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May 31st, 2021
Is humanity special among all the creatures and organisms that we share this planet with and which have come before us? Some would say yes, and others would hatefully disagree. But even for those that would disagree, what can’t be denied is that we’ve achieved a range of accomplishments and abilities that far outstrip other animals, even those species that have specially evolved for one particular ability.
Take for instance a cormorant. The cormorant is a neat little bird. It can fly, albeit not too well, it can walk of course, and it’s an excellent swimmer. It seems to have the best of all worlds. But as mentioned, it can’t fly very well, very high or very far for that matter. It’s swimming abilities are a bit more impressive, but other than that, even though it exists in a the center of a Venn diagram of abilities, the cross section it has is still quite small.
We can compare it’s flying abilities to an eagle or a falcon which is far more capable in the air. Or we can go even further and compare the cormorant to the now extinct Quetzalcoatlus, which was the size of a Cessna aircraft and could presumably fly at altitudes of 15,000 feet for 7 to 10 days and cross more than half the globe. Very impressive.
But now enters humanity. We have figured out how to dive to the bottom of the deepest ocean canyon on the planet and we don’t just soar higher, faster, father… we have gone to the moon, and we have imminent plans to go to Mars. The Venn diagram of our accumulated abilities is a set of completely overlapping circles that each represents the extreme capability of any creature that has ever existed.
It’s been examined previously on Tinkered Thinking that perhaps the key element that really separates humans from other species is our ability to plan long-term. One cannot simply go to Mars. Such a project and such capability requires a vast network of billions if not trillions of tiny plans that are all formed and undertaken with a much larger long term goal in mind. No animal seems mot be able to plan in such a diverse and imaginative way, and especially not in terms of several years, or decades.
For those who think we are making a mess of the planet, it’s good to remember that cleaning up a mess often requires an initial stage of making more of a mess.
Any successful species is defined by it’s inevitable decline as engineered by it’s success. We can see this in a simply experiment. If we put yeast in a pristine environment of sugar water, the yeast will thrive, multiply, and expand. This is what all organisms do. But as is natural, resources become exhausted, population growth hits a wall and then falls disastrously. Many believe that we are headed for the exact same fate. But there is one crucial fact that separates this familiar instance from all the rest, and it’s best captured by a question:
For all the species that have run this course of boom and bust, were any of them aware of the process? Could any of them see what was going to happen based on the observation of the same phenomenon in other species?
The answer could perhaps be yes, but in all likelihood it’s no. We certainly don’t have any evidence of a species noticing it’s own impending doom, whereas if humanity messes up this one chance, some Alien civilization could find the remnants of our civilization in the future, decode our language and discover that yes, we were in fact painfully aware of what was probably about to happen.
Of course we squabble over this issue, but it’s highly doubtful that flocks of Quetzalcoatlus were debating what latitudes they should fly at based on the idea that an asteroid might hit the planet and cover their main territory in a cloud.
The question isn’t whether humanity is special or different from other animals. It’s a matter of whether we are special enough, or different enough so that we will be able to escape the fate that has befallen every other ‘successful’ species that has come before us.
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