Mankind can go extinct any number of ways: a comet or asteroid could hit Earth, the sun could explode, a total nuclear war could break out, a virulent disease could send all of Mankind to the grave…
But of all the ways the human race could meet its end, none have ever suggested the process of natural selection could end Mankind. None have ever thought of natural selection as an instrument of final destruction, until Nobel laureate (biology) Christian de Duve.
A professor emeritus at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) in Belgium, de Duve recently shared his views on Mankind's future during an interview with New Scientist. He believes the human race has evolved traits that are inherently self-destructive and will inevitably lead to humanity's extinction.
But all is not lost…yet. He warns that doom is on the horizon, but the human race still has time to save itself. All people must do is learn to overcome certain traits that nature has built into them.
Although Mankind is without a doubt the most successful species on the planet, humans could—in the end—pay the ultimate price for that distinction: total, absolute, extinction.
The irony? Human success is a two-edged sword that the race will finally fall upon. The nature of the success will be humanity's final undoing.
The cost of human success, de Duve argues, is eventually the exhaustion of natural resources. The dearth of resources will lead inexorably to massive energy shortages. The technology eating up the finite resources has led to climate change, choking pollution of the air and water, and finally the irreversible trashing of the habitat.
The children and children's children will be left with dwindling resources and eventually nothing. If humanity does not change its collective course, he says, it's headed for "frightful ordeals, if not extinction."
Natural selection, he explains, has no foresight. The blind process had created traits of "group selfishness" that's been encoded into the genes. Useful in a way in a savage and primitive environment, the traits now serve to undermine a society based more on order with some measure of control over outside forces.
The traits, he asserts, have become noxious to humanity's survival today.
These programmed traits, de Duve believes, can be overcome. Through wisdom and sacrifice, the human race can give up the now for the future. Natural selection doesn't do that. It doesn't anticipate the future, it works strictly with the now.
Only an intelligent mind can overcome the blind process of evolution.
Comparing the evolutionary traits that could lead Mankind into extinction to a kind of "original sin," de Duve refers to the inherent selfishness that is a ubiquitous element in human nature. He proposes that as long ago as the writers of the biblical Genesis, some perceived the flaw in humanity and created the myth of original sin to account for it.
He hurries to qualify the analogy, however, by declaring, "It's an image. I am not acting as an exegete—I don't interpret scripture."
Having clarified that, he continues to argue that humans must act against natural selection and actively oppose some of the key genetic traits.
So, in essence, he advocates Mankind going to war with those things that define the very nature of Man.
At this point the Nobel laureate slips into population control as one of his solutions.
"It is a simple matter of figures," he says. "If you want this planet to continue being habitable for everyone that lives here, you have to limit the number of inhabitants. Hunters do it by killing off the old or sick animals in a herd, but I don't think that's a very ethical way of limiting the population. So what remains? Birth control. We have access to practical, ethical and scientifically established methods of birth control. So I think that is the most ethical way to reduce our population."
Sounds reasonable on the surface, until one considers that virtually every Western country has a neutral or negative birth rate, and some countries like Russia are almost in panic mode as their population is dwindling significantly.
Despite his dire doom and gloom predictions, de Duve claims he remains an optimist.
"I'm cautiously optimistic—very cautiously. I try to be optimistic because I prefer to give a message of hope to young people, to say: 'You can do something about it.' But in the present, there is not much evidence that this is happening."
The professor's premise is based on an Earth-centric view and accepts the probable fallacy of limited resources. As a famous philosopher once advised, "Check your premises." If an erroneous premise is chosen as the starting point, no amount of brilliance or logic can salvage the argument.
Stephen Hawking has a grander view. He looks at the entire solar system as Mankind's resources. That perception probably holds more validity than the professor's, as Mankind is still in its infancy and Earth is like a cradle. When humanity reaches the toddler stage it will claim all the planets orbiting the sun.
And when humanity reaches adulthood, it will aim for the stars.