By: Ben Johnson
Humans. How are we doing? We’re probably not doing so hot, huh? Are we gonna make it? Is it gonna work out? Probably not, huh? What are we even supposed to be doing?
To these rhetorical questions, I answer, rhetorically: not so hot; yeah no; maybe but probably not; like I said, maybe but probably not; yeah exactly; yeah I don’t know.
But let’s make it official anyway. Here’s The Total Bozo Magazine Species Report for Human Beings.
Species: Homo Sapiens
Only extant species of hominid, which is a microphylum of the ape… family? You know what, just read the Wikipedia page for “Human” like I am currently trying to do in order to sound smart. We’re animals, mammals, we walk upright on two legs. We have bigger brains relative to our body mass than all other animals our size. These brains are big and complicated enough for us humans, unique among species on Earth, to have developed consciousness and the use of language.
Biologically modern humans are estimated to have appeared roughly 200,000 years ago, and then… you know what, seriously, just read Wikipedia about this, okay? Humans were apes, and then we came down out of the trees, and we stood upright to see over the grasses of the savannas of Africa, and we eventually got good at walking upright, and we found that by walking upright and staying in groups we could range far out from the trees and go get food, and that ended up being a good idea, so we got less apelike. Then we got good enough at getting food and not dying that we developed language and other behaviorally modern tendencies like 50,000 years ago, which is like really really not that long ago.
Some ingrained survival mechanisms from our evolutionary past that are hardwired into our brains in such a way that we’re probably going to be stuck with them forever include emotions, an adherence to social hierarchies, and certain irrational cognitive biases.
Dominant. Out of the food chain but currently destroying the food web.
The human brain’s response to behavioral modernity has contributed to human development of tool use, construction, agriculture, written language, mathematics, trade, currency, art, philosophy, religion, statehood, warfare, transportation, etc., each of which happened a while ago. Industry, colonialism, mechanization, combustion, the scientific method, “Western” medicine, atomic energy, rocketry, electricity, technology, and computing are more recent developments. Modern human population levels have exploded recently, commensurate with these advances.
Threats and Threat Assessments
Weather and sea level-related climatological effects of global warming, diminishment of resources including fuel, food, water, and atmospheric oxygen brought about by destabilization of ecosystems, pollution (including nuclear fallout), global pandemic disease, catastrophic extinction-level cosmic events, gray goo, malignant or malfunctioning artificial intelligence, or other possible technologically related apocalyptic scenarios. There is disagreement among scientists about when or if the sun will expand and vaporize the Earth in a few billion years, or in such a case whether humans or another intelligent species would be able to do anything about it, but opinions lean toward an absolute expiration date for life on Earth of about 7.6 billion years from now.
The emotions, social hierarchies, cognitive biases in our brains, and the inherent difficulty of generating effective consensus for species-wide action plans within a population of billions, all create challenges in reducing the effects of human-caused threats to on-planet species survival such as global climate change, the diminishment of resources, and pollution. The emergence and acceleration of these threats have been quite recent developments, and we have not as yet displayed sufficient species-wide awareness to respond to them as quickly and efficiently as may be necessary.
The recent population explosion has both created the ideal environment (high concentrations of mobile populations) for the development of a global pandemic of catastrophic proportions and, through sheer numbers and the generation of genetic mutations of human immunology, lengthened the odds of the species for survival of such a catastrophe.
Humankind’s ability to address extinction-level cosmic catastrophes and technological apocalypses are just now coming into focus. As of now there is theory without much in the way of practice in both of these areas. We’re pretty good at detecting large asteroids with enough of a time frame to do something about it. Comets, coronal mass ejecta, gamma bursts, etc. not so much. Scientific dedication to the prevention of gray goo, malignant or malfunctioning artificial intelligence, and future tech apocalypse scenarios is still kind of fringy due to a lack of immediate necessity, although current trends in internet-based cloud computing suggest the possibility of a computer pandemic which could cause inconvenience, chaos, and even fatal disruption of supply chains on a fairly massive but not (as of yet) necessarily extinction-level scale.
The most urgent question facing the long-term survival of the species is whether we’ll develop the capability to colonize other planets (or be able to replicate or “upload” human consciousness artificially in a sufficiently sustainable manner to render species survival moot) before going extinct on Earth. (The secondary question is “If we do so, then what? Just more of this shit except on other planets? PASS.”) To that end, the pace of our recent technological development is as encouraging as the corresponding acceleration in likelihood of human-caused extinction-level threats is discouraging.
The trick facing humans is to increase the amount of available time to spend on Earth while simultaneously decreasing the amount of time it will take to leave it. Theoretically, the incapacitation of applied technology would likely lead to population decreases and a more sustainable ecological equilibrium, which would increase the amount of time humans would have to spend on planet but also increase the amount of time it would take to develop interstellar travel. Similarly, current trends towards technological progress have corresponded with the destabilization of climate and ecosystems which have the potential to reduce the amount of time humans can expect to spend on earth. It’s a tightrope.
Potentially fruitful strategies include:
Population reduction – will eventually happen though one catastrophe or another anyway, could be controlled, but not without significant moral dilemma, not to mention a demonstrated inability to prioritize the potential for species-wide survival contributions made by population segments targeted for elimination. A pandemic might be nice. That way we could shake our fists and go “oh you damn disease” and the survivors would reap immediate benefits. Unfortunately, much of the work of the less hearty and hale individuals who are contributing to species survival might then be lost.
Concentration of resources to small number of individuals who may act decisively to increase odds of species survival – we’re doing pretty okay at concentrating resources, but very poorly at acting decisively to increase our survival odds. In fact, the accrual of material resources seems to correspond with an increase in the value of those resources, which corresponds with the scarcity of those resources, creating an incentive structure which encourages the wealthy to improve their position not just by hoarding, but also by actively diminishing the world’s resources. But they sure as hell are concentrating the world’s resources. To what end we don’t yet know. There’s not a huge amount of evidence that they’re doing anything particularly productive with those resources. There’s some evidence. Just not, like, a lot.
Prioritized distribution of resources to individuals and programs which increase odds of species survival – nope. I mean, yes, the distribution of resources is prioritized. But maybe not to the most helpful things.
Systematic reduction of human environmental impact – we all know this is a great idea. Except China. China’s like “screw you it’s our turn to be rich now.” You can’t really blame China for this, except China is on the same planet as the rest of us. It’s going to be damn difficult to reduce human environmental impact when this runs counter to short and medium-term economic incentives. It’s hard to sell people on the idea that their business could go in the shitter in 50 years if there’s no such thing as food anymore. They tend to respond to this by saying “thanks for the tip, I’ll have to remember to buy all the food.”
Developing interstellar transportation and terraforming technologies – the jury’s out. It’s really, really difficult to travel from star to star. We’d have to make significant advances in propulsion. We don’t even really know how to do this yet. And: we’re not so great at terraforming. So far all we’ve done is turn one planet into a less hospitable planet. Other than that, though…
Developing an ability to replicate or “upload” human consciousness artificially in a sufficiently sustainable manner to render species survival moot – this looks like the most likely direction our current exploration of technology is headed in. Given recent technological developments, it’s not too difficult to imagine humans eventually developing and uploading an entire internet of simulated human DNA permutations into a probe and shooting it out into space. Kind of a “just in case” thing where we don’t survive but we get the next best thing: a computer full of human-like data that does survive.
Abdicating power over our fate to a more reliable deciding entity – maybe we could do this too. Just make up a computer program that can figure out what the best course of action is and then force us to do it, and if it sucks or the computer program makes us all into livestock it’s like “oh well, we had a good run, at least we don’t have to pretend to be interested in anything but voting on The Voice anymore.”
Look, we’re doing okay. It’s likely that a whole lot of us, maybe all of us, are going to die at some point. Maybe soon. That’s likely for every species, though. We might not be as awesome at surviving as cockroaches, but we’re sure kicking the Mountain Gorilla’s ass. Also, before we’re gone forever we might have screwed everything up on this planet, and we might not make it off, but are donkeys so great and helping the earth out? Are donkeys going to develop a space program and get off this planet? No way. They’re donkeys. They don’t do nothing but sit there and be donkeys. And if we don’t make it and we end up ruining this planet, that’s okay. Dinosaurs only left fossilized bones, and that’s only if they were dumb enough to get caught in a landslide or stuck in a tar pit. Depleted uranium rods are a cooler thing to leave behind for the future giant cockroach overlord people to gawk at. They’ll be like “holy crap, they MADE these” and “why did the humans go extinct? It couldn’t just be because they were dumb, could it?”
If you’re reading this, future cockroach dudes, yes guys, to quote our most representative cultural achievement, Top Gun, “the Defense Department regrets to inform you that your sons are dead because they were stupid.” But hey, to be fair, your ancestors are dumb too. All they did was lick up our oven grime and scatter when the kitchen lights come on. We squashed their damn guts out every chance we got, and we’d do it to you too if we were around today because that’s more or less what we’re good at.