The end of the line for homo sapi­ens?

The Amherst News - - OPINION - Alan Wal­ter Alan Wal­ter is a re­tired pro­fes­sional engi­neer liv­ing in Ox­ford. He was born in Wales and worked in Hal­i­fax. He spends much of his time in Ox­ford, where he op­er­ates a small farm. He can be reached at alan­wal­ter@east­

A few weeks ago, Elon Musk pro­posed hu­mans pri­ori­tise the coloni­sa­tion of the planet Mars, a 500-day jour­ney away, so our species can sur­vive in the event of ru­n­away global warm­ing or a third world war on Earth.

He said, “it’s im­por­tant to get a self-sus­tain­ing base on Mars far enough away from Earth that, in the event of a nu­clear war, it’s more likely to sur­vive than a moon base” …which is just some three days jour­ney away.

Musk is no fa­nat­i­cal blowhard but the ge­nius founder of Tesla, the largest man­u­fac­turer of all-elec­tric au­to­mo­biles on our planet, and SpaceX, the maker of the large un­manned rock­ets that not only carry sup­plies to the in­ter­na­tional space sta­tion or­bit­ing our planet, but re­turn them­selves to earth with pic­tureper­fect ver­ti­cal land­ings, so they can be reused on other mis­sions at much re­duced costs than sin­gle-use ve­hi­cles.

SpaceX in­tends to es­tab­lish a Mars base in the 2020s, us­ing this fully re­us­able launch sys­tem shut­tling be­tween Earth and Mars. Two ro­botic cargo flights are planned to be launched just four years from now to de­liver a mas­sive ar­ray of so­lar pan­els, min­ing equip­ment, as well as sur­face ve­hi­cles, and food and life sup­port in­fra­struc­ture.

So, does Musk’s be­lief in the need to colonise Mars sig­nal the end of the line for our species, at least on Earth?

Our species, homo sapi­ens, the Latin noun “homo” mean­ing hu­man be­ing, with “sapi­ens” mean­ing dis­cern­ing, wise and sen­si­ble, has a long his­tory that goes back to its African roots more than 300,000 years ago.

It was pre­ceded by homo erec­tus, “up­right man”, and be­fore that homo ha­bilis “handy man”, both of which disappeared in pre-his­tory. Much later, homo ne­an­derthalen­sis, more com­monly known as the Ne­an­derthal species, oc­ca­sion­ally co-habited with those of our species that made its way to Europe, and we still carry traces of their DNA in our genes. But they also died away just 40,000 years ago from un­known causes.

My point is that com­pared to our other “homo” cousins we have had a pretty good run at life on earth, so we shouldn’t be too up­set if it all ends in the next cen­tury or so. And, whether ru­n­away global warm­ing or global nu­clear con­flicts do us in, some would say that we have only our­selves to blame.

It would also not be the first ex­am­ple of cat­a­clysmic events on earth wip­ing out thou­sands of species at one time.

About 250 mil­lion years ago our planet ex­pe­ri­enced the “Great Dy­ing” caused by a ru­n­away green­house gas ef­fect at­trib­uted to mas­sive vol­canic ac­tiv­ity across the globe. It was the Earth’s most se­vere known ex­tinc­tion event, with the fos­sil record show­ing that up to 95 per cent of all marine species and 70 per cent of ter­res­trial ver­te­brate species be­come ex­tinct. It took more than 10 mil­lion years for the Earth to re­cover from this dis­as­ter, but for­tu­nately, some of our pre­de­ces­sor species man­aged to sur­vive through this pe­riod.

Some would say the “golden age” of homo sapi­ens on earth peaked cen­turies ago. We cre­ated the first civ­i­liza­tions about 6,000 years ago with early laws from the Ro­mans to gov­ern our be­hav­iour com­ing later, fol­lowed by the first truly demo­cratic par­lia­men­tary govern­ments in Europe.

Our civ­i­liza­tion’s many cul­tural and artis­tic ac­com­plish­ments by the likes of Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Michelan­gelo, Raphael, Leonardo, Shake­speare and many oth­ers, have rarely been equalled; and our sci­en­tific achieve­ments owe much to Isaac New­ton, Dar­win and Ein­stein, with only Stephen Hawk­ing from re­cent times de­serv­ing to be men­tioned in the same breath.

Un­for­tu­nately, we have few ex­am­ples of re­cent in­tel­lec­tual achieve­ments to cel­e­brate, while we sur­ren­der great por­tions of our lives to triv­ial so­cial me­dia and “en­ter­tain­ing” of­fer­ings such as Net­flix and Candy Crush.

It also seems with the de­cline in the cur­rent state of global af­fairs, this would not be a good time to cre­ate a “time cap­sule” telling fu­ture civ­i­liza­tions of our world as it is. Most would see such a record as some­thing of a “downer”, filled with de­scrip­tions of moral fail­ings, ra­cial con­flicts, re­li­gious tur­moil, and the emer­gence of au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers who were suc­cess­ful in ap­peal­ing to peo­ple’s baser in­stincts. Surely an­other in­di­ca­tion that our time was up.

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