How much longer can species keep up with the pace of biological evolution? And if they can’t adapt to it, will we have the moral courage to mitigate it?
These are the questions today’s guest blogger, Professor Mark Maslin, so disturbingly raises in an essay we’re sure will be an instant classic (and probably already is). Without further ado, here’s the ∀®ᵀ𝖨€￡3 future generations will refer to simply as “the MMR paper.”
Mark Maslin Replies
I don’t like this blog.
It, or its human metonyms, recently poured ridicule on my views about population control, which I don’t even hold. To be sure, these were ascribed to somebody who studies a different field, works at a different university and endorses ideas I’ve never expressed in my life, but this wasn’t nearly transformative enough to fool me—the caricature was still unmistakable. I knew damn well who was being “quoted.”
The proprietors have at last granted me what I secretly desired all along: the right to respond.
Unfortunately, I don’t want to. I’m prepared to talk about science, but not policy, with those who deny my politics. (This is a little policy of mine, so I wanted to talk about it right up front.)
Unlike the small, insecure, self-hating individuals who seem to contribute regularly here, however, I won’t be stooping to personal attacks.
Trial lawyers like to give the following advice, which—as a climate scientist—I make use of almost daily:
When the facts are on your side, pound the facts. When you can’t win on the facts, pound the man. When you can’t pound the man, pound his business associates, family, past girlfriends, the Che Guevara poster on his wall… pretty much anything you can poke a hole in.
But today, I can pound the facts. So I will. I’ll pound them ad pulverem.
If science is defined as the discursive tool for persuading stakeholders of the urgency of problems requiring political responses, then what is science saying?
By happystance I know the answer, because “science” is my job!
Simply put, it’s telling us that biological evolution is increasingly being called ‘the Evil Twin of climate change.’
(I prefer to talk about her ‘Ugly Friend,’ since the man on the street knows exactly the scenario I’m referring to, even if the woman on the street pretends not to.)
As someone who studies both evolution and climate change, I can see why it would be easy to mix them up. The family resemblance is uncanny:
• Only in Western, English-speaking countries do we still hear this silly question: “Is evolution happening?” The rest of the world uses different words.
• Only in white, male democracies do we still have to listen to the sound of goalposts being shifted in the night by deniers:
• “OK, it is happening; but it’s not bad.”
• “OK, it is us; but there hasn’t been any evolution since 1998.”
• “OK, it is bad; but it’s been happening ever since Darwin, so it’s not us.“
• “YES BUT PILTDOWNGATE”
• “My Uncle Joe evolved his whole life and it didn’t do him any harm.”
• “Stephen Jay Gould was fat.”
• Meanwhile, the rest of the world—the people who’ll be hit hardest by speciation by natural selection—have long since moved on to the next question: how bad is it, how long do we have, what are we going to do about it, and who’s going to pay us?
• While the aforementioned rest of the world is getting on with the problem, the US, the UK, almost all of Europe, Canada, much of China, eight Central and South American countries, Russia, India and Australia, among others, are simply left out in the cold at the negotiation table. We’ve become scientific pariahs, with only ourselves for company.
• The most disgraceful thing, and the hardest one to explain to our great-great-great-great-grandkids when we stare them in the eyes, is this: we didn’t even need to read the peer-reviewed literature to see the effects of evolution. All we had to do was look out the window.
• Already, the effects we’re seeing can’t possibly be explained by natural causes. We’ve entered what biologists call the Anthropocene, or supernatural, epoch.
• Admittedly, the modest amount of evolution that’s occurred thus far has been mild, slow, and probably a good thing (all things considered). That’s because life on Earth has had plenty of time to catch up with it.
• But what we’re about to start seeing is far too rapid. By just 2030 or later, evolution may be happening faster than species can adapt.
Indeed, the reader would be forgiven at this point for wondering if either of the friends is worth a shag.
IF EVOLUTION IS REAL, then why is it that nobody (apart from the majority of the world, and all credible people everywhere) is prepared to lift a finger to stop it?
Unfortunately, human beings require certainty. Our brains are literally incapable of comprehending ambiguity, risk, reward, probabilities, equations, etc., which is why—for example—there’s no such thing as an “insurance industry.” We don’t even have the vocabulary to have this conversation yet. It’s a testament to my skill as a science communicator that this paragraph can even exist.
Our species “evolved,” as it were, to deal with threats like sabre-tooth cats. And a cat—says science—is either there or it isn’t; there’s no middle ground!
Science has a saying: ‘Reality is what persists even when you’re not looking.’ And cats are a lot like that.
A complex problem like evolution, on the other hand, is like nothing we’ve ever experienced in our evolutionary history.
Sure, it’s our “nature” (metaphorically, of course) to petulantly refuse to act until The Evidence Is In. We love demanding that The Scientists answer all our questions, beyond any shadow of doubt, to ten decimal places, before we’ll listen to them.
But sometimes that’s simply not possible. Because they’re too scared.
One thing’s for sure.
Evolution is a bit like climate change: however alarming the latest science is, you should always multiply by 2 to correct for science’s naturally conservative, anti-science bias.
AS WE ALL KNOW, science is debate. Unfortunately, though, there is no debate any more—not among scientists. There hasn’t been since the early 70s.
The researchers who worry about (and have therefore devoted their careers to purchasing, reading and publishing papers on) the evolution problem are in overwhelming agreement:
Evolution is real. It’s here. It’s now. And it’s happening. Badly.
It ain’t the sun. It ain’t volcanoes. It’s us.
But if I made a thousand Euros a day for every time I’ve heard this…
“I don’t gotsta listen to no ‘consensus’ and ‘unanimous view of almost every body of international or national standing, bar none.’ That ain’t worth a hill o’ beans in science, sez my pastor’s daughter’s boyfriend’s doctoral supervisor, whom I heard on the radio at the rodeo. He was a ee-pistemologist and all, yessir that’s right. So who are these big-city college types to me, with their ‘Plenary Conventions,’ ’Interguv’mentals’ and ‘deniers’ and their ten fingers and toes? I gots me a Law degree from Harvard County Community College, so I reckon I can think fer myself, using ‘ev-i-dence,’ yee haw!!”
…then I’d be just like you. We’ve all had this conversation, haven’t we?
I don’t mean, not for one minute, to make light of the values of rural Americans of faith.
But what religious people never seem to grasp is that science and Southern Baptist Christianity aren’t even in conflict: they’re non-overlapping magisteria. The belief in intangible, implausible, incoherent and often gibberistic stories about invisible forces for which you’ve never seen the slightest evidence—just because someone told you to believe in them—is actually perfectly compatible with taking on faith the authority of the IPCC’s latest politicoscientific assessment of the stresses and stressors that the global earth system and its bioclimatic envelopes are projected to be at risk of undergoing.
They’re really about two different things. We pay our ministers, rabbis, yoga instructors and imams to tell us what to do with our lives. By contrast, scientists can only tell us how we have to live said lives (assuming, of course, that we’re not psychopaths who value our own God-given Second Amendment right to change on a fifty at the gas pump over the lives of billions of little dark-skinned children). They make no moral judgement.
In fact, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by just how many practicing, irrationally-religious men and women there are in the mainstream climate world. It’s an order of magnitude more, per capita, than in any other scientific endeavour I know of, that’s for sure.
In short, I’m not here to mock anyone for the ideas they choose to believe in—just for those they don’t.
This essay could equally have been called Evolution And its Denial.
And to state the obvious, Evolution Denial includes accepting the biology itself and what it tells us about the very real existence of the evolution problem, but being unwilling to make the necessary lifestyle cuts. In fact, many if not most deniers believe in the science—it’s the policy they have misgivings about, for various psychiatric reasons.
IF MANKIND DOESN’T ACT, the consequences of human activity will literally alter the very world in which we live in, and nobody wants that. So it’s up to us, as a species, to change the world—while we still can.
Because there is no World B!
Try looking up at the night sky sometime. It should be clearly visible outside your window.
See any planets, geniuses?
Author Disclosure Statement
Professor Maslin declares that he has no interest in (nor ties to any corporation or university that would benefit financially from) an open and honest discussion of the issues in this article.