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Quo Vadis Homo sapiens

06 February 2013, 09:01

It is 2013 and we’ve come such a long way since our cave-dwelling days. Of the big apes, we are without doubt the most intelligent of the lot (not always the most sensible though). Of the genus Homo, us sapiens are the only surviving species. Where are we heading?

Modern science certainly has made progress in leaps and bounds (perhaps exponentially so) in the last century.

Major advances in medicine as well as engineering (better sanitation for one) have increased our life expectancy as well as our quality of life. Interestingly enough, the comparatively short life expectancies of a century or two ago are skewed by the disproportionately high infant and childhood mortality rates of those days. If you survived those hazardous early years, you could actually reach quite a respectable old age.

I want to focus on a conundrum that we are faced with: Due to science we are living longer, but at the same time this helps fuel the world’s ever increasing population. Our current population is now over 7 billion and counting…

In a laboratory, a bacterium can be cultured on a Petri dish and it will keep on multiplying until either its food-source (agar) runs out, or an appropriate antibiotic kills it. Not to compare us with bacteria (socially speaking), but there is some degree of an analogous truth to be found here. Earth can be objectively seen as a massive Petri dish for living fauna and flora. In the wild, species size is limited mainly by the availability of food and water. We are uniquely different in that we can control to some extent various factors: Family planning, manipulation and more efficient use of foodstuffs, prevention and treatment of diseases associated with overpopulation, forecasting and protection from natural disasters etc. Despite this “buffer”, there is little doubt that overpopulation will pose a major challenge for our well being as a species in the not too distant future.

Should we survive ourselves (nuclear wars and global warming) as well as major catastrophes such as massive asteroids, the only practical (and humane) solution would be to look for other earth-like planets to settle on. Many visionaries, notably the late Carl Sagan, have realized this fact long ago. With current technology, finding earth-like planets, let alone settling there, is still in its infancy. A more realistic alternative is terraforming of nearby planets or their moons. Mars seems to be the most likely candidate being a rocky planet and not too close to the sun. Other options are some of the moons of the outer gassy planets. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terraforming 

Perhaps we have already missed the boat, so to speak. Consider all the resources being poured into warfare worldwide. Think of all the money spent to increase our comfort of living. Now contrast these two examples with the decreased funding for space exploration in the USA and elsewhere.

In the sixties we were on a “space high” with the moon missions, but since then our desire and motivation to explore further have waned. On the scale of our solar system (let alone our galaxy), we have barely dipped our human toes into the ocean so to speak. We play happily on our iGadgets and other high tech toys, but we have not managed to put a human foot on another planet yet...

Is it not imperative that we as humans broaden our narrow vision and start appreciating the bigger picture with respect to our ultimate long-term survival? We are perhaps too concerned with the economy, political and social issues. Of course they are very important issues, but they are only temporal and are relatively minor concerns with respect to the bigger picture (of us).

It is ironic that earth, which we think we are the masters of, is totally oblivious to our survival. It has witnessed many a species come and go. It has certainly been through a lot of turmoil over the past 4.5 billion years and will robustly carry on for another 4 to 5 billion years until our sun expires.

Looking at our pale blue dot from a distance out in space, nothing will be noticed should we disappear, whether quickly as in a nuclear holocaust, or slowly via climatic changes.

How we should deal with our population growth is a separate (very contentious) topic and, in my opinion, might only delay the inevitable fact that earth will not be able to contain and sustain us indefinitely. The fact that we are getting so much better at manipulating our short-term survival, will paradoxically only help us to reach that perilous point faster. Unless we want "nature to take its course" with us, we need to wake up from our slumber. It is our predicament and only we can be the solution. To quote Carl Sagan, "there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere".

Most of us will not be bearing the brunt of this future dilemma, but surely our children and their children will have to shoulder it. Perhaps, in a very small way, we can all help by getting children exited about science and at least make them aware of the urgent need for further space exploration.

It is estimated that since life emerged, over 98% of (documented) species that ever crawled, flown, slithered, swam or walked this earth, are now extinct. We are unique as a species in that we are able to realize and contemplate this sobering fact. We are also able to identify factors endangering our survival. Why is it that we are not more pro-active about this very real future emergency?

I am immensely proud to be a human and of all our achievements. Will Homo sapiens end up being a very brief entry in the chronicles of earth and this universe?

It would be an immense tragedy (from our point of view)…

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