Human Survival and Dr. Strangelove

(Last Updated On: September 17, 2013)

Nagasaki bomb 201pxScience Fact: Human Survival sounds like a pretty weighty topic, even for Scientific American, but there it is, all 1800 words of it.

Because fending off asteroids and capping volcanoes is too difficult, the article focuses more on why we, as human beings, can’t look that far ahead, can’t deal with such problems. The author Lawrence Rifkin discusses psychological, ideological, and then evolutionary reasons like the following:
… those better able to dodge the lion were more likely to pass on their genes, while those focused on…gamma-ray bursts from outer space might have represented good news for the continuation of the lion’s genetic line, but not their own.

Science Speculation:  You’d think that contemplating destruction of our species would cause anyone to be tongue-tied, but the article goes on to list fourteen things we poor humans could or should be doing. Some of the items are straightforward: seed banks, disease control. Some are far out: deflect asteroids, colonise other planets. But he completely lost me with the following suggestion:
Maintain a well-chosen small number of people in a deep, well protected refugee sanctuary, with adequate supplies to last for years to buffer against human extinction from a range of causes. Genetically diverse international volunteers who live in such a bunker could be rotated, say, every two months. A similar Noah’s ark refuge could be established on a space station.

All I could think of was Dr. Strangelove, the sixties film in which Peter Sellars simultaneously plays mad scientist, President, and hapless British junior officer. Dr. Strangelove advocates an escape plan just like that in the article (however, more luridly and lecherously), and General Turgidson worries about a “mineshaft gap” because the Soviets will do the same.

I have high respect for popular culture, which enriches and enlivens our world, and in cases like this does even more: it gives a flash of insight that allows us to immediately recognize the ridiculous, even when it’s embedded in scientific jumbotalk!

Is human survival a worthwhile study for human beings? Or it is too big for us — better suited to God, Nature, Fate, predestination, the Stars…?


Human Survival and Dr. Strangelove — 4 Comments

  1. The females chosen will have to be of a highly stimulating nature! Dr. Strangelove was an excellent movie. Kubrick is great at making fun of men in positions of power in all his movies, especially Dr. Strangelove and Lolita.

    I was wondering what your opinion of evolutionary explanations is as a scientist. Sometimes I think they’re completely vacuous. People will just casually say we are this way or that because it was “adaptive” and present that as a sufficient explanation. But they never give real evidence to show that the behavior really was adaptive. Instead they just appeal to our intuition about caveman life, like the example you gave above. Who knows how the real evolutionary pressures played out?

    • Joseph, I am tempted to say “I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.” But I digress.
      As a scientist, I think evolution is an excellent hypothesis. It explains some things, fails to explain others, and in general is a good premise against which to test new data as we discover it. We were not personally present millions of years ago, so we can read the fossil record or we can read the Bible, but as scientists we will never be sure.
      Rather than trying to prove evolution or any other theory to the nth degree (think of the repeated attempts to disprove Einstein’s Relativity), perhaps we should value theories of this type not by their “truth”, but by their richness in suggesting hypotheses and experiments, their practical implication, and their intellectual stimulation of still more ideas. Using these as signposts, I would say Darwin’s ideas rank pretty high.
      I recently saw an article with photographs of small creatures, animals I think, who adopt a variety of physical varieties without any attempt at natural selection. I can’t find the article, one of the few I didn’t save! But in searching for it, I found two that seem to relate: “Adaptive evolution without natural selection” and “Parallel Evolutionary Dynamics of Adaptive Diversification in Escherichia coli“. What I dimly grasp from these is that not only does natural selection seem to drive evolutionary changes, but evolution also occurs for random, or unstructured reasons. A Darwinian might say that random evolution originally evolved as a survival strategy, and was retained by accident; but a non-Darwinian would say that this is yet more evidence that a bare-bones Darwinism is not a satisfactory explanation of the things we see in the wonderful natural world around us.

      • I hope I didn’t come across as skeptical of evolution in general, because I’m not. I just think it’s lazy and hand-wavy to say specific things are a certain way because it was adaptive. Maybe it’s because I don’t know how evolutionary biology is done. I’ll read those articles you linked.

  2. Thanks Art: Good stuff, like all of your posts. Anyone seriously interested in this topic should read “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond. It will either open your eyes or confirm previous beliefs.

    George Rhodes