Nature Endorses Human Extinction

In the latest Nature, Chris Thomas says:

This year the baiji river dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer), a victim of the pollution and boat traffic of China’s Yangtze river, was added to the list of creatures on the verge of extinction. Is this part of the sixth mass extinction in 450 million years, or does the recent spate of losses caused by humans represent a blip in the history of life on Earth? Michael Novacek’s Terra takes stock of the situation and provides an opportunity to learn from the past.  … 

Of course, we shall solve some of these issues with technological fixes. Yet if we maintain 9 billion avaricious people on Earth for the next millennium, a sixth extinction event seems inevitable.  The geological perspective of Terra is bizarrely reassuring. Humans will presumably be gone within a few million years, perhaps sooner. If the past that Novacek describes is a guide to the future, global ecosystem processes will be restored some tens of thousands to a million years after our demise, and new forms of life over the ensuing millions of years will exploit the denuded planet we leave behind. Thirty million years on, things will be back to normal, albeit a very different `normal’ from before. It is good to be optimistic. The problem is living here in the meantime.

Thomas is "optimistic" that humans and any descendants with a remotely similar population or resource-intensive technology will be extinct in a million years.   Yet if a plague, for example, were to produce this outcome within the next ten years, I’m pretty sure most everyone would see this as a catastrophe of the highest possible order.  So how does this become a good thing if it happens in the next million years?

Added 21Nov:  I emailed Chris Thomas the day of this post, and today he commented that I was "over-interpreting a few tongue-in-cheek comments."  I responded.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • Vladimir Nesov

    Also almost any cause for complete extinction short of species-specific plague should wipe out ecosystem as well, no matter how it was preserved before that.

  • gutzperson

    Within certain religious traditions, humans are here on earth for a transient time. For many, afterlife is a reward for enduring the here and now. Afterlife does not take place on earth, but in ’heaven’, in other universes, in future, outside of known boundaries.
    From the perspective of ‘life beyond’, not bound to laws of physics, a quasi-religious idea, it might be reassuring for some of us, to envisage that life will go on, even if we (as individuals and as a species) are no longer. This is truth and fantasy combined. There is probably life out there, anyway.
    It is a fact that we will become extinct, one day. Even if de Gray finds genes for immortality, even if we upload our brains into supercomputers, even if we beam into other spaces (as projections of our own imagination), even if we settle on other planets, ……
    The extinction of humans and post-humans might not be perceived as catastrophe, because it is projected so far into the future.
    On the other hand, there are so many comets shooting through the universe. One of them could hit this planet in near future.
    http://neat.jpl.nasa.gov/neofaq.html
    It is a catastrophe if it happens within our life-time. Any diffuse future is like fairy-tale-land. We can sit at home, with a cup of tea, and dream away.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/felix_typekey/ Felix

    >> So how does this become a good thing if it happens in the next million years?

    Proper self-loathing?

    Does anyone ever notice that we’re due for a “pre-cambrian” type species explosion in the next couple hundred years?

    Or does no one expect humans to use this new-found genetic knowledge in ways like everything else humans have ever used?

  • John S.

    People who subscribe to this view — that humans are a plague on the planet, and the sooner we are made extinct, the better — should “walk the talk” as Bill Clinton might say. Offing themselves would bring us all one step closer to that glorious day they envision.

  • http://blog.stevegilham.com Steve

    The Nature piece is just “Après moi le déluge” in different clothing. In ten years time, an extinction event would probably affect the writer. In a thousand years, it probably would not.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/logicnazi/ logicnazi

    Is he obviously advocating this extinction or just claiming it is likely?

    I frankly find it very hard to believe that HUMANS will be here in several million years time. I mean millions of years ago we were significantly different (were we even homo sapiens then?) and you expect with GM, computer technology and whatever else we develop in the meantime members of the same species as us will be here?

    Maybe we will have descendants here but I would bet on not. A million years is an incredibly long time for beings with the ability to wipe themselves off the planet to persist. Quite possibly we will colonize other solar systems but for any given planet even the most careful technologically advanced species likely has a reasonable chance of making it uninhabitable for them over a million year span.

  • Nick Tarleton

    Yeah, I’d say self-loathing.

  • Nick Tarleton

    Or perhaps he’s resigned to human extinction, and “optimistic” is meant to refer to his belief that the biosphere will continue after us. I can sympathize with that.

  • stuart

    “The Nature piece is just “Après moi le déluge” in different clothing. In ten years time, an extinction event would probably affect the writer. In a thousand years, it probably would not.”

    It’s funny, but it’s also quite common for environmentalists to point out that we are destroying our grandchildren’s future by treating the environment like we do.

  • igor

    I don’t think Chris Thomas says human extinction is fine in the far future. He is merely optimistic about the possibility that earth and life will continue even after destructive human intervention.

  • Unknown

    Suppose two different cases: in one case, the human race goes extinct in a million years (or even in ten years.) Then, in ten million years, some other race of mammals evolves into something superior to humanity.

    In the second case, the human race does not go extinct, but continues to improve, yet not quite reaching the level reached in the first case by the other race of mammals.

    Is there any reason at all to prefer the second case to the first? If not, then someone could expect the first case, even under the ten year stipulation, and still call himself optimistic.

  • Chuck

    Yes, I agree with igor. In fact, if you read the piece without bias, you might note the line, “The geological perspective of Terra is bizarrely reassuring.” That is to say, to stop thinking about the possible/probable extinction of humans from the human perspective and instead think of it from the prespective of the planet, one can find reassurance that no matter how bad things go, there is hope that there will be life of some kind on the planet for a long long time into the future.

    Surely you can apprecaite the sentiment that a planet teeming with life a million years from now, even if without humans, is comforting over the notion of a cold rock in space where we used to be?

    To put the writers view in one sentence is “even though we are capable of causing an enironmental catastrophy and probably will cause one, and even if that is a catastrophy on a scale that surpasses us and truly knocks the planets life-sustaining environment really far out of whack, at least it won’t be a permanent mistake that effects all life on the planet for ever.”

    Furthermore, I’ve read about a study that did a statistical analysis of the longevity of any given species from spawing to extinction, and then evaluated humanity’s future from that frame of reverence. The study found an average species longevity and a standard deviation in either direction and concluded that if the human species follows the same fate, there is a 95% confidence that we’ve got somewhere between 100,000 and a million years left, IIRC.

    I wonder if that study is mentioned in the Nature piece, and if that is the source of the ‘humans will be gone in a few millions years’ notion, and of the comfort in looking at the situation from the perspective of the plant?

    You know, I think the whole notion of overcoming bias is foolish, because it assumes that there is a set of values that one can derive rationally that applies to all people, and if we could just overcome other people’s bias against it, we’d all agree.

    It doesn’t seem to me that people are like that. Some people value their emotions right now over everything else, even their emotions in the future, and it isn’t irrational of them, it is simply how they are, it is simply how their brains are wired. Their emotions simply are the most important thing to them. In that case, the only irrational thing they could do is take actions that are not in response to their present emotional state.

    Now, if you are a person whose brain values rationality, you will be biased against this view of humans, but it may still be true.

  • outeast

    Funny; I read that line as dry wit (at least partly rooted in the very real fact that a million years is a humanly incomprehemnsible time, thus rendering both optimism and pessimism meaningless). I guess either I’m totally mistaken or I’m the only one here so far to share that sense of humour.

  • http://metaandmeta.typepad.com Drake

    So you’re saying you don’t want to see humans wiped off the face of the earth?

  • Paul Ganssle

    Felix:

    I think your comment is a bit hyperbolic, don’t you? How would killing themselves now make people go extinct? That is like saying that if you want to build a stack of cards, you should start at the top and work your way down. Placing a card at the top is indeed an integral step in making a house of cards, but the base needs to be built before that step can be taken (unless your goal is not, in fact, to build a house of cards but rather to drop a card from approximately the height of a house of cards).

    This is not saying that I advocate human extinction, but using rhetoric like that brings up an interesting phenomenon wherein it seems to me that a lot of times people will naturally “spin” our premises when making an argument (even if you actually bother to enumerate them). I might make an argument that a human extinction advocate’s premise is that the life of a species has innate value, and specifically, the fact that it is alive, not its utility, not its intelligence or any other contributing factor, is what is valuable. I have obviously stated this premise in a way that makes it easy to argue against, because in stating the premise, I’ve illustrated the problematic portions of it by going into more detail. I’ll try to avoid making a caricature of the other side, but I can imagine a proponent stating the same premise either in some way that does not allow us to evaluate that premise (it is self evident that…) or packed in a bunch of rhetoric that obfuscates the salient points (look at this pile of dead infant seals sitting on a canister of oil, the price we pay for this is…).

    One of the things I find fascinating about this kind of debate is not so much the subject matter, since I (and I imagine just about all of us, Chris Thomas included) don’t have a brain which is equipped to comprehend a million years, much less care about what happens a million years in the future, but because it illuminates how we use logic. Values questions are (and I hope I am not being too controversial here) subjective, so there isn’t a right or wrong answer to “is it better to spend more on health care or spend less on health care?” There IS however, a right and a wrong answer to the question, “if I spend more on health care, will it alleviate the things that I see as problems in the health care system?” The two questions are actually very different ones, but it is almost universal that people will confuse the two. And the situation is even more confused by the fact that the first question is often used as a shorthand for the second question. How this works out in debates such as this one on human extinction is very interesting.

    Jesus, that was a way longer comment than I had intended to write. I blame my prolixity (at least partially) on the fact that I should be calculating second-order perturbation theory corrections to orbital energies.

  • Caledonian

    Is it actually worthwhile to debate the merits and demerits of human extinction with people who have declared themselves Humanists? Pretty much anyone will respond poorly to the idea that the things they value most in the universe should be expunged from it.

    The real question: is it worthwhile to try to get Humanists to examine the value of humanity objectively?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/jhertzli/ Joseph Hertzlinger

    How often do clades with a world-wide distribution become extinct?

  • Nick Tarleton

    Caledonian, what do you even mean by objective value?

  • http://sti.pooq.com Stirling Westrup

    Yeah, this sound like its just another form of deathist thinking. Species become extinct, and that is natural, so it must be good.

    On the other hand, it wouldn’t surprise me if homo sapiens sapiens is extinct in a million years. We’ll probably be as obsolete, dead, and mourned as homo habilis is today.

    So no, humanity being extinct in a megayear wouldn’t bother me, but I very definitely want there to be extant species that count us as their ancestors.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    I suppose some people might feel more loyal to biodiversity than to their own species, especially if they spend their time studying the former. Lots of information stored in both. Humans seem to be just smart enough to fuck up the biosphere for themselves and other species. I don’t know why everyone here is talking about a million years, the author was predicting a mass extinction event in the next millenium, which is a much closer prospect.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Cache lookup of Deep Wisdom returning someone else’s self-loathing. Non-extensional reasoning; it hasn’t occurred to him that he or anyone else he cares about is a human. Separate magisterium; human extinction invokes literary thinking, cancer invokes medical thinking.

  • Caledonian

    Non-extensional reasoning; it hasn’t occurred to him that he or anyone else he cares about is a human.

    Yes, I’m sure that is the explanation. They are so deeply wrong that they have lost the awareness necessary to recognize that their loved ones are Homo sapiens sapiens.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Caledonian, how is “Human extinction == great!” and “OMG my mother has cancer” not non-extensional reasoning?

  • Caledonian

    How do you not understand that one person dying is not equivalent or comparable to the extinction of all humans? For that matter, how do you fail to grasp that one can form an emotional attachment to individual humans yet loathe the greater mass of humanity?

    The scenario described does not involve the mother dying as part of the process of the end of the human race. It involves the mother dying and the human race continuing. A person might regard the first case as a regrettable necessity and the second as a tragedy without conflict or contradiction.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    The scenario described does not involve the mother dying as part of the process of the end of the human race. It involves the mother dying and the human race continuing. A person might regard the first case as a regrettable necessity and the second as a tragedy without conflict or contradiction.

    Don’t know how we’d verify this, since I do not trust the introspection of extinctionists to give accurate historical-cognitive reports rather than whichever answer they think will place them in the best light; but if there were any way to verify it, I’d bet a dollar against a donut that these people do not visualize any specific loved one dying when they talk about the near-term extinction of humanity. If their sister had cancer but was in remission, and you asked them, “Would you rather your sister retained the cancer if it meant that she could take the rest of humanity down with her?” they’d probably slap you. They aren’t making a tradeoff. They’re engaging in non-extensional reasoning with inconsistent cached answers for different-sounding questions.

  • douglas

    Chris Thomas is suggesting that human extinction is inevitable.
    Given that inevitablity, it is optimistic to think things will return to normal at a future date.
    He is not thinking human extinction is good, only inevitable.
    (That’s my reading)
    Your question isn’t a bad one, I’m just not sure how it comes from the text you quote.

  • Calednoian

    They aren’t making a tradeoff. They’re engaging in non-extensional reasoning with inconsistent cached answers for different-sounding questions.

    These are your beliefs about what they’re thinking. And that’s fine – as long as you do not confuse your beliefs with reality.

    Why did you request an explanation for why the hypothetical positions didn’t require non-extensional thinking? It’s obvious that they don’t.

  • Dynamically Linked

    So how does this become a good thing if it happens in the next million years?

    I can think of a couple of ways that are not obviously irrational.

    1. Discounting. If the writer discounts the moral value of future generations at even 1% per 1000 years, then someone living two million years from now is worth only about 10^-9 times as much to him as someone living today. Considering people’s behavior (e.g., savings rate, interest rate, the rate that we are using up resources), our actual discount rate for future generations is much higher than this.

    2. If there is a limit to the science, art, and technology that humanity can achieve, then presumably in a few million years we will have done everything worthwhile that we are capable of. Extinction at that point may not be considered as catastrophic as extinction today.

  • savagehenry

    “Surely you can apprecaite the sentiment that a planet teeming with life a million years from now, even if without humans, is comforting over the notion of a cold rock in space where we used to be?”

    On a long enough time frame none of this matters because the sun is just going to expand and engulf the Earth anyways hahaha. I for one hope we make it off this planet and find a way to travel to other solar systems so we can spread our awesomeness throughout the galaxy. I have to side with Robin on this; humans going extinct a million years from now would be just as much a tragedy in my eyes as it would be if we suddenly went extinct 10 years from now, the time frame makes no difference. As for the dolphins, tough luck I guess?

  • poke

    You missed the all-important conditional. “Yet if we maintain 9 billion avaricious people on Earth for the next millennium…” Presumably he hopes that we might change our ways in the short-term but, if that turns out to be impossible, at least we won’t continue on this course forever.

  • Shakespeare’s Fool

    “Thirty million years on, things will be
    back to normal. . . .”

    What is the meaning of the word “normal”
    for a planet that was formed out of cosmic
    dust, cooled from a molten mass, developed
    an atmosphere with almost no oxygen, gave
    rise to life which put oxygen into the
    atmosphere killing off much of the life
    that put the oxygen into the atmosphere,
    has continents that drift, has evolved
    multitudinous species which have
    continually changed the conditions in
    which they live, has had occasional mass
    and nearly continuous minor extinctions,
    may at any time be altered by collisions
    with such as asteroids, comets, black holes,
    or the remnants of novae, and is likely
    to be greatly altered or completely
    destroyed by changes in the sun?

  • http://www.satisfice.com/blog James Bach

    What if instead of a few million years, the writer had said “a few thousand trillion years”? Well, by then the whole universe will have died, no matter what any of its inhabitants do. Each of us is doomed in the near term, and the whole planet is either vapor, cold rock, or eaten by a black hole in the longest term.

    But maybe we can convince God to reboot our simulation before the worst happens.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Among the things I discuss here is my indifference to the extinction of humanity, provided it occurs after I die.

  • Quickshot

    I think, that thinking about this event in the common lines of thought are probably pretty pointless. If things were still going along the common lines, then we wouldn’t be in worlds next large mass extinction event right now.

    Of course life survived the previous ones, but none of the previous ones are like the current one, so it is really hard to say what will actually happen in this particular case.

    For all that we know the current events could lead to a situation where in for instance life is spread across the galaxy, instead of remaining confined to just this singular world. Or alternatively, maybe we’ll somehow manage to make the moon collide with our planet and destroy everything real good this time.

  • Julian Morrison

    Total human extinction is interesting. I can’t think of much that would cause it, short of a comet strike or a local supernova. We’ve become quite shockingly resilient, as a species. Most very severe disasters would just knock us back to the neolithic. Some things that people play up, like climate change, won’t even make us seriously uncomfortable.

    I tried making up a possibility map of human futures. Extinction is on there, but it’s small. We have a significant chance of getting knocked back a century or two by war or disease (our current run of uninterrupted growth is if anything a historical anomaly). We could end up being replaced by something post-human – AIs, uploads or ubermenschen. (I’m not sure if I’d count that as extinction as much as an unusual form of reproduction.) But by far the most likely future I could think of is the opposite of extinction: speciation via genetics, or para-speciation via pervasive horizontal gene transfer – a DNA commons that would erase the concept of one definable “human species”. We already have most of the tools for that, and enough monkey curiosity to try.

    About the only thing I could see no hope for was conservatism. Trying to freeze the present day as the permanent blueprint of humanity is just not doable. Even the attempt would change us (and into something worse).

    Replying to Unknown above, who speculated on us being replaced after extinction by another smart species: unlikely. In four billion years, evolution has stumbled across real intelligence just once. Even a near-miss (like the Neanderthals) won’t do. They lived, they died, and over the span of their culture they produced nothing. They never advanced beyond stone knives and bearskins.

    Back to the topic. I think the motivation of the various proposers of human extinction is not to speculate on a real or expected apocalypse (or they would be more panicked), but to present a “teaching apocalypse” in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The damned are punished, the elect are saved, and Gaia settles all accounts. This isn’t logical reasoning, it’s religion.

  • http://vhemt.org lesuknight

    No plague will cause human extinction: a 99.9% dieoff of 6.7 billion would leave plenty of us to carry on. A collapse of modern civilization, if it happens soon enough, might prevent us from bringing about the collapse of Earth’s biosphere we seem to be working so hard to achieve. This collapse would end nature’s Homo experiment, possibly reduce biodiversity to the KT extinction event level 65 million years ago, and life would continue to evolve from there.

    As tragic as extinctions of higher-order species such as the baiji river dolphin are, the chain of life is not critically damaged. However, we are affecting the base of the food chain with our toxic wastes, and we won’t know when the tipping point has been reached. Micro-organisms, perhaps essential to the chain, are going extinct before we know they exist. We may have passed the point of no return, which is why I say we “might” avoid causing a collapse of Earth’s biosphere.

    Looking at the biosphere as a whole, and overcoming our bias in favor of Homo sapiens, it’s apparent that one species is causing the extinction of many other species. Entire ecosystems are eliminated to provide our habitat. The few places we have abandoned — Chernobyl, the Korean DMZ — provide a glimpse of what Earth could be like if we became extinct without taking the web of life down with us.

    Our extinction doesn’t require an increase in death — it could also be achieved by not breeding. As beneficial as universal human infertility would be for life on Earth, including humanity, it’s no more likely than an extinction-causing plague. Being unlikely doesn’t make the concept of our voluntary human extinction less desirable from a bio-centric or Earth-centered point of view.

    Julian, I can’t speak for all who advocate our voluntary extinction, but for me it’s science rather than religion: removing an exotic invader from an ecosystem to preserve native species.

  • Caledonian

    In four billion years, evolution has stumbled across real intelligence just once. Even a near-miss (like the Neanderthals) won’t do. They lived, they died, and over the span of their culture they produced nothing. They never advanced beyond stone knives and bearskins.

    By this reasoning, at least 95% of Homo sapiens’ time on this planet was also a failure. And the rest of the time lead directly to a mass extinction event.

    I think you should reconsider your criteria.

  • http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/tom Tom McCabe

    “Being unlikely doesn’t make the concept of our voluntary human extinction less desirable from a bio-centric or Earth-centered point of view.”

    Okay, try putting it this way: If humanity continues developing technologically, the biosphere may be heavily damaged and untold thousands of species will become extinct. If humanity goes extinct, the biosphere will be sterilized by the Sun’s heat in another billion years, down to the last microbe. The two primary forces on Earth right now are humanity and entropy. One or the other is eventually going to gain complete control of the planet. There is no such thing as a future in which Bambi & Co. go merrily skipping through the rainforest for the next trillion trillion years. That’s not an option.

  • Julian Morrison

    @Caledonian
    “By this reasoning, at least 95% of Homo sapiens’ time on this planet was also a failure.”

    Up until the invention of agriculture, yes, we were basically twiddling our thumbs.

    “And the rest of the time lead directly to a mass extinction event.”

    Unimportant. WE won’t go extinct, and we can rebuild biodiversity according to our preferences.

    @lesuknight

    You say you’re being scientific, but you’re anthropomorphizing the hell out of “nature”. None of those animals, plants, etc matters at all in and of themselves. They are the chance products of a chance process, and the fact of their existence is mere luck. No part of nature makes an ethical distinction between the status quo and the scorched Earth that would result from a nearby gamma-ray burst. It’s all just atoms and fields, going about their business.

    So, when you overlay an ethical function that assigns desirability to outcomes (that they don’t have in themselves), you are implicitly adding a desirer. Action implies actor. Since the only creatures who can think abstractly at the moment are ourselves, you’re introducing a human desirer. But oops – the scenario you propose deletes humans. So it deletes desirability. Doing ethical algebra with human-less outcomes is like doing division with zero. It’s nonsensical by definition.

    What you are doing is projecting your enjoyment of a wilderness (seen from afar, I might add, and not as a participant) onto a situation with total wilderness. You’re forgetting to include the observer in the experiment; consequently you are not noticing that a wilderness without an observer is meaningless.

    As to your worries about microorganisms, I can see zero evidence beyond what amounts to science fictional speculation on your part, and plenty of circumstantial evidence that microfauna are very capable in adapting to harsh environments where necessary. I think you’re making too much soup from one oyster.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    A “trillion trillion” years? I thought this blog was supposed to have some respect for quantitative argumentation. People here seem to be having trouble keeping track of the difference between 10^3, 10^6, 10^9, and now 10^24 years, which is a seriously impressive example of innumeracy.

    “The two primary forces on Earth right now are humanity and entropy. One or the other is eventually going to gain complete control of the planet.”

    Weird, it’s as if the entire biosphere is just some sort of minor annoying middle tier standing in between physics and the glory that is the human mind.

  • Julian Morrison

    @mtraven
    “it’s as if the entire biosphere is just some sort of minor annoying middle tier standing in between physics and the glory that is the human mind.”

    Exactly that. The biosphere is meaningful because (in priority order): we breathe it, we eat it, it’s storing genetic potential, and we find it enjoyable.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    A poster child for alienation writes “The biosphere is meaningful because (in priority order): we breathe it, we eat it, it’s storing genetic potential, and we find it enjoyable.” Well, there isn’t much point in arguing whether or not life is valuable in and of itself, there is no way to settle the point. However, until we succeed in porting ourselves to silicon crystals, there is much to be said for having a bit of respect for the infrastructure that supports our wondrous brains.

    he says: “we can rebuild biodiversity according to our preferences.” Right, we are simultaneously going to be knocked back to a preindustrial level of civilization and develop the ability to tailor and resurrect extinct species at will.

    There seems to be a big gap between those of us who live on a planet and those who live in a science fiction novel.

  • Julian Morrison

    “we are […] going to be knocked back to a preindustrial level of civilization”

    Oh really? Do tell.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Neandertals were a dead end because we modern homo sapiens ate them. Mammals were limited to the role of small rodent in the time of the dinosaurs. After their mass extinction a great many niches were opened up to that family, which were (relatively) quickly filled. In the absence of humanity it is likely that given enough time it would happen again. Baboons are a candidate to replace us, as are rats.

  • http://omniorthogonal.blogspot.com mtraven

    That was based on your own remark: “We have a significant chance of getting knocked back a century or two by war or disease”. I agree (but I’d add climate change and resultant ecological and food chain collapses as a possible additional drivers). I think my point was simply that since we are currently utterly dependent on the larger biosphere, it behooves us to take care of it as best we can until such time as we can upload ourselves into gleaming, eternal, entropy-proof silicon substrates. For now, we are 100% dependent on biological processes that we don’t understand very well, let alone are capable of controlling in arbitrary ways.

  • Caledonian

    Up until the invention of agriculture, yes, we were basically twiddling our thumbs.

    This comment reveals a depth of callous ignorance that I don’t really know how to respond to.

    Unimportant. WE won’t go extinct, and we can rebuild biodiversity according to our preferences.

    Can? No – you believe that, in the future, we will gain the ability to do so. That may or may not turn out to be the case. You’re counting your chickens before their eggs are laid, much less hatched.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Lesuknight/ Les U. Knight

    Julian, your eloquent description of our place in nature deserves reposting in its entirety:
    >You say you’re being scientific, but you’re anthropomorphizing the hell out of “nature”. None of those animals, plants, etc matters at all in and of themselves. They are the chance products of a chance process, and the fact of their existence is mere luck. No part of nature makes an ethical distinction between the status quo and the scorched Earth that would result from a nearby gamma-ray burst. It’s all just atoms and fields, going about their business.

    So, when you overlay an ethical function that assigns desirability to outcomes (that they don’t have in themselves), you are implicitly adding a desirer. Action implies actor. Since the only creatures who can think abstractly at the moment are ourselves, you’re introducing a human desirer. But oops – the scenario you propose deletes humans. So it deletes desirability. Doing ethical algebra with human-less outcomes is like doing division with zero. It’s nonsensical by definition.

    What you are doing is projecting your enjoyment of a wilderness (seen from afar, I might add, and not as a participant) onto a situation with total wilderness. You’re forgetting to include the observer in the experiment; consequently you are not noticing that a wilderness without an observer is meaningless.< This clearly expresses the human bias: that we are the only species on Earth that matters. Without us, the entire biosphere has no meaning, and to consider otherwise is to anthorpomorphize it. Makes one wonder how life muddled through without meaning before we came along. For the sake of discussion, I'll go along with your contention that, "there isn't much point in arguing whether or not life is valuable in and of itself, there is no way to settle the point." So, if life forms have no intrinsic value, perhaps it doesn't matter that we are eliminating them. However, if life forms do have intrinsic value, we should not. The possibility that life only has value when we value it seems to me a weak justification for eliminating it. Humans may be the only species with a sense of ethics, but then we're the only ones who need it. After we're gone, the natural processes of evolution will continue without regard to right and wrong. Until then, our unique position as the cause of the sixth great extinction, coupled with our ability to make ethical judgements, obligates us to behave as if we are not the only life form that has value. "As to your worries about microorganisms, I can see zero evidence beyond what amounts to science fictional speculation on your part. . ." Of course you can't see it, that's why they're called microorganisms. And speaking of science fictional speculation: "WE won't go extinct, and we can rebuild biodiversity according to our preferences."

  • Chris Thomas

    Well, you have all been busy! Talk about over-interpreting a few tongue-in-cheek comments I made. A few minor points.

    1. Nature does not “endorse” what I wrote. The journal is always clear that the views are those of its authors, not official views of the journal (even if they did edit a few grammatical errors into the final version at the last minute!).

    2. I was very careful in my wording of humans having “gone” in few million years, and included uncertainty in the sentence. I did not say “extinct”, which is how the above contributors have interpreted my comment. Yes, complete human lineage extinction is a possibility. However, species also evolve into other entities, which then become known by other species names, and this could be “our” fate. My guess is that any such species that exists, in say 10 million years, will not be anything like as abundant or industrialised as the current Homo sapiens. Naturally, I could be entirely wrong.

    3. The substance of the last paragraph of my review is to emphasise that humans are not capable of wiping out all forms of life on Earth, and if (I suspect when) we become extinct (or far less abundant), new life forms will subsequently emerge. “Optimistic” …. obviously I was expressing the view of a highly sentient squid that hopes that its descendants will inherit the Earth and subsequently colonise the universe!

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Chris, I saw no clues suggesting your book review was a humor piece, nor that your offending paragraph was “a few tongue-in-cheek comments.” Many commentors here suggested less offensive interpretations of your words, but none guessed you were “obviously … expressing the view of a highly sentient squid.” I don’t see how your description of “humans having `gone’ ” differs substantially from my “humans and any descendants with a remotely similar population or resource-intensive technology will be extinct.” And we both know that Nature would not allow a book review advocating exterminating a particular race or ethnicity, so it is noteworthy that Nature allowed your apparently advocating human extinction. So please clarify, which scenario is to you more “optimistic”:

    1. Humans and any descendants with a remotely similar population or resource-intensive technology become extinct in a million years, and in thirty million years, the biosphere goes back to normal.
    2. Human and/or their descendants continue to maintain no less than today’s population and resource-usage over millions of years, with a continued severe extinction event and denuded planet.
  • Chris Thomas

    Robin,

    Your dichotomy is spurious since your point one is liable, albeit with unknown probability, to lead to your point two. If you interpret my text as “advocating human extinction” – that is your interpretation, not mine! And certainly not Nature’s.

    The immediate challenge is to find ways whereby we minimise the extent to which the planet is denuded of other life forms and ecosystem goods and services (i.e., useful things we get from the biosphere, usually without paying for them directly – benefits that are generally speaking not internalised within the prices of the goods we purchase, for example). These goods and services are required to maintain humans in the way that it seems you advocate. At present, we are “mining” our biological resources faster than they can regenerate. This is not sustainable.

    As to why anyone cares about anything, human or otherwise, I leave to you to philosophise over.

  • Chris Thomas

    Correction. Mistyped the first line. I meant that point 2 leads to point 1, not the other way around.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/robinhanson Robin Hanson

    Chris, I agree than an attempt to achieve option 2 could lead in fact to option 1. Nevertheless, considered as achieved outcomes, these are relevant options to compare to clarify whether you do or do not consider human extinction to be the “optimistic” outcome, if the alternative is mass extinction of other species. Instead of forcing my own interpretation of your words in Nature, I am trying to get you to clarify your interpretation; why won’t you choose?

  • J Thomas

    When I think about it, it seems quite reasonable to want other species to survive us if we die out.

    I care about my sister’s children even though they aren’t my children. After all, they share 1/4 of my genes.

    I care about my cousins even if all my immediate family dies.

    I care about people who seem unrelated — go back 40 generations and pretty much everybody’s related to everybody else.

    If we’re all gone but chimpanzees remain, they share 99+% of our genes. Why not wish them well? But then, mice share 99% of our genes. Wish them well too. (Depending on how you count the chimpanzees may be only 98% or 95% similar. Is that difference important?)

    Same sort of thing. If humanity died out except for the native australians who’ve done less mixing than the rest of us, wouldn’t you wish them well?

    And if the closest survivor to us was a starfish species, still isn’t that better than only bacteria surviving?

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ g

    J Thomas, my wish for chimps, or starfish, or intelligent aliens, to prosper has (so far as I can tell) very little to do with the genes they share with me. Which is hardly surprising; nothing in our evolutionary past has selected us for preferring the interests of creatures sharing 90% of our DNA over those of creatures sharing 0% of it, since we’ve never had any of the latter to interact with. But, regardless, why *should* the fact that (say) starfish share some genes with us make any difference to how much we value their survival?

    (I can’t tell whether my preference for native Australians over chimps has anything to do with the genes they share with me. Causally, it probably has. But I like to try to minimize the excess of rationalizing over reasoning in my value judgements, and it doesn’t seem to me as if those shared genes are much of a *reason* for preferring them. But there are other reasons that seem better.)

  • Nathaniel

    I would like to add 2 additional points.

    Point 1:
    I think that it is easy to see humans can do great damage via pollution, even if you don’t think global warming is happening (and I feel odds are that it is these days) there is still the toxic pollution that has been added to rivers, lakes, and some pieces of land that has a detrimental effect of plant and animal life in that area. So we do cause pollution and it does cause harm.
    Does that last point mean that life/from Earth would be better without us? I argue no. Not only are we part of life on/from Earth but if we are able to limit the damage we do to various ecosystems around the world so they do not collapse then we provide means by which life on Earth will become life from Earth and those have the potential to survive past the point (in about 5 billion years from now-so keep paying your mortgage) when the sun expands and most things remaining on Earth get cooked. While humanity should learn how not to damage other forms of life on Earth and should actively work to avoid harm now, we are the only species likely to currently enable space travel and thus create the ability to evacuate the planet when such an evacuation becomes necessary to sustaining most of the life on/from Earth (not just us).
    Thus calling for human extinction actually removes a potential boon to the survival of Earth’s various life-forms.

    Point 2:

    I would argue the harm via pollution that humans cause is mainly not due to the number of humans but to the manner we go about economic development. Global Warming is caused by greenhouse gasses. This are released by the burning of fossil fuels. If not for the latter the former would not be a problem. Also look at China, it has a great deal of problems relating to both air and water quality because of the many emissions (some of which are quite toxic) put into each. China’s emissions problem (touching on fossil fuels again) has grown worse after it started its population control program. This can happen because of the fact that there is no stable ratio between the amount of humans and amount of emissions, factories, cars, coal powers plants, and so on. China jumped ahead of the USA in CO2 emissions not by a population boost but through rapid and reckless economic development in which consideration of the environment was not an issue. Thus focusing on economic systems systems to be the logical way to prevent pollution and environmental damage.

    Note: Population control does not involve counting and limiting the amount of emissions-only the number of humans. This is why it actually fails to serve as effective protection for the environment.