If Humans Going Extinct in a Million Years is "Good," Is Us Going Extinct in Ten Years "Better"?

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At the Overcoming Bias blog, George Mason University economist Robin Hanson writes an item entitled "Nature Endorses Human Extinction." In it he cites an interesting observation in a Nature review of Michael Novacek's Terra: Our 100-Million-Year-Old Ecosystem—and the Threats that Now Put it at Risk. To wit:

In the latest Nature, Chris Thomas says:

This year the baiji river dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer), a victim of the pollution and boat traffic of China's Yangtze river, was added to the list of creatures on the verge of extinction. Is this part of the sixth mass extinction in 450 million years, or does the recent spate of losses caused by humans represent a blip in the history of life on Earth? Michael Novacek's Terra takes stock of the situation and provides an opportunity to learn from the past. …

Of course, we shall solve some of these issues with technological fixes. Yet if we maintain 9 billion avaricious people on Earth for the next millennium, a sixth extinction event seems inevitable. The geological perspective of Terra is bizarrely reassuring. Humans will presumably be gone within a few million years, perhaps sooner. If the past that Novacek describes is a guide to the future, global ecosystem processes will be restored some tens of thousands to a million years after our demise, and new forms of life over the ensuing millions of years will exploit the denuded planet we leave behind. Thirty million years on, things will be back to normal, albeit a very different `normal' from before. It is good to be optimistic. The problem is living here in the meantime.

Thomas is "optimistic" that humans and any descendants with a remotely similar population or resource-intensive technology will be extinct in a million years. Yet if a plague, for example, were to produce this outcome within the next ten years, I'm pretty sure most everyone would see this as a catastrophe of the highest possible order. So how does this become a good thing if it happens in the next million years?

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  1. …because a human extinction in 10 years would require billions of people to die horrible, premature deaths, while a human extinction in 10 million years could happen just through healthy people living long lives but reproducing below the replacement rate?

  2. The planet is fine. The PEOPLE are fucked.

    Compared to the people, the planet is doing great. Been here four and a half billion years. Did you ever think about the arithmetic? The planet has been here four and a half billion years. We’ve been here, what, a hundred thousand? Maybe two hundred thousand? And we’ve only been engaged in heavy industry for a little over two hundred years. Two hundred years versus four and a half billion. And we have the CONCEIT to think that somehow we’re a threat? That somehow we’re gonna put in jeopardy this beautiful little blue-green ball that’s just a-floatin’ around the sun?

    The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through all kinds of things worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles…hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worlwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages…And we think some plastic bags, and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE are!

    We’re going away. Pack your shit, folks. We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Thank God for that. Maybe a little styrofoam. Maybe. The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas. A surface nuisance.

  3. Because in 10 million years it will happen to someone else.

    Kind of like someone else falling down is funny, but when it happens to me, not so much.

  4. Hopefully before another million years are up our descendants will have terraformed, colonized, and industrialized other planets.

    Take THAT Greenies!

  5. apres moi, the deluge.

  6. Eh, whatever. In a million year’s we’ll all be trolling joe v.8371xq3 on the hypernet while moving stars in our spare time.

  7. As long as we’re stuck on earth, we’re susceptible to planet wide disasters. If we manage to populate some other rocks we should be good till the death of the sun. If we can make it to other stars, we should be good for a long long time.

  8. On a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.

  9. Chris Thomas, for one, welcomes his new baiji river dolphin overlords.

  10. in 10 million years humans will have inbred with the emerging race of superintelligent racoons to such a degree that the word ‘human’ will sound like a quaint throwback a la cromagnons

    They will be known as the “hairless times”

    This is before the Great War between the dolphins and the chimps. and the Quebecois. It turns out they really are a different species

  11. …as a semi-serious side note = humans are by nature Eschatologically inclined, secular or no. There’s always someone convinced we’re all going to die, and that it’s probably a good thing anyway.

  12. Getting to other stars is going to be hard (like, “it will probably be at least a thousand years before we can do it”-hard), but we can probably begin terraforming other planets before then. I wouldn’t put the survival odds of Homo Sapien too high, but if we can begin colonizing on other planets before the next extinction event, we should be good to go until ol’ Sol decides to start expanding and eating up the inner planets.

  13. Gilmore,

    Well wrt to the Quebecois, obviously.

    Our new overlords though will be tyrannical Sea Otters, not raccoons.
    They go around chopping down trees for tables, when they have perfectly good tummies to eat on. How logical is that?!

  14. BTW, that “a least a thousand years” is a random guess that could just as easily be “a million years” or “never”. I’m just saying that the odds of it happening before that is almost nil.

  15. Marcvs | November 19, 2007, 4:17pm | #

    Getting to other stars is going to be hard

    You know, it’s negative nancies like you I want out of my organization. I want CAN DO types responsible for the preservation of the human race. I’d say it like this =

    “Getting to Other Stars is Going to Be FUN. LETS DO IT? AMERICA! Let the other countries end up in the sun! USA!USA!USA!”

  16. Matthew | November 19, 2007, 4:19pm | #

    Sea otters?? Oh come on.

    First off, they lack both of the main things needed for speedy evolution – Bipedalism, and at least SEMI-OPPOSABLE THUMBS…

    http://csdl2.computer.org/persagen/DLAbsToc.jsp?resourcePath=/dl/proceedings/&toc=comp/proceedings/iros/1995/7108/02/7108toc.xml&DOI=10.1109/IROS.1995.526158

    “Abstract
    In this paper, we consider the case of the raccoon, which has a dextrous five fingered hand and is renowned for its skills in dextrous manipulation. The kinematics of the raccoon hand are examined, and some critical differences and deficiencies with respect to the human hand design noted. We show how the raccoon successfully employs novel manipulation strategies in cases where the kinematics of its hands appear limited. Implications for the design and application of dextrous robotic hands are discussed.

    Index Terms- manipulator kinematics; manipulator dynamics; control system synthesis; multifingered hand; raccoon; dextrous manipulator; kinematics; robotic hands

    Citation: I.D. Walker, “A successful multifingered hand design-the case of the raccoon,” iros, p. 2186, International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems-Volume 2, 1995

  17. actually, you know, it’s probably Opossum who’ll end up on top, but at this stage in the game I’m hedging my bets

  18. “Misanthropy” is one of my most favorite words.

  19. After you, Mr. Thomas.

  20. Gilmore,

    Yes, but can they crack open a clam with a rock while floating on their back? Hmm?

    Also, it’s a well known fact that raccoons become useless drunkards given even the slightest opportunity–they used to dig out our booze and beer bottles from the garbage and get shitfaced before waddling around hissing at people and scaring our pets.

    Louts, the lot of them.

  21. I think the gist of this article is something I’ve long loathed about the greens and ecovangelists for a while. That is the notion that the earth without us is a good thing, and that silently they root for humankind’s extinction. Phrases like “avaricious humans” sound an awful lot like they emanate from a seventh day adventist rather then a scientist, or someone avowedly from the so-called rational left.

    And George Carlin, if that really is your name … same goes for you with your “good riddance to bad rubbish” bile. We may be fucked in the long term and the planet may be here to stay, but as a proud human and for the time being, sovereign of Planet Earth, I say … Love it or leave it Pal!

  22. Peter, we’re obviously doing an awful lot wrong to bring about a 6th mass extinction. Wouldn’t you agree that (at least) a smaller, more agile, less environmentally-impactful human presence on the planet would provide for greater liberty for all remaining humans, not to mention all the other species on Earth?

    A controlled population of less than a billion (hopefully less than 500 million) would afford greater resources per capita, allow for greater consumption per capita, and of course, greater land per capita. As happened after the plagues in Europe, reduced human numbers would necessarily lead to mechanization and accelerated technological innovation, all without the level of distress that we currently impose on the planet and its other inhabitants.

    I don’t see a downside to this: more space, more liberty, more innovation. IMO, the sooner the better.

  23. On a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.

    In the world I see – you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You’ll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You’ll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you’ll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.

  24. Huh?

    this is a brief review of a (an account needed) review of a book? It’s not a science article at all. The book may not evenbe peer reviewed.

    I have a feeling that someone is ‘being taken out of context’. it’s too easy not to.

    Review the damn book yourself Mr. Hanson!

  25. A controlled population of less than a billion (hopefully less than 500 million)…

    I don’t see a downside to this: more space, more liberty, more innovation.

    Then you obviously don’t see yourself among the 8 billion people who don’t exist in your wonderful vision.

    Put bluntly, 9 billion people each enjoying 90 utils is 16 times the total utility of half a billion people each enjoying 100 utils. Yes, each living person in the former is less happy. But total happiness is far, far greater.

    Oh, by the way, how does “controlled” imply “more liberty”? Is it 1984 every year in your imagining?

    1. A utility of happiness argument? Give me a break. This isn’t about happiness–happiness is a consequence of a controlled population. Control doesn’t seem to go along with liberty as long as you take it out of context like you did.

      If you are going to go against someone’s argument at least get their argument right and don’t use a totally impractical argument like “the utililty of happiness”. Get a life.

  26. “Getting to Other Stars is Going to Be FUN. LETS DO IT? AMERICA! Let the other countries end up in the sun! USA!USA!USA!”

    America! FUCK YEAH!

  27. I welcome our Sea Otter overlords and hope that they take pity on me as my stomach is too round to eat off of with out the food rolling away.

    On a side note, I came here to post the George Carlin rant. It’s the second post in this thread so it looks like great minds think alike.

  28. Peter, we’re obviously doing an awful lot wrong to bring about a 6th mass extinction.
    Umm, seriously? What exactly are we doing to bring about a mass extinction?

  29. Then you obviously don’t see yourself among the 8 billion people who don’t exist in your wonderful vision.

    I see every single one of us among the people who don’t exist in a million years.

    I know how much fun it is to pretend people who disagree with you are horrible monsters – gives you that nice, warm feeling of moral superiority – but sometimes it gets the way of rational thought.

  30. Umm, seriously? What exactly are we doing to bring about a mass extinction?

    Global warming, destruction of old-growth forest, overfishing, dam construction, industrial pollution…

    Estimates are about 5000 species disappearing per annum.

  31. Global warming, destruction of old-growth forest, overfishing, dam construction, industrial pollution…

    Estimates are about 5000 species disappearing per annum.

    I misunderstood. I thought it was a reference to a mass extinction meaning a cataclysmic event that killed off lots of organisms from widely different species at the same time, leading to situation similar to that after the dinosaurs became extinct.

  32. Sulla,

    The extinction of the dinosaurs took hundreds of thousands of years after the impact. Why the cataclysmic events has to be concentrated rather than diffuse to qualify isn’t immediately obvious to me.

  33. This thread is dwindling, so I don’t really expect a response. I mean this as a totally good faith question, but admit it is solely for the purpose of discussion.

    Is there a non-selfish reason why humans should care about the extinctions of other species? (My only science background is a semester of intro evolutionary biology, so I’m probably misusing the term selfish, but in this case, I mean something like ‘only concerned about our own interests’)

    At a gut level, I _feel_ that it is sad when species become extinct and that we should avoid that. What are logical arguments against extinction, other than ones that appeal to our self-interest, e.g., extinctions are a sign that an ecosystem is unhealthy and could affect human health, biodiversity is important because it can lead to cures for humans?

  34. I see every single one of us among the people who don’t exist in a million years.

    Yes, but I doubt you consider that there may be no humans in a million years a good thing, unless you think that they will be replaced with something of at least comparable stature.

    I know how much fun it is to pretend people who disagree with you are horrible monsters – gives you that nice, warm feeling of moral superiority – but sometimes it gets the way of rational thought.

    On the contrary, I disagreed with the utility function that someone was applying to humanity, and I pointed it out. I called no one a monster, and I thought my approach was quite rational.

    Okay, perhaps my use of the word “wonderful” was a but much…

  35. Yes, but I doubt you consider that there may be no humans in a million years a good thing, unless you think that they will be replaced with something of at least comparable stature.

  36. Sulla,

    The extinction of the dinosaurs took hundreds of thousands of years after the impact. Why the cataclysmic events has to be concentrated rather than diffuse to qualify isn’t immediately obvious to me.

    I was focused more on the cataclysmic nature of the event. I’m generally of the opinion that while humans can do a lot to “ruin” the environment for us and many other species, we are (at the momment) incapable of the kind of destruction wrought by the something like the Permian-Triassic extinction event or the Cretatious-Tertiary extinction event. (I will grant that a huge nuclear war might lead to such an event, but I don’t know enough about the real science to effectively evaluate that possibility).

    My point is that we are capable of screwing things up, but that even a worst case global warming or unfetter polluting scenario would suck for people, but would not lead to the extinction of 95% of the species on earth.

  37. Whoa, what happened there?

    Mike P,

    I don’t agree with the statement that a human extinction is the only way to have a healthy ecology on earth. I just take exception to levelling charges of genocide- and murder-fantasing at people who have done no such thing.

    Sulla,

    It is unlikely indeed that we would cause a 95%-level extinction, but something in the 30-50% range or thereabouts is possible, and would be a standout event in the history of Earth.

  38. When the goddamned chicom dolphins develop nukes than they can say OUR WORDS ARE BACKED BY NUCLEAR WEAPONS.

    Until that time, they can complain all they want while waiting to be turned into tunafish.

  39. I just take exception to levelling charges of genocide- and murder-fantasing at people who have done no such thing.

    Meanwhile, here on the planet earth, I neither wrote nor implied anything of the sort.

  40. Is it me, or is it the same limp-wristers out there who worry about humanities impact on the planet while at the same time demanding that government provide free health so as to keep old people alive as long as possible, and also to keep kids in Africa from starving?

  41. Sulla,

    My point is that we are capable of screwing things up, but that even a worst case global warming or unfetter polluting scenario would suck for people, but would not lead to the extinction of 95% of the species on earth.

    The worst case result from global warming does indeed look like an extinction of 95% of the species on earth. Recent findings suggest that most mass extinctions have resulted from global climate shifts that take the oceans toward anoxia as they warm… bacteria that love anoxic oceans then proliferate and produce tons of toxic gas that bubbles up and kills the oceans and the land.

    a sample paper on the topic,
    http://intl-geology.geoscienceworld.org/cgi/content/abstract/33/5/397

    We are far from the level needed for this kind of event to occur, but if we completely ignored our impact on the earth, we could bring it about.

  42. I hate to sound selfish. But each of us is really only going to be around for no more than 75 years tops. So why don’t we just stop worrying about Malthusian catastrophes and mass extinctions and just try to have a nice life while we’re here.

  43. Wouldn’t you agree that (at least) a smaller, more agile, less environmentally-impactful human presence on the planet would provide for greater liberty for all remaining humans, not to mention all the other species on Earth?

    A controlled population of less than a billion (hopefully less than 500 million)

    How anybody can argue that a “controlled population” is consistent with liberty is completely beyond me. Seriously. If this is satire, then it is so deadpan that it didn’t even twitch my sarcasm needle.

    1. It is beyond you because you are a moron.

  44. If Humans Going Extinct in a Million Years is “Good,” Is Us Going Extinct in Ten Years “Better”?

    Yes, but best of all would be us gradually going extinct over 150 years so we can tidy up some of the messes we’ve made. Also, no one would have to die early in a gradual phase-out.

    Someone wrote: ” I don’t agree with the statement that a human extinction is the only way to have a healthy ecology on earth.”
    How about, “Human extinction is the only sure way to have a healthy ecology on Earth”?

    Peter, that’s a valid approach, provided we don’t create another person to endure the results of Malthusian catastrophes and mass extinctions.

    RC, when people use the unfortunate term “population control,” they don’t mean controlling the people in a population, they mean that we don’t over populate. I think our population is too controlled already: reproductive freedom is far from universal. Couples who don’t want to breed are often denied access to adequate contraceptive services.

    Sulla, I think a 95% extinction rate is about right for the worst case scenario because of the feedback loop of methane in the permafrost and sea floor deposits. I’m not saying the worst case will happen, but it’s a possibility.

    Sid, you noted: “When the goddamned chicom dolphins develop nukes than they can say OUR WORDS ARE BACKED BY NUCLEAR WEAPONS.”

    Right on! There will be no dorsal docile when there’s a nuke in every fluke.

  45. when people use the unfortunate term “population control,” they don’t mean controlling the people in a population, they mean that we don’t over populate.

    Um… They mean controlling the people in a population in such a way that they don’t overpopulate. How else can some determined population — the exceeding of which is called overpopulation — be maintained?

  46. Um… They mean controlling the people in a population in such a way that they don’t overpopulate. How else can some determined population — the exceeding of which is called overpopulation — be maintained?

    Good point, Mike. A lot of people do mean controlling couples’ choices, as China does, when they say population control. I tend to forget about them.

    However, I think we could achieve zero population growth through voluntary means. An estimated 75 million unwanted pregnancies, 42 million abortions, and 25 million unwanted births could be avoided if all couples had adequate contraceptive services. Yeah, it doesn’t add up — maybe 8 million miscarriages, maybe inaccurate estimates.

    Preventing unwanted conceptions alone isn’t enough, but if we stop paying baby bounties and start encouraging people to make responsible reproductive choices, our birth rates would begin to improve.

    1. “I think we could achieve zero population growth through voluntary means.”

      Yea, its called: Deport all the mexicans and put caps on max allowable children(sorry catholics and mormons). Problem solved. This country will be mostly mexican in the next few generations unless we do something about it now and that is a fact.

      Problem with that is what are the mexicans going to do? Their parents don’t know english, so they don’t learn our culture and can’t get an education. We will just have one HUGE lower class cause mexicans breed like rabbits. What kind of realistic jobs can be made for such a large amount of these kinds of people with no education or communication skills.

      I agree that if mexicans are going to stay here they need to speak english, but this won’t for the large majority unless the parents speak english to them, and this won’t happen for many generations, if ever, at the rate we are getting mexicans in this country currently.

      What is so “morally wrong” about putting up a manned wall stating, “Hey, this is OUR country–stay the fuck out!” If someone comes onto your property and hitches a tent you don’t let them stay–you get them the fuck off of your property! Our country has enough problems–we don’t need to be taking in runaways and add to our problems.

  47. Um… They mean controlling the people in a population in such a way that they don’t overpopulate. How else can some determined population — the exceeding of which is called overpopulation — be maintained?

    Humanitarian organizations working in Africa have found that economic development and increasing women’s access to contraception and information about reproduction can dramatically reduce the number of children each family has – not by controlling their behavior, but by empowering them with greater resources, greater knowledge, and greater choice.

  48. joe, are we reading the same thread?

    I don’t dispute anything that has been said about access to contraception and empowering people’s reproductive choices to have family sizes more akin to what they actually want.

    But the two commenters who have discussed this from the “overpopulation is a problem” side have offered world population targets of 500 million and 0 respectively.

    You won’t reach either of those targets through “humanitarian organizations”.

  49. …or, so my main point is not missed, through people’s personal choices.

  50. Mike P,

    My point is, when you see discussion of population issues, there are responsible and humanistic arguments as well as those that are pretty out there. You shouldn’t just assume that noticing the problem of overpopulation or exhaustion of resources = advocacy for genocide.

  51. stewie wrote:

    A controlled population of less than a billion (hopefully less than 500 million)…

    Les U. Knight wrote:

    best of all would be us gradually going extinct over 150 years…

    joe, please read what I have written. I neither explicitly nor implicitly accused these commenters of advocating genocide. You are the only person bringing up genocide.

    I simply suggested that “controlled population” as introduced by the first commenter and “population control” as further elucidated by the second require the application of force if one is going to achieve the population targets they respectively advocate.

    Just as I don’t consider China’s one-child policy genocide, I do not consider what these commenters suggest genocide or the advocacy of genocide. But I would say that China’s one-child policy is anti-liberty. And I would say that the zero-child policy eventually required by Les U. Knight is also anti-liberty.

  52. Chris Thomas responded to my critique, and I responded to that, all at my post: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/11/terrible-optimi.html

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