Chapter 10: Our Historical Challenge

John Campbell


The body of work achieved by the evolution of the rational and empirical worldview  we call science can assist us with answers to the big questions such as ‘what are we?’ and ‘where did we come from?’ It is also the only effective source of answers on how to meet the big challenges that the near term historical future may present to us. Our major challenges have little resemblance to those encountered by biological life through evolutionary history. We will not be out competed or driven to extinction by any other life form. We have a good deal of control over our biological competition.

 Our major challenges, the ones that pose a risk to our survival are mostly of our own making. With a bit of luck and judicious use of our scientific knowledge many of them are avoidable and have at least potential solutions. A list of these challenges, in no particular order, might include:

1)      Impact of the earth with an extraterrestrial body such as a comet or meteorite. These impacts are the probable cause for at least two of the six mass extinctions that have visited the earth during the past 450 million years. Although these events are rare they are truly devastating. Efforts are currently underway to bring the powers of science to bear on this threat. Telescopic surveys of space are being organized to identify potential impacting bodies well in advance and scientific work is being conducted to determine the best methods of diverting these bodies from their impact trajectories.

2)     Rapid global climate change. Rapid global climate change is the probable cause for at least another two of the earth’s mass extinctions. All indications are that human activity, specifically the substantial increase in the proportion of green house gases in the earth’s atmosphere, has kicked off a major global warming event. Moderating it is well within the bounds of scientific knowledge but it will require focus and will.

3)     Biological Pandemic. Biological Pandemics were responsible for the largest human dying event in the history of the earth when European infectious diseases were introduced to Native American populations.  More recently the flu epidemic in 1918 killed over 20 million people world wide. Presently with high world wide population densities, large numbers of potential carries conducting daily international travel and deadly strains routinely arising in Asia professional health workers are in a state of grave concern. The H5N1 virus is of current concern. After over a year it is still on the scene. It hasn’t infected many yet but of those who it has, it has been fatal 75% of the time. It may only be a matter of time before it becomes infectious; it usually takes time. It is estimated that today an infectious H5N1 virus could infect 1/3 of the world’s population within months. If the death rate holds that could be 1.5 billion dead.[i] Science is our only reliable foil for this challenge. Many previously deadly infectious diseases have been defeated by science and there is no reason to believe that science coupled with good public health practices could not shield us from the latest threats. Again what is required is focus and will.

4)     Global Nuclear War. The historical forces that seemed intent on driving the world toward mutually assured destruction during the latter half of the previous century have succumbed to rationality and the threat of global nuclear war has receded. That so much energy was expended and such extensive preparations made to prepare for nuclear war is a graphic example of science providing us with destructive powers we are ill equipped to handle.

5)     Global Conventional War. Limited conventional war, largely driven by religious or ethnic motivation, continues to be common. This risk is mitigated from becoming global as a global conventional war could easily escalate into nuclear war having no winners.

6)     Over population, ecological destruction and collapse.  The human species has not had to face the Malthusian limits experienced by others. Our culture and technologies have allowed us to expand into new territories and exploit new environments as populations increased. They have also given us the means to consistently increase population densities in the areas we have occupied. Now that there is a hugely dense human population inhabiting earth this situation endangers the survival of the natural processes on which we depend. We face severe risks with no ready means of mitigation in sight. This is a near and inevitable occurrence; in fact it is already well underway. We can respond to its challenge or we can ignore it. My guess is we’ll ignore it until we are provided with some clear, nasty evidence of its existence. (There is a scientific bent in us after all.) The Chicago 1995 heat wave is said to have killed over 700 Americans and in 2003 one in France killed over 14,000. Not sufficient to get our attention yet. Something may come along that will engage us.

These potential pitfalls are real challenges for us. Rationality is our greatest ally in facing them all.  With a little luck and attention we can mitigate all of these risks from having a major impact on the planet or the human population, except for the last one. We are already well into the impact zone of over population and ecological collapse. There is no ready means to mitigate this risk. The only way that this risk can fail to take a toll is if we fall victim to one of the other major catastrophes.  For instance a global nuclear war or a deadly flu pandemic could drastically reduce human population numbers to a point where over population would not be a problem. Dealing with the overpopulation challenge is our best case scenario.

We tend to be conservative regarding our answers to the big questions and do not change them unless we have a compelling reason to do so. They do however change over historical time and the process of their change is best seen in an evolutionary context. Probably the great religions first evolved because they conferred organizational advantages to the dense human populations produced by agriculture. Religiously organized societies have similar characteristics to biological entities such as bee hives or ant hills and were able to out-compete less well organized societies.[ii] The history of the spread and consolidation of the great religions involved a bloody and brutal contest of survival of the fittest amongst societies as may be surmised by a reading of the Old Testament.

The rational and scientific worldview that has been evolving for the past 400 years has now largely supplanted the answers to the big questions provided by the great religions in the arena of power. No society can vie for power or even feed its own people without embracing some aspects of technology and the most powerful nations rely heavily on technology and rationality for their wealth and power. However the scientific worldview has failed to become the source of personal answers for most people. This is partly due to its democratic nature. Other than public education, there is little state or institutional support for popularizing it or promoting it as a worldview. No one has ever been subjected to the rack or burned at the stake for refusing to believe in scientific answers. 

Things change over historical times and the challenges faced by new agricultural societies with unprecedented population densities in the third millennium BC are not the same challenges facing modern societies in the twenty first century.  While the Great Religions provided successful answers to earlier societies assisting them to organize and populate their lands we are now entering a new historical era that may well provide evolutionary motivation for us to leave these answers behind and more fully embrace those of science.

It is only relatively recently that mankind has come to dominate the earth. The first of our branch ventured forth from Africa about 65,000 years ago and multiplied to become the dominant species throughout Asia. 30,000 years ago we entered Europe, 17,000 years ago the New World, the last Pacific Island less than a thousand years ago. The Earth has only recently been peopled, but the exponential growth of its numbers has not stopped. With all the free land gone our density is now rising exponentially. We are in an entirely new situation and the stakes are high.

During our previous expansion phase when we populated the world a major motivation for moving on and colonizing new lands may have been the devastation we visited upon the ecosystems we occupied. As humans spread over the earth they drove many prey species extinct as well as other species dependent upon them. American Museum of Natural History’s biologist Niles Eldredge summarizes the evidence:

The fossil record attests to human destruction of ecosystems:

·        Humans arrived in large numbers in North America roughly 12,500 years ago-and sites revealing the butchering of mammoths, mastodons and extinct buffalo are well documented throughout the continent. The demise of the bulk of the La Brea tar pit Pleistocene fauna coincided with our arrival.

·        The Caribbean lost several of its larger species when humans arrived some 8000 years ago.

·        Extinction struck elements of the Australian megafauna much earlier-when humans arrived some 40,000 years ago. Madagascar-something of an anomaly, as humans only arrived there two thousand years ago-also fits the pattern well: the larger species (elephant birds, a species of hippo, plus larger lemurs) rapidly disappeared soon after humans arrived.

Indeed only in places where earlier hominid species had lived (Africa, of course, but also most of Europe and Asia) did the fauna, already adapted to hominid presence, survive the first wave of the Sixth Extinction pretty much intact. The rest of the world's species, which had never before encountered hominids in their local ecosystems, were as naively unwary as all but the most recently arrived species (such as Vermilion Flycatchers) of the Galapagos Islands remain to this day.[iii]

In some cases it was not possible for excess populations to easily move on once the ecology collapsed under the weight of human numbers. In his aptly named book Collapse, Jared Diamond documents a number of isolated societies such as those on Easter Island and Greenland where an ecological collapse resulted in social collapse.[iv] We have lessons to learn from the history recounted in this book now that we all have nowhere new to go. There are no more unspoiled lands to colonize. We must reach a state of homeostasis with our environment or face dire consequences.

One very current, especially sad chapter in this painful saga is that a recent search by field researcher to find Bonobo Chimpanzees, our closets relatives, in the wild was unsuccessful. These vulnerable primates only exist in Democratic Republic of the Congo and with the on-going civil war there has been an increase in their use as bush meat. It is unlikely that they are presently extinct but their numbers may have decreased by 80% in recent years and extinction appears imminent given current trends.

Having filled the earth with population levels grown beyond those sustainable through hunting and gathering we have recently learned to use the vast powers of science to harness the earth’s natural processes for our use. Like bacteria on a Petri dish this richness of resources has served to exponentially grow our numbers and our never ending hunger for more. We desire ever more and the plundering of the planet is ever more intense. There are no easy technical solutions to this crisis. The solutions are personal and spiritual. We must decide, we must become motivated to turn away from exponential biological growth. This is a daunting challenge as built deeply into the nature of living things from bacteria on up is the blind imperative to expand our numbers and appetites.

We are challenged with reversing this aspect of our nature. Don’t despair; we have broken our amoeba ways before. Many cultures have drastically reduced their rates of growth and a few have begun contracting. Still overall we keep growing and the most optimistic prediction is that we will increase by another 50% before the numbers peak in about 2050. Those 50% more will expect to have more as well. We plan to have increased per capita GDP every year; anything else would be an economic catastrophe. If the 50% more are going to expect and receive an ever increasing footprint on the planet some things will have to give. Inexorable human population growth until all green things are gone is a scary scenario but what are the alternatives? Are we fit to tangle with our amoeba instincts and resist growth? In this contest rationality and spirituality are our strengths. The spiritual strength we require is not offered by organized religions, often they champion the very opposite, the right of human life to expand without bounds. They cannot and will not provide a signal guiding us away from this siren song of our biological past. Can the spiritual might of science fill the void?

The Crises

A world crisis of unparalleled significance is playing itself out and will be the main theme of 21st century history. It is a crisis around overpopulation and the attendant strain on natural systems. Other potential crises such as nuclear war, extreme climate change or biological plague, may be avoidable. They are not inevitable in the same sense as is over population. Over population is an existing condition and will only get worse during the next 50 years, even in the best case scenario. It can only be alleviated, in the short term, if some other catastrophe occurs that drastically reduces human population levels. The other potential crisis threatening near term reduction in human numbers increase in likelihood as the population crisis becomes more intense.

Evolution of life on earth has not been a linear process; its production of increased complexity has always taken the road of two steps forward and one back. Although the evolutionary algorithm relentlessly produces every greater complexity many times in earth’s history physical processes have abruptly caused a major reduction in complexity. These events are known as mass extinctions and researchers have good evidence for at least six of these events having occurred since the evolution of multi-cellular life. These events are outside the evolutionary process and were usually caused by cataclysmic processes such as meteorite strikes, rapid climate change or extreme volcanic events.[v]

Some researchers have speculated that these mass extinctions actually result in a more rapid accumulation of complexity in the long run, that the many environmental niches emptied by mass extinctions allow more experimental and less immediately competitive biological designs to flourish for a time. Even if from some perspectives mass extinctions are not totally negative they do entail massive die offs, particularly of the more advanced life forms, and do set back evolution’s quest for more advanced designs by some time.

Already, though it receives remarkably little media attention and then usually only to dispute its existence, our present crisis is the most severe crisis experienced by living things on earth during the last 60 million years. Already it meets the official definition of a ‘mass extinction’ something not seen since the dinosaurs disappeared. How its severity will rank amongst the half dozen mass extinctions previously experienced over geological time remains to be played out.

There are some, usually those supported by ‘faith based’ or ‘personal wealth’ constituencies, who claim overpopulation is not a problem, who claim technological solutions can continue to provide plenty for all no matter how many people crowd the planet.   E.O. Wilson, biologist and Nobel laureate has some pertinent comments for those holding this view:

The constraints of the biosphere are fixed. The bottleneck through which we are passing is real. It should be obvious to anyone not in a euphoric delirium that whatever humanity does or does not do, Earth's capacity to support our species is approaching the limit. We already appropriate by some means or other 40 percent of the planet's organic matter produced by green plants. If everyone agreed to become vegetarian, leaving little or nothing for livestock, the present 1.4 billion hectares of arable land (3.5 billion acres) would support about 10 billion people. If humans utilized as food all of the energy captured by plant photosynthesis on land and sea, some 40 trillion watts, the planet could support about 16 billion people. But long before that ultimate limit was approached, the planet would surely have become a hellish place to exist. There may, of course, be escape hatches. Petroleum reserves might be converted into food, until they are exhausted. Fusion energy could conceivably be used to create light, whose energy would power photosynthesis, ramp up plant growth beyond that dependent on solar energy, and hence create more food. Humanity might even consider becoming someday what the astrobiologists call a type II civilization and harness all the power of the sun to support human life on Earth and on colonies on and around the other solar planets. Surely these are not frontiers we will wish to explore in order simply to continue our reproductive folly.[vi]

 The bottleneck we are facing and the historical challenge it issues has two components:

1)      Numbers of humans occupying the earth.

2)     Average per capita resources consumed.

Current demographic trends indicate that human numbers may peak sometime in the next fifty years at somewhere around 9 billion and then start a slow decline. This challenge, though huge, at least represents a reprieve from the seemingly inevitable exponential growth in human numbers experienced until a few decades ago, a growth that could only result in calamity. While this challenge has become less acute, there is, at present, no reprieve in sight from the exponential growth in per capita resource usage.

The reduction in rates of population growth has taken place despite the best efforts of the ‘faith based’ community. Some of their most strident injunctions center on the sanctity of the life of the organism and unfettered reproduction. Such concerns have served us well in the past but now as we exceed 6 billion humans, on our way to at least a 50% increase, these injunctions are a threat to our survival. It is a triumph for humanity that these injunctions have lost their power. In almost all countries where family planning methods are available and where women have some control of their destinies the birth rate has dropped dramatically. It seems nearly universal that when women can decide how many children to bear and how to apportion resources between them, they decide to limit the number of their children and maximize the resources available to each. Edward Wilson’s gives us his perspective on this phenomenon:

First, by what appears to be the providential instinct, women consciously reduce their fertility wherever they gain education, opportunity, and some degree of freedom of choice in reproduction. This is not just a liberal Harvard professor addressing you. This is, fortunately, thoroughly now documented in world demographic studies. Among nearly all of the European countries, Japan, Thailand, the Asian tigers, and native-born Americans (and immigrants will almost certainly soon follow as their security in this country improves), the population growth has now fallen below the zero-population-growth breakpoint of 2.1 children per woman, and is headed toward population decline. That would be characteristic of all of the industrialized countries in a very short period of time.

The rest of the world is following. The average number of children per woman has dropped worldwide in the last 40 years from 6 to 3 children. That is an astonishing decline for global demography. The latest United Nations estimates project that the total human population may very well peak out at about 8.9 billion around mid-century, and then very likely start to decline. We may thank whatever gods may be that women, when given the choice, prefer a small number of quality children, instead of entering the lottery of life by scattering out many children who, by force of necessity, cannot be raised in a quality manner.

Ironically this trend is most pronounced in Italy, a predominately Roman Catholic country. It is encouraging to see that women are able to defy religious injunctions and instead choose what is best for themselves and their families.

The key component enabling this earthly miracle is effective and widely available methods of birth control. Birth control decouples sex from reproduction. Reproduction is biology’s primary concern and we incorporate many biological mechanisms that keep it always on our minds. Most of these mechanisms drive us towards having sex but not directly to reproduce. We have a sex drive not a reproductive drive. It is why our fantasies are about sexual activity and not about child birth.  Ever since sex first evolved as a biological process it has been tightly coupled to reproduction and was obviously an adaptation to allow a new and more powerful form of reproduction. With birth control this coupling is broken and the causal link between sexual activity and reproductive activity is broken. This break allows a rational decision about reproduction without the necessity of reining in our libido and attendant biological imperatives.

Of the two critical components composing our challenge; population numbers and per capita resource usage, there is some hope on the first front. No such slick solution to the second is on the horizon. In fact it appears that in developing countries such as China there is irresistible pressure to maximize resource usage and even in the developed world with already huge per capita consumption rates the primary political and economic focus seems to be for more.

From the perspective developed here the two components have a basic similarity; we are driven to consume and reproduce by biological adaptations central to our evolutionary history. These drives are almost impossible to rein in via rationality. Other mechanisms must be found. Birth control, by decoupling sex from reproduction, allows the sex drive to be satisfied without resulting in reproduction. Can this be used as a clue for a solution to the consumption problem?

Consumption is central to our being. From a biological point of view we are designed to survive until the age of reproduction and then reproduce. Our biological design cares for little else. Central to both survival and reproduction is resource usage. Biologically we survive longer and successfully raise more offspring the more resources we can commandeer.

Unfortunately the psychological mechanisms around resource usage such as status, a sense of security, satiation etc. are bound to the act of consumption rather than to the act of survival. This makes the consumption nut very hard to crack. With population numbers, the key to a solution is that reproduction, the act requiring limits, is not the psychologically compelling act. Rather the psychologically compelled act, sex, is the act that can be permitted with birth control producing an antidote to the population problem. With consumption, it is the consuming act itself, the act that must be limited, that we are psychologically compelled to perform.

Technology may provide some assistance with this problem. There seems to be a well established trend of reduction in the mass of many man made items including railway locomotives, cars and computers. Even while this reduction in mass has taken place many of the items have become more powerful; the power to mass ratio for items from locomotives to computers has increased dramatically. The amount of fuel required to propel an automobile a given distance has been greatly reduced as technology has improved. These trends seem to have been accomplished mostly for marginal economic reasons and not specifically for lessening our impact on the resources of the earth. Undoubtedly we could vastly reduce consumption of resources through a sustained effort to focus technology on the problem of producing consumable goods with reduced impact on natural systems.

Computer technology may provide another means of lessening the impact of consumption. Information intensive items such as movies, music and books do not need to be stored on physical mediums such as DVDs, CDs and books. They can all be stored in a central repository and downloaded for use with little resource usage other than a bit of electricity. The dream of a paperless office may eventually be realized where information is viewed electronically on reusable media resembling paper rather than printed to paper.

Resource usage is definitely a challenge but there is hope. The psychological mechanisms compelling our behaviour may be labelled the ‘tyranny of the self’. This tyranny compels us to follow priorities mapped out by biology over billons of years, priorities that are definitely counter productive in meeting the challenges facing us today. Susan Blackmore suggests two aids in our struggle to overthrow this domination:

1)      Buddhism. On the surface it would seem that religious values with their downplaying of material benefits and suspicion of sex should be of aid in our struggle. Unfortunately most variants of the great religions argue for unfettered human reproduction and for the material strength of their adherents. Amongst the great religions, the meditative tradition of Buddhism seems the only religious challenge to the supremacy of the self and its preoccupation with sexuality and consumption. Buddhism teaches that material desire is suffering and provides meditative techniques to loosen the hold of the self in order to allow other, less often heard, components of our psyche to raise themselves to consciousness. It promotes the understanding that the ‘one time only’ concerns of the self are an illusion standing between us and real understanding or awakening.


2)     Science. To some science seems an enemy in this struggle. Without science the world would not be capable of supporting so many people with such high levels of consumption. Without science the world’s population would be regulated at much reduced levels by famine, disease and war. There is no going back. Science is knowledge and knowledge, as a rule, is conserved by evolution. Science has given us power and we have used this power to propel our biological imperatives to extremes.

This is not written in stone. Science also gives us understanding of our true situation and we can use this understanding to adapt and solve problems. With little in the way of mainstream recognition this process is well under way. Understanding of our situation has led many in the developed world to adopt practices such as simplicity and vegetarianism. The understanding provided by the science of ecology has been adopted and championed by the environmental movement.  In many cases this involves a spiritual shift. In my area of the world environmentalists are often referred to as ‘Tree Huggers’ in recognition of their deep affection for nature. A common bumper sticker says ‘Hug a logger and you will never go back’. I believe this line nicely reflects our challenge opposing the sexual connotations of ‘Hug a logger’ with the spiritual connotation of ‘Hug a tree’. As Wilson remarks the embryonic environmental movement is focused on our true challenges.


Humanity did not descend as angelic beings into this world. Nor are we aliens who colonized Earth. We evolved here, one among many species, across millions of years, and exist as one organic miracle linked to others. The natural environment we treat with such unnecessary ignorance and recklessness was our cradle and nursery, our school, and remains our one and only home. To its special conditions we are intimately adapted in every one of the bodily fibers and biochemical transactions that gives us life. That is the essence of environmentalism. It is the guiding principle of those devoted to the health of the planet. But it is not yet a general worldview, evidently not yet compelling enough to distract many people away from the primal diversions of sport, politics, religion, and private wealth. [viii]

Scientists are in the forefront of the environmental movement and organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientist are amongst the most effective lobby groups attempting to gain legislation on environmental issues. Recently over 1,000 American scientists signed an open letter to congress on the State of Climate Science.[ix]

Science provides a spiritual framework from which we can see our true situation and the inappropriateness of our self’s ‘one time only’ concerns. Science is not often considered as a spiritual framework but it serves this function for a growing body of humanity. In the next section we will trace the evolution of this framework and a number of extraordinary people who serve as its prophets.


[i] New Scientist, February 5th – 11th 2005, Vol 185 No2485, pg 5.

[ii] Wilson David Sloan. (2002). Darwin's Cathedral : Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. University of Chicago press.

[iii] Eldredge Niles. The Sixth Extinction website. . Last viewed January 27, 2005.

[iv] Diamond Jared. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin Publishing

[v] Eldredge Niles. The Sixth Extinction website. . Last viewed January 27, 2005.

[vi] Wilson Edward O. (2002). The Future of Life.  Alfred A. Knopf, New York

[vii] Address by Edward O. Wilson at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Science Takes Flight Celebration, September 4, 2003, at the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity, Ithaca, New York.

[viii] Wilson Edward O. (2002). The Future of Life.  Alfred A. Knopf, New York

[ix] Global Environment page on the Union of Concerned Scientist website. , Last viewed February 5, 2005