An earlier version was published some months ago in the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW). It is reproduced here in parts because the EPW version is difficult to access due to paywall
In this possibly-terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than values to be treasured, they may well be essential to survival.
Noam Chomsky’s grimly titled book Hegemony or Survival (2003) opens with some observations of contemporary biologist Ernst Mayr, who is sometimes referred to as ‘the biological giant of the 20th century’ (Foreman 2004, 24). After proposing a very reasonable notion of a species (de Queiroz 2005), Mayr (2001) held that about 50 billion species have appeared on this planet since the origin of life. He estimated that ‘the average life expectancy of a species is about 1,00,000 years’ (Chomsky 2003, 1). Exactly one of these 50 billion species ‘achieved the kind of intelligence needed to establish a civilisation,’ Mayr notes (Chomksy 2003, 1). The civilisation-forming intelligence of this species is the topic for this essay.
From studies on sudden expansion of brain size (Striedter 2004), restructuring of the brain for emergence of language (Crow 2010), and proliferation of tools and other signs of culture, it is now estimated that the modern human species emerged roughly about 1,00,000 years ago (Tattersall 2012). Following Mayr’s statistical rule, then, the species is possibly nearing its end.
Sixth ‘intelligent’ extinction
We may hope to defy Mayr’s doomsday scenario under the impression that the human species, apparently, has remarkable control over its destiny, precisely due to the ‘kind of intelligence’ with which it is endowed. Humans may feel reassured that this kind of intelligence will ultimately devise ways, technological and otherwise, to protect the species beyond its statistical limit. Unfortunately, the hope seems to lack foundations. Mayr’s controversial estimate is not the only clue for his doomsday scenario. He proposed another perspective in which the prospect of premature extinction is in fact enhanced by the human kind of intelligence. It is just that the two scenarios seem to converge on the time left for the species.
Biologists suggest that there are two evolutionary scenarios that lead to the extinction of species. The first form of species extinction is called background extinction. This form of extinction happens due to background factors, such as low density of population, limited dispersal ability, inbreeding, successional loss of habitat, climate change, competition, predation, disease, and the like (Soulè 1996). There is considerable dispute about the life of a species undergoing inevitable background extinction. As noted, Mayr thought that species-life is as low as 1,00,000 years. Others calculate it between 1 million and 5–10 million years.
Biologists also list a second form of extinction—mass extinction—in which more than 50% of all species on earth, at a given point in time, are wiped out simultaneously due to some massive catastrophe. Biologists identify five events in the last half a billion years when such grand-scale extinction happened. The last of these—the Cretaceous—occurred when, 65 million years ago, dinosaurs and many molluscs became extinct, most probably due to the strike of a giant asteroid.
In either case, species become extinct due to what may be viewed as natural reasons that are external to the species. These occur in nature periodically due to circumstances beyond the control of the members of the species. In these cases of natural extinction on a geological scale, nothing much can be done in the long run, even if a variety of ‘intelligence’ and other favourable factors postpone the inevitable in the short run. At the current stage of knowledge, there is no definite prediction that the human species is about to become extinct due to the convergence of natural background factors or some catastrophic event, such as the striking of a giant asteroid.
The prediction, rather, is that, after a lapse of 65 million years, the conditions for another—sixth—mass extinction are rapidly maturing. The human species is most likely to disappear due to phenomena such as nuclear holocaust, massive environmental destruction, global conflict, including biological warfare, asstronomical poverty, irreversible damage to food chains, and maybe even just unavailability of potable water. The extinction of the species will most likely be caused by the suicidal behaviour of the species itself. As Chomsky puts it, we are the asteroid.
The author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014), Elizabeth Kolbert suggests in an interview (Drake 2015) that the factor of environmental degradation due to human recklessness alone has enhanced the rate of species extinction by more than 100 times the normal rate in just the last few hundred years. This is because, Kolbert argues,
We loaded the extinction rate with widespread hunting, we brought in invasive species. We are now changing the climate, very, very rapidly, by geological standards. We are changing the chemistry of all the oceans. We are changing the surface of the planet. We cut down forests, we plant mono-culture agriculture, which is not good for a lot of species. We’re overfishing. (Drake 2015).
The list goes on and on. To emphasise, Kolbert’s picture only includes extinction of other species triggering mass extinction. To this picture, we need to add factors like nuclear holocaust, global war, dislocation of food chains, massive famines, depletion of potable water, and the like, which more directly relate to the extinction of the human species itself.
Significantly, each of these doomsday scenarios is critically linked to the species’ unique endowment of the ‘kind of intelligence needed to establish a civilisation’ (Chomsky 2003, 1). No other species remotely has the ability to change the chemistry of the planet, and pollute much of the potable water on earth, by its own diligent effort in just a few hundred years, not to mention the ability to construct weapons of mass destruction, to which we will return.
As Mayr pointed out, there is no evidence that nature prefers intelligence over stupidity: beetles and bacteria, for example, are vastly more successful than the great apes, not to mention humans, in terms of survival. Looking at humans through this long lens of evolution, it could well be, Chomsky holds, that humans were a kind of ‘biological’ error, using their allotted 1,00,000 years to destroy themselves and much else in the process with ‘cold and calculated savagery’ (2003, 2).
The centrality of the notions of intelligence and stupidity brings the topic of the imminent extinction of the species within the broad domain of education. Hence, the title of this essay.
(To be Continued)