THE END OF OUR EVOLUTIONThe End of Evolution: Dinosaurs, Mass Extinction, and Biodiversity, by Peter Ward, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1995
Evolution’s Workshop: God and Science in the Galapagos Islands, by Edward J. Larson, Basic Books, New York, 2001
MAN, as Friedrich Nietzsche was amongst those who realised, is a part of the natural world, subject to the same natural laws and processes as any other living species. Not that Homo sapiens is a mere passive recipient and participant in such laws and processes. Since modern Man evolved, perhaps 100,000 years ago, he has increasingly played an active and major role in the natural world. Unfortunately, as both these books reveal, it has almost entirely been, as far as the rest of the biosphere is concerned, a disastrous one, a disaster that now threatens to consume its own perpetrator.
These two books look at the less than happy relationship between Man and Nature from opposite but complementary viewpoints. Geologist and palaeontologist Professor Peter Ward’s The End of Evolution looks though a telescope at the widest possible panorama, covering the impact of Man on the whole planetary biosphere over the entire history of our species, and placing it in the perspective of the overall history of life on Earth. Whilst Pulitzer-Prize-winning writer, historian and lawyer Professor Edward J. Larson zooms in on the impact of and upon man of one little group of islands, the Galapagos, off the west coast of South America over the last 200 years.
Professor Ward gives a masterly exposition of the way in which the history of life on earth has been punctuated by a series of about 15 mass extinctions of species, of various extents. Five mass extinctions involved the demise of more than 50% of all animal species on Earth over a geologically short time. Two past mass extinctions, which Ward dubs "Events", altered the whole planetary biosphere drastically and changed the course of animal (though much less so plant) evolution. The First Event, about 245 million years ago at the end of the Permian Period, wiped out over 90% of all animal species on land and in the sea. It ended the first great Era of multicellular life on Earth, the Palaeozoic. The Second Event, about 65 million years ago, was rather less devastating – it wiped out only just over 50% of all animal species. But those included almost every animal on land bigger than a cat. The result was to end the second Era of advanced life, the Mesozoic, the Age of Dinosaurs, and usher in the third, the Cenozoic, the Age of Mammals. The Age that Ward argues, with chilling credibility, is now being ended by the latest mass extinction, the Third Event, which is happening now.
As Ward explains clearly and in fascinating detail, each of the two previous Events was preceded by geologically rapid changes in global sea levels and climate, the latter due to carbon dioxide emissions from massive volcanic "flood basalt" eruptions lasting tens or hundreds of millennia, stressing the world’s ecology and causing a preliminary wave of extinctions. In each case the final collapse of the biosphere, the web of life that keeps us all alive, appears to have been sudden, in geological, probably historical and quite possibly human timescales. A few millennia at most, a few hours or days at the least. Triggered by a final sudden disaster hitting a living world unusually vulnerable due to being already seriously under stress. The disaster which finally triggered the First Event is as yet unknown – the fossil record shows it was sudden, but not what it was. It was long ago, and the evidence over a quarter of a billion years is blurred where it has not been lost altogether. The disaster that triggered the Second Event and slew the dinosaurs is now known – the asteroid impact which blasted the hundred-plus-mile-wide Chicxulub Crater into the sea bed of Yucatan. Smashing into the Earth with the destructive impact of a thousand global thermonuclear wars all at once. Sending bone-shattering blast waves through oceans and air to smash their way around the world several times. Raining fire from the sky across half the world as molten rock splashed from the impact site fell back to Earth, setting continents ablaze. Finally blanketing the world in dust, cloud, darkness and cold, a Fimbul Winter to freeze what had not been fried. Until months or years later first fern spores, then seeds, sprouted again, and those creatures that could burrow or hibernate, or were small and adaptable enough to live on corpses and rotting plants, crept forth into the reborn day.
But such a disaster alone has happened, as Ward observes, many times in Earth’s history without causing a major mass extinction on this scale. 208 million years ago, for example, a five-mile wide asteroid blasted the 70-mile-wide Manicouagan Crater in Quebec. Many species did die – enough to cause human palaeontologists to have selected that date to end the Triassic Period and begin the Jurassic. But most of the major groups of land animals scraped through. The world was changed, but not utterly. But the trigger hit a world otherwise in good health, with a thriving, diverse biosphere. Similarly, there have been times when the biosphere has been under climatic and environmental stress, and extinctions occurred then too. But not mass extinctions. The great Permo-Carboniferous Ice Age covered South Africa and Australia in glaciers again and again over several million years. But it was over millions of years before the First Event began. As Ward demonstrates, to create a mass extinction event, there must be both stress on the biosphere, and then a trigger, a sudden (in geological terms 50,000 years is "sudden"!) disaster, pushing a struggling biosphere over the edge into catastrophe.
This time, Ward argues – and most relevant scientists would certainly agree with him – the stress is caused by the latest Ice Age which for the past few million years has engulfed the planet. Lowering and raising global sea levels and temperatures again and again. But the mass extinction trigger, the disaster, the coup de grace, the detonator setting off the charge laid over megayears, precipitating the Third Event, the evolutionary equivalent of the asteroid strike that wiped out the dinosaurs, is Homo sapiens, us.
As Ward puts it, drawing to a close his discussion of the K-T Boundary Extinction, the Second Event, the death of the dinosaurs "Climate change from carbon dioxide emissions, sea level change, and then a meteor. Sixty-five million years later the sequence would be climate and sea level change, the evolution of mankind, and then carbon dioxide emissions. Welcome to the Third Event".
Just like the previous two great disasters, the Third Event started several million years before its dreadful climax with a preliminary series of waves of extinction. About 2.5 million years ago, many species of marine molluscs in the Atlantic suddenly died out. At about the same time, many African antelope species became extinct. Between 2.5 and 1.8 million years ago, 35 genera of North American land mammals, about 30% of the total fauna, perished. All this coincided with, and it is hard to avoid concluding was caused by, the first blasts of global winter, the rapid climatic cooling and sea level drop that ushered in the first glacial advances of the Ice Age.
"But", Ward goes on, "these extinctions were but the opening act of the Third Event. Just as the great climate changes of the Late Palaeozoic and Mesozoic eras reduced world diversity and created an unstable and perhaps fragile series of ecosystems, so too did the great perturbations of the Ice Ages during the last 2.5 million years hammer our world. Like a boxer pummelled by too many jabs and body blows, the Earth’s creatures were ripe for a fall. The knockout punch, at least for North American mammals, was delivered about 11,000 years ago: over a period of 1,000 or 2,000 years, two thirds of North and South America’s larger mammals suddenly disappeared. Many people think it no coincidence that this great extinction coincided with the arrival of mankind in the Americas".
There is no doubt that, before people came, the Great Plains of the American West, for example, resembled today’s Serengeti. Roamed by herds of mammoth, mastodon, four-horned antelope, giant bison, horses, camels, llama-like camelids and giant ground sloths. Preyed on in turn by lions, cheetah, two kinds of sabre-toothed tigers, huge short-faced hunting bears and packs of the giant dire wolf. Europeans found a miserable, depauperate remnant – bison, pronghorn antelope and wolves. Horses, which evolved in North America, were extinct there and had to be reintroduced by the Conquistadors. The sudden extinction of the American megafauna coincides, though how closely is a matter of debate, with the arrival of the first Amerindians, the Clovis culture. A culture which certainly did hunt big game, and has left the hunting tools and worked bone relics to prove it. The slaughter of the big herbivores would, of course, bring down with it, less directly, the big predators relying on them for their food supply. Of course, at the same time the climate was changing due to the last glacial retreat. Some, anxious to exculpate their own species in general and the dreadfully Politically Correct "Native Americans" in particular, have argued that it was climate change did for the big American mammals and that the Indians are Innocent.
Professor Ward is sceptical. He points out that there have been many glacial retreats, and advances, during the last million or so years of the current Ice Age. The latest one is nothing climatically unusual. On previous occasions, the big animals mostly just moved North or South with the weather, with few extinctions. Also, the giant Australian mammals became extinct about 30,000 years ago, when the climate was not changing. But when the first humans were arriving in Australia. Giant mammals in Africa, which evolved alongside modern humans in the birthplace of humanity, did not and have not – yet – become extinct. Fewer large mammal species in Eurasia, invaded over the last million or more years by wave after wave of ever more advanced and competent hominid hunters, became extinct when modern humans spread to Eurasia. Like African animals, but unlike those of Australia and the Americas, they knew enough to run away when humans hove into view. Interestingly, the few species of American big mammal that survived, wapiti, moose, musk ox, grizzly bears etc, are, like humans, recent immigrants from Eurasia, who presumably also already knew instinctively than humans are dangerous, being descended from Eurasian ancestors who fled from Man. Also, as Ward goes on to detail, in historical times the slaughter of innocent, tame wildlife by the first humans they saw is a tale told again and again – thus, notably, perished the dodo. Why should it have been any different when the first humans across a Bering Sea made dry land because water locked into glacial ice had lowered the sea level walked into a New World inhabited by vast herds of game whose edibility was only exceeded by its tameness and lack of fear of man?
But Ward also makes another telling point. If the "Overkill Hypothesis" is wrong, and climate change was to blame for the end-Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions "we face an even more disturbing set of implications. No-one disputes that the extinctions took place, or that they happened very quickly. But if such massive extinctions can take place because of climate perturbations, the world’s remaining biota is in very grave danger in light of what our species is currently doing to the global atmosphere. I fervently hope that…the advocates of Overkill are correct: the alternative paints a horrifying picture for the next millennium in the earth’s history, a time when the Third Event will be in full swing. Perhaps we can teach ourselves to stop killing animals and thus stave off the worst potential ravages of a mass extinction. But can we change the weather? Can we stop global warming?"
Ward moves on from the devastation caused by Man on the major land masses to paint a sorry picture, with numerous examples, of the environmental devastation and waves of extinction attendant upon the arrival of humans at island after island, many with unique faunas and floras. 1500 bird species alone have become extinct as a result of this in the last few thousand years, leaving 8500 species left – many of them endangered. That 1500 is half of all the bird species living on the world’s islands. Nor is this simply the result of the nasty Europeans ruining tropical paradises etc. – though the record of Europeans in this regard over the last 300 years is certainly nothing to be proud of!
Ward cites Hawaii as an example. Since the White Man came in about 1800, 16 indigenous bird species have become extinct and another 24 are endangered. Not simply by hunting or clear felling of the islands’ forests, both of which can be and in many cases are being halted as wealthy First World societies, at least, afford themselves what their leaders appear to regard as the luxury of conservation measures. But more by the havoc wreaked by introduced species – cats, rats, mongoose (introduced to eat the rats, but preferring the easier prey of tame native birds), alien ants that destroy the native insect species on which the birds feed, and the introduction of avian malaria and pox. Introduced species which do not respect conservation laws and are often very difficult to eradicate.
But, devastating as the impact of Europeans has thus been, it did not cause the main extinction of indigenous Hawaiian birds. That took place two thousand years earlier, when the Polynesians first arrived. Slaughtering several magnificent species of flightless birds and ultimately eradicating over 50 species, half the islands’ avifauna. Wiping out many of the most beautiful species by hunting them for their feathers – to make a single feather cloak for a Hawaiian chief, 80,000 birds had to be killed. So much for the "noble savage living in harmony with Nature". Now, out of over a hundred unique species of bird once native to the Hawaiian islands, most are already extinct. A mere nine have any realistic chance of survival in even the medium term.
Ward also looks at the devastation wrought by humanity in Hawaii upon humbler creatures, snails. At the start of the19th Century, thanks to its isolation and habitat diversity, the Hawaiian archipelago boasted almost 1000 unique indigenous species of snail (by contrast, the continental USA and Canada between them have only 719 species of snail). At the start of the 21st century, that thousand species of unique snails is down to approximately ten. The causes are not just the usual sad tale of habitat destruction due to logging, overgrazing by introduced sheep, pigs, cattle and – the worst destroyer of the environment, creator of deserts and general vermin on the planet with the possible exception of Homo sapiens, the domestic goat and its feral offspring. The hapless snails were targeted precisely because they were unique by Victorian malacologists – snail collectors. The Rev. J.T. Gulick, a Christian missionary (another introduced species which has done untold harm around the world!) alone collected and killed over 45,000 snails in just three years. A letter is in existence, cited by Ward, written by this godly Christian gentleman in which he boasts of deliberately making Hawaiian snail species extinct so that his collection of their shells would thereby become the more valuable.
Those Hawaiian snail species surviving the collectors then faced competition from the African giant land snail, introduced about 1900 by what Professor Ward aptly described as "some fool". This beast escaped and, free of predators, proceeded to devastate crops and wild vegetation. Attempts were made to poison the snails, but the snails turned up their feelers at the bait and would not eat it. But birds, including rare Hawaiian species, would and died in droves. Then "some genius" as Ward sarcastically puts it, in the Hawaiian Department of Agriculture decided, against virtually unanimous scientific advice, to try biological control, a much touted "environmentally friendly" panacea. So they introduced two predatory snail-eating snails from Florida, the most voracious of which was Euglandina rosea. Alas, just as the scientists had predicted, the introduced predators preferred the native Hawaiian snails to the African giant snails and ate them instead, resulting in no impact on the African snail plague but the rapid extinction of almost all the remaining Hawaiian species. So – unbelievable but true! - the Hawaiian Agriculture Department announced to the world that the introduced predatory snails had worked, with the result that they were rapidly introduced to other Pacific islands plagued by introduced African giant snails. In 1977, for example, the French Government introduced the wretched Euglandina to Moorea, one of the Tahitian islands. Three American scientists studied the results. In 1977, Moorea had a dozen unique species of land snail, found nowhere else on Earth. By 1987, all of these species were extinct. The African giant snail is still a pest on Moorea. The French agri-bureaucrats, nothing daunted, went on to introduce Euglandina to the rest of the Tahitian islands. The result is that a number of unique snail species became extinct in the wild, and some of them now survive – as Ward does not mention but a BBC Horizon programme on the same debacle recently revealed - only in plastic Tupperware boxes in several British and American universities. Some species are down to their last box…
The same woeful tale of destruction, specifically on the Galapagos Islands emerges from Edward J. Larson’s Evolution’s Workshop. The indigenous fauna of these islands is of unique interest and scientific importance, as this book amply reveals. The finch species, for example, greatly stimulated Charles Darwin’s thinking out of the principles of biological evolution. The giant tortoises (after the Spanish word for which the islands are named), iguanas and flightless cormorants are likewise unique. All of which meant that, to the usual afflictions of foraging by passing sailors and infestation by goats, pigs, rats and cats, were added plundering by "scientific" expeditions. One California Academy of Sciences expedition around the turn of the 20th Century, for example, returned with "264 living, dead or dying" giant tortoises loaded onto one ship, as museums across America and Europe competed to procure "specimens" regardless of their effect upon the species thus "studied". Another CAS expedition of the time returned with the skins and eggs of no less than 10,000 Galapagos birds. Walter Rothschild, of the international financial dynasty, despatched an expedition with instructions to kill and bring back "at least 50" birds of every species or suspected species (identified by "the slightest difference in bill or size"). He also amassed a huge collection of dead and living giant tortoises at Tring Park, his Hertfordshire mansion. In 1932 Rothschild sold his collection of 280,000 dead birds’ skins for a dollar a bird to the American Museum of Natural History. He apparently needed the money to pay off a blackmailer who was threatening to expose sundry sordid sexual aspects of his distinctly unsavoury private life.
However, by the 1960’s it did look as though the surviving Galapagos wildlife might at last be protected. Sadly, no. Larson gives an excellent and thoroughly depressing account of how that has all fallen apart thanks to a flood of immigrants from Ecuador, which on somewhat tenuous grounds has grabbed the islands, and the venality, greed and corruption of the Ecuadorian politics they brought with them. Assisted by that bane of conservation efforts in recent times – the bizarre, primitive and baseless fetish of Chinese traditional medicine, otherwise in many areas admirable and worthy, for consuming bits of the anatomy of endangered species – rhino horn, tiger livers and, in this case, Galapagos sea cucumbers. The sordid saga involved corrupt populist Islands congressman Eduardo Veliz (isn’t democracy wonderful?) and riots by his constituents, pepineros (sea cucumber fishermen) demanding the right to ignore conservation laws and strip-mine the seabed for creatures looking like pickled gherkins and tasting worse. Creatures the Chinese will buy at exorbitant rates because they are the shape of a male member and thus appeal to a primitive magic worthy of bone-in-nose jungle savages rather than the heirs of one of the World’s oldest civilizations. Twice in 1995 armed mobs of pepineros occupied UNESCO’s Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos, chanting, apropos of the last survivor of one of the islands’ races of giant tortoise housed there "Kill Lonesome George!" Then Ecuador had one of its periodic coups, Congressman Veliz had to flee the country, and a "New Law" restricting immigration to the islands and tightening conservation regulations was introduced. Alas, immigrants have continued to flood into the islands illegally. By 2000, after more riots, attacks on National Park facilities and another mob occupation of Darwin Station accompanied by threats to slaughter the animals kept there (either for research and to recover from injuries etc.), plus the threats and bribes which are the common currency of Third World politics, the New Law was a dead letter. The human population continues to rise, squatter slums are spreading across the main islands, overfishing of the seas around the islands is rife, fire ants are the latest introduced species to assail the crumbling ecology and a rusty old tanker bringing oil to the increasingly urbanised islands crashed into a reef and dumped oil into the ecosystem (fortunately the civilized nations – sorry, UNESCO! – managed to clean up the spill before too much harm was done, this time). Additionally, the islands are being trampled by over 60,000 – mostly American – tourists a year, many of whom come for the surfing and the cheap bars in the island capital rather than to see the wonders of the islands while they still exist. Yet another human-borne environmental disaster seems inevitable. All the more tragic because, as Larson ably demonstrates, the Galapagos Islands played a particularly important role in the development of evolutionary biology over the last 200 years and still could have much more to teach us – if they survive.
Professor Ward opens his own book with a similar sordid tale of Third World corruption and stupidity, this time in the Philippines. Where coral reefs have been destroyed when local fishermen were taught by the Filipino Government in the 1970’s to fish with sticks of dynamite thrown into the sea. Catches shot up at first. Then the fishermen found that the coral reefs they were wrecking in the process were in fact the breeding grounds for the fish they were catching, and indeed for much marine life around their islands. By the 1990’s fishing yields had halved from pre-dynamite levels. The population, dependent on fish for most of their dietary protein, had meanwhile doubled (the population of the Philippines as a whole doubles every 26 years!) The Government banned dynamite. But the reefs are not being left alone to recover, since starving fishermen keep raiding them to catch any and all surviving fish. The result is to turn one of the world’s most beautiful and diverse ecosystems into an underwater desert. Oh, and the seabirds there have been largely wiped out by DDT runoff from rice paddies, and the waters around the islands are full of heavy-metal runoff from mines. Wood describes how he was brought by Dr Alcala, a distinguished Filipino biologist, to the one island where the reef was expected to be safe, since a marine nature reserve had saved it from dynamiting. Only to find it swarming with illegal squatters, driven by hunger to invade, fish out and ruin the last reserve. Wood continues "During my two weeks on Negros" (the Philippine island he had been based on) "I had been amazed at the sea of humanity lining the shores. Small huts paved the lowlands, stopping only at the high-tide line of the sea. The roads and beaches were awash in children; crying, laughing, playing as all children do, but children tiny and bony, children hungry in a land that once boasted an abundance of food. That wealth of food is now largely gone; the rich highland rain forests once lining the island have been logged and exported to far shores. The once-lush lowland forests have been burned, replaced by rice fields on now exhausted soil. The loss of the forests brought about the disappearance of native animals and plants that had served as food for the Filipinos for thousands of years. The ancient, twin horns of cornucopia, the Philippine forest and sea, are now empty places of little diversity, places filled only with weeds."
Wood goes on to observe that mass extinctions have always been worst in the tropics. But the professors who taught him this in graduate school "had been speaking of past mass extinctions, never dreaming even two decades ago what 5 billion hungry humans were capable of doing to the Earth’s biota". What they are doing he chronicles in depressing details. Species are now becoming extinct faster than scientists can describe them. According to Professor Edward O. Wilson, 27,000 species a year are becoming extinct in the tropical rain forests Wood cites other depressing statistics and forecasts. None of which have got any better since he wrote his words in 1995. In August 2001, addressing the Annual Meeting of the Society for Conservation Biology in Hilo, Hawaii, Professor Robert M. May of Oxford University, the zoologist who is President of the Royal Society and who was until 2000 the British Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, informed his audience that the extinction rate – the rate at which species vanish – has accelerated during the last 100 years to be now approximately one thousand times higher than the rate before modern humans appeared. All the evidence goes to suggest, Professor May went on "a speeding up by a further factor of 10 over the next century or so…and that puts us squarely on the breaking edge of the next great wave of extinction in the history of life on Earth."
The impending acceleration of extinction rates, added to the extinctions that have occurred already since modern humans began to spread across the globe, makes the Third mass extinction Event threaten to be even worse than the Second that finished off the dinosaurs. Worse still, as Wood warns "One final and great difference exists between the Third Event and previous mass extinctions: this is the first known extinction in which large numbers of plant species are going extinct….The current and impending extinction of plants thus renders the Third Event unique, and ultimately very frightening. When plants go extinct, animal species soon follow."
The situation, as Wood points out, is steadily getting worse, and will get much worse still. The primary cause of the Third Event is people, and there are more of them every year. The human population will peak about 2100 at between 10 and 15 billion, two or three times the present level. That assumes it does peak at all, which depends on Third World population growth starting to slow as First World population did – probably due to higher living standards and better availability of contraception, both of which are very problematic as far as the Third World in the 21st Century are concerned. But even if it only doubles or trebles, the effects will, as Wood points out, lead to disaster beyond all that has gone before. He explains "The effect of all these people on the earth’s biota can be described using another set of numbers. Biologists have defined a measure of our planet’s productivity, called net primary production, or NPP. This is an estimate of the amount of energy that green plants bind into living tissue through photosynthesis, minus the amount of energy the plants use to fuel their own life processes." Humans currently directly use 3% of the global NPP directly as food, firewood, or feed for livestock. "But these direct consumptions of NPP pale compared to indirect usage. If land clearing, those parts of plants grown but not eaten by humans, and the parts of pastures maintained but not directly consumed by livestock also are taken into account, it turns out that humanity is currently co-opting 30% of the NPP. By the middle of (this) century, this may rise to 80%, based on even conservative population estimates. Our planet cannot withstand such numbers.
This is a nightmare scenario already without, as Wood goes on to point out, taking into account climate change due to global warming – which it is now already too late to prevent, though sufficiently decisive measures, which show no sign of being contemplated, let alone implemented – deforestation for firewood – the main fuel for many of the Third World billions – and soil erosion and desertification due to overgrazing and land exhaustion. And the ozone hole, and pollution, and so on…. No wonder Professor May, Britain’s greatest living scientist, gloomily predicts "a grievously simplified world – the world of the cult movie Blade Runner". Which he hoped – but was far from sure - "can be so run that we can survive in it". Even if population was controlled, to lift the Third World out of poverty to anything like the Western standard of living they can see on television and want would place unsustainable demands on the biosphere. More likely they will drag us down to their level, creating a polluted, overcrowded global slum scrabbled and fought over by illiterate starving dirt farmers scrabbling the last ounce of food out of an increasingly exhausted and desertified soil. As the top tier of the biosphere steadily breaks under the weight of their numbers and collapses around them. Once that happens, it will probably be too late for us as a species.
For the likelihood is, as Wood fears, that humans will breed and breed until they eat the Earth bare and barren like a planet-wide plague of locusts. Reading his book leads inexorably to the conclusion that, for the rest of the living world (with the possible exception of rats, goats and the like) humanity is simply vermin, a vicious, destructive pest species which has spread like a plague across the planet over the last fifty millennia, slaughtering, spoiling and ruining everything, destroying a beauty and a magnificence of which it cannot hope to create the equal, for no end nobler than that which actuates the locusts in a swarm – the instinctive, unthinking, inborn instinct to feed and breed.
A desire we may sentimentalise, as Wood does, when he seeks to explain what he can scarcely excuse. He asks what he would do is under way, it will not simply kill off a few pretty and interesting species. It will culminate, as the First and Second Events did, in the total collapse of the upper levels of the entire biosphere, the entire living world. The web of life that keeps us all alive will seriously unravel, trophic webs and pyramids on which our species depends to live will collapse under us. Most living creatures will die, the world will for a while become almost uninhabitable. The effects of ecological collapse were before, and will if that is what is under way now be again, far, far worse than those of an all-out global thermonuclear war. The seas will stink and the continents turn to deserts. Most species alive, certainly most of the species bigger than a cat, will perish. Including our own.
Something will survive, of course, as it did before. After the latest winter of life, another spring. Ten million or so years after the previous Events, the Earth was green again, the surviving species had radiated into an empty world and evolved into fascinating and magnificent creatures. Man – as ever! – flatters himself if he thinks he can wipe out life, even vertebrate life on Earth. Rats and rabbits and cockroaches will outlive his folly, and go on to recreate the natural beauty and magnificence he destroyed. As biologist Dougal Dixon interestingly illustrates in his "Natural History of the Future", there will be, as he entitles it Life After Man. What could happen next has also been elegaically chronicled in the late American science-fiction giant Poul Anderson’s novella "In Memoriam", one of the few works of human literature which starts with the death of the last man on Earth (in a vivid depiction of what the later stages of the Third Event himself if he lived in poverty in the Third World, his son was starving, and the only way to feed him was to destroy the last member of a species of bird in the last pristine rain forest copse: "I don’t have the slightest doubt what my actions would be. To feed my son, to keep him alive, I would do whatever I had to do, including destroying the last of another species. Anyone who thinks he or she might do otherwise is probably not a parent. There are a great number of parents currently on the earth, and many more on the way." Behaving exactly as parents among rats behave, putting their own offspring first regardless of the consequences – rats can’t wax lyrical about the process, but there is no difference.
For there is no difference between Man and any other species, save in his own eyes (and doubtless the snail darter would proclaim itself Lord of Creation if it could!) We are, as Nietzsche long ago saw, part of nature, subject to its laws, enjoying no special exemption from the consequences of our own actions. If we saw off the ecological branch upon which we are sitting, we will become just as extinct as the Carolina parakeet. We may delude ourselves that some outside power will save us, some God imagined in our own image. With various odd results detailed, in so far as they apply to his subject, by Larson in Evolution’s Workshop. Including the delicious irony that schoolchildren on the Galapagos, birthplace of the great Darwinian insight into evolution, are themselves taught Creationism at the islands’ principal school, run by the crank American "Seventh Day Adventist" sect. Whilst others – driven presumably by a desperate need to believe in something, anything, better than the sordid mess that is the human species – try to infer God from his evolutionary works. Larson quotes philosopher of science David Hull: "What kind of God can one infer from the sort of phenomena epitomised by the species on Darwin’s Gaslapagos Islands?" he asks. "The evolutionary process is rife with happenstance, contingency, incredible waste, death and horror. Whatever the God implied by evolutionary theory or the data of natural history may be like, He is not the Protestant God of waste not, want not. He is also not a loving God who cares about his productions. He is not even the awful God portrayed in the Book of Job. The God of the Galapagos is careless, wasteful, indifferent, almost diabolical. He is certainly not the kind of God to whom anyone would be inclined to pray." Of course, no God at all is implied by evolutionary theory or the data of natural history. What is implied is Nature, which is an aspect of the physical Universe, obedient to blind impersonal laws and which does not care at all, about us - as individuals or as a species. There is no scientific evidence at all that there is a God, and if there were some Mind behind physical reality it is probably unconcerned with Humanity and quite beyond human comprehension. Charles Darwin himself was wiser: "I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope & believe what he can". It almost certainly doesn’t matter anyway. There is actually no evidence to suggest that there is anything beyond ourselves it is any practical use to hope and believe in. We are on our own in the mess we have made.
We are in a very serious mess indeed. If Wood and the scientists he cites are right, we are in the early stages of a mass extinction event on a scale only seen twice before in the history of our planet. There is much worse to come. As Wood warns "The onset of the Third Event has long been under way. Yet all that has died to date may be but a prelude to the grim age of death that is about to begin."
An age grim indeed. There is a tendency, even amongst those who genuinely and passionately care about "environmental issues" to see it as essentially an aesthetic, or at most a moral, issue. Saving the last tigers, the last whales, the last rain forests, because they are beautiful and we have no "right" to destroy them. True, but not the real issue. The real issue is one of simple survival for our own species. If a Third mass extinction Event will be like to live through – or fail to) and goes on from there to chronicle the future history of Earth until and even beyond the Final Event, when the gradually ever hotter Sun wipes out life altogether on our world a thousand million years hence. But no human will see the rebirth of Nature after the Third Event. We will have perished utterly, and with us all that we might have been, leaving as Anderson reminds us, only a few works of human hands. Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyagers 1 and 2, and maybe a few more if we send any more probes out of the Solar System, to float forever among the stars. Stars whose silence - not a signal nor a hint of one, still less the works of Mind in any way detectable - hints at what our self-inflicted extinction will further suggest: that evolving intelligence is an evolutionary mistake, a wrong turning leading to inevitable extinction.
A prospect of despair. Yet hope there may be – indeed, it is the title of Professor Wood’s final chapter. Not the straws he grasps at therein though: the 1992 Rio Environmental Summit, which led to Kyoto and a Climate Change Treaty which would have been too little, too late even had not the world’s biggest economy, the USA, arrogantly announced that it was not going to ratify or adhere to it. Nothing remotely adequate or effective will be done until the crisis is hitting the consumer herds of the West in the face, until disaster and dieback are impossible to deny. With luck that will not yet be the final, unstoppable collapse into our own and lots of other species’ extinction. As usual with the populace of democracies, having done nothing to avert it until disaster is upon them, they will then panic. They will be driven by fear and desperation to those who offer drastic remedies. With more luck – a lot of luck is needed, but not beyond hope – to those who offer the right drastic remedies. It would as yet be imprudent to spell such remedies out in any detail. But a hint for you, Gentle Reader, may be in order. The root of the problem is people – far too many people….
By good luck we may halt the progress of the Third Event. For a while. If we are to avert it altogether, we need to go further. To follow the signpost set up for us by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche over a hundred years ago. The root of all our problem is that we are, as he put it, Human, all too Human. It is our humanity, in all senses of the word, that is the root of our problems, that has got us into the mess Professor Wood so vividly shows us we are in. Our greed, folly, stupidity, short-sightedness, weakness. We must transcend that in the long term. In the short term, if we are to survive, we shall have to set aside our humanity also in the sense of common humanity, or humaneness, of sentimental concern for the teeming breeding billions of our species who are wrecking the world and will, if we let them, kill us all. They themselves will certainly all die anyway, whether or not we let them drag us down with them.
Humanity is in its present self-destructive rush to self-immolation because it is not a finished product, made in anyone’s image. It is a Work in Progress, shaped on the potter’s wheel of biological evolution. Selected to overcome the last crisis – we are the best Pleistocene hunter-gatherers on the planet. Pity it isn’t the Pleistocene, pity we hunted almost all the big animals to death and gathered the whole planet to feed thousands of times more of us than there were when we evolved. In blind, disastrous fulfilment of the very imperatives honed by evolution to cause us to survive in the past, but which are now purest folly and greed. What Darwinian evolution cannot do is see into the future, select for survival in the next crisis. It is the sole biological justification of Intelligence that it can. As Nietzsche saw, it must. We must now consciously shape our own evolutionary destiny to fit ourselves for the future, to make ourselves not pests upon but the wardens and guardians of the living Earth.
There is, as Professor Wood and other more far-sighted and knowledgeable humans clearly show us, nothing at all to be proud of in our humanity. Instead of wallowing in that dubious state, we must seek to transcend it. For humans as we are now are and always will be a menace to the planet. Even if in desperation we are driven, and by good fortune made able, to stave off disaster for a while, human nature will ensure that we make the same mistakes again, and blind chance will ensure that we are not always lucky. The Third Event will be waiting for the time when our luck runs out. One way or another, humanity will perish in that Third Event. Either by extinction or self-transfiguration. Only Nietzsche’s Superman, the next evolutionary step beyond ourselves, can hope to survive the disaster we have brought upon ourselves.
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