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Can Humans Survive Mass Extinction?

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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.

 

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

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