Saturday, June 26, 2010

Human Extinction and Human Values

It was with great interest that I read the recent interview with leading microbiologist Frank Fenner of the ANU ( Frank believes that Homo Sapien Sapien has already passed the point of no return and is now moving inexorably towards extinction. In the interview he noted:

"Homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years," he says. "A lot of other animals will, too. It's an irreversible situation. I think it's too late. I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off. "

I pondered the work of Jonas Salk when I read this interview. Salk (the person responsible for the polio vaccine) undertook significant work on the patterns of population growth occurs in closed environments. From this work Salk drew some conclusions about the future of the human species. He published his thoughts in a book titled The Survival of the Wisest

Salk found that there are three primary responses to overpopulation in species:

1. They become extinct;
2. The population fluctuates in an uncontrolled fashion;
3. The population stabilizes at a sustainable level.

Clearly, in looking to the future, as a species we would hope that option 3 is the endstate for the human species. Whilst it is a large container, there is no doubt that the human species exists in a closed container called the planet Earth. All the resources we need to maintain existence must be supplied from within that container and all wastes must be dealt with in the same container.

One of the key elements that drives a species to achieve a sustainable population level is the point known as "inflection point". This is the point at which population behaviours change as the population trends towards a sustainable level. Salk believed that the human species was already entering the inflection point in the 1970's. He further suggested that certain human behaviours, values and attitudes would have to evolve for the human species to successfully pass through the inflection point and achieve a sustainable population. I will talk about these values in a later discussion because they go to the heart of what it means to be human.

For now though, I want to postulate several questions:

1. Do we accept the principle that we are in a closed container and all we need to live and all the wastes we produce need to be dealt with in the container?

2. If we accept the first postulate, then do we accept that there is a limit to the capacity of the container to sustain life in terms of total energy available and ability to deal with waste;

3. Having accepted the first two postulates as true, then where is the limit?

4. Are we prepared, as a species, to accept the potential for extinction in order to determine the answer to the third question?

I would suggest that the climate change sceptics, those who seek a resolution of the issues our species face through some sort of green revolution or those who think that a returning supernatural being is going to fix the problem are daring to accept human extinction as a potential outcome in order to prove that their view is true. That is an astonishing experiment.

I would like to postulate an alternative hypothesis for testing:

Can the human species identify the means that will permit us to successfully traverse this inflection point and achieve a sustainable population level that will allow all homo sapien sapien to enjoy a similar, sustainable, level of existence?

Finally, I would like to finish this discussion with a quote attributed to Jonas Salk. When asked about the future of the human species he answered:

"I am not optimistic, I am not pessimistic. We have to act as if we can make the crucial difference"

We are already deeply into the inflection point where we will decide our future as a species. Do we just give up and accept extinction as Dr Fenner suggested, or do we "act as if we can make the crucial difference"

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