As I read Henry Gee’s “Humans Are Doomed”, I remembered an iconic scene from one of the many “Star Trek” movies. In “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, the ship’s captain, James Kirk, rushes to the engine room to discover that his friend Spock is staggering into a compartment now filled with deadly radiation. Kirk’s instinct is to rush in and try to save Spock. But Kirk is held back by his colleagues in order to prevent the deadly radiation from flooding the entire engineering area.
“He will die,” Kirk said. “He’s already dead,” replies one of his colleagues, meaning that Spock has already received a lethal dose of radiation. Kirk is too late to save Spock. But it turns out that many fictional characters survive thanks to Spock’s sacrifice.
It does not seem to Henry Gee, however, that similar heroic sacrifices by one or a few will save humanity. The human race is collectively like Spock; he may be wandering around, but he’s already dead as a species – and final demise is imminent by evolutionary standards.
Gee, paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and editor of Nature, writes: “There comes a point in the progress of any species, even those that seem to thrive, when extinction will be inevitable, no matter what they might do to avoid it. “
The reasons humans are in trouble are clear:
- Very little genetic variation. Humans are remarkably uniform genetically, a trait that makes any species vulnerable to extinction when circumstances change. Gee remarks, “There is more genetic variation in a few wild chimpanzee flocks than in the human population as a whole. “
- Decreased sperm quality. This can be due to pollution or stress from living at high density or both. But it means a rapid decline in fertility. When the number of births drops below the number of deaths, we will be on a terminal slide.
- Habitat destruction. The paradigm of perpetual economic growth that humans have embraced leads them to appropriate and destroy huge swathes of the planet. Not only are we destroying and degrading the habitat of millions of other species, but we humans also suffer destruction and degradation as it is our habitat too.
When you’ve reached the top of a business, all that’s left is the decline. Gee clearly believes that humans have reached the peak of their advance – humans are, after all, spread across the planet. He expects extinction to come “soon”. If it’s the paleontologist in him speaking, that could mean, say, the next 50,000 years. But that is not the content of the play. It is clear that Gee is talking about a collapse much earlier when he ends with this: “[I]If we’re going to write about human extinction, we had better start writing now.
I have long believed that the main driver of human decline would be repeated pandemics. The pandemics themselves would not be the underlying cause. On the contrary, the declining health of humans would make us much more vulnerable to pandemics. We saw this in the case of COVID-19 which disproportionately sickened and killed people with underlying illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
But these diseases are largely the product of poor nutrition – derived from factory farming and processed in a way that destroys nutrients and adds empty calories – and exposure to a soup of dangerous man-made chemicals that circulate in our air, our soil, our water and our food. . Poor health has been achieved in wealthy countries in a time of plenty by overfeeding and poisoning us all and growing so many of us to a sedentary existence centered on cellphones, computer monitors and televisions. . And, those in poor countries often receive all the poisons without much abundance. If they are poor enough, their malnutrition is simply due to a lack of food.
Plus, we’ve created a system for spreading pandemic viruses around the world that looks like something a virus would imagine if it could create an ideal habitat. Unless shipping, air travel and long-distance motor vehicle travel are shut down, the system will continue to function as a highway for viruses.
The answer to all this is that it is not inevitable. Unlike plants and animals, humans have free will and can sense the danger they face and make adjustments. In the present form, humans are not actually exercising their free will in a way that will stop their own extinction. In fact, we are more like scavengers feasting on dead organic matter (fossil fuels), and when fossil fuels are gone, so can we, just like the iconic scavenging algae we call pond scum. The scum proliferates over much of the pond after the spring rains drag the dead material into the water. In the summer, the scum almost disappeared after consuming virtually all the rubbish that had been washed in the water.
Are we collectively smarter than pond scum? So far the answer is no. Whether the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse turn out to be low genetic variation, declining sperm quality, habitat loss, and pandemic disease will only be known when it is too late. And, an observant paleontologist thinks it already is.
Image: “Destruction of the course of the empire” (1836). Thomas Cole via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cole_Thomas_The_Course_of_Empire_Destruction_1836.jpg