Extinction is Not in Our Genes, But Misery Might Be
Peter Ward: Not going extinct doesn’t mean you’re not going to be miserable, and by misery I mean, wholesale, enormous human mortality.
Peter Ward has been active in Paleontology, Biology, and more recently, Astrobiology for more than 40 years. Since his Ph.D. in 1976, Ward has published more than 140 scientific papers dealing with paleontological, zoological, and astronomical topics.
He is an acknowledged world expert on mass extinctions and the role of extraterrestrial impacts on Earth. Ward was the Principal Investigator of the University of Washington node of the NASA Astrobiology Institute from 2001-2006, and in that capacity led a team of over 40 scientists and students. His career was profiled by the Pulitzer Prize winning reporter William Dietrich in The Seattle Times article "Prophet, Populist, Poet of Science."
Peter has written a memoir of his research on the Nautilus for Nautilus magazine's "Ingenious" feature entitled "Nautilus and me. My wonderful, dangerous life with the amazing Nautilus."
His books include the best-selling "Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe" (co-author Donald Brownlee, 2000), "Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future" (2007), and "The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive?" (2009).
I think we’re going to survive. I don’t think climate change can make us go extinct, unless we produce so much Co2 in the atmosphere that we shut down the conveyor belt currents. These are the largest scale currents in the ocean. They are from the surface to the bottom currents, not just sideways currents. The current conveyor that takes oxygen from the top and takes it to the bottom - if we lose that, then the bottoms of the ocean go anoxic and you start down this road toward what we call a greenhouse extinction, which is the hydrogen sulfide events. It would take tens of thousands of years to get to that.
We as a species have only been around for a couple of hundred thousand years. The average mammal lasts 5 million years. Are we anything less than average? We should have a few million years left even if we’re average, and we’re not average. We could be living fossils that last 500 million years. There’s nothing genetically within us that says we have to go extinct. Unfortunately, I have these genes in me that are going to kill me and everyone else too. But as a species we don’t have those genes. Species don’t age out of existence, species are killed off, lose competition, they go extinct because they’re driven to extinction. It’s not inherent. It’s not within them.
So if we keep track of Mother Earth and do some good engineering then we’re not going to go extinct. But extinction and misery are two different things. Not going extinct doesn’t mean you’re not going to be miserable, and by misery I mean, wholesale, enormous human mortality.
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