Welcome to our series, Let Me Google That For You, which sees us answer life's big questions. Or, more specifically, sees us answer the most googled questions in the English language.
On September 26, 1983, a Soviet lieutenant named Stanislav Petrov was monitoring Russian airspace for incoming ballistic missiles when a computer sounded an alarm. According to the radar, a single nuclear missile was headed towards the Soviet Union, and likely from the United States.
This was a particularly tense period during the Cold War and Petrov’s orders were to meet incoming missiles with immediate nuclear retaliation. But Petrov didn’t. He believed it was illogical for the US to launch an attack (and initiate World War Three) with just a single missile, so he overrode his orders, and waited to see if the bomb would arrive, which it didn’t.
Later, the incident was blamed on a faulty radar reading and Petrov was praised for averting a disaster. Today it’s recognised he likely saved humanity from nuclear apocalypse.
History is littered with moments like this, both within and outside of our control. Despite wars, plagues, meteorites, and our determination to poison the planet, we trudge on, somehow clinging to life. Which really raises the question: why are we still here?
To have some vaguely reasonable chance at answering such a thing, I reached out to three academics from three different backgrounds—a historian, scientist, and philosopher. They ran me though all the ways we've survived, and why.
Dr. Rolf Schmidt is a paleontologist and expert in mass extinctions at Museums Victoria. And according to him the reason we’ve survived to 2018—and indeed the reason we’re here in the first place—is luck.
“There is the fact that we have this incredibly complex brain and have hands that are free, and that all helped. But a lot of our initial survival is just based on luck,” Rolf explained.
As he explained, history is rife with periods that our dispersed populations dwindled to genetic bottlenecks of less the 10,000 individuals, but we somehow fled or scraped by. And to illustrate the point he tells me about the Toba Eruption, about 75,000 years ago.
This super volcano blew up at Sumatra’s present-day Lake Toba, creating one of the largest eruptions the planet has seen. The explosion launched dust and debris 3,000 kilometres away, and dumped enough sulfur into the atmosphere to create a 10-year winter. Plants went extinct in the perpetual twilight and animals followed, starving off the majority of our ancestors. It’s thought that perhaps 10,000 humans survived, which apparently was enough.
But as Rolf explained, our aptitude for problem solving played into our luck. “Not many species are flexible,” he said. “Even intelligent species like dogs or crows or octopi lack that versatility in their body and brain function.”
But he thinks one of our most important survival tools has been our proclivity for communication—which has allowed us to share knowledge and assimilate with other human species, such as Neanderthals. “This assured our success in migration,” he says. “And it helps to explain how it’s possible we live in these cities with a million-plus people as we do now.”
So it seems that sociability, adaptability, and pure luck have came together to allow humans to achieve dominance. But Rolf isn’t convinced we’re out of the woods. According to him, modern civilisation is a thin varnish, and it’ll wear off eventually. “This luxury of civilisation will eventually be gone and we’ll struggle,” he says. “But we’ll still be here. We’ll be sent back to the Stone Age for thousands of years most likely, but we’ll be here.”
Next up, I met with Dr. William P. Hall, otherwise just known as “Bill.” He’s got a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology from Harvard and he’s currently working on a book exploring how, compared to other primates, our coevolution with technology benefits our future.
According to Bill, a reason we’ve survived comes from a mix of outliving the competition, but also looking after one other. “The humans surviving today are members of those groups that consistently were able to win competitions with other groups and of course, able to cooperate,” he says. “Natural selection at the genetic level is favoured towards the ability for individuals to cooperate socially and ‘altruistically’ within groups.”
Bill paints a picture of our ancestors hunting in the African savannah, where we started out somewhere in the middle of the food chain. But we didn’t simply evolve our way to the top. Instead, our tools got better at a faster rate than both our human and animal competitors, allowing us to multiply. Then it was other technologies, such as the wheel and boat, that allowed us to spread around the globe. And this protected us from annihilation, simply because there were too many of us in too many different places to wipe out.
“Tool-using with language and social inheritance was gradually learned enough to develop the technologies that were needed to dominate the entire surface of Planet Earth,” Bill explained. “Population and technology then began to grow in more-or-less exponential spurts, and especially since the Industrial Revolution.”
With our survival hinging on there being too many of us to kill, you’d assume that as long as we continued to reproduce, we’d continue to thrive. But according to Bill, this was only possible while the Earth’s ecosystems remained intact, which is no longer possible.
“I think we’ve become a cancer,” he says. “I have studied over three billion years of evolution and I don’t feel we have much of a future. The Earth cannot replace the limited resources as fast as we are consuming them, and the planet will not sustain us if we continue."
So Rolf and Bill had considered how humans have sustained their existence, but there was a question left unanswered. That is: why haven’t we looked into the abyss and decided to just quit?
Matthew Bishop is a counselor with a background in philosophy based in Melbourne. Every week, Matthew helps people to find meaning and direction in their lives, so it made sense to get his thoughts on why humanity has bothered.
According to Matthew, the trait that defines us as a species is consciousness. This has given us an understanding of our past and future, and most significantly allowed us to develop a concept we call “hope.”
“It’s this idea of hope, and hoping that we create much better lives for ourselves that’s very significant,” he says. “The idea that I’ll sacrifice aspects of myself now for my future self, and future generations, make hope a very powerful emotion.”
According to Matthew, hope doesn’t just feel good, but also drives us to choose behaviours that further our survival. "We have all these potentials—both positive and negative—for our society and ourselves, and hope acts as a pull towards these possibilities,” he says. “It’s hope that defines us because humans without hope lose drive, and we see that in existential dread or in mental illness.”
Although Matthew admits his depiction of hope is inherently optimistic, his attitude towards the future isn’t so bright.
“Our future is 50/50. Because as Freud pointed out, we do have a death drive; a drive for destruction, as well as a drive for self-preservation. I don’t think we’ll destroy ourselves, but I’m terrified we’ll destroy our society.”
So, why are we still here?
If there are two things I took from this, it’s that our brains and penchant for cohabitation have allowed us to prosper, even though these same factors now threaten our survival. But the other thing I walked away with was sadness. Because every one of those three academics thought we were facing a return to the stone age.
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All photos by Jack Nelson
This article originally appeared on VICE AU.