Is this the beginning of the end – or the end of the beginning?

When Mother Nature got life started on Earth, 4.7 billion years ago, her formula was beautifully simple – she made life self-replicating according to a ‘recipe’ encoded within the cell. Her masterstroke was to make the recipe copying process almost error-proof. A very high degree of copying accuracy was needed – otherwise life would forever be a porridge of diverse primitive single cell organisms. But Mother Nature could see that some errors were necessary – so she made sure that the error protection routines (akin to our check-digit algorithms in computer-based digital data today) allowed the occasional error to pass. Replication errors produce mutations, and successful mutations are the launching pad for new species. This ‘perfect imperfection’ was the beginning of the evolutionary processes that, eventually, led to man – and who knows who or what beyond?

The essence of evolution is competition. Competition means winners and losers. Over the eons before man appeared on Earth, billions of species have come and gone. It is not something to agonize about; it is Mother Nature’s plan. In fact, to make sure that the lottery of evolution keeps working to produce winners and losers, she occasionally throws a monkey wrench into the works. Asteroid and cometary impacts, ice ages, and periods of global warming have dislodged species that had enjoyed thousands or even millions of years of evolutionary success. 

If Mother Nature has a plan, what is it? Looking at the evidence we see ever-growing diversity and complexity in life. Among life’s attributes we see intelligence on the rise.

Man has attempted to define intelligence in a way that makes us special as the only ‘intelligent species’ but intelligence is omnipresent among life forms. We mock the intelligence of birds (‘bird brains’) but we would not have all the migratory species if the first pioneers of their species had not figured out that it was a good idea to head towards the equator as winter approaches. Even plants are intelligent in the literal sense that they make intelligent decisions as their senses tell them that their environment is changing.

Intelligence is a critically important survival resource and, as such, is favored by evolution. In hindsight it was inevitable that, eventually, a sentient, technologically capable species would evolve. This was not an accident.

If man is part of Mother Nature’s plan, one’s first thought is that she must have lost her mind! We have committed so many atrocities against nature that our very existence seems to be a ghastly mistake. From our beginnings we have done what suited us best – indifferent to the harm we are doing to our fellow travelers on Earth. In part it is excusable. Does the elephant worry that, with his every step, little creatures are sent to an early grave? But what a footprint man has! We have been responsible for literally millions of extinctions – some by our selfish indifference, some by willful acts of ‘specicide’ (for example the massacre of over 50 million buffalos, motivated by a desire to damage the infrastructure of the native Americans).

Clearly, if there is to be a good outcome for Mother Nature’s experiment with our species, there must be a future for man that repays the enormous cost that our planet has paid.

Our past is regrettable but we cannot change that. The future is what counts. But the sobering reality is that there is not much ‘future’ left for our species.

I know that this kind of doomsday outlook is greeted by many with derision. What could topple man’s supremacy on Earth? Not only do we have no competition from other species, we have technology that could, in the foreseeable future, alter our environment to suit our needs. We could change climate zones to bring water to arid regions. We could defang hurricanes. And if a wandering asteroid, meteor or comet threatened to collide with Earth, we could avert the threat or, at least, reduce its effect to ensure the survival of our species. But there is a threat and it is deadly – Mother Nature set a trap!

Mother Nature was too smart to ‘go all in’ on her first effort with an intelligent species. She could not risk that her first effort might fail and be her last. She hedged her bets by setting a time limit on our reign as the dominant species. She knew that the excesses of a technological society that failed to ‘grow up’ to take responsibility for its future (and the future of its home planet) would lead to self-destruction once its population reached a critical mass. The clock is ticking – and the indications are not encouraging.

Cultural evolution (voluntary behavioral change) could still save us, because it can work at high speed. If we, ‘en masse’, were to see the folly of our current profligate, selfish ways and set a course to become future man we could pull ourselves out of our death spiral to achieve the noble future that Mother Nature intends for a worthy intelligent species.

But who is this ‘Mother Nature’ that throws the dice without fear or favor – and how can any individual influence our species destiny? The answer to the first question is that Mother Nature is a man-made term for the force (that common sense insists must have purpose) that has shaped our physical universe from the Big Bang to bring about our ‘now’. For many the preferred name for this force is God. But what is in a name? I prefer the name Mother Nature. Among my reasons are that God has been getting a lot of bad press recently (“The God Delusion”, “God is not Great”, etc.). Of course most of that bad press is to do with our religious institutions and the crimes of individuals who have secured power within those institutions. I have news for Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchins and all the ‘new atheist’ authors. God is not the problem – any more than Mother Nature is. If you are looking for a villain, I suggest looking in the mirror. As Pogo famously said ‘We have met the enemy, and it is us”.

As to the supposed futility of exhorting ‘the man in the street’ to be concerned about our species future, I ask my reader – “Who is responsible for the wellbeing of your children and grandchildren?” Is it your nation’s government? Is it the United Nations? The answer looks back at you from the mirror. You have the responsibility. Yes, it will take leadership and political systems to bring about the needed changes but all of this is driven by the will of the people. You cannot escape your responsibility by saying you are ‘just one person’.

What we are facing is an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we decide that there is no hope and we are doomed – then we ensure that outcome. If, however, we decide that we cannot allow this to happen then we have a chance. Small as that chance may be, we owe it to our children (and to Mother Nature) to take it.

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