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Forbes.com

 

Blueprint for the Earth

September 20, 2004

By Peter W. Huber

PRINTER FRIENDLY

How much would you be willing to pay to stand on the stern of the last oil tanker to leave the Middle East, waving good-bye as you go?" Physicist James Trefil asks this question almost as an aside, more than halfway through his provocative new book, Human Nature. He gets to oil only at the tail end of his chapter on global warming--one among many chapters that will infuriate party-line greens. Trefil isn’t much persuaded by computer models that predict what our climate will be like a century hence. But he’s all for saving energy where we reasonably can, if only because he’d pay quite a lot for that last wave. So would most of us. But another question arises: Would the people left standing on the dock wave back?

Cut back to Trefil’s first chapter. Humans, like all the rest of nature’s creations, once "lived out their lives in a world completely governed by the laws of natural selection." With the rise of agriculture things began to change--humanity began to separate itself from the "natural" scheme. We’ve been separating further ever since, and very rapidly indeed in recent decades. In the industrialized world, at least, our choices and our future are now governed not by natural selection but by science and technology. So, too, is the future of the biosphere.

And this separation need not end up badly, Trefil argues. Our ingenuity has overcome natural scarcity. Malthus was wrong; humanity can feed and fuel itself. Over time we can also ward off, or if need be extinguish, every natural predator, from the AIDS virus on up. And we are now on the threshold of even being able to correct mistakes in our genes, nature’s blueprint for what is no longer part of nature. We can protect nature itself, too, from our appetites and our effluents, and even gently steer nature as a whole toward our own ends. Nature used to rule us; now we rule nature.

This is the point Trefil is making in the title of his book: Like it or not, it’s going to be human nature from here on out, by which Trefil means nature shaped by human will. For the most part Trefil does not recoil at this new reality. The outlook is much better than many people believe, and it could be better still. The book’s subtitle: A Blueprint for Managing the Earth--by People, for People.

But what about those other people back on the dock? The tiny but consequential sliver of the population, whose culture, poverty, genes--whose human nature, in short, however formed--impels them to destroy?

Much of humanity clearly doesn’t share our own love of wilderness. More than a few people still love whales for their meat and rhinos for their horns. Many hate tigers, which view us as meat, and elephants, which view human crops as their own. Our own reverence for unspoiled nature developed only recently. A sense of empathy for the rest of nature may in fact be exceptional and rare. Why should Darwinian forces of natural selection ever have created brains with any such sense at all?

More fundamentally, to argue that technology is moving humanity beyond natural selection is to assume that we are all one happy humanity. Experience teaches otherwise. Genetic engineering is one end of human technology; genocide is another. Man’s natural predator is man. And as predators go, homo sapiens can far surpass any to be found in nature. It could hardly be otherwise: Today’s technology lets people unleash nature’s own scourges--smallpox or anthrax, for example--or deliberately disperse chemicals far more toxic than any produced by a hornet or a rattlesnake.

The most hopeful response is that the predatory people and cultures never master science--science is the systematic exclusion of dogma, superstition and paranoid fantasy. But what matters in the new Darwinian jungle isn’t science, it’s technology, which can be stolen and mastered even by people who could never develop it themselves. Stalin and his spies maintained just enough talent, and stole enough technology, to build rockets and nuclear weapons. Nazi Germany got almost as far. Fanatical young men steeped in a culture that could never manufacture even a box cutter can still buy one and hijack a jet. Our only option is to keep certain demented pockets of humanity utterly isolated and technology-free. If we can.

That’s what really scares us about certain sources of oil--what the money we pay for it might eventually buy. Given his doubts about global warming, Trefil probably isn’t too worried about the damage to be done to the world by a tanker carrying Alaskan crude. What he really wants to wave good-bye to isn’t oil but a region, a culture, a feudal theocracy, a fanatical sect. Men who would separate themselves from nature, its seems, must first separate themselves from other men.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/global/2004/0920/097.html

 

 
 
 

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