I’m reading a wonderfully insightful book on the extinction of species by Richard Ellis titled No Turning Back. He describes in easy-to-understand language the details of all the mass extinctions that have occurred on the earth, relates the story of how many individual creatures may have gone extinct, and makes an objective presentation of current extinction theories.
Ellis tells us, for example, that by the time the Chicxulub meteor hit the Yucatan 65 million years ago, probably killing all the non-avian dinosaurs, most of the dinosaur species had already died out and that the only ones left that couldn’t fly were in North America. Ellis calls them non-avian dinosaurs, since most scientists now consider birds to be the last of the dinosaurs, surviving because, this theory goes, they were living on the continents less affected by the meteor crash. Ellis also presents the theory that microbial disease may have caused some of the extinction of the dinosaurs that took place in the tens of millions of years before the meteor hit.
While I highly recommend No Turning Back I want to take exception to one statement that Ellis keeps repeating: that human beings, like all earths creatures, are doomed to extinction. He also quotes a number of scientists giving the same view.
There’s no disputing that one of the main story lines of the natural history of the earth is the extinction of species. Virtually all species that have existed on the earth have perished, either individually or during one of the mass extinctions that Ellis reports come about every 26 million years.
But while humans are of nature, we also have the ability to rise above nature, that is, to mute or bend parts of our nature in different ways to our benefit.
Although we seem headed for self-destruction currently, we could change that by continuing to grow beyond our natural origins as hunters living in caves. But to do so, I believe we have to replace natural laws with what I call human laws. I am not saying that we can ignore the laws of nature, but that the customs and laws of society and economics—our human laws —should reflect our mission to overcome nature and survive (which eventually will mean leaving the planet before the sun explodes in some 90 million years). By the way, by human laws I do not necessarily mean legal codes and regulations; although it includes legal prescriptions, human laws also comprise customs, mores and ideology.
Natural laws lead to extinction, whereas human laws should lead to our survival, which I believe begins by removing the motives for working solely and selfishly in favor of the individual and instead putting the stress on helping all people achieve a minimum standard of living. In other words, guaranteeing basic human rights and a decent living standard for all are as important as cleaning up the environment and slowing down global warming. Currently our human laws do not place enough constraints on the behaviors that lead to the extinction of the species, e.g., war, pollution, destruction of ecologies, land misuse, lifestyles that consume too many resources, overemphasis on the accumulation of material possessions. Let’s hope that changes.
Ellis himself points out that not all species have gone extinct. There are some survivors from former epochs, but statistically the number is insignificant. So what! Statistically there are very few species with large brains, and of those, only one that has a sophisticated language and thumbs that oppose the rest of the fingers. While I have no faith in religion, I do have faith in the ability of man to keep transcending nature and learn how to clean up the mess we’ve made.
I know I’m repeating or rebranding the thoughts of some long-gone social philosopher(s), but I can’t remember which one(s). It’s also likely that some contemporary philosopher has also dipped into these waters. If any reader can enlighten me on others with the same or similar view, please let me hear from you.