During a walk with a friends in our favorite, nearby forest, we talked about the corona pandemic. At one point, someone mentioned that whatever may happen, it is a certainty that humanity will survive forever. I didn’t contradict the point at the time, as I didn’t want to be regarded as overtly pessimistic, but as the author of post-apocalyptic books, I have read many articles about the topic and have developed my own views.
Realistic and not pessimistic views, I like to point out.
Humanity has been around for about 300,000 years, which on the scale of the birth of life on the planet (3.7 billion years ago) is a mere blink of an eye. All organisms constantly mutate and change, and although a minority of species may have survived for very long times (“living fossiles,” like jellyfish, certain types of fish or crabs, all of these are relatively primitive in structure), most organisms tend to mutate and change over time (to better adapt to modifications in their surroundings). It is a good guess that humans will also continue to mutate and evolve, so it could well be that a few hundred thousand years from now, Homo sapiens will have given rise to a new species, a Homo futuris. At that stage it might well happen that Homo sapiens will disappear, just like homo neanderthalensis did disappear about 40,000 years ago. Clearly, the overwhelming power of evolution is, by definition, not favorable for the eternal existence of any species.
More dramatically, looking back at the history of life on our planet, several mass extinctions occurred over time. The disappearance of the dinosaurs is definitely the most well-known example, but scientists have identified at least five such dramatic events over the past 500 million years. In addition, the Great Ice Age began about 2 million years and ended 10,000 years ago, and has also been identified as a major cause for the extinction of many plants and animal species; especially many mammals. The mammoth, the saber-toothed tiger and many other mega-fauna species went extinct about 10,000 years ago. Life on our planet is constantly changing, and this will continue to happen; there is no guarantee that Homo sapiens is in some way “immune” to getting extinct.
One could argue that humans may be able to somehow “fight” against these evolutionary trends, e.g. through the use of advances technology. Although humankind has progressed scientifically, and inventions like antibiotics or other medications, or the advance of genomics, may offer a clue how this could be done; but realistically, the technology to safeguard our survival isn’t available currently. It is questionable whether we can fight or control the evolution of our species – or if we want to do so.
On the other hand, our technological prowess is now greatly endangering our species. About 5500 years ago the earliest form of writing appeared. This was a watershed moment in humanity’s history, as it allowed the storage and dissemination of knowledge. This has led to magnificent inventions that have greatly improved our lives. Modern healthcare, more efficient production of food, better communication to tackle problems – I would argue that all of these have positive impact on our lives and help halt unnecessary disease, famine and war.
But let’s not fool ourselves: these technologies also show highly scary potential to wipe out humanity in a very short timeframe. As an example, there are about 400 nuclear reactors on the planet. Should, for some reason, the maintenance of these reactors be halted, within weeks sufficient radiation will be released into the atmosphere to greatly endanger our existence (I explain this point in my soon to be published new novel). Individual humans may show considerable intelligence, but as a group we behave like primitive bacteria; as another example we continue to push back nature (e.g. through deforestation) and this is now seen as one of the reasons that the SARS, MERS, and the Corona outbreaks occurred (perhaps you should stay tuned for more pandemics in the future). And finally, through the release of copious amounts of carbondioxide into the atmosphere, humanity is changing the climate, to an extent where we can expect tremendous changes to occur in our ecosystem. Many species (for instance all the mammals larger than the cow) may will disappear, other species will gain more dominance: varmints most likely.
Humankind’s survival is not a given. This isn’t a pessimistic view, as an optimist at heart I believe that we can change the tide; one step at a time!Read more about evolution in my other blogposts.