Does humanity have a future?

I have a friend who’s a college science teacher and has written a couple of science books. She is constantly talking about how humanity is not the last word in evolution, and is bound, in due course, to go extinct.

It’s a pretty common viewpoint. During the Cold War we were supposedly doomed to “blow ourselves up.” And if not the atom bomb, there was the “population bomb.” Today the trope is that we’re making the planet uninhabitable. Or that technology will somehow bite us in the behind, maybe with a new race of super-intelligent robots that will dispense with us.

Common to all these themes is the idea of humanity as sinful in some way, bringing about our own destruction – and deserving it. People who spout these ideas basically just hate their own species.

I don’t share this misanthropic pessimism. I reject it completely.

It’s true that every other species that ever evolved has gone extinct (barring possibly some bacteria, and of course all those living today). Every species is an adaptation to a particular environment, maybe very successful, but the environment always changes. Perhaps your prime food source goes extinct – or a new predator makes you its prime food source. Whatever – change comes, and you go.

Humanity is different, though, in a crucial fundamental way, because we can change our adaptation. In fact we’ve done so repeatedly. Remember, we evolved in the hot African savannah. Then we moved out to Europe and hit – guess what – the Ice Age! Bit of a shock, yet we managed to change our adaptation and cope.

There is actually good evidence that what drove humanity to evolve into such a uniquely adaptable creature in the first place was that climatic conditions within our original African homeland went through a time of great changeability, going from wet and lush to dry and spare, and back again, and again, relatively quickly. That would have been hell on any animal’s adaptation. It caused the evolution of creatures whose main characteristic was their ability to change their way of life pretty radically when circumstances required.

The emergence of agriculture 10,000 years ago was a key example. Necessity was the mother of that invention; we had reached the limits of our age-old hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and to survive required radical change. And look at us today: our urbanized, industrialized way of life is once again dramatically different from what it was not so long ago. Yet again we changed our adaptation.

So please don’t tell me we won’t be able to cope with climate change, or any of the other bugbears du jour. We are not going extinct. Even if you assume – quite heroically – that the most extreme climate fearmongers, the most extreme sustainability fearmongers, the most extreme technology fearmongers, and all their kith and kin, all are right – and humanity will be almost wiped out – surely there will be some survivors. And surely they will figure out a new way of life for their new and different environment. They’ll repopulate the Earth.

So billions of years from now, the planet will still be ruled by people. Oh, they may be a very different sort from you and me – just as we are so different from cavemen – perhaps those computerized robotized bionic creatures of sci-fi – or something beyond, which we can’t even imagine. But they’ll be the “humans” of their time.

In five billion years, the Sun will explode. Now, admittedly, that will present humanity with a darn tough challenge.

But I bet we’ll meet it.

4 Responses to “Does humanity have a future?”

  1. Gregory Kipp Says:

    Frank, I believe your analysis is correct. I’ve been studying this issue for a long time now, and it seems clear the human species has, in many ways, decoupled itself from the normal stream of natural selection (normal evolution). This is not to say human’s have stopped evolving. It does mean our evolution is no longer determined solely by the natural environment … it’s also influenced by the environment we’ve created for ourselves. Where this will ultimately lead is anyone’s guess. Perhaps in a million years the human race will consist of of little grey people with big heads.

    One should also recognize that there are cosmic catastrophes that could wipe out the human race in the meantime. Some of the phenomenon that could threaten the whole planet include astroid/comet impacts, nearby supernova explosions, or even colliding neutron stars. And eventually the sun will die out, in another 4-5 billion years, so by then, we will have to make other arrangements.

  2. Steve G. Says:

    A good deal of the resolution of the issue about how long we will last as a species is a matter of luck. That we’ve lasted thus far is a combination of luck and an extremely wide adaptive tool kit. The fact that we haven’t blown ourselves to smithereens in a nuclear war comes in part of luck and in part from foresight. And if, for example, the world ever suffered a wide scale nuclear exchange, what would be left of human civilization would be scant indeed. Would some survive? I agree, probably, but with what tools? Starting back in the Stone Age [sic] isn’t very appealing. I suggest that we act as if our continued existence as species depends entirely on everything we choose do (or don’t do), and then hope for the best. There are grounds for optimism, but also great caution. Life carries no guarentees.

  3. Lee Says:

    We will survive! There are many human attributes that lead me to this conclusion. These include attentiveness and diligence. So, let us give the doom & gloom folks a little credit; by alerting us to (and by working towards solutions to) these “species ending” issues they are helping to keep the probability of our survival high.

  4. kjgear Says:

    “Even if you assume… humanity will be almost wiped out – surely there will be some survivors. And surely they will figure out a new way of life for their new and different environment. They’ll repopulate the Earth.”

    Optimism is definitely a good thing. We need more of it.
    But this post is not optimism. It is sticking one’s head in the sand.

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