Are humans on the verge of extinction? Opinion piece

  • Thread starter jim mcnamara
  • Start date
  • Tags
    Extinction
In summary, the article suggests that humans are doomed to extinction because of overpopulation and resource depletion, and that our current situation is only the beginning of a long-term trend.
  • #36
PeroK said:
When you look at the arguments for these scenarios they have a familiar pattern of:

1) Human society relies on X (because it's cheaper or easier to get than Y)
2) X is running out
3) When X runs out, humanity will end

Where, actually, we have:

3) When X runs out we'll be forced to use Y instead.
So what will we use instead of food?
 
Physics news on Phys.org
  • #37
Jarvis323 said:
So what will we use instead of food?
The more fundamental point is not that such an eventually is impossible, but it is unreasonable to imagine that it is imminent just because, say, climate change is out of control. Climate change could be devastating, but it's unreasonable to imagine that the Earth will become totally uninhabitable.

And, it's not impossible that human beings become sterile, but it's unreasonable to imagine that in the next 50 years human males will become unable to produce sperm (which is what the author of the original article seems to imagine).
 
  • #38
Our DNA seems to have evolved by building a large brain and making the organism succeed by continuously modifying its own environment. As our power to modify our environment and move it away from its original equilibrium increases, and in effect the cost of doing so falls, two problems arise. First, our brains must co-operate ever closer if our DNA is to succeed, and second, we have created a race to modify the environment faster than it reacts against us. Both of these are reasons why the DNA of humankind might not be successful.
 
  • #39
Jarvis323 said:
Or maybe it's the single most important truth for all of human existence ;)
If I can't describe it, much less act on it, what good is it? It's like saying the answer to life, the universe and everything is 42. K. What do I do with that?
So what will we use instead of food?
Different food.

Also, there's no indication that there is any danger of humans no longer being able to produce enough food, much less any food.
 
Last edited:
  • #40
tech99 said:
Our DNA seems to have evolved by building a large brain and making the organism succeed by continuously modifying its own environment. As our power to modify our environment and move it away from its original equilibrium increases, and in effect the cost of doing so falls, two problems arise. First, our brains must co-operate ever closer if our DNA is to succeed, and second, we have created a race to modify the environment faster than it reacts against us. Both of these are reasons why the DNA of humankind might not be successful.
I've read this four times and can't make any sense of it.

FYI, Agent Smith was wrong. Organisms do not seek an environmental equilibrium. None of them. Not just humans.
 
  • #41
OK here is my contribution to this erudite discussion. After the doomsday device
 
  • #42
russ_watters said:
Different food.

Ok, so what is the alternative food source if all of the world's crops fail for several consecutive years?

russ_watters said:
Also, there's no indication that there is any danger of humans no longer being able to produce enough food, much less any food.

Yes there is. There have been many events in the past which would cause crops to fail worldwide. We can't say when that would happen, or whether an alternative food source will be available then, or whether some kind of food production that doesn't rely on the sun will be industrialized enough to provide new food, but we know with near certainty that it will happen.
 
Last edited:
  • #43
This discussion reminds me of the many documentations about any specific subject in astrophysics that all go along the lines:

... if the Moon wasn't as large as it is ... we wouldn't exist ...
... if Jupiter ... we wouldn't exist ...
... if Theia ... we wouldn't exist ...
... if we weren't on the outer arms of the galaxy ... we wouldn't exist ...
... if the dinosaurs ... we wouldn't exist ...
... if the magnetic shield of the Earth ... we wouldn't exist ...
...

I could go on forever. All those doomsday scenarios follow the same scheme: If <insert a catastrophe of your choice> then we would go extinct. I miss reliable facts, sound studies, or at least some likelihoods. If I compare our youth with the length of the dinosaur epoch then we will probably face hundreds of threats in the future. On the other hand, we have been incredibly successful in this short period of time. We even survived all our closest relatives. Meanwhile, we are so many, that it is unlikely that a single event will do any significant harm. If you look at the time curve of our population figures, then you will find out that even WWII with its millions of deaths is negligible.

I think this discussion needs more figures and fewer opinions. Probably including mine.
 
  • Like
Likes Klystron, Bystander, gleem and 2 others
  • #44
Jarvis323 said:
Ok, so what is the alternative food source if all of the world's crops fail for several consecutive years?
This isn't in any sort of foreseeable realm of possibility. But sure, if I didn't have any food to eat, I would die.
Jarvis323 said:
Yes there is. There have been many events in the past which would cause crops to fail worldwide.
Is this back to the "if an asteroid the size of Texas hits us we'll all die"? That's all well and good, but it isn't a readily predictable event, and isn't what this thread is about anyway.
Jarvis323 said:
We can't say when that would happen, or whether an alternative food source will be available then, or whether some kind of food production that doesn't rely on the sun will be industrialized enough to provide new food...
Right, we really can't say anything useful about what you are suggesting, so there's really no point in suggesting it.
...but we know with near certainty that it will happen.
We do? What are the parameters of that statement? Like, when the sun goes red giant? Again, this isn't a useful thing to discuss unless you make it specific, predictable and near-term. The article we're discussing says we're doomed, soon. It's not a random natural cataclysm prediction, it's a prediction [vaguely] suggesting we are currently causing our own imminent demise.

I'll also point out that your first post, the second post of the thread, was claiming/predicting a human-caused extinction, not a random, natural event.
 
  • Like
Likes jack action, PeroK and BillTre
  • #45
fresh_42 said:
I think this discussion needs more figures and fewer opinions. Probably including mine.
When you aren't the one making the prediction, there's really not much for you to do except point out that the prediction has no content. You can't point out a math error when there is no math.
 
  • #46
russ_watters said:
We do? What are the parameters of that statement? Like, when the sun goes red giant? Again, this isn't a useful thing to discuss unless you make it specific, predictable and near-term. The article we're discussing says we're doomed, soon.
Right now we're not discussing the article, you're disagreeing with my opinion that humans won't surely survive a future cataclysm. If that is irrelevant, or isn't useful to talk about, then why did you like the post about it in the first place? Is it only useful when you agree with what is said?

But anyways, the article wasn't necessarily about near term events.

As a paleontologist, I take the long view. Mammal species tend to come and go rather rapidly, appearing, flourishing and disappearing in a million years or so.

Note the author calls a million years or so rapid.
 
  • #47
russ_watters said:
I'll also point out that your first post, the second post of the thread, was claiming/predicting a human-caused extinction, not a random, natural event.
No it wasn't.
 
  • #48
Jarvis323 said:
Right now we're not discussing the article, you're disagreeing with my opinion that humans won't surely survive a future cataclysm. If that is irrelevant, or useful to talk about, then why did you like the post about it in the first place? Is it only useful when you agree with what is said?
What post was that? No, I don't agree with changing the subject.
No it wasn't.
You said:
Although we will probably cause a whole lot of other species to go extinct, and will likely transform Earth into a hellscape if we keep living like we do. And at some point Earth probably wouldn't be a livable place if we don't stop that.
That sounds like a human-caused extinction to me.
 
  • #49
russ_watters said:
What post was that? No, I don't agree with changing the subject.
Post 24.
 
  • #50
russ_watters said:
When you aren't the one making the prediction, there's really not much for you to do except point out that the prediction has no content. You can't point out a math error when there is no math.
There is a doomsday clock. I assume that it is based on at least a few facts, i.e. real threats. E.g. what's currently going on at the Ukrainian-Russian border has the potential of an uncontrolled conflict. We can calculate the expected number of casualties of an outbreak of Yellowstone or the Phlegraean Fields, too. But neither of such an event will result in a total loss.

I also think that there can be given a probability of certain cosmic events. GRB, PMO, or asteroids as big as Texas could be candidates of a total loss. If astronomers can tell how likely it is that Apophis will hit us, then they probably have estimates of the other events, too. Still better than speculating about a pandemic that affects all of us if even the plague couldn't at times when we neither had antibiotics nor reasonable hygiene.
 
  • #51
Jarvis323 said:
Post 24.
You didn't write post #24. I think it does a pretty good job of framing the issue. I find your posts vague yet suggestive (not unlike the article), which makes your points difficult for me to pin down.
 
  • #52
russ_watters said:
You didn't write post #24. I think it does a pretty good job of framing the issue. I find your posts vague yet suggestive (not unlike the article), which makes your points difficult for me to pin down.
Or maybe you have a bias.
 
  • #53
fresh_42 said:
There is a doomsday clock. I assume that it is based on at least a few facts, i.e. real threats. E.g. what's currently going on at the Ukrainian-Russian border has the potential of an uncontrolled conflict.
Sure, I guess, but the facts don't lend to a predictive model (much less consistent parameters) for setting the clock. It's entirely a tea-leaves style interpretation.
fresh_42 said:
I also think that there can be given a probability of certain cosmic events. GRB, PMO, or asteroids as big as Texas could be candidates of a total loss. If astronomers can tell how likely it is that Apophis will hit us, then they probably have estimates of the other events, too. Still better than speculating about a pandemic that affects all of us if even the plague couldn't at times when we neither had antibiotics nor reasonable hygiene.
Yes, that's true. Such things as asteroid impact frequency and magnitude are measured/modeled. Here's a laymans' article that says one of the size that killed the dinosaurs hits every 50-60 million years (historically):
https://interestingengineering.com/...of-a-huge-civilization-ending-asteroid-impact
 
  • Like
Likes fresh_42
  • #54
Jarvis323 said:
Or maybe you have a bias.
I do indeed have a bias, in favor of specificity.
 
  • Like
Likes fresh_42
  • #55
Jarvis323 said:
Note the author calls a million years or so rapid.
No one knows whether there will be human beings on Earth a million years from now. A million years in terms of human cultural and technological evolution is an unimaginable time. No one can predict what is going to happen over that timescale.

That's another reason the article is so poor. On the one hand he talks about these huge timescales and on the other he's taking about "Habitat degradation, low genetic variation and declining fertility", which are short-term issues.

You can see immediately that habitat degradation is more significant for the other life that inhabits this planet, because they cannot escape the consequences; whereas, we can adapt.

Low genetic variation without modern medicine might be disastrous, but we have medicines and are no longer dependent solely on our natural defences. Not to mention the recent advances in decoding our genetic structure and all the possibilities that opens up.

Even if declining fertitility became a serious issue, who would doubt that we would develop the capability to continue to reproduce?

My point is that the article's arguments are paper-thin to the point of being nonsensical.
 
  • Like
Likes InkTide, BillTre, russ_watters and 3 others
  • #56
I feel like any fears of low genetic variation leading to terrible outcomes for humanity are fundamentally at odds with the fact that we, as a species, have essentially erased all but the cultural and social barriers to gene transfer - we've made geographic distribution nearly irrelevant to accessing the full breadth of diversity in the human genome. That's why it's "samey"; it's mixed globally as opposed to regionally. If the "samey"-ness was an existential threat to our species there wouldn't be nearly 8 billion of us, each of whom represents new opportunities to add to that diversity through mutation. Because that's essentially what sexual reproduction evolved to do anyway.

Ironically, modern medicine raising the threshold genetic disease has to meet to remove someone from the gene pool should increase genetic diversity by increasing the number of viable mutations. Granted, that can be harmful, but it can also confer unexpected advantages (see: sickle cell anemia in the context of a hypothetical malaria pandemic) - bottom line, genetic diversity in the human population is not in any reasonable danger absent an existential threat to humanity (that isn't genetic diversity) collapsing the population.

I also find the fertility argument very poorly reasoned, especially the conjecture that being around other people is stressing out the sperm. We are a deeply social species, isolation is far more stressful than company, unless you've been made a pariah. Maybe culturally we do that too often, making a production of shame and ridicule for entertainment (because it's basically counterproductive to rehabilitation/persuasion) but I still don't think there's any merit to blaming it for lazy sperm.

There's also the whole issue of extrapolating to absurdities the current population trends, either with exponential unstoppable growth and looming extinction as it rises or looming collapse and extinction if it starts to dip. Population follows a logistics function for simple thermodynamic reasons: it takes more calories to make a child than it does to stay alive without making a child. Humans in particular have a staggering amount of caloric requirement for postnatal development because we are basically born incomplete - if we stayed in the womb any longer our massive heads would be too big to fit through the pelvis, which itself is smaller to accommodate our bizarre bipedal gait. Over time, provided no massive changes in the carrying capacity occurs (i.e. from an existential threat that isn't a misunderstanding of the basics of population dynamics), it will stabilize to around the carrying capacity. Decades ago we were in the part of the logistics function that looked exponential because we hadn't hit significant limiting factors yet, and now the primary limiting factor is simply: people will have families and expand population generally when they consider it feasible and comfortable to do so. People aren't statistical blips incapable of reacting to changes. We can evolve not just as a species, but via intelligently designed (heh - by us, of course) changes to behavior at the individual level.
 
  • Like
Likes PeroK and russ_watters
  • #57
The original article appears hobbled by anthropocentrism.

Working definition anthropocentric:
  1. regarding the human species as central.
  2. viewing and interpreting everything in terms of human experience and values.

While difficult to avoid while discussing humans, a science paper should acknowledge and attempt to mitigate bias. Altruistic social movements such as zero population growth (ZPG), arguably successful given data in this article, recognized human overpopulation as a primary social problem ostensibly causing or exacerbating related existential problems such as climate change, pollution and vital resource depletion.

An inherent shortcoming of ZPG programs becomes apparent even within a single lifetime: Who heeds the call to limit reproduction? Who ignores science to reproduce without limits?

One hopes that human colonization of space leads to social organization based on reality.
 
  • #58
"This idiot race that believes they have free will." -- Albert Einstein commenting on German involvement in World War One. He wrote that the Germans entered the war in order to make money, as their fathers and grandfathers had done.
 
  • #59
jack action said:
I don't understand where this comes from:

Birth rates seem to be higher than death rates worldwide. Plus, how is halving the population in a country considered "underpopulation". Was the world "underpopulated" 50 years ago?

Is a population decrease necessarily means an extinction? 4000 years ago, they were only a few dozen million of individuals on Earth, and nobody talks about that period as being on the verge of extinction, quite the opposite.

Finally, if a number goes down, how do we know it won't stabilize or go up again?

Trying to predict human extinction is a pointless exercise at best.
Around 70,000 years ago, humanity's global population dropped down to only a few thousand individuals, and it had major effects on our species. One theory claims that a massive supervolcano in Indonesia erupted, blackening the sky with ash, plunging Earth into an ice age, and killing off all but the hardiest humans.

https://www.businessinsider.com/genetic-bottleneck-almost-killed-humans-2016-3
 
  • Like
Likes jack action
  • #60
Before we even get to the topic, I question the author about how the numbers are calculated. We have two different method to calculate how often we have more births. One is "birth rate", which is calculated as number of births/1000 people/year. There is also the "total fertility rate", which is calculated based on the number of children women will have in their reproductive lifetime. I do not like how the author uses birth rate, since birth rate can decrease by population aging (old women have slim chance of fertility). Although the latter calculation has its own flaws (e.g. it has its own assumptions), I would rather have the author use the total fertility rate. That's a bit nitpicky point, but I'd rather use numbers that better describe a situation.

Anyhow, I'm going to speculate as much as the article in the OP did, but I don't think the author spends enough time understanding at what circumstances do the total fertility rate (TFR) drops. Almost all developed nations experience low TFR while developing nations experience the opposite. So that's what we would need to understand first. Decline of TFR is determined (although correlatively and not casually) by how developed the nation is. The social psychology behind this is still unknown, but we do have a way to dig down further on this.

Since it takes a man and a women to reproduce, to maintain a population, at least 2 children must be made in lifetime. When we look at developed nation that experience TFR below 2, it's not that married couples don't make enough children. In most countries on average, married couples maintain somewhere around average TFR of 2 over the span of 40 years at least. So if you are going to talk about extinction, as long as people get married, it's not much of a problem.

The real reason for low TFR is mainly the lack of marriage itself. So the author is wrong about economic/financial reasons for people not making children. The actual reason is that they don't even want to get married in the first place (and then you could make a case for economic reasons why people are not getting married). If we are going to talk about declining birth rate or TFR, we should instead be asking about why marriage is on a decline.
 

Suggested for: Are humans on the verge of extinction? Opinion piece

Replies
14
Views
329
Replies
7
Views
1K
Replies
11
Views
475
Replies
16
Views
3K
Replies
43
Views
2K
Replies
1
Views
858
Back
Top