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Friday, June 13, 2014
Science ... Society ...

I was talking about reviews of various things in my last post, so I will make another review tonight. This review involves an article in Real Clear Science, which in itself is a review of a conference report. The conference was about how humanity could go extinct by 2100. It was held in 2008 by the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute.

This report identified 8 main ways of getting rid of us, making estimates of each extinction risk occurring over the next 85 years. These risk estimates range from 0.03% to 5% (which is fairly high, actually; the top four possibilities together combine to 12%, which is more than one chance in 10; although it might be argued that these probabilities are not completely additive). The Institute’s doomsday scenarios can be broken down into three major factors: war (regular war at 4%, nuclear war at 1%, and nuclear terrorism at 0.03%); disease (natural pandemic at 0.05% and the bigger risk of engineered pandemic at 2%); and surprisingly, nanotechnology (nanotechnology accident at 0.5%; nanotechnology non-accident: i.e., weaponized nanoparticles acting as an artificial engineered pandemic, 5%).

Oh, and throw in the risk of some uncontrolled machine-based intelligence taking over all our systems and sweeping our species aside. That one comes in at an unsettling 5%.

As to the pandemic risk: interestingly, one of the things that makes humankind more vulnerable to a wipe-out bug is the often celebrated trend towards increased worldwide intermixing of races and nationalities. It’s great that cheap transportation and enlightened attitudes are allowing the once largely isolated human tribes to intermingle and interbreed, such that in the not-so-distant future, all our children will be a coarse-haired shade of tan. No more race distinctions, no more Euro-Caucasian, black African, Middle Eastern, Native American, East Asian, South Asian, Hispanic . . . we will all melt together into a common “human race”. You can almost hear a background choir right now singing “We Are The World”.

BUT . . . on the downside . . . this will give all the nasty pathogens out there a chance to come up with a bug that can take down every “New World Man” and Woman on the face of the planet. In the past, when virulent plagues came around, the fact that certain people had distinct racial genetic characteristics provided a firewall against the universal spread of a disease. (Admittedly, sometimes it did not, such as the increased vulnerability of the Aztecs to pandemics carried by the Spanish New World conquerors). But now the human gene pool will become increasingly homogenous, and you know that pathogens, with their relentless trial and error process, will eventually stumble upon a “killer app”, to paraphrase what our hip technology guru’s of today might say.

Another homogenization factor: a recent article in The Atlantic outlined the increasingly sophisticated technologies becoming available to couples having children, allowing increased control of their child’s characteristics and genetic makeup. This could well result in “designer children”, which will eliminate diversity by culling out embryos with odd or undesirable characteristics including high functioning autism or mild physical defects. The end result of this will be “increasingly diverse families making increasingly similar babies”. These semi-clonal babies will raise the bar in terms of human abilities, but . . . some pathogen might eventually get their number, and then down goes the entire race.

So, it was interested on the same day seeing this commentary in RCS, disagreeing with an article in Mother Jones about the dangers of nanoparticles, particularly when used as food ingredients.

No, Mother Jones, nano-food particles won’t necessarily kill you. MJ was upset about the increased use of food additives that are delivered as nano-sized molecules, much smaller than the usual food proteins. Small molecules per se are not dangerous, but they can sneak dangerous stuff into places where it was barred in the past. If the author had read the other RCS articles that day, he might have hedged his bets against Mother Jones with two words: “Not Yet”.

Strangely . . . the extinction article made no mention of extinction by weather pattern changes, e.g. starvation from global warming . . . although that could be feeding into the heightened risk of war. Still, you’d think that the prospect of drowning cities and mass starvation and the resulting chaos these would bring would have gotten more attention than they did at Oxford.

And a P.S., not about the end of the world per se, but possibly about the end of respectable science reporting by the liberal media. I wrote a few sarcastic notes in the past about NPR’s Radiolab program, a weekly one-hour entertainment show hosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich that manages to squeeze in some quasi-scientific topics. Well, I tuned in again last night, wondering if it had gotten any better. Sorry, but no dice. Jad is pushing his “cutesiness” to the limit, throwing in lots of little “yays” and giggles. Even Krulwich, the straight man, can’t be taken seriously when he contends that humankind is evolving and learning over time to become more peaceful, open-minded and “domesticated”. Through nature and nurture, we are supposedly getting along better and better within our increasingly crowded and interdependent life circumstances. Aggression and violence are becoming things of the past. (Once again, cue the “We Are The World” singers — or maybe “Age of Aquarius”, i.e. “harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding, no more falsehoods or derisions, golden living dreams of visions . . . “)

And then I read the headlines about current happenings in Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine. And even if we aren’t fighting a bloody civil war here in America, our national politics seem to get more and more war-like over time; compromise is becoming a thing of the past. Sorry, Robert (and please, no pouting noises, Jad), but humankind still has a huge problem with tribalism. Despite Radiolab’s cotton-candy optimism, those Oxford folk still say that there is at least a 5% chance of human extinction over the next 85 years because of war or terrorism (and throw in another 5% for intentionally deadly nanoparticle epidemics, and 2% for an engineered bio pandemic). Barry Maguire and his 1965 hit song “Eve of Destruction” might still be right! “Oh Jad you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction . . .”

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:31 pm      

  1. Jim, I’m not too sure I can get myself all worked up about the possibilities of when/if/how the earth is going to die. If it does, I guess that’s the end of it all for everybody. *But*, I find myself wondering about this: What if the creatures that lived 100 million years ago or even 65 million years ago (basically, I’m talking about the pre-dinosaurs and dinosaurs) had had the possibility of worry about when the earth would die.

    At this point, they’d be worrying a good long time. Yes, it’s true some particular species may go extinct; but then there would not be the evolution that took place for 100 million or 65 million years. So, I tend to think we ought to give whatever is living now a chance that, while it may not exist in the form we have now and certain species of various creatures may completely die out, others will take their place, evolve, and thus the world will continue.

    The one rule nobody can escape is that every creature will die. It seems that the baby boomers are bound and determined to prove that wrong. Sorry, but they will lose that battle. So, I think it pays to think in terms of death in a different way from the way we think about it too often. I’ve begun to see it as a maturing into what will be the next in the life that is what is *real* life. Here I do not pretend to talk about “heaven” or “hell” (life itself can be hell, we certainly don’t need another one), but it seems to me that there is something after this life and that requires a maturing into it. (I could use a little “heaven”.) Anyway, that’s my idea of the situation.

    It could be I’m wrong, and there is absolutely nothing whatsoever after this life. OK, then this one is over.

    As to worrying about “nasty pathogens”, etc.: Hasn’t the world experienced them before? I think of the Black Death that wiped out Europe. (I digress to mention that it was interesting to read the political and economic ramifications of the Black Death in Europe; perhaps it served its own kind of purpose.)

    You mention the pathogens that wiped out so many of the Native Americans or First Peoples as the Canadians call them. But then, thinking about it, I read that the Mexican people are a strong and hardy people for the simple reason that they are the “combination” of the Indian peoples of Mexico and the Spanish. Thus, only the strong Indians survived the pathogens the Spanish brought and only the strong Spanish survived the various wars they brought. Thus, the Mexicans are a combination of the strongest people of two groups. Well, at least some good came from that whole issue.

    And here I find myself thinking of Teilhard de Chardin who in the midst of combat in WWI could think only of the evolution of the human race and the greatness that was yet to come for humans. That guy really had a special “take” on the terrible combat of WWI.

    I also can’t help mentioning Robert Krulwich. (Jad Abumrad I have never heard of.) But I’ve seen a couple of pieces that Krulwich has had on TV and found them fascinating . . . finding myself thinking, “Now there’s my kind of scientist”. I have no doubt that may not be a complement to Krulwich; but he sure catches my attention, and I’ll stop doing whatever I’m doing, to watch what he’s got to say when I see his “stuff” on TV. Maybe he’s the only kind of scientist for people like me; but, hey, we deserve somebody who is on our level too, I’d say.

    Using an expression a student used some 30 years ago, I’m “hitting [80] with a brick”, i.e., only too soon. I find myself wondering what is next; how it will be; hoping it will be worth this hard life I’ve been through; wondering if I’ll see and meet others I have known and lost here on earth; hoping I’ll like it whatever kind of place it is; if I’ll be given a chance to return; and if I am, will I want to return to earth; and lots more tho’ts like that.

    Maybe life after this life (if there is one) will be kind of interesting. I think of the first time I knew I was going to teach: The wondering I had and the hope I’d do it well and do well by others. I think of when I got married: Again, the wondering and hopefulness I had about something unknown – life with another person. There’ve been lots of other kinds of wonderings I’ve had. Now I find here I am at another “wondering” point and can’t help but think of the other “wondering points” I’ve had.

    Rather than worry about whether or not the earth has a .2% chance or a 5% chance to continue to exist, I find myself thinking of Noah and the Ark. If, indeed, there was such a flood, well, most surely all the world Noah knew was destroyed. But the catch there is “all the world Noah knew”; he knew very little of it; there was a whole lot more to it that managed just fine. Even today there are places where I think “their whole world is gone”, e.g., the house that collapsed when the earth below it fell into the lake, the problems in Africa and the Middle East where “their whole life is gone”, the mudslides that changed the contours of the area where people lived. Yes, their entire world was destroyed. Yet, not the entirety of the world.

    So, should all these predictions come to pass, I think in terms of “the whole world”, meaning that world of a particular group of people, but not the entirety of the earth, the galaxy, or the universe, etc.

    I realize I’ve really diverted radically from your post, and perhaps I should apologize for this comment. But these are the tho’ts that come to my mind when I find scientists worrying about whether or not the world will survive. I think it likely will. Perhaps not as we think of it now; after all, if the dinosaurs could think, they wouldn’t know what to do with our world now. But our world is still here, and there’s been so much evolution that one barely recognizes the dinosaurs any more. (The closest I can come to dinosaurs are eagles, but I’m very limited in my ability to imagine dinosaurs and how they might have evolved.)

    Regardless, in a way that might not possibly have been imagined, the world survived, still exists, and my tho’t is that recognizing it 65 million years from now will be tough for people who live now, except we won’t have to live in it. But others will probably like it quite a lot, thank you very much. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — June 14, 2014 @ 6:47 pm

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