Ask SciScoop : Why Should We Save Humanity?

Individual humans have evolved with a number of ingrained behaviors, among them a remarkable flair for violence and a deep urge for sex. Both of these have been absolutely essential survival tools for millions of years. Yet in the past 5000 years these ingrained behaviors have been imperfectly leashed by civilization and laws to support a “higher social good.” Nobody today seriously questions the inherent “rightness” of this path, even while we all subconsciously acknowledge the precarious artificial nature of such a path by our fascination with apocalyptic scenarios like Mad Max.

Self preservation is another highly evolved and deeply ingrained human behavior along with our penchant for violence and sex. Now, if we all acknowledge and support the current desirability to substantially restrain these latter two evolved behaviors, then in my opinion we should at least consider the possibility that “civilization” requires restraint on the former one, too. And in fact humans ARE moving in this direction, by ways that vary in method and acceptability by culture. Coal miners and convenience store workers and cops all go to work knowing there are safer jobs they could be doing. All military training / boot camp / “following orders” is as much about dulling self preservation instincts as it is about sharpening the skills of violence. Parts of the current Arab culture have distilled this mentality down to yield Palestinian suicide bombers and Ground Zero in New York City. China has adopted a one-child policy that is directly at odds with self-perservation instincts on several levels. The debate about assisted medical suicide in America is not about to go away anytime soon; kevork has become a verb for a reason.

If the basic human instincts of violence, sex and even personal self preservation are in fact negotiable currency to create the kind of world we want, then I believe we should at least consider that group survival may be as well. Today we talk and worry about biowar and asteroids and nukewar and gamma ray bursts from space and novas and a hundred other possible doomsday human extinction scenarios. We talk about space colonization and arms races and research programs as ways to ultimately prevent human extinction, which we all have a gut feel is The Ultimate Evil.

Let’s face it. The palentological record shows that mass extinctions happen, just like personal deaths happen. Our initial response is to resist this, just as our initial response to traffic jams is road rage and our initial response to pornography is to become aroused and our initial response to heights is to step back. We go on to build highways and sexual harassment legislation and roller coasters anyway. Perhaps we should go on to build an analogous positive something in our psyche to deal with probable eventual human extinction as well? Interplanetary, interstellar and even intergalactic colonization is one such construct. Dreams of such colonization are more about species survival than lebensraum, otherwise we’d have colonies on Antarctica, a place more hospitable that the Moon will ever be. In many ways religion is also such a construct; certainly Christianity has eventual human extinction on Earth as an immutable core tenet.

Much of this has to do with point of view, and that’s where the links come in to provide you with a different one than what you may currently have. In my opinion, thinking appropriately about the ultimate human destiny requires comptemplation of what Stewart Brand calls The Long Now. It calls for building clocks that only chime every thousand years. It calls for comtemplating not only our own personal deaths but the extinction of all humans everywhere, voluntary or not.

What’s the alternative – we outlast nuclear war and novas and galactic cannibalization and even the big crunch itself? That sounds like sci-fi to me…

2 thoughts on “Ask SciScoop : Why Should We Save Humanity?”

  1. In part it’s a matter of how you look at time. From our human perspective, time passes at a constant rate – 1 second per second of course! But scientists have long known our solar system has only a few billion years left, and the universe itself will come to one sort of death or another in a finite time (except for the rather special case of Tipler’s Omega Point – which seems unlikely given current cosmological parameters). Does the world despair at this knowledge? Perhaps some do. Religion gives hope of something beyond this universe, and Science may too (just exactly what is that “dark energy” all about and where does it come from anyway?)

    But look at the universe another way – in Einstein’s 4-dimensional space-time, and you realize perhaps there’s no reason to despair. We’ll always have Paris after all…, and all those past events of our lives – they existed just as our present moments will always “exist” in this sense. Is it enough just to have been a participant in this strange, complex, immense, wonderful universe? Even if nobody remembers you after you’re gone?

    To me forever isn’t the issue, really. It’s whether we’re making the best of what we have now, and how do we make our presence in the universe a more effective and interesting piece of the universe’s future story. I think we could be doing a lot more! :-)

    By the way, the Moon is arguably a lot more hospitable than Antarctica for one reason: solar power. Antarctica and the ocean bottom have almost none of it; the Moon has plenty (at least 2 weeks in four). But ‘lebensraum’ isn’t why we’ll be going there, anyway…

  2. True, humans will never live forever. At some point or another, we’ll get squashed, or blown up or burnt to cosmic ashes. But we do what we can to survive. As long as there is a way for us to avoid that mass extinction, we’ll go for it.

    And of course, if there is nothing to do, if the end of all humanity is utterly unavoidable, then we’ll resign ourselves and live the last of our days doing whatever makes us happy during that short period of time. Because it HAS to be a short period of time. If we think we have enough time to avoid whatever it is that will kill us, we’ll fight to the death. We’ll do research and experimentation until we see a way out of it or inminent doom. that’s just the way we are. Self preservation rules us (and that is not a bad thing).

    on a personal note, I see my death, and am aware of the possibility of it coming soon. Which is why I like to take a look around every once in a while, and admire the human race and our environment. But I also know that to constantly think about my impending death will do me little good. If I kept doing that I could not plan for the future, and the uncertainty of my plans would torment me, so I forget about my death for a while, and consider it only as a time limit, even if it is somewhat ambiguous.

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