What could be worse than human extinction?

Paul Raven @ 14-12-2010

From a philosophical perspective, human extinction is just about the worst thing we can imagine… and it’s a fairly recent fear, too, with our conception of existential risk kick-started by the threat of mutually assured destruction. But what about a slow slide back into an animal state from our current civilisational peak? An evolutionary regression triggered by the impoverishment of the environment we mastered momentarily? [via BigThink]

Civilization obscures our similarity to other animals. We tend to hold ourselves to different standards because we see ourselves as above nature.  Many people find the slaughter of food animals objectionable. Yet no one is advocating intervention to save the gazelles from the lions or the rabbits from the foxes. Is the suffering of animals in the wild less important? Should we venture out in search of prey animals to rescue from their predators, and sick or injured animals in need of medical care? No, it would seem. It’s okay when nature imposes suffering on animals, but not when we do it. Similarly, it’s not okay when we are the subjects of nature’s cruelty.

Civilization has bestowed our species with a distorted self-image. Many people seem to have the impression that we operate independently of nature. We are fortunate that we’ve been able to act as though we are independent for as long as we have. If we don’t adjust our way of living so that it becomes sustainable, however, nature will eventually do this for us.

The worst case scenario is not that humans will become extinct, but that we will come to experience the cruel will of nature as other animals do. We can’t rule out the possibility that we will become more similar to our primate cousins in intelligence, behavior, and quality of life. We may be enjoying the peak of human intelligence, morality, and technological advancement.

On the face of it, this is just another finger-waggy “if we don’t sort things out soon… ” warning, but I think you can detach the results from the cause – there are any number of reasons we might find civilisation as we know it receding into the patchwork memories of the past. Indeed, given our tendency to prattle on about “the good old days”, you could probably convince a lot of people it was already happening…

But in recent years that nostalgic view of the-past-as-idyll has become more and more of an irritant to me. Despite the very real problems facing human beings as individuals and as a species, I think conditions and opportunities for the average person have been improving steadily for a long time (even though those improvements, like William Gibson’s future, are – sadly – not evenly distributed). This is perhaps the same myopia that makes us see the decline of the Western economies as a global recession: because things aren’t quite as easy for us in particular as they were a few decades back, then we’re obviously bound for hell in a handbasket, AMIRITES?

Well, I’m not so sure; I think we have it in us a species to survive, prosper and spread beyond the gravity well. But to achieve that, I suspect we’ll need to start thinking of ourselves as a species rather than as individual nations… which may turn out to be the greatest challenge we’ve ever come up against, rooted as it is in the very evolutionary processes that made us what we are.

Still – it’s worth a shot, wouldn’t you say? 🙂

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11 Responses to “What could be worse than human extinction?”

  1. ConfidentlyDubious says:

    I find the excerpt (and, as a cursory glance, also the original piece) more than a little simplistic. It’s not clear to me how the collapse of civilization will remove the evolutionary pressure that has already made homo sapiens such a successful species in the first place. (I hasten to add that the type of “success” I am speaking of is purely defined in terms of population growth…)
    I would expect instead that, in an environment heavily compromised by the actions of (past) humans, threats (e.g., radioactive areas) and resources (e.g., ancient garbage dumps) will often be of a type that requires some reasoning to be managed successfully: so brains will be even more necessary than now, if anything.
    Of course, good brains do not guarantee at all civil behaviour, as the history of our species abundantly confirms…

  2. Wintermute says:

    Ironically, or perhaps not ironically, I think the comedy Idiocracy is the most plausible future I’ve seen in sci-fi.

    Stupid people have more kids. It’s a fact. The first world tech and medicine essentially eliminates natural selection so it’s just a matter of who has the most kids. Give it a few hundred or thousand years and we’ll have all our ultra-user-friendly tech that will think for us, drive us, feed us, entertain us, wipe our asses for us, and we’ll have lost the mental and physical capacity to care for ourselves. Sort of a species-wide elderly care home, ridden with Alzheimers.

    The future is not yet written of course, but I don’t see a lot of evidence for the trend abetting.

    Moral of story: smart people stop being selfish and procreate a little plz, for the good of the species, kthx.

  3. SpeakerToManagers says:
  4. Craig says:

    The problem with scenarios of a regress in intelligence as in Idiocracy, is that stupid people having more kids only applies when having more kids acts as a personal net loss. We don’t have to slide far in our standard of living (only a couple hundred years) before intelligence and larger families become an advantage once more.

    Also I feel that as a species, our creative drive is stronger than our destructive drive. Possibly a two steps forward and one step back, sort of situation. More technology just means bigger steps.

  5. Paul Raven says:

    Stupid people have more kids. It’s a fact.

    Citation needed.

    I mean, sure, maybe poor people have more kids, maybe ignorant or undereducated people have more kids, but I’ll remain skeptical of a direct correlation between IQ and number of offspring until I see some research into that one… especially as it’s a low-level plank in the platform of the nastier kind of top-down eugenics advocate. (“We’re sterilising them for their own good as well as everyone else’s!”)

    Also I feel that as a species, our creative drive is stronger than our destructive drive. Possibly a two steps forward and one step back, sort of situation. More technology just means bigger steps.

    On my brighter days, I feel the same, Craig. Let’s just hope we’re right, eh? 🙂

  6. Wintermute says:

    “We don’t have to slide far in our standard of living (only a couple hundred years) before intelligence and larger families become an advantage once more. ”

    This assumes that standard of living is going to slide to pre-20th or 19th century levels. This is possible, but not necessarily true.

    “maybe poor people have more kids, maybe ignorant or undereducated people have more kids”

    I don’t mean necessarily stupid genetically, I meant less brain-gifted in the nature or nurture sense, and it’s difficult to separate the two at present. People with better education and higher-paying careers (which generally involve more smarts) tend to have less children. They also tend to be poorer, yes. You only need to look at the most developed countries to see this trend, look at the dwindling populations in Europe and Japan, led by the cities where you have the highest density of brain-power/education. In some of these countries they’re paying people fortunes, begging them just to have kids.

    http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/01/educated-women-having-fewer-children/

    There are many reasons for the phenomena. Couples with careers often don’t want to give up those demanding and often non-local careers to have kids. Some make up excuses “the trust fund isn’t in place / the economy’s in a rough patch / I’m about to get a promotion at the office” and wait longer to have kids meaning they start trying later when fertility has decreased or ended, etc.

    Even if there is a tiny genetic effect, in that the genetically mentally gifted have a slight advantage in doing better in school and in brain-intensive career jobs, over time the effect will be amplified. Not to mention the cultural dwindling through Jersey Shore-ification passed down from parent to child through proximity. This effect is more prevalent in the US I think where we’ve got in some areas a cultural glorification of being dumb, our brains XBOXed and reality TVed out, two thirds of the population can’t even read/write at a high school level.

    I’m not saying we need to bring back eugenics and breed some super race of Jude Laws from GATTACA. We don’t need to sterilize anyone, either. Just need brainy types to have more kids, and work towards a society and culture that allows smart people, whether nature or nurture, to pursue fulfilling lives while also having kids. The uneducated should not get sterilized, just educated, which has already been shown to be the best method of reducing unwanted pregnancies. You want to talk seriously about sustainable future? Part of that is sustainable humans. Sustainable child having and quality child-rearing. Having babies is looked down upon in some wealthy, business, and educated cultures. Maybe that needs to change. Or it’s not eugenics but degeneration through natural-genics and culture memetics that are going to rear their ugly dumb heads.

  7. ConfidentlyDubious says:

    I don’t think that we “need brainy types to have more kids”. What would be the benefit of that? Passing “brainy genes” (?) to a larger progeny? In my experience, the impact on intelligence of education (in the broadest sense: school, family, society) far exceeds that of genetics. So what we really need is: *better education* (i.e., better schools and better societies) for everyone, everywhere. Better families (and less unwanted kids) are a byproduct.
    How could the world possibly afford that? Well, let’s take a look to “defense” budgets, even of poor countries. Or to the amounts of money magically conjured up to save the collapsed economic system. Which, by the way, is managed by people who (if the connection higher salary -> “generally more smarts” holds) should have been *considerably* more smart that they apparently are.

  8. Chad says:

    In my experience it’s genetics, nurture, and education. The first two being the most important, as most people with good genetics/nurture tend to educate themselves even in bad situations.

    A better education system, at this point in time, is less about money, than the people who run it and the people who are in it. At least in the U.S.

    However, I don’t think either side matters. We will probably find a way to get “designer babies” at some point, which will no doubt include an option to increase intelligence or at least increase the odds of having higher intelligence. At least, I hope, or I fear Wintermute’s dire predictions may come true.

  9. Wintermute says:

    Oh, they’re plenty smart. They’re just playing dumb so as to make everything look like an accident and avoid getting indicted. 🙂

    “In my experience, the impact on intelligence of education (in the broadest sense: school, family, society) far exceeds that of genetics.”

    I work first hand with kids who have had trouble with education for whatever reason, and I can tell you, the ‘family’ component, largely meaning parents, is 50% or more of that equation. Most of these kids fall behind because their parents don’t value education, don’t push their kids to do better, don’t raise their children in an environment conducive to education. The kids often end up with multiple teen pregnancies, living on welfare or in prison, and repeating the cycle. We need better education but we need better parents who care about education at least as much.

    And like I said, the genetic factor is slight if it exists at all. But its the little cracks that eventually, over time, become canyons. It would take a long, long time of course, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years. Vis the Eloi and Morlocks.

  10. Sarah Ennals says:

    One thing I’ve recently heard suggested is that the education level/childbearing correlation comes from the opposite direction – if you know you can’t afford to go to college, there’s not much reason *not* to start having kids in your teens – indeed having them early means your own parents will still be young enough to help care for them. (Also, your relatives can’t generally *refuse* to help you support kids, whereas they might well scoff at your attempts to put yourself through college (see Wintermute’s comment above).

  11. Wintermute says:

    Well, here’s proof we’re getting dumber, or at least smaller-brained as a species.

    http://www.theatlanticwire.com/features/view/feature/Are-Humans-Evolving-to-Be-Dumber-2841