Justin Li


Survival of the Fittest

2008-01-12

This topic has been sitting in my drafts folder for over a month now, but a recent NYTimes article ("God and Small Things" by Barnaby J. Feder) gave me a different angle to draw this topic in.

Over the past year, my thoughts about some of the biggest problems the world is facing (nuclear proliferation, global warming, petroleum production, etc) inevitably go back to the same thought: I don't care. This is not an "I don't care" because it doesn't affect me (which is more or less my views of politics), but an "I don't care" because I don't consider it a problem.

I'd imagine a lot of people will take issue with my previous statement, but let me explain. I'll start with the problem that has the least effect.

Nuclear proliferation is a strange sort of issue, because it's effect is so small. The attack on Hiroshima kill about half a million people, including deaths from burns, radiation, and related diseases, but not including deaths from cancer within 10 years. On the other hand, the 2003 "invasion" of Iraq has killed about 1.2 million Iraqis. Certainly, nuclear weapons are more dangerous than conventional attacks (for example, the attack on the twin towers which killed about 3000), but it is still a one time attack. Only a small portion of the population of the world is affected, and while it will change global politics, most people's way of life will not change.

The lack of petroleum is a slightly larger issue. Since there is only so much petroleum on earth, and our rate of extraction is much much higher than the rate of petroleum production in nature, all the usable oil will be used up in the near future, whether that's 100 years or 500 years. What are the consequences of not having petroleum? Well, it will be harder to get around, for sure. There won't be quite so many cars, planes or ships going around, and for those which still do go around, it will cost a lot more to get on them. In reaction, people will develop or put into more common use alternate sources of energy: nuclear, electric, biochemical (that is, human powered). There will be a period when these technologies are being developed, but in another 100 or 500 years power will not be a problem anymore. So really, the lack of oil is not so much a long term threat, than a warning that we should be switching to more sustainable forms of energy.

Global warming, on the other hand, has much larger impact. The affects of global warming might be felt even a million years from now, and it not only changes the way humans live, but also all plants and animals on earth. A large number of species may well become extinct from the rapid change in temperature, and it's also possible that a significant portion of humans will die too.

Here's the reason why I'm still calling it a small problem, and it will probably give more insight into what I'm saying about the previous two issues as well: even with global warming, life will continue. Note that I didn't say "my life will continue," or that "the life of people I know will continue." For that matter, I didn't even say "human life will continue."

Yes, that's right. I'm a lot more interested in the general survival of life than the survival of human life. Of course, since the survival of life encompasses more than the survival of humans, it deserves more attention. That's not quite how I feel; in fact, I feel more than a little apathetic about the survival of any particular species. Certainly, it will be a loss, but nothing that the phenomenon of can't withstand.

Let's go back to global warming for a moment. There are already species of plants and animals, cultures of humans living in the deserts and the tropics. An over-simplification this may be, the region these animals and cultures live in will just be expanded and/or moved north and south. These regions will remain habitable by these creatures and humans, and so life will continue.

This detachment from small entities extends beyond life, to other human constructs as well. That may be part of the reason I don't join cultural student associations, or college democrats or republicans, or perhaps even environmental groups. Cultural and political groups have a clearly narrow focus, and similarly I don't actively support Northwestern's various teams. If I display interest in someone else's Northwestern background, I feel it has more to do with the coincidence than pride. As for environmental groups, I've always felt that those groups are misnamed; they are not so much saving the environment than advocating a different way of using it. The environment doesn't need saving and it will survive regardless of what humans do (unless we actively destroy it, of course).

On the other hand, I invest time in science, maths, and philosophy. All three have to do with understanding the world around us, to discover hidden relationships in nature. While science and maths have practical applications, philosophy is more abstract. They are all, however, longer lasting than the study of politics. I do have a little interest in psychology and other social sciences, although one can argue they are much more limited in scope than the others.

After I read the NYTimes article mentioned at the beginning of this post, I read the Nature article mentioned, and then a few Wikipedia articles on transhumanism. That gave the realization that I've never contemplated how this philosophy extends to the future. Since I don't care too much about the human race, it is perhaps not surprising that I have nothing against biotechnological or cybernetic modification of human beings. Sidestepping the question of whether there is such a thing as "human nature", I don't think it's something sacred or above alteration.

In fact, as a student of computer science and believing that artificial intelligence will one day rise above human intelligence, I don't even mind if humans are taken over by machines. By "take over" I don't mean a violent suppression - while this exposition may portray me as unfeeling, I'm not completely amoral - but I mean I'm not against machines being the superior "race". I care more about general superior intelligence than I do about human intelligence, and if it takes creation to bolster evolution, then that will be the case.

I am previously aware of most of my views expressed here, but this is the first time I've connected them all with the theme of a detachment from smaller, concrete objects. I wonder where this detachment grew from.

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