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Friday, March 7, 2014

The Sixth Extinction

A great extinction is an event in which 70% or so of existing species are wiped out in a relatively short period of time as recorded in fossil remains in rock layers and analysis of DNA from bones and other biological material. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert is a series of stories of the author who with other scientists (geologists, archeologists, and biologists) discover evidence for the five great extinctions and many more minor ones. They do this through archeological digs, analysis of rock layers, and review of evolutionary data, and hikes through tropical forests. The last well-know one was the Crustacean extinction when the great lizards were wiped out and mammals began their ascendency.

More, she with her colleagues are collecting evidence of a sixth great extinction in which we are already participating and that could well include our own species.

I'm not competent to review her work as a scientist. In any case she includes most of the diverse theories for the how and when of the past extinction events and also the diverse theories about the one we are now in which, following many of her colleagues, she calls the Anthropocene extinction. But as a participant of the current event, I have the following four reflections:

1. Time. In considering the geological clock, I am struck again by what a short time our species has existed. That gives me both a sense of wonder as well as great humility. The universe and the earth got along fine without us for eons and yet in such a short time we are having such a great affect--probably more than the great asteroid hit that wiped out the dinosaurs.

2. Anthropocene Age. Some want to mark its beginning with the turn from hunting and gathering to agriculture when lands became possessions to be stripped for growing or mined for extracting. Some want to mark its beginning with the industrial revolution when we began dumping tons of CO2 in the air and acid in the ocean. But in any case, human kind has radically changed the earth. Earth warming and its effects seemed to have been part of earth cycles since its birth, but the rapidity of the current warming and its resulting climate change means that large numbers of species do not have time to adapt and therefore survive--perhaps including our own.  See the films on Welcome to the Anthropocene.

3. The Symbolic capacity. Now this is something I've studied and written about for fifty years. It's at the root of my own philosophy, ethics, and politics. What is unique about homo sapiens is that we both discover and create reality through symbols, including metaphors and other figures of speech, images, models, formulas, manufactured forms by which we organize our world and bring meaning within the chaos of experience. A dimension of this capacity is self-awareness or consciousness. While this capacity has given us tremendous advantage in our evolutionary advance, Kolbert indicates "With the capacity to represent the world in signs and symbols comes the capacity to change it, which, as it happens is also the capacity to destroy it." As a constructivist in epistemology, I would go further in saying that our very capacity to know the world is identical with our capacity to change it. For better or for worse.

4. Crisis. Crisis simply means choice. We choose between a constructive or destructive path. But what often appears constructive becomes destructive and vice versa.  Or perhaps all our choices have a constructive and destructive side.  All problem-solving creates further problems. In he Smithsonian article linked above, Andrew Rivkin was quoted: "Two billion years ago, cyanobacteria oxygenated the atmosphere and powerfully disrupted life on earth. But they didn't know it. We're the first species that's become a planet scale influence and is aware of that ability. That's what distinguishes us. We can reflect and weigh probabilities, predict possible future, and make choices that can be more constructive than destructive. Perhaps. But it does mean thinking, accepting evidence, and a willingness to change, getting over denial of reality to safeguard beliefs. And in a timely way.

When I consider other public health issues that had the capacity to wipe out our species, I realize that all insights into the causes of illness were met with denial, especially by those who had an interest in the status quo: e.g. the need to wash hands of bacteria before surgery, the need to purify water in which waste was being dumped, putting scrubbers on chimneys, smoking cigarettes, vaccinations, and now dumping CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. This last one is far more dangerous. Yet there are substantial interests, rationalized by quasi-religious beliefs, to deny that climate change is being accelerated by human activity. These deniers will reject the total scientific consensus and grasp a singular experience, e.g. increased cold in the East (which is really an evidence in support of the consensus) in order to deny it.  They see it as a vast "liberal conspiracy" for what I am not sure. They are similar to, but much more dangerous than, the people who deny the moon shot, the round earth, or the existence of bacteria.

Since they seem to have the ability to block quick and resolute public policy (the kind that banned chlorofluorocarbons from widening the hole in the ozone layer), the time for adaptation, much less prevention, is shortening. Wisdom, Socrates said, is knowing that you do not know for sure. That's commendable and shows a willingness to keep asking questions of oneself. But willful ignorance for material interest or political correctness, especially if you think that you do know for sure, is downright evil. It is the cardinal or mortal sin.