Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Of schadenfreude and mass extinctions

In his Pensées the great mathematician and religious philosopher Blaise Pascal presented the following allegory for the human condition:

‘Picture a number of men in chains, and all condemned to death; each day some are strangled in the sight of the rest; those who remain see their own condition in that of their fellows, looking at one another with sorrow and without hope, each awaiting his turn. This is the picture of the condition of man.’

To improve the accuracy of this metaphor and modify it for the present day I would include a group of sneering Oxbridge dons in the corner of the cell, mocking those who naively attempt to jolly the spirits of the prisoners and revelling in their own self-righteousness and schadenfreude. Latter day members of the intelligentsia condemn the likes of Aquinas for saying that ‘the blessed will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked’, yet in their eyes life consists of one long conveyer belt of thoroughly democratic annihilation. All of humanity - the meek, the strong and the downright nasty - burst into existence and then fizzle impotently out again like a collection of 'energy saving' lightbulbs. One such luminary is Simon Blackburn who has reviewed the work of the Reverend John Polkinghorne. Amidst the usual dismal naturalist clichés – who designed the designer?, explaining the unknown in terms of agency is primitive etc, etc – he presents his depiction of the human condition as follows:

‘Science teaches that the cosmos is some fifteen billion years old, almost unimaginably huge, and governed by natural laws that will compel its extinction in some billions more years, although long before that the Earth and the solar system will have been destroyed by the heat death of the sun. Human beings occupy an infinitesimally small fraction of space and time, on the edge of one galaxy among a hundred thousand million or so galaxies. We evolved only because of a number of cosmic accidents, including the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty-five million years ago. Nature shows us no particular favors: we get parasites and diseases and we die, and we are not all that nice to each other. True, we are moderately clever, but our efforts to use our intelligence to make things better for ourselves quite often backfire, and they may do so spectacularly in the near future, from some combination of manmade military, environmental, or genetic disasters.’

This is indeed the worldview bestowed upon us by science; but what an appallingly depressing spin to put on it. Admittedly not as gloomy as Sir Martin Rees who recently penned a book by the name of ‘Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind's Future In This Century’. In this tome he argues that the chances of human extinction are around 50% due to uncontrolled scientific research, nanotechnology, fundamentalist violence, and destruction of the biosphere; hopefully not all at the same time. Clearly the Judeo-Christian longing for the apocalypse is alive and well even in the more hardened materialist. For myself I tend to scorn these predictions, although despite this confident facade I do occasionally listen out for the inevitable flock of nanobots, intent on skinning alive me and the rest of the inhabitants of North London in a fit of robotic genocide.

Blackburn’s view suffers from something I identify as ‘Epicurean syndrome’, the idea that our minuscule size equates to our importance and that in the literally billions of years we have left in the cosmos we will do absolutely nothing to improve our condition. Nature has shown us a spectacular number of favours by giving rise to us as a casual analysis of the various cosmological parameters will demonstrate. If we play our cards right the universe is our oyster; but it won’t be if we don the misery tinted spectacles and set about rationalising away our humanity.

And yet, the don is right when he says that our existence is highly contingent. Not that this should be a particular cause for concern. If say, my parents had decided to settle down to watch an episode of Countdown instead of launching a (fairly) successful bid to pass their genes into the next generation then I and this long-winded blog post would not exist. I don’t think however, given eons of time and the evolutionary process, that it is tenable to regard the appearance of intelligent life in this universe as some kind of accidental end point, especially given the constraints of natural law and the inevitable population of ‘design space’. But what of the Dinosaurs?, would not the continued existence of large mammal eating reptiles prevent our lineage from ever conquering the earth surface, and does that not argue strongly against any sort of teleology.

In the case of mass extinctions in evolutionary history the role of chance and accident, combined with lurid descriptions of the catastrophic circumstances descending onto an unsuspecting world has provided a powerful impetus to evolutionary thinking in terms of the radical, and unpredictable redirection of the history of life. This position was most stridently articulated by the late Stephen J Gould who focused his attention on the end Cretaceous K/T. Here there is compelling evidence for a catastrophic impact from a passing asteroid and the crippling of reptilian diversity. This handed the ecological baton to the birds and mammals, which then were able to radiate into numerous niches. Had the asteroid missed, the argument goes, we would not be around.

According to the Cambridge Palaeontologist Simon Conway Morris, this interpretation overlooks several unfortunate facts. First, of the other four big mass extinctions in the Phanerozoic (ie from the beginning of the Cambrian and so an effective fossil record) the net result of three of them (end Ordovician, late Devonian and Triassic) was muted. What succeeded did not differ so greatly from what preceded. Second, a good argument can be made that even those two extinctions, K/T and end-Permian, that are highly catastrophic only served to accelerate or postpone the course of evolution, but they failed to divert the overall path. The world entered a series of major glaciations from about 350 million years ago. There is little doubt that the warm blooded birds and mammals that were co-existent with the dinosaurs would have seized the opportunity to rapidly diversify into the temperate and polar regions. The tropics would remain the preserve of the reptiles but nearer the poles we would predict that the diversification of the warm blooded groups would see the emergence of complex organisations including vocalisation tool making, social play and co-operative hunting. All these attributes have evolved in birds quite independently of the mammals as indeed has warm bloodedness itself (which allows larger brain sizes due to the maintenance of regular temperature). Given that these properties are convergent it seems likely that sooner rather than later, hunter gatherers would have emerged, although perhaps 20 million years 'behind schedule'. Lastly there is growing evidence that the meteor impact was merely the final straw for the dinosaurs which had failed to take advantage of the abundant food supply that emerged during the Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution, a time of plenty in Earths terrestrial history in which flowering plants, lizards, snakes, birds and mammals all became much more numerous. Some studies have suggested that they were beginning face stiff competition for example the pterodactyls were increasingly coming up against and losing out to shore birds. Therefore, at the risk of upsetting my reptilian cousins I would have to conclude that they would meet their demise sooner or later; although I’m sure they were more deserving recipients of the evolutionary baton than our species.

The hero of Blackburn’s piece is David Hume who he approvingly quotes as having said that ‘when he heard a man was religious, he concluded he was a rascal’. True, but Hume himself supported the Church establishment because of the salutary effect of religion on people's lives; his enemy was religious superstition, not religious enthusiasm to which he was more approving. Those who tried to debase people of that belief, he conceded 'may for aught I know, be good reasoners, but I cannot allow them to be good citizens and politicians'. The French philosophes scorned him for his 'History of England' in which he argued that 'there must be an ecclesiastical order and a public establishment of religion in every civilised community'. Consequently a friend of Hume’s living in Paris reported that 'poor Hume who on your side of the water was thought to have too little religion, is here thought to have too much'. His position was more nuanced than the knuckle dragging materialists of present day academia.

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