susan_blackmore's picture
Psychologist; Visiting Professor, University of Plymouth; Author, Consciousness: An Introduction
Psychologist and Skeptic; Author, Consciousness: An Introduction

Our Civilisation Will Survive the Coming Climate Catastrophe

I am optimistic that our civilisation will survive the coming climate catastrophe.

A few years ago I was less so. I thought that the climate might just continue heating up until humans could no longer live on earth at all. Since then, watching the rapidly advancing climate science from outside, I now think it possible that the climate will shift into a new stable state. This may not be ideal for humanity, and billions of people may die through drought and starvation, but if there are at least some areas where people can still survive, then our culture will continue evolving during and beyond this crisis point.

Such crisis points may be a regular feature of any planet where life evolves. Imagine that a planet forms and cools, chemical reactions begin, and at some point a self-replicating molecule appears, producing lots of copies that compete to survive. More complex molecules outperform simpler ones, groups with membranes outperform isolated replicators and, with more variation and more materials to use, the process speeds up until complex organisms appear. This beautifully inevitable process may have happened zillions of times all over the universe—or maybe very few times. All we know for sure is that something like this happened on our planet and this first evolutionary step produced the DNA replication mechanism and an abundance of life.

A second step then becomes possible. That is, the organisms find new ways of copying information. This creates a second replicator and starts another evolutionary process, building on the first. This happened on earth when just one species, humans, became able to imitate each others' behaviour with sufficiently high fidelity to create a new replicator, memes. These memes (the behaviours, habits, and skills that were copied) evolved slowly at first and then faster and faster, creating our languages, social institutions, and complex culture.

I think this step to a second replicator is intrinsically very dangerous. The new replicator is like a parasite that uses its host's resources to get itself copied. As with any parasite, the balance can tip either way. The parasite may kill its host and itself die in the process, or both may pull through and coevolve to become symbiotic. We have no idea whether there were failures on other planets, or failures on earth before we humans began to imitate. Perhaps the Neanderthals, or other hominids, tried the experiment and failed—their memes were too destructive. Perhaps completely different species tried it and failed. All we know for sure is that we pulled through and coevolved along with our memes so that now we cannot live without them. A human without language or culture is hardly human at all.

But then a third step becomes possible—and it is another dangerous one. As memetic evolution accelerates, new and more efficient ways of copying and storing memes are invented, and the original, biological meme machines are left behind. Their messy, inaccurate copying, and their largely analogue memes, are no match for the more accurate and prolific copying of the new meme machines; printing presses, factories, fax machines, tape recorders and eventually digital systems that not only copy and store memes but recombine and select them as well.

That is the stage we have reached now on earth. The artificial systems we have built still depend on us, and would perish with us if we all died, but they are evolving far faster than we are, and are taking up the planet's resources in the process.

Some people still maintain the fantasy that we humans are in charge and can still control the memes we have let loose. Yet it must be increasingly obvious that we can't; that they are in the driving seat, not us. They are sucking up the planet's resources increasingly fast and, being selfish replicators, they have no foresight and don't care in the least what happens to us or the planet; they can't, they are just replicating information. So we are hovering at this second danger point right now.

Perhaps this critical point has been reached on countless planets and none pulled through—perhaps acquiring new replicators is so dangerous that memes (or their equivalents) always wipe out the original replicator that spawned them, explaining why we have not yet heard from any other intelligent beings out there. Or perhaps it is possible to for an intelligent species to work out what has happened, repair the damage and live in harmony with the creatures it unwittingly gave rise to.

I think it is, and I am optimistic that we will.