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Does success spell doom for Homo sapiens?
October 28, 2012 9:16 PM   Subscribe

State of the Species: Will the unprecedented success of Homo sapiens lead to an unavoidable downfall? [Via]
posted by homunculus (46 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Charles C. Mann Discusses the Fate of Homo sapiens
posted by homunculus at 9:16 PM on October 28, 2012


I bet no. But I may be biased.
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:18 PM on October 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Homo sapiens is the best species because we found a way to forgo selection through medical science. Also, we invented cheese grits.

Therefore, we will always be number 1!
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:33 PM on October 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Given the current state of the political class, particularly in the USA, I wouldn't want to bet on us making it through the next hundred years with an intact civilisation. But I remain hopeful that, in times of crisis, we can change and change radically. I recommend Paul Gilding's book, The Great Disruption, which is an optimistic take on what it will take to make it through the climate emergency and what northern society may look like eventually.
posted by wilful at 9:47 PM on October 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


We're selfish and idiotic as a group, however kind and insightful we are as individuals. So, yes, civilization won't last, and it will be painful.
posted by maxwelton at 9:49 PM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


That depends on how you define the word "unavoidable."
posted by RobotHero at 9:54 PM on October 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


The hungrier, more polluted world of 2100 will be all its denizens have ever known. They'll take its impoverishments for granted - just as we take ours. They'll still laugh with their friends and fall in love once in a while. And in any case, their fate will matter as little to us as would the heat death of the universe.

And when homo sapiens finally does get what's coming to it, Gaia will calmly proceed with cleaning up the mess we made. In short order - by her time-scale - our filth will be scoured away. New species will evolve to fill in the holes we made. And nothing will remain of us but the garbage we left on the Moon.

So, yes, it's hopeless. But it won't be so bad.
posted by Egg Shen at 10:06 PM on October 28, 2012 [20 favorites]


Seriously? The Toba bottleneck? No serious population geneticist or physical anthropologist believes in that harsh bottleneck, never mind Toba. We (well, whoever "we" is considering all the hominids that probably were around then) weren't restricted to Africa and ironically it is possible that Toba caused a bottleneck in a subspecies, the Denisovans, in Asia during that time, but that's speculative. The narrative of homo sapiens history in this article is infuriating. Another example of trammeling over a complex history and species ecology in order to tell a story.

Also populations of hominids are no longer growing exponentially in the developed world, but no one seems to want to talk about the complexities of demographic transitions.. Meat consumption is also decreasing in these countries, a consequence of increasing scarcity increasing price and thus decreasing demand. I hate articles that talk as if there is some kind of exponential equation for consumption, when in reality pressure on resources will increase prices.
Typically, archaeologists believe, about a quarter of all hunters and gatherers were killed by their fellows
Yeah, another one that you probably don't want to mention as if this is not a major debate in archeology.

Not to say I'm not very worried about lots of things from soil fertility to pollution, but I don't require scientifically vapid narratives or misanthropy to worry about them.
posted by melissam at 10:14 PM on October 28, 2012 [14 favorites]


THE PROBLEM WITH environmentalists, Lynn Margulis used to say, is that they think conservation has something to do with biological reality.

That's a feature, not a bug. Because ants or bacteria would destroy the planet if they could doesn't mean we should destroy the planet because we can.
Oh, and hands up all those who enjoy sex without the consequences of reproduction.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:17 PM on October 28, 2012 [10 favorites]


this article seems to kind of have a lot of bullshit woven through it to no great end
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:19 PM on October 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Will the unprecedented success of Homo sapiens lead to an unavoidable downfall?

To a degree? We've always seemed to progress and succeed for the sake of progress and success (after the whole, surviving as an agrarian species thing). Would we have a population problem if we were all still living in mud huts, working the ache out of bones as we prepare for the next day of harvesting? Probably not, though we wouldn't be doing a whole lot of 'note', whatever you take that to mean.

We are, by and large, a slacker species that doesn't address something unless someone/something is pushing our noses into it. The problem with population, climate, consumption, etc. is that a certain group of people are pushing our noses into it while another group of people are pulling back on the collar while scenting the shit with rosewater. Which is actually nice, if you can afford the rosewater.

Going back to doing things of 'note', it is a big problem I have with humanity right now, we have no goal. There's nothing that we as a species are reaching for together, no big thing that everyone would get behind. For the most part, we're all just getting by.
posted by Slackermagee at 10:23 PM on October 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


We're selfish and idiotic as a group

As always I ask, compared to whom exactly? What example can we follow? What other planet-dominating intelligent species has done better?
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:41 PM on October 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


This will probably make 2013's The Best American Science and Nature Writing and might even become the basis of a book.

I'm cool with creative non fiction like this, it presents the narrative not as "the truth" but "one truth". Mann did the same thing in 1493 though on a different subject, he creates a narrative based on certain theories and ignores the other theories but it's OK because you remember the ideas in the narrative as a base from which to hang other ideas, adding and subtracting. And you remember the ideas because they are part of a good story.
posted by stbalbach at 10:41 PM on October 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


The other major flaw with these kinds of arguments is that they always leap from "correction" or "extinction."

Like, people will literally say "There are going to be too many people and not enough food, so we're going to go extinct." O rly? Obviously such a situation would be unpleasant and would lead to large-scale famine, war and death, but at some point enough people would die so that there would be enough food again.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:43 PM on October 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


To expand on that, they're conflating a humanistic view of survival ("human death and suffering is tragic") with a species-level view.

A lot of people dying of starvation is certainly tragic in human terms. But if you're talking about the species in purely scientific terms, it's a perfectly valid step towards continued survival and dominance. Less people means more resources, and the species continues. No "downfall" whatsoever.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:46 PM on October 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


Early in the article, it says,

Another putative cause is symbolic language—an invention that may have tapped latent creativity and aggressiveness in our species.

But, it isn't touched again, in the rest of the article. I'm curious on how symbolic language would have tapped, "latent aggressiveness". Any clues?
posted by alex_skazat at 11:14 PM on October 28, 2012


A lot of people dying of starvation is certainly tragic in human terms. But if you're talking about the species in purely scientific terms, it's a perfectly valid step towards continued survival and dominance. Less people means more resources, and the species continues. No "downfall" whatsoever.

Do you mean, that you don't believe in a point of no return? Because that's what the article is about. The metaphor used quite a bit in the article is, "Earth as a petri dish" given how population shows a pattern of a bell curve, as resources are exhausted. And how this is natural. Unless we do something completely intentional. And not simply wait until catastrophe hits.
posted by alex_skazat at 11:15 PM on October 28, 2012


New species will evolve to fill in the holes we made. And nothing will remain of us but the garbage we left on the Moon.

Too bad those new species won't get the chance to leave garbage behind on the moon, because we will have already extracted and consumed the materials needed to do so.
posted by infinitewindow at 11:15 PM on October 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


From the linked article: Changes must be planned and executed decades in advance of the usual signals of crisis, but that’s like asking healthy, happy sixteen-year-olds to write living wills.

Love this image. Fits my MP perfectly. She's a young sommelier that's been assigned the task of helping her airhead minister protect Canada's natural environment. To write a form of living will for the nation's lands, waters and seas, among other things. The job is so far beyond her ability that she has reduced herself to mocking those who actually know how to do the job right, very much in the manner of a smug, self-satisfied, stuck-up 14-year-old harassing her teacher. Planning and executing critically-needed changes decades in advance is unthinkable for her in the most literal possible sense.

I want desperately for Charles C. Mann's optimistic vision to be right. But in this quote, he has put his finger precisely on the weak point.
posted by dmayhood at 11:46 PM on October 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


WE AM LIKE GODS: GO WE TOO FAR?

Og meet Marg by stream. Marg smart. Marg point at ground. "Who care if kill all Mammoth? Still many bugs." Og see wisdom of this. Maybe you think Og not am go to far—but wait, Og say more. Do not think Og ruin Og credibility in first paragraph. Og story take a long time but it smart like a thing Marg say, Og promise.

Og cut fur from bear. Fur keep Og warm. Fur get dirty but Og stay clean! In way, Og cheating gods. Og imagine Marq nod at this. Og like way Marg talk. Marg tell Og buzz off, she know deep talk of bugs.

When no one look, Og put a seed in ground, make plant not there before. Not gods plant, Og plant! What if Og cover everything Og see in Og plant?! Og wonder what Marg think. Marg say Og confused. Whatever. Og knows Marg really approve of Og thinking. Marg call Og bug, Og smile. Og like ants.

In conclusion, am go too far.
posted by fleacircus at 12:04 AM on October 29, 2012 [6 favorites]


In short order - by her time-scale - our filth will be scoured away. New species will evolve to fill in the holes we made. And nothing will remain of us but the garbage we left on the Moon.

You've been watching Taxi Driver again, haven't you?
posted by KokuRyu at 12:24 AM on October 29, 2012 [7 favorites]


OMG WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE!
posted by Catblack at 1:42 AM on October 29, 2012


From the article: she literally helped to reorder the tree of life

I'm nitpicking, but no. No, she did not.
posted by Rykey at 4:00 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


A lot of people dying of starvation is certainly tragic in human terms. But if you're talking about the species in purely scientific terms, it's a perfectly valid step towards continued survival and dominance. Less people means more resources, and the species continues. No "downfall" whatsoever.

The point missing here, though, is that numerous resources are consumed in the process of the correction, which may or may not actually be available to the reduced population after the correction occurs. In the petri dish example, after the population takes a plunge, there just aren't the nutrients left in the dish: these are stand-ins for non-renewable resources.

In human terms, a great deal of our expansion over the last hundred years or so has been due to extremely easy to access stored energy in the form of oil. If we experience a population crash, that easy oil (a non-renewable resource) simply won't be available to the remaining population. (If there's a corresponding knowledge loss during the correction, then it's quite possible that our more technologically complex energy sources (like, say, nuclear power) won't be readily accessible either.) But electricity is only part of the issue: oil acts as fertilizer, and is the backbone of our agricultural system. So after the correction, you have a reduced population without access to some of the easy resources that allowed us to slingshot into our present level of comfort and technology.

On the other hand, there's the possibility of decimating renewable resources, as well. The Easter Island example is exactly about this: the trees are totally renewable, but the need for them is so great that they're completely destroyed by the declining population. We probably wouldn't see so dramatic an example on a global scale. But what we could very easily see is desertification on a large scale. It's not hard to imagine, say, the middle of North America becoming a vast desert after the removal of petroleum-based fertilizer. The aquifers have been falling dramatically for ages, after all. Recall that the fertile crescent "suffers from desertification and soil salination due in large part to thousands of years of agricultural activity." It's also quite easy to imagine higher global temperatures and loss of rain forests contributing to desertification.

It's important to remember that the declining population also needs access to declining renewable resources, as well, which (as in the Easter Island example) makes it possible to push such renewable resources to a point of no return.

And so on and so forth. The point is that after a correction resources almost certainly aren't going to be plentiful in the way they were before the crash. Will people find a way? Sure. They might scrape by eating jellyfish and making fire by hitting rocks together, telling stories about the giants that once lived in the abandoned cities, where no-one dares to tread because of the lack of resources and occasionally toppling skyscrapers. Or maybe they'll try to innovate themselves to a better life.

So let's think about science... Smaller population means a smaller intellectual/scientific elite, means less ability to innovate our way out of the new set of problems. Our access to genius-level scientific thought is crazy compared to a hundred years ago. There are a lot of reasons for that, and the big ones that come to mind would all be seriously impacted by a population crash.

1) Decreased specialization. In a world with more restricted resources, it's easy to imagine that there will be a lower capacity for society to support a massive segment of the population that just sits around and thinks all day. Prior to the 20th century, this was the reason that most of the scientists were from either the plutocracy or the priesthood: everyone else had to be involved in working the land, etc, reducing access of good brains to specialization. When life is relatively harder, we have less ability to specialize. In particular, this means that we would likely observe less focused education!

2) Safety and lifespan. It's pretty easy to imagine a world full of anti-biotic resistant diseases; XDR tuberculosis and friends pushing life expectancy down to 40 or so. Our current badass scientists often don't really start making good contributions until they're thirty, after twenty years of intense specialization. And the more people you have dying or being otherwise taken out by random diseases at an early age (including your anemic scientist stereotypes) the less brain matter you've got to throw at the science. Stephen Hawking probably wouldn't be able to make his contributions in 1850, for example.

3) More people => more brains. We've also simply got a much larger population to draw talent from prior to a crash. Population hit 1 billion in about 1804. So we've got 6 or 7 times the population to draw brains from, compared with back then, and probably quite a bit more when compounded with the other factors above.

These factors aren't just fantasy. I'm currently working in Kenya, trying to build up the science capacity of the region, and can dramatically see the effects of factors (1) and (2). Decreased specialization means that even when we have good brains around, the education system isn't up to the task of getting them to the standard of the Western world. There's not an expectation of that degree of specialization, which means just about nobody actually gets to the forefront. You also see people dying all the time for random reasons: there was an excellent statistician at the university I'm working at who died of fucking appendicitis last year. It was stupid. Other people die in car crashes or have their output seriously reduced by malaria, tuberculosis, malnutrition and all kinds of tropical diseases that we don't have a lot of ability to deal with. It adds up to seriously reduced ability to create people who can really achieve in the sciences, in spite of a relatively high population.

Ok, I've rambled a while and need to get to work.
But the point is that after a correction we will likely be in a radically altered landscape with probably much less access to resources and a greatly reduced ability to create scientists to think our way out of our problems. It's not simply a matter of people dying off and resources suddenly becoming abundant again!

There's other possibilities of course; if it's a managed die-off maybe we can maintain a decently sized elite and a high level of specialization, and retain most of our scientific know-how. But it's important in these situations where we rely on science to help us out of our problems to consider the way that science actually happens, and how it might be impacted in the event of a population correction.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:11 AM on October 29, 2012 [17 favorites]


Birth rates are declining everywhere in the world, and are well below replacement in the richest places. The only actual population crisis we are looking at is a fiscal crisis and its because the developed world has too few projected younger people to support their projected public retiree income and health liability at tolerable tax rates.

We create far more scientists than we need these days, to judge by the preponderance of elite PhD working on quant trading desks and non-elite PhDs teaching 4 classes a term adjuncts at junior colleges if they're lucky. Society has never lacked for technologists that the economy demanded -- and the paucity of technologists in Africa is a consequence of great demand for them in Europe and the Americas, not some inherent disability of Africa.

Because of the trend in population we probably won't need to, but if we had to, the vast surplus in natural gas and coal supplies would enable us to double or more nitrate fertilizer and desalinized water supply -- and hence land-based agricultural output -- with virtually no new energy discoveries or technological innovation. The supply of phosphate rock for phosphorus-based fertilizers is probably the greatest constraint. that would probably be constrained by phosphorus stocks more than anything else.
posted by MattD at 6:45 AM on October 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Society has never lacked for technologists that the economy demanded

Mmm. I love the smell of tautologies in the morning!
posted by octobersurprise at 7:16 AM on October 29, 2012


MattD: There are pretty clear internal contradictions in what you've just said. Africa has many societies with shortages of technologists, and it isn't just because they're all getting snapped up by the developed countries...

(Have to run! it's not good to bicycle after dark on the roads around here...)
posted by kaibutsu at 8:27 AM on October 29, 2012


Africa's problems have more to do with governance and security than with access to the latest and greatest technology, I think. Tech can play an enabling role in development, but tribalism and warlordism, and external incentives, foreign companies and governments playing catspaws, seem more pressing factors to me. Darfur or Liberia will not be solved by more simply more development and technical aid. Safety and political stability have to come first.
posted by bonehead at 9:13 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


As an example, I've been approached to do work---environmental science---in both Kenya and Nigeria. We've had to turn all the offers down because we have been burned in the past by both companies and government agencies in both areas. My employer is also not willing to put us in places where our personal security cannot be assured.

This is particularly heartbreaking in the Nigerian case. The problems are huge, but no one is being allowed to deal with them mostly because the governance issues are so terrible.
posted by bonehead at 9:17 AM on October 29, 2012


We should be optimistic. Apparently, people are getting smarter (cite). Which means, of course, that tomorrow's zombies will eat better than today's zombies. And isn't a better tomorrow what anyone would want for their zombie children?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:28 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


So intense was the competition for fertilizer that a guano war erupted in 1879, engulfing much of western South America. Almost 3,000 people died.

Batshit insane?
posted by resurrexit at 11:54 AM on October 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Darfur or Liberia will not be solved by more simply more development and technical aid. Safety and political stability have to come first.

Fucking W8, man!
posted by KokuRyu at 3:01 PM on October 29, 2012


Safety and political stability have to come first.

Which is an interesting statement in context of the current discussion. It makes it much harder to be techno-utopian about a potential population-shrinking event if one has to obtain solid security and government before really positive sciencing can actually start happening again. This is to be expected: our science structures rest on massive investments in very large institutions, ranging from universities to free primary school to accessible health care. All of these institutions indeed require reasonably low-corruption government and a base-line of security.
posted by kaibutsu at 5:17 PM on October 29, 2012


Not to say I'm not very worried about lots of things from soil fertility to pollution, but I don't require scientifically vapid narratives or misanthropy to worry about them.

Read to the last section. There's a surprise ending.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:46 PM on October 29, 2012


"Nevertheless, at about this time—10,000 years ago, give or take a millennium—humankind finally began to approach the first inflection point. Our species was inventing agriculture."

Another important development around then:

The Most Spectacular Mutation in Recent Human History: How did milk help found Western civilization?
posted by homunculus at 7:47 PM on October 29, 2012


I'm cool with creative non fiction like this, it presents the narrative not as "the truth" but "one truth".


Read to the last section. There's a surprise ending.

I was referring to that when I wrote scientifically vapid. The last part is among the worst using bad science narratives as a metaphor for action. Sorry, you don't need to do that to express ideas.
posted by melissam at 7:41 AM on October 30, 2012


Anyone who thinks humans will survive indefinitely has no idea how time works. Well before another million years pass will there be no human life left on this planet. That's just...obvious.
posted by agregoli at 10:13 AM on October 30, 2012


Can you explain why it's obvious, for those of us with "no idea how time works"? For comparison, some modern ant species have survived for tens of millions of years. Homo sapiens is similarly widespread, omnivorous, adaptable, and "successful" in terms of total biomass. While I agree that human extinction is possible over the next million years, I don't see anything that makes it certain.

Our species has already lasted around a quarter of a million years, and has likely come back from bottlenecks where population was reduced to some thousands of individuals. You could kill 99.999% of all humans on the planet (for visualization purposes: this would reduce a city the size of Chicago to a few dozen people), and the survivors would still have a chance of continuing the species.
posted by mbrubeck at 1:21 PM on October 30, 2012


I recommend Paul Gilding's book, The Great Disruption, which is an optimistic take on what it will take to make it through the climate emergency and what northern society may look like eventually.

For those of us without the time and possibly brainpower to process the multiple projections and predictions for the planet ...

where should I move as the earth hits climate crisis? Mountains of Ecuador? Help me here.

What's the best projection for what's going to happen to various regions of the world as the weather starts killing us all? I mean, I realize the end of shopping is (thankfully) coming, duh, but what about the end of fertile land?

Maybe I'll take this one to AskMe.
posted by mrgrimm at 7:50 AM on November 8, 2012


Look, you're trying to tell me that humans could possibly survive the next few tens of millions of years? It's absolutely a preposterous imagining.

The refusal to face the fact that humans will eventually die out always amazes me. It's obvious to me - everything will die out, including us.
posted by agregoli at 3:35 PM on November 12, 2012


I'm happy to agree that humans will eventually die out. What I don't see is why it's "obvious" that this will happen "well before another million years pass." That timescale seems far too short to have 100% certainty of extinction.
posted by mbrubeck at 3:47 PM on November 12, 2012


And it seems far too long to postulate that we will live anywhere close to a million years.
posted by agregoli at 4:23 PM on November 12, 2012


I guess what I'm missing is what you think will cause this "obvious" extinction. Is there a particular cause (or causes) that you have in mind, or do you just think one will inevitably come along within a few hundred millenia, without knowing what it might be?

The default state of the species is survival. What I mean by that is that I'm pretty confident that the human race will still be here tomorrow. Eventually that will not be the case, but only once something has happened that changes the world to make human survival impossible, and does so faster than humans can adapt, escape, or counter it. When I look at past causes of extinctions or near-extinctions, it seems quite rare to find one that would "obviously" wipe out 100% of humans everywhere. Of course we can always find ways to kill ourselves more efficiently than nature could, but I don't think that's guaranteed to happen in any particular millennium. Especially since it would have to be incredibly, inhumanly effective to lead to 100% extinction. If even a tiny fraction of a percent of the population survived, they would have a decent chance of continuing the species.

I'm not ruling this out at all. I can even think of several ways we might well kill ourselves off sooner rather than later. But I'm genuinely curious what makes you think this species is already entering (or past) middle age.
posted by mbrubeck at 7:00 PM on November 12, 2012


I don't see how human beings become extinct if there is any place on earth capable of supporting life, I don't care if its the last arctic mountaintop surrounded by rising seas. Whether it will be a good life is another question.
posted by empath at 9:47 PM on November 12, 2012


Yes, but eventually, we will. That's all I'm speaking up about. People always talk as if human survival is certain and that's impossible. All life known on this planet will end, and someday, maybe life will emerge again trillions of years in the future on earth. Maybe.
posted by agregoli at 6:14 AM on November 13, 2012


I guess what I'm missing is what you think will cause this "obvious" extinction.

No species ever has voluntarily constrained its own growth. It's anathema to the way the world works. But that's what will be required of humans to survive. It's not simply maximizing resources for a growing population--more important is the effect on the planet of how we acquire and use those resources.

"Evolutionarily speaking, a species-wide adoption of hara hachi bu would be unprecedented."
posted by mrgrimm at 8:34 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


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