Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The threat of human extinction.

In the week when the northern white rhino population took another step towards being extinct with the number of breeding males dropping down to one there was also an event on human extinction taking place in London. The Extinction Marathon involved philosophers, scientists and people from the arts all talking about the increased risk of human extinction.

This seems a massively counter intuitive thought. With a population rapidly moving further north of seven billion there does not on the surface seem to be any stopping the incessant march of humans. However as ever this only tells part of the story. Humans may be incredibly successful but at what cost? There are serious discussions being had about renaming the Tertiary Geological time period we are living through to the Anthropocene Period in reflection of the impact humans have had.

What does this have to do with human extinction? Well currently we are living through a mass extinction event (the Holocene Event), the majority of which is due to the impact of our species. This is fine however it is massively affecting the biodiversity of the world in which we live. While it is true that some species are thriving - either as parasites of humans or due to being a species we want e.g. cows, chicken and corn - the majority are suffering. If we factor in the environmental changes we are also creating, whether that is the rise of carbon dioxide due to the overuse of fossil fuels or land clearing and deforestation or even the pollution of the seas due to poor waste management, The trend is clear, eventually the Earth will reach a critical stage and will not be able to continue to support human life.

This is not to say that the Earth will be devoid of life, humans in the grand scheme of evolution are not that special. We are one in a long line of successful organisms to have evolved and developed throughout the Earth's history. The only concession to humans being unique is the sheer scale of how we are affecting the Earth. Yet it is in this that our fragility and weaknesses are exposed.

There are three hundred and fifty thousand species of beetle in the world, that we know of. There are over a thousand species of bat. However there is one species of hominid (the family humans are part of), for all the talk of our nearness to other great apes - chimpanzees and gorillas - the truth of the matter is all of the members of our immediate family are extinct. This means that as successful as we are as a species, we are it.

One species.

Whilst everyone is unique due to the combination of genes in their genotype we are the same species.

This is a fact of biology that we can't escape, regardless of inherited features or environmental factors which might affect differences on the scale of the phenotype. We are the same species.

Whether we look differently, act differently or think differently we are humans. Which is why it is puzzling that whilst we may still have to compete for the same resources that all animals do however for a species that has the power to control so many factors in our environment our anger and behaviour seems to evade us.

The traits that may actually destroy humans are probably those which made humans successful. As a species we possess strong emotions. While this is a very strong feature for survival in a nature red in tooth and claw type environment when we fast forward to modern times there are no apex predators hunting humans. As a result turning upon each other would be expected. However this is not confined to a small scale habitat as we might see when chimpanzees attack other chimp troops. This is global and often not based on a need to survive. 

There is no difference between humans on a species level. Political divisions, religious ideologies and  social conformations are purely applied by humans. There should be no need for these divisions, that is not to say humans will ever reach a Utopia like civilization, but surely we need a paradigm shift for our attitudes towards each other. 

This is where the extinction theme comes back in.

So far even though we have found water present on other bodies in the solar system we have found nothing to suggest that any form of life out there would be much more than simple bacteria. In fact even this discovery whilst possibly close is also still out of reach. 

Complex life exists on one planet that we know of. 

Our species exists on one planet that we know of. 

Unfortunately we abuse both our species and our planet. That abuse can not continue indefinitely. In fact I would go as far to say that it must not. 

Otherwise the Holocene event will claim one more species and that will bring to an end the Anthropocene Period. 

Finally I will leave you with the words of Carl Sagan.

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