climate change, diseases, extinction, intelligence, Whither Homo sapiens?

Are We As Smart As Cancer?

I have a split reaction to the rapid spread of Zika virus.

On the one hand, it’s terrifying, especially for the young and fertile. (I don’t have grown children hoping to reproduce, but I do have many nieces and nephews in that demographic.) Our natural self-interest as living organisms and members of a beleaguered species makes it imperative that we understand and control this threat: through immunization, genetic mosquito control, whatever it takes.

On the other hand, through a cold eye, such outbreaks, as well as the cancer plague that now afflicts about one in three Americans during their lifetimes, look like Earth’s immune system trying to control the cancer that is us — sometimes with whatever blunt instrument comes to hand, sometimes with an uncanny laser-guided focus: Zika targets the brain, which is, after all, the source of the trouble. It also appears to be transmitted by sex, the other source of the trouble (being, as it is, what makes more of us).

This leaves me, as a childless human who’s had my three score and ten — so anything more is gravy — feeling that if one of those natural killers came for me, I could have no hard feelings. Why me? Why not? From the host organism’s point of view, I’m one more cancer cell, or locust, or virus. Nature doesn’t care whether you hold environmentally correct views (which would make a difference only if they actually became widespread enough to re-subordinate our collective behavior to the health of the whole and rein in the metastatic human impact). It doesn’t discriminate one human from another. To the ecosystem equivalent of a natural killer cell, it’s not who you are, it’s what you are.

I fear for the young, for whom the stakes are so much higher. Owing their existence to our explosive success as a species, they are also slated to pay its price. They place their hope and faith in the continuing acceleration of our success — specifically, in science’s ability to shield us from Earth’s immune system long enough for us to proliferate and innovate towards some kind of breakthrough. Can we ever be as smart as cancer, which does such a brilliant job of outwitting OUR immune system? Can we be even smarter — figure out how to be fruitful and multiply and still keep our host alive?

We can now say that we HAVE scratched the surface. That is something. But that’s about it.

 

 

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climate change, evolutionary theory, extinction, intelligence, Whither Homo sapiens?

Our Schizzy Worldview

The worldview of the scientific era (something quite different from “the scientific worldview”), the popular aura that reverently surrounds science as the universal and catholic church of our time—the provider of origin myth, the promiser of redemption from death—this mythos of our time consists of two contradictory parts, as oxymoronic as matter and antimatter.

One part says that we came on the scene some two million years ago as a unique evil, the destroyers of the biosphere. The green stain of human self-hatred that welled up in the Deep Ecology movement has slowly spread to infect all sincere nature lovers, climate Cassandras, devout recyclers, carbon Puritans, alternative-energy evangelists, believers that we’ve destroyed the original biodiverse Eden and that The World Without Us was and would again be a better world. In this religiomimetic myth, becoming human was the Fall. Our drive to be fruitful and multiply, to prevail, to consume, to transform as much as possible of the planet’s biosphere into a pullulating mass of Us, our greedy Willen zur Macht, exceeds that of any other predator or pest, said drive having lost its innocence when it became coupled to an insatiable imagination, a clever pair of hands and a scheming prefrontal cortex. The tone of this dark half of our myth is mourning, self-abnegation, penitence, and shame.

The other part of our era’s myth, perhaps nurtured orclike in the egg of science fiction, asserts that we’re the only intelligence on this planet, if not in the universe, and that now that we have discovered the scientific method, we with our technology-enabled reason will eventually create a better world than blind, bumbling nature ever could. We will become functionally immortal, will banish illness and death, grow wings if we want to, create artificial life-forms to serve us, spin protein out of sunlight to feed billions more of us, and take charge of our own evolution into a godlike superintelligence ourselves. The tone of this bright half of our myth is triumphalism, bravado, and delusional optimism.

At first glance these two halves of our worldview appear to have nothing in common, but they do in fact share one major theme: a comical overestimation of our own importance and power, for good or for ill. Maybe these inflated worldviews arise just now as a defense against the realization of how infinitesimally tiny we are in both time and space. We’ve been Hubbled, but good. How do we square our huge, myopic importance to ourselves, our “It’s the biggest thing in the universe!” grasping after goods and wins and mates, with this mind-boggling insignificance? Every animal (and for all we know, every plant) is caught up in the huge drama of its own survival and self-perpetuation. It’s how life’s drive is experienced by those who enact it. But let’s have some perspective, people. We can’t have much, but let’s have a little.

Earth has seen worse than us. It (or She) will survive; it’s we who won’t, in large numbers, if we temporarily tip the environmental balance against the conditions we ourselves need to survive. Our sudden shock and sorrow at the disappearance of other species (which I certainly share; I’m the one who won’t go to China because of tigers, and this book broke my heart) is, unavoidably, sorrow at our loss—of what we in the developed world have only realized they meant to us now that they’re mostly just being beautiful screensavers and not eating us or competing with us. The species we mourn are proxies for ourselves. When any creature reproduces too successfully in the absence of predation, it consumes its food supply, exceeds the carrying capacity of its environment, and experiences a population crash. We’re as blameless as a plague of locusts in this respect. Though technology buys us time, enabling us to stretch the envelope quite a lot, the ocean, for instance, is not infinite, and that’s what we’re really afraid of—with reason. Other species are collateral damage.

As vain as it is to fancy ourselves the most destructive force evah (you wanna see destructive?), it’s equally preposterous to presume we are the only locus of intelligence on this planet, let alone others. Just the “backstage” intelligence running our own cells, for starters, is far more complex than the content and operations of our own intelligence. As for sentience and strategy, communication, love, and humor, they are constantly bubbling up—in forms as alien to us as birds, cetaceans, and cephalopods. Every species has an intelligence fitted to (or overflowing) its niche and its way of living, and every species, including us, lives sealed inside its own sensorium, as if its world were THE world. (“How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,” wrote Blake, “is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your Senses five?”) The process of evolution itself may turn out to be drenched with intelligence, able to perceive and respond to environmental conditions, to remember, and to improvise. (Just read this.) The intricacy and interconnectedness of life at the molecular level makes it overwhelmingly likely that much of the crude tinkering we do will backfire, and we will be lucky if it is not in spectacularly Faustian fashion. We may do ourselves some good, but at a high risk of far more harm, because our minds at their best are many orders of magnitude simpler than the phenomena they are attempting to manipulate.

This world is magnificent, and in a sense it’s tragic to damage any of its amazing creations—but that is also nonsense, because they are all merrily eating each other all the time, and the whole shebang is constantly revising and trashing its own creations. We’re just its latest way of doing that, as well as part of the dispensable raw material. This is not to say we’re wrong to try to rein in our collective voracity and use our ingenuity to figure out ways to live and let live—for our own sake, our own physical and psychic survival. The life-forms with which we happen to coexist in this geological eyeblink will be collateral beneficiaries in the unlikely event that we can actually manage to do that. But let us admit we’re doing this for our own sake, adapting in a bid to survive. And let it be for the sake of pure curiosity and wonder, possibly the only real value added we bring to the game.

 

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