to come with her calling. If this is an era of the sixth major mass extinction in the 450 million years, this is the first time there has been an intelligent species around with the power to recognize it and redress matters. She is not a hard-set environmentalist (or at least is not that much more of one than most of us should be) and points out that the last million years or so has been a stressful time for species diversity given the rapid fluctuations of glaciation in combination with the rise of humans and their hunting habits.

Beyond that, human mass death has been a frequent occurrence often enough in the brief history of our species. Newitz points out that the genetic diversity in our species is more limited than it is in most contemporary animal species, suggesting that human biological resilience is not all that it should be. In addition, our greater numbers are a result of cultural and social factors that have often been severely disrupted by some combination of disease, hunger, warfare, or economics. As often as not, we have inadvertently set the ‘Four Horsemen’ loose without a major triggering calamity from nature.

There are ‘best practices’ for long-term species survival that Newitz explores; one or two of which we have adopted already:

  • Dispersal: Sometime around 70,000 years ago, humanity seems to have nearly all died out, largely because our species was largely focused in Africa. The more spread out we are, the less vulnerable we become.
  • Adaption: Many of our industrial processes are not that efficient, but there are some microbes, bacteria, and whatnot that have survived everything thrown at them for a billion years. How about learning some lessons from them?
  • Flexibility: A human strong point to be sure, but not if regulation and routine interfere with an emergency. There are examples from nature to emulate again.
  • The spirit of survival: We have to remember that mere physical survival is not enough. Humanity has learned to rely on a basketful of plant and animal species that need to survive with us, and – fin de siècle yearnings aside – we need to carry our culture and traditions with us.

Scatter, Adapt and Remember then heads off into what used to be thought of as the realm of science fiction – except that nobody can afford to be so dismissive of science fiction anymore. In the past few decades, we have learned much more about what is theoretically possible, and a lot of it is becoming less theoretical and more achievable with every passing year.

The author introduces engineers with ideas for cities that are no longer death traps during earthquakes and tsunamis. There are mathematicians with radical new ideas for modeling public systems to limit pandemics, and cities and shelters that could provide whole populations with protection from major radiation episodes – such as those the sun or nearby stars occasionally threaten us with.

In the end, most species can expect to have a run of 1-2 million years before their time is up. Homo erectus sat on his emerging thumbs for something like 1.4 million years and our own species has only been around for something like 120,000 years. As a species, we’re entitled to a lot more time, and Newitz explores some other measures to ensure we get it – from defence against NEO (Near Earth Objects) to space elevators to dispersal through our solar system and beyond it.

The day of wrath may be coming. Indeed, it is a statistical certainty that it is. However, there is no reason for us to sit idly and wait for it. If we do nothing until it comes, then we will truly deserve extinction.

Newitz’s book is not an intellectual feast so much as it is a sampler or a smorgasbord, but in an era where very few people think much about the sciences at all, more of us should taste what she has to offer.