I know that everyone has to die; but in my case I thought that they would make an exception.
—Writer William Saroyan, on his death bed
Now I don't really mean it to sound all that pessimistic by any means, but sometimes I do wonder if humanity—taken as a swarm—is really any more capable of altering its future than a community of yeast cells.
Think about it. You're a yeast cell in a beer vat. Temperature's around, say, 40°C and you're surrounded by your favourite food—sugar—and life is good. Eat. Drink.
Fu Procreate. Yeast cells piss alcohol and fart carbon dioxide. Fast forward a couple of weeks. It's way more crowded now from all the breeding, there's not nearly so much sugar about as their used to be, and the rising concentration of alcohol and carbonic acid is making life a tad uncomfortable. Yeast cells, as you know, are not renowned for their sparkling intellect, and so, not surprisingly, don’t really change their behavior. They continue to expand as fast as they possibly can, until the entire population essentially drowns in its own filth. It's an ugly way to go, but on the plus side, it does result in beer.
|Brought to you by a yeast world's Armageddon.|
Can we, as humans, do any better? I wonder. I mean, we are facing an embarrassment of riches as far as potential Armageddons go—global warming, fisheries collapses, peak oil, errant meteors, nuclear holocaust. Personally the one that scares me is a plague. I mean, you get these virologists on TV and they're not jumping up and down like Al Gore. They are just very calmly sipping their tea and saying, "Yeah, well, just a matter of time really. We're just one roll of the ol' snake eyes away from some airborne Ebola doing in 90% of the population. Can you pass the sugar bowl, please?"
And unlike the humble yeast cell, we can actually see these coming. In excruciating detail. But has it changed our behavior? Have we, as a species, stopped expanding as quickly as we ever have? Have we rid the world of the nuclear armaments capable of destroying it? Have we done anything but scribble in the margins with fishery depletions and climate change?
I don’t think so. Not really. because we don’t work like some organism seeking to preserve the whole. We work as six-odd billion automata each seeking to propagate its genes, at the expense of others if necessary. So all that intelligence isn't focused in any direction. Au contraire, as the global warming debate points out, a lot of it cancels out in the partisan bickering. The vaunted intellect of humanity, that which, we pride ourselves, separates us from the animals, ends up a zero sum advantage.
TheLotka-Volterra Equation is a pair of non-linear differential equations used to describe the dynamics of biological systems. Here they are.
y is the population of the predator; x of the prey. α, β, γ and δ are parameters. Note there is no variable or parameter here for intelligence. It applies to all biological system, from yeast cells and sugar, to cheetahs and baboons, to humans and the ecosystem. You don't get bonus points because you are moved by King Lear, or because you once had a Zen moment where you appreciated the multiverse as an undifferentiated whole.
Maybe it's simply vanity to think that we can escape the harsh mathematics that bind everything else in our ecosystem. Simply knowing the equation does not mean we can transcend it. The poor breed like crazy, the rich live ever more extravagantly and over the chaos, is that the merest hint of Nero's violin? It's midnight at the vomitorium.