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Can Humans Survive Mass Extinction?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Threats that could wipe out the bulk of life on earth abound. Planetary catastrophe could come in the form of a killer asteroid impact, the eruption of massive supervolcanoes, a nearby gamma ray burst that sterilizes the earth, or by human-driven environmental collapse.

Yet life will endure, says Annalee Newitz, and so will humanity.  In her new book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, Newitz surveys billions of years of history and five previous mass extinctions to draw lessons about how catastrophe comes and how – and why – life abides.

The breadth of the book is truly astounding, ranging from the planet’s first mass extinction – as cyanobacteria exhaled massive amounts of oxygen into the Earth’s atmosphere, poisoning most other life even as they paved the way for the ecosystem we see today – to the techniques that grey whales, Jewish communities, and plague survivors have used to ensure their survival. In between we see the Earth freeze over then then thaw again. We watch as dinosaurs rise and fall, mammals come to dominate the world, and primates evolve into hominids and eventually modern humanity with all its varied challenges. The scale starts at billions of years, then zooms down to millions, then thousands, and then into the present day, before zipping ahead into the future.

Newitz came to this topic with a pessimistic outlook, she writes, believing that humanity was doomed, and intent on producing a book with that slant. Yet her research convinced her that the opposite is true – that while global risks abound, and while we humans ourselves are potentially the greatest threat to both our own species and other life on Earth – we will nevertheless (probably) find ways to survive and bounce back from even the worse catastrophes.

In the introduction she tells us that disaster, whether human created or not, is inevitable – but doom is not.   How can she believe this?  In her words:

Because the world has been almost completely destroyed half a dozen times. [..] Earth has been shattered by asteroid impacts, choked by extreme greenhouse gases, locked up in ice, bombarded with cosmic radiation, and ripped open by megavolcanoes so massive they are almost unimaginable.  Each of these disasters caused mass extinctions, during which more than 75% of the species on Earth died out.  And yet every single time, living creatures carried on, adapting to survive under the harshest of conditions.

Humans, Newitz says, have also adapted: to past episodes of climate change, to new locales, to new diets, and to persecution at the hands of other humans. That repeated pattern of survival and adaptation – of life as a whole and of humanity in particular – convinces Newitz that we can do it again.

That optimistic theme makes the book a delightfully fun and engaging read. 263 pages crammed full of ecosystem collapse, extinctions, pandemics, wars, and existential threats would, in the hands of another writer, been a bleak and exhausting affair.  Instead, it’s a witty whirlwind tour of survival and renewal even in the face of horrific calamity.

Newitz is the editor in chief of the science and science fiction site io9.com, and it shows.  Not content to look only at the past, she sprinkles the text with the forward-looking views of some of the world’s most insightful science fiction authors (along with a dash of pop culture), and closes the book with a glimpse of the million year future – the necessity that humanity diversifies beyond this one planet and moves some of its eggs out of this single fragile basket if we want to maximize our odds of truly long-term survival.

Newitz’s work at io9 is also on display in the pace of the book.  Each chapter reads like an extended article, often on a topic about which whole books have been written.  That brevity means that scientific controversies cannot be handled at length, though Newitz does take care to state where such controversies exist, and to sketch out the opposing viewpoints. My only frustration as a reader was in frequently wanting to pause the book and drill down deeper into the topic at hand, with a longer chapter than the one I’d just read, rather than moving on to a new topic post-haste.  The flip side is that the book never wears out its welcome.  Upon turning the final page, I only wanted more.

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz, Doubleday.

 

Ramez Naam About the Author: Ramez Naam is a computer scientist and award-winning author. He believes innovation can save the planet and lift billions into prosperity, but only if we make the right choices to embrace it. His next non-fiction book, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, lays out the path to harnessing innovation to maximize our odds of overcoming climate change, finite fossil fuels, and the host of other environmental and natural resource challenges that face us. He blogs at rameznaam.com. Follow on Twitter @ramez.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 31 Comments

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  1. 1. rshoff 1:04 pm 05/31/2013

    Oh, I don’t know. What do you call ‘mass extinction’. Sounds nebulous to me. And of course it’s easy to predict humans will survive, because if we didn’t survive there’d be no one left to realize the author was wrong.

    I guarantee that the earth will not be destroyed today!

    As far as the term ‘mass extinction’, if we were to survive even in small numbers it wouldn’t meet the definition of ‘extinction’.

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  2. 2. Scienceisnotagenda 1:31 pm 05/31/2013

    ‘Mammals to dominate’….huh?…all rather elementary schooling. Fuzzy misunderstanding of biology and Eco niches. Broad strokes of even broader generalizations.

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  3. 3. Scienceisnotagenda 1:35 pm 05/31/2013

    Rshoff…true..a species is either extinct or it isn’t. It,s akin to being ‘a bit pregnant’.

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  4. 4. RamezNaam 1:47 pm 05/31/2013

    The term “mass extinction” here is used to refer to a “mass extinction event” – an event in which 75% or more of species go extinct, not one in which humanity goes extinct.

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  5. 5. M Tucker 1:49 pm 05/31/2013

    “And yet every single time, living creatures carried on, adapting to survive under the harshest of conditions.”

    Yes but the survivors were not necessarily those creatures we are the most similar to.

    “Humans, Newitz says, have also adapted: to past episodes of climate change, to new locales, to new diets, and to persecution at the hands of other humans. That repeated pattern of survival and adaptation – of life as a whole and of humanity in particular – convinces Newitz that we can do it again.”

    Yeah but humans were not around when the Earth froze over or when a gamma ray burst destroyed life or when a massive fissure eruption ended 75% of life on the planet or when a massive asteroid crashed into our blue marble. Modern humans are a long way from our ancestors who developed during and survived the previous ice ages. Most of us have lost our ability to live by Stone Age technology. Most of use could not take wheat from the field and fashion it into food. Most of the plants and animals we depend on are highly specialized to live in a very narrow range of climate conditions. If anyone survives a new catastrophe that could “wipe out the bulk of life on earth” it will probably be those who still live like our ancestors did. By-the-way, plague or genocidal dictators do not come close to what that asteroid did. I’m sure the book is a fun read but I am not convinced it gives any real incites into who or what might survive a 6 mile wide asteroid impact, gamma ray burst, VEI-8 volcanic eruption or 10 degrees C of average warming. What is does say is SOME life will carry on and that will be true, no matter what, until Earth is consumed by our aging sun when it grows to become a red giant.

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  6. 6. rshoff 2:37 pm 05/31/2013

    @RamezNaam – Thank you for the clarification. It’s good to know that that is the books intent. Although it would have to be an event of very narrow scope. It would have to be big enough to be destroy 75% or more of species without being so big as to destroy 100%. The event would have to fall within a narrow margin to be defined as a ‘mass extinction’. It’s pretty clear that there has never been an event that destroys 100% or we would not exist. Does the author identify the percent of past ‘catastrophic’ or destabilizing events that don’t meet the definition of a mass extinction event? I guess I’m wondering about a numerator/denominator kind of thing.

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  7. 7. RamezNaam 2:54 pm 05/31/2013

    @rshoff – Newitz talks about the many many episodes of large extinctions that have happened over Earth’s history. She uses the 75% threshold as one that’s accepted within the scientific community as the bar for a ‘mass extinction’ (and which describes the 5 largest extinction events known).

    In the book she describes the scientific consensus around a ‘background extinction rate’ and spikes in that rate that happen from time to time.

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  8. 8. RamezNaam 2:56 pm 05/31/2013

    @M Tucker – I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the book. Newitz doesn’t gloss over the terrible difficulty of dealing with such situations, but she does offer plausible ways in which humans – through a combination of our technological prowess, our adaptability, and lessons from the past – could survive our counteract even the direst possible mass extinction events. (In some cases, like a truly epic asteroid strike, she talks more about prevention than survival.)

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  9. 9. M Tucker 4:20 pm 05/31/2013

    Thanks for the comment RamezNaam @8
    “she talks more about prevention than survival”

    Preventing an asteroid impact or preventing 10 degrees C of average warming might be possible. We have shown that 19th century technology offers a solution to a “snowball Earth” cooling event. Burrowing underground to prevent the devastation from a gamma ray burst, VEI-8 eruption or a repeat of the fissure eruption that happened during the Permian might save some but moving all of humanity underground is only imaginable if one engages in comic book fiction.

    I don’t doubt the author remains optimistic, no matter what, but the reality is, and history shows that it is true, we have a very poor to failing grade in preventing catastrophe. Then we need to look at the reality we now live in. As physicist Lawrence Krauss said in a recent New York Times editorial, no one pays attention to the warnings of scientists. The opinions of corporate leaders and the business needs of corporations are now more important than public safety or the survival of humanity. These are the words of the head of one of the world’s wealthiest corporations: “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?” That was ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson from a meeting earlier this week. In other words, we cannot impose even modest hardship on “humanity” to save the planet. So if “humanity” is to suffer for the greater good, “humanity” will have to be pushed into it by suffering a calamitous catastrophe. So, no prevention is possible as the important decisions are controlled by short term economic need and not long term survival.

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  10. 10. Scienceisnotagenda 4:41 pm 05/31/2013

    Rshoff…as a geologist I can assure you that there is no known percent from the past. This type of data is speculation. We have snapshots of limited locales over x millions of years…..99% plus of ecosystems leave no fossil record and the ones we have are akin to throwing a dart at a globe.

    Large groups of plant and animal life wax and wane over long geologic periods. Events are rare….global events are educated guessing. Again, a snapshot of a few ecosystems and attempts to extrapolate global ramifications….no can do with any certainty. We ‘just don’t know’.

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  11. 11. Carlyle 6:00 pm 05/31/2013

    Well I think the speculation that humans would survive is justified. Humans occupy & have adapted to all the extremes of nature & geography. It would be different if we only occupied a small niche or did not have a large genetic pool. Of course something like a catastrophic planetary collision would not be survivable unless we had established colonies off Earth.

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  12. 12. moss boss 9:47 pm 05/31/2013

    Although I have not read the book and mildly agree with your statements, the basis of our survival may be somewhat more complex. I’ll provide the example of a dramatic die-off of pollinating bees, seen here in the US and elsewhere. Just food for thought.

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  13. 13. RamezNaam 10:11 pm 05/31/2013

    @moss boss – Newitz actually starts the book with the bee die-off as her first example of potential ecological collapse.

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  14. 14. sault 10:31 pm 05/31/2013

    Carlyle,

    We have adapted to SOME of the extremes of CURRENT :nature and geography”. Even today, while we can visit the highest mountain peaks, the deepest trenches, the coldest regions of Antarctica and other extreme locations, we cannot LIVE at these places for an extended period of time let alone be productive and / or self-sufficient too. And when you look back at history, modern human civilization hasn’t had to endure anywhere near the level of catastrophe seen in the geologic record.

    We’ll survive only if we’re smart, identify potential threats / destabilizing factors and take appropriate action. We are the only species alive capable of deflecting an incoming asteroid but we are also the only species capable of drastically altering the environment in a geologic blink of an eye too. Every step we take towards degrading the resources we depend upon for survival lowers our odds of survival.

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  15. 15. skywalker369 10:32 pm 05/31/2013

    From the perspective of the philosophy,everything,including we human beings, will be extinct eventually and inevitably!

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  16. 16. moss boss 11:09 pm 05/31/2013

    @Romez: Interesting; it was my first thought. I’ll check out the book.

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  17. 17. Owl905 1:00 am 06/1/2013

    It’s an interesting thought, but it actually goes against the grain of species that survived and thrived after extinction events. From anamalocaris to dimetrodon to t-rex … disparu. Lystrosaurus, crocodile, and the bottom-end ant … survivors.
    So be positive – without hi-tech, bio-tech, industry, or mobility – humanity could still wiggle through the extinction wicket. But be very clear – our 700 year ‘modern period’ civilization would be over. Leave the ‘thrive’ on the shelf.

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  18. 18. N a g n o s t i c 1:44 am 06/1/2013

    Leave it to sault to be hypervigilant against realistic optimism.

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  19. 19. alan6302 6:34 am 06/1/2013

    Humans will recover after the current near extinction events. Solar storm, earthquakes, genetic bomb , nuclear war ,asteroid hit and conventional war. The second genetic bomb in the 31 st century will lead to change of dominant species on earth.

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  20. 20. sault 10:17 am 06/1/2013

    Nag,

    I thought I WAS practicing realistic optimism in my post.

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  21. 21. seanosapien 10:36 am 06/1/2013

    If nuclear war doesn’t wipe our species out,humans will only truly survive the death of Earth once consciousness can become fused with computers and homo laptopitus, powered by solar energy, can be shot out to roam the Universe until that also comes to an end.

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  22. 22. ted jenkins 2:55 pm 06/2/2013

    For the asteroid scenario all you need is warning to get enough genetically-excellent males and females into far orbit. Likely the damaged earth would be more habitable than other planets, so they would return. The cosmic ray scenario simply requires deep shielded facilities. Because a solar red giant is millions of years away, we will surely be established in other solar systems if we don’t kill ourselves with nationalism and war first. Global warming is so slow that only backward areas will really suffer. Very likely we will survive.

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  23. 23. Carlyle 5:04 pm 06/2/2013

    Yes. Genetic material from a large group could also be carried. The length of time before earth was habitable again would be one of the biggest questions but even centuries would be quicker than another star system. Hopefully though we would have some self sustaining colonies on the Moon & Mars before such a disaster struck.

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  24. 24. Dr. Strangelove 9:49 pm 06/2/2013

    @ramez
    “The term “mass extinction” here is used to refer to a “mass extinction event” – an event in which 75% or more of species go extinct, not one in which humanity goes extinct.”

    Of course because humans did not exist during all those mass extinction events. How can you kill someone who doesn’t exist? If an asteroid the size of the moon hit earth today, will humans survive? Earth will be vaporized. Perhaps water vapor will evolve to intelligent beings :-)

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  25. 25. Quinn the Eskimo 10:23 pm 06/2/2013

    Sure Humans can survive! They only need one or two things:

    1. A deep shelter
    2. Don’t be at ground zero
    3. Leave Earth before the big day.

    or

    4. be on an Amtrak — they never arrive on time.

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  26. 26. Quinn the Eskimo 10:27 pm 06/2/2013

    Oh, and I’ll bet the IRS survives. They have videos to make!!!

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  27. 27. na73x 2:41 pm 06/3/2013

    I’m not so confident that the human race could survive a catastrophic mass extinction event. One has only to consider how terribly close our species came to extinction before: every human on the planet is decended from only 9 breeding pairs in the southern half of Africa – a cosmic sneeze and none of would be here comptemplating the possible. There are individuals that would give the Old College Try, but even the most “manly” Mountain Man would have extreme difficulty surviving when the entire ecosystem has collapsed. Just my $0.02 worth … before taxes.

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  28. 28. moss boss 8:33 pm 06/3/2013

    @na: You be misinterpretin’ Mitochondrial stuff.

    Nine pair of human hominids?

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  29. 29. Dr. Strangelove 9:58 pm 06/6/2013

    Newitz is too optimistic. If a gamma ray burst from collapsing star hit earth, it will destroy the ozone layer and expose us to the sun’s ultraviolet ray. That will destroy plants and agriculture, our main food supply. Not to mention skin cancer. Billions will starve to death. Yeah a few million will probably survive.

    How likely is this doomsday scenario? Astronomers put the probability of earth getting hit by a gamma ray burst this century at one in 50 million. The odds of winning in Mega Millions lottery (US) is one in 175 million. You are 3x more likely to get hit by gamma ray burst than win the lottery. The doomsday is more likely than you dying from nuclear plant accident in any given year.

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  30. 30. Donzzz 4:24 pm 06/7/2013

    Can humanity survive another 100 years should be the question. The terrorists are getting stronger every year using mankind’s own techology – nuclear weapons, cyberspace, poisons. The big question should be – will the dark side of human imagination prevail over civilization?? I hope not!!

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  31. 31. MostlyRight 11:36 am 06/22/2013

    Why be fixated on “human extinction”?
    Quite possibly, a more sturdy life form based on “artificial intelligence” could very well be the next dominant form (most probably created by humans themselves before they go extinct). This form would have no need for breathing or eating, possibly needing only a simplistic maintenance feature and a power source to carry on the the then extinct human function of ‘consciousness’ and ‘experience’.

    Just a thought… (No pun intended).

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