Go gentle? Over my dead body

Concept illustration of a gamma ray burst, which could zap all life in our galaxy. Is this a worse threat to humanity than our predilection for in-group tribalism and moral one-upmanship?
Credit: Nasa
Date:6 March 2013 Author: Alan Duggan Tags:

Once a year, Popular Mechanics extracts and publishes a few of the most thought-provoking contributions to a wonderful Web site called Edge, which invites some of the planet’s leading intellectuals and thought-leaders to respond to a simple question. This year’s challenge: “What should we be worried about?”

Our March issue reproduced three edited-down responses, including a mildly uncomfortable contribution from Kate Jeffrey, professor of behavioural neuroscience at University College, London, who says it’s not dying that we should be worried about, but not dying. As Prof Jeffrey points out, death is there to stop a parent from competing with its children and grandchildren for the same limited resources.

In other words, we die so that our offspring – “those better versions of ourselves” – can flourish. This may be true, but if my kids think I’m going to embrace death just so they can inherit my house, car, GPS navigator, iPad, smart TV and cast iron teapot collection, they can forget it. As editor of a sci-tech magazine, I can hardly refute Prof Jeffrey’s claim that our genes incorporate a self-destruct senescence program, but nowhere in my contract does it state that I am legally or morally obliged to go gentle into that good night*. Just so you know.

(* Dylan Thomas)

On reflection, perhaps the death of a single human (that is, me) is not especially important in the greater scheme of things, since all of us are probably headed for the abyss, anyway. In his Edge response, John Tooby, a professor of anthropology and co-director of the Centre for Evolutionary Psychology at UC Santa Barbara, has this to say: “The Universe is relentlessly, catastrophically dangerous, on scales that menace not just communities, but civilisations and our species as well.

“A freakish chain of improbable accidents produced the bubble of conditions that was necessary for the rise of life, our species and technological civilisation. If we continue to drift obliviously inside this bubble, taking its continuation for granted, then inevitably – sooner or later – physical or human-triggered events will push us outside and we will be snuffed like a candle in a hurricane.”

Tooby gets quite specific, citing gamma ray bursts of such power that they scrub major galactic regions free of life (that is, assuming there was any), stray asteroids and comets, Yellowstone-like super-eruptions, civilisation-collapsing coronal mass ejections (which would take down national grids and effectively zap our tech-driven civilisation)…

But the bit that really resonates with me is Tooby’s reference to a second category of menaces, which he describes as “hidden, deadly, ever-adapting”. These are the “evolved monsters from the id that we all harbour (that is, group identity, the appetite for prestige and power, etc), together with their disguised offspring, the self-organising collective delusions that we all participate in, and mistake for reality”.

As Tooby tells it, co-operative scientific problem-solving is the most beautifully effective system for the production of reliable knowledge that the world has ever seen. “But the monsters that haunt our collective intellectual enterprises typically turn us instead into idiots. Consider the cascade of collective cognitive pathologies produced in our intellectual coalitions by in-group tribalism, self-interest, prestige-seeking, and moral one-upmanship.”

Lovely stuff, and there’s lots more of the same quality. Visit www.edge.org