“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” — Pogo (main character from a long-forgotten late-twentieth-century comic strip)
Today our species faces two existential crises. The first is climate change that we ourselves are causing, and that seems to be entering a self-reinforcing positive-feedback phase. The second is our latest flirtation with nuclear war, sparked by Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine.
As we consider these twin risks of species decimation or self-extinction, I thought it might be useful, or at least interesting, to read how a person (me) whose “religion” is really science views the big issues.
There is no God. There is no kind father (or mother) in the sky. There is no one to answer our prayers. There is no one but us to save us from global warming and our warlike side.
How can we know? Well, would a kind, all-powerful mother or father urge us to kill each other in his/her name? The history of religion has been a tale of horrible wars: Christian against Jew, Muslim against Christian, Protestant against Catholic, all against non-believers. If our god were kind, just and smart, would he or she promote all that killing? revel in all that gore and untimely death? Or is “god” at times no more than another tribal excuse to fight, a good motivator to drive soldiers into mindless battle?
“God” is wishful thinking. It would be nice to have an all-powerful father or mother to look after you. But that’s a child’s dream.
We are grown up now. (Or if we don’t grow up soon we may die as children.) We can think on our own. Only we can fix our collective fate.
We are not at the center of the Universe. Pre-verbal children think they are the center of the Universe. They know only their own needs and pain. But as they acquire language, as their brains grow, and as they begin to socialize, they see that there are others like them.
It’s a slow process. It doesn’t end when we are adults. It continues for all our lives. Our inner life is a long struggle between our own needs and our consciousness of others’ needs. A strong awareness of others is what divides us from all other living species. We are a social species, more so than any other on our planet.
So now that we are grown, we can face a fact. We are nowhere near the center of the Universe. We live on a small planet, third from our medium-sized Sun, in an unremarkable solar system way at the end of a minor spiral arm of a rather small galaxy. There are billions of other galaxies, most bigger than ours, filled with trillions of stars like our Sun. We, our Earth, our Sun, and even our solar system are tiny specks in an unimaginably vast, ever-expanding Universe.
So in the grand scheme of things, we are utterly insignificant, an evolutionary blip in an ever-changing global biosphere on a tiny, inconsequential planet. We matter only to us.
We are alone. In such a vast Universe, there must be others like us. But, almost certainly, we will never know them.
Why? Light is the fastest thing in the Universe. It obeys a universal speed limit. It takes four years to get from our Sun to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, or vice versa. It has taken over thirteen billion years to get to us from the farthest stars and galaxies that we can see with the new James Webb (infrared) Telescope. So anything we could see from alien civilizations at that distance will be thirteen-billion-year-old history. It would make our own ancient archaeology look like live news.
Faster-than-light travel is fiction. It’s just a wish of childhood, like that big Mom or Dad in the sky. Never say never, of course. But all that we know now says that there’s no such thing. Nothing moves faster than light.
Our entire recorded history as a species is about 5,000 years long. And we are on the verge of killing ourselves off, in at least the two ways named in my introduction.
So you do the math. If we can survive as long again as our recorded history, what’s the chance that we can contact another species like us, at a similar point of social development, within 5,000 light years, when the Universe, as far as we know, is nearly 14 billion light-years wide? What’s the chance that another intelligent species, at or beyond our own stage of development, would notice us and spend decades or centuries—not to mention prodigious amounts of energy—just to visit us? Not big.
So while there may be others like us in fact, it’s improbable that we will ever see them. For all practical purposes, we are on our own. There is no intelligent, alien life form ready to invade our planet, or able and willing to save us from our own folly.
We are not as smart as we think we are. Albert Einstein was so smart they preserved his brain for study after he died. When they examined it, they saw something strange. In the rest of us, the groove that divides the brain’s left and right hemispheres is empty. (It’s a groove, called the “sulcus.”) In Einstein’s brain, it was full of neurons, so his left brain and right brain were more fully connected. So far as we know, no other person, living or dead, ever had such a brain.
So Einstein’s brain was a freak of Nature, a mutation, one of a kind. He alone was able to conceive of gravity as the curvature of spacetime, in four dimensions, perhaps because he alone could visualize anything over our usual three. Yet even Einstein didn’t understand quantum mechanics—a fact he readily admitted. At one time, he even rejected its probabilistic nature, declaring, “God does not play dice[.]”
Sure, we are working with quantum mechanics. Americans are racing the Chinese to build quantum computers. But we don’t understand it in anything like the same way that we “ken” gravity. It’s not “intuitive.” We can’t see it. We can’t feel it. And we certainly didn’t need to know it the same way we needed to know gravity, speed and acceleration to escape saber-tooth tigers and survive.
So we didn’t evolve to understand quantum mechanics. We’ll never ken it the same way that we do our artificial satellites revolving around our Earth as does the Moon. We need mental prostheses, aka “computers,” to collect, record and make sense of the otherwise incomprehensible results of our experiments. We have to feel it out from different angles, like the ten proverbial blind men touching different parts of an elephant. That makes learning slow and difficult.
The same is true of microbiology. Our own genome—our DNA—has about three billion base pairs. No one can remember a sequence that long. No one can even count that high. If we hadn’t already developed digital computers that can, genomic medicine would be out of our reach. But with our digital prostheses, our grapefruit-sized brains can make progress working with our genomes to cure disease. Maybe someday we can even improve ourselves.
“Artificial Intelligence” (AI) won’t help as much as we hope, or hurt as much as we fear. We don’t really have anything like “artificial intelligence” now. What we have is “simulated intelligence.” No computer has anything like the incredibly massively parallel structure of the human brain.
Each brain of ours has 86 billion neurons, each of which can connect directly to 10,000 others. (Some say up to 100,000, so apparently this number is not yet well known.) No computer has anything like that structure. Computers can “look” intelligent because they operate so much faster than biological systems like us. But they aren’t now—and they may never be—anything like our brains. They won’t, and probably can’t ever, give us an intuitive “feel” for how the submicroscopic world works, like the “feel” we have for motion on our own scale. They won’t ever make quantum mechanics intuitive.
The threat of AI is real, but it’s mostly under our control. As long as we don’t put AI in charge of weapons or life-critical systems, without human supervision in real time, we will probably be safe.
But “in real time” is an important condition. In the “2010 flash crash” in American stock markets, dueling automated trading algorithms caused the Dow to crash over 1,000 points before anyone could do anything. Automated stops required by regulation halted the crash. Real people had to unwind the millions of bizarre transactions, slowly and laboriously, after the fact. If lives had been at stake, rather than share prices, a lot of people would have died.
How we use AI is up to us. If we use it with care, as yet another mental prosthesis, it can help us manage parts of our world that we can never “get” intuitively. Already it is helping with things like making cancer diagnoses from medical images in ways our limited eyes and brains can’t manage. It can help us use, but not understand, quantum mechanics.
But if we let it control life-critical functions in real time, we can bring unimaginable disaster upon ourselves. Letting AI-driven cars loose on our roads at this stage of AI’s development would fall into the disaster category.
There are far too many of us already. The central fact of our species now is overpopulation. We are changing our world with global warming. We are wiping out other species at an unprecedented rate, even as we depend on many for food, clothing, shelter, companionship and pleasure. We are polluting the world we have, not just with greenhouse gases, but with ever-present chemicals that don’t appear in nature and that can last far longer than any biological organism.
We have no idea how much our plastic particles and hidden chemicals (such as BPA and the PFAS) are affecting our own biology and the biology and survival of other creatures. Some of these chemicals, we now know, have strong effects on our own biology, including critical hormone systems. So we are rolling the dice with health and global evolution, including our own.
None of these problems would magically go away, even if, by some sort of magic, we cut our global population to one-half or one-quarter. But we are rushing headlong in the wrong direction. China has given up its one-child policy. The US Supreme Court has ruled that women can be forced, willy nilly, to become baby machines. Economists worldwide are urging nations with aging populations to have more babies and grow in number, the better to maintain their workforces.
The biblical injunction to “go forth and multiply” was good when our species was young. It’s suigenocide (species-wide suicide) today. Yet on it goes.
We are making our world smaller. No, we can’t change the Earth’s physical size, no matter what we do to destroy it. Even a general nuclear war wouldn’t change that.
But the part of our Earth we can live on is another story. One-third of Pakistan was recently under water. If the floods that made it so recur every year, or even every other year, that part will be practically uninhabitable. So may large parts of southern China, which this year had drought severe enough to cause massive crop failures. (Together with Russia’s war in Ukraine, this part of the climate crisis is likely to cause global food shortages next year.) This summer, large parts of the Arabian peninsula experienced extended periods of over-125°F days; that’s over 51.7 °C.
I could go on and on. But the point is simple. Climate change is already here. Its effects are growing, and it appears to be accelerating. The theory of positive feedback tells us that it could continue to accelerate, even if we stopped pumping out carbon dioxide tomorrow, something that will not happen. So we are probably doomed to having large parts of our planet become uninhabitable within decades.
We are approaching a Big Die-Off. We are already too many for our small planet. What happens when the parts we can live on get smaller, in a random and possibly sudden way?
Biology has answers when species outgrow their habitats. We’ve seen the same results over and over again. A population “crash” follows, usually quite suddenly. The immediate causes can be famine, predation by other species, disease, or internal struggle within the species. These things continue until the population shrinks into equilibrium with its habitat.
In the case of us humans, predation is out. We have no predators, at least none that threaten our numbers or exponential population rise. But we have disease. We will soon have famine. And our own internal struggles, aka “wars,” are so much fiercer than other species’. They could decimate our global population or, if nuclear, even extinguish us entirely.
All of these catastrophes are possible, and some are already happening. We are just (we hope) emerging from a relatively light pandemic. But we were lucky. The Black Plague in the Middle Ages killed off an estimated one-third of the entire population of Europe. That fraction would mean 110 million Americans today.
The Black Plague spread slowly because horseback was the quickest means of travel then. Today, airplanes can travel halfway around the globe in less than a day. (Airplanes are unprecedented disease vectors. They have flown long distances only for about a century.) So if a deadly viral pandemic evolves with an incubation period longer than a day, it can cover the entire globe in just a few days. Our global population could crash the hard way.
Wars are nothing new to us. Putin’s atrocious war in Ukraine is going on right now. And our species’ exploding population provides a practical motivation for it: Ukraine has lots of iron and other minerals and is the traditional “breadbasket” of Western Eurasia. So Putin’s imperial dreams are the same that have motivated aggressors throughout history. The excuses of Slavic “brotherhood” and fictional “Nazism” in modern Ukraine are just distracting lies.
But war’s economic effects are far more consequential and devastating today than ever before, in part because our entire species, worldwide, is far more connected and interdependent economically. Already Putin’s war in Ukraine is causing food shortages and famine in Africa and parts of Eurasia. China’s climate-change-caused crop failures will undoubtedly increase the misery and its geographic reach.
Today, war is far more brutal, because our weapons are far more powerful, than ever before. War is, to put it mildly, inhumane. A war like Putin’s terrorizes innocent civilians and destroys their lives, homes and infrastructure as a matter of “strategy.” That’s why fence-sitters and coddlers of Russia, like the leaders of China, India and Turkey, all have condemned it, at least by implication.
Meeting with Putin, India’s Narendra Modi put it most succinctly: “Today’s era is not an era of war.” Why? Because we are going to need all our species’ strength, intelligence and attention to limit the damage from the catastrophe of accelerating global warming.
War may be a practical means of adjusting population to habitat. But so was the Holocaust, as Ken Burns brilliant series on it reminds us.
Both methods are inhumane and inhuman. Both miss the point: if our species is to survive at our present level of civilization or anything like it, we are going to have to find better means to reduce populations. We must learn to work together.
We are all the same. Modern science leaves no doubt. Biologically, we humans are all virtually the same. Our DNA is 99.6% identical. The biggest differences we have as groups are the results of language, culture, nutrition, education and upbringing. Nurture matters far more than nature: that’s why early-childhood nutrition and education are vital not just to national strength, but to equality of opportunity.
The notion of “race” is a myth. It may be the most pernicious myth in human history. There is no “race.” There are only infinite variations in the 0.4% of our DNA that differ from individual to individual.
We have much, much larger differences in nutrition, education, culture, language, medical care, and upbringing. The more we level the playing field in those practical things—which are under our control—the more we can exploit all of our human talent to solve our common global problems. Despite the naysayers, the melting pots that both England and the US have become vividly demonstrate the practical advantages of biological diversity, which all ecologists know.
In the global crisis that we ourselves have made, tribalism is our greatest enemy. It seems to be innate in us. Social scientists have been able to “divide” three-year-olds into entirely artificial rival “tribes” by giving them orange or green T-shirts. Once that is done, kids from one “tribe” start to make invidious assumptions about kids from the “other,” based on pictures showing ambiguous situations.
We can overcome this apparently species-wide defect by exploiting our chief evolutionary advantages: cooperation and intelligence. This is our species’ chief test, for now and the foreseeable future. If we split into tribes and act as such, wars, genocides and future holocausts are virtually inevitable as the habitable parts of our globe diminish. Species self-extinction is entirely possible, if not likely.
There is no God but Jesus was real. And so we come to the bottom line: we can reduce the acceleration of global warming and adjust our population to our globe’s declining habitable space in several ways. We can wait for a deadly pandemic to cull us. We can wait for inevitable famine and displacement to do their worst, with all the mass migration, struggle and probable wars that global-scale famine and displacement will cause. Or we can do the job directly, with gratuitous wars like Putin’s or repeating something like the Nazis’ Holocaust, with all the ensuing suffering, moral degradation, and the risk of nuclear conflict and species self-extinction.
But there is a better alternative. We can take the smarter path, and work together. We can exploit our species’ most important evolutionary advantage. It’s not our puny, slow and weak bodies that made us masters of this planet. It’s not our grapefruit-sized brains: whales’ and elephants’ are bigger. It’s our ability to communicate in detail, cooperate and empathize, far more than other species.
We don’t really know who Jesus was. Recorded only centuries later, the words we think he said were likely a product of massaging and messaging by monks over generations. But his reported bumper-sticker advice is sound. “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Love thy enemy.”
We can translate these New-Testament words into modern biological terms. Then they would read: “Use thy chief evolutionary advantages as much as possible, and do it so thyself and thy neighbor both are highly motivated (and able) to survive the worst to come.”
Expressed that way, Jesus’ advice is practical and scientific. We can fight overpopulation, pandemics, the warmongers among us, and climate change if we cooperate, share the pain, and share the success. No other way promises more success with less pain, less devastation, and less risk of species self-extinction.
If we all work together, globally, as one species, we can get through this crisis with a minimum of pain and harm. We don’t have to believe that Jesus ever lived—let alone that he was the Son of God—to see that his advice, as reported, is the best and only practical way forward.