Consider This Conjecture
Over the years I have addressed the notion that human beings are equivalent to cancer in the Ecos because we are busily grabbing up every resource in sight and destroying the tissues of the Ecos, the various ecosystems of the planet. In several venues I have argued that this analogy is not really helpful because it casts our species as an evil for which the only cure is to cut it out. I have also argued that the analogy is not really apt in the first place because humans have not just destroyed. They have discovered some incredible knowledge, applied it to make life better for themselves, and created magnificent art and music along the way. Cancers don't think about stuff they just eat. They don't create works of intrinsic value. And they don't create cells within that stop to ask, “are we being like cancers in the way we are affecting the Ecos?”
A lot of the argument hinges on the fact, undeniable, that we have gone into population overshoot. By definition that means there is some, much smaller, population size that should be sustainable. Cancers kill by first invading a tissue and then reproducing without bound while sucking up all of the nutrients, thus killing the healthy tissue. From the outside it does look like this is our modus operandi, I admit. However, there is evidence that with affluence comes a lowered birth rate, suggesting that there are some inherent, though not understood, balancing feedback controls in place. What has complicated the situation is that on top of expanding the population we are also increasing our consumption of resources per capita. The two combined lead to the kind of phenomenon we are witnessing.
But suppose that humans had taken a different course of evolution, had developed higher sapience along with higher intelligence and creativity, and proceeded cautiously when being inventive. Suppose they had developed the wisdom to recognize the dangers of over population and over consumption and had taken steps to prevent the population bomb and conspicuous consumption. What kind of society would we have today? And would it be in any sense better than we have produced?
Given a global carrying capacity estimated at fewer than five hundred million people society and the world would certainly look very different from what we have. Many of you, and I, probably think that would have been a much better world to live in. The only problem is that we would not be here! The only reason you, dear reader, and I exist is because the world of human cultures developed the way they did. If we hadn't had population overshoot none of us would be here. There would be humans, of course, just none of US.
You may be thinking (very abstractly of course, because we are here) that that would still be a good thing. But here is another thing to ponder. Variation in the gene pool is a function of size of the population. The larger the population the more opportunities there are for a substantially better variant allele of any given gene to arise. Better still more opportunities for a better variant of a control element in the networks controlling the development of brains to emerge and lead to — you guessed it — higher sapience!
But That Alternative Evolution Didn't Happen, So...
In other words, the world of mankind developed the way it did and that is a fact we have to accept. The brain structures necessary for higher sapience more than likely could not have evolved alongside intelligence and creativity because its emergence in the genus Homo came much later than the latter two. Indeed because of the way Broadmann area 10 interacts with all other areas of the prefrontal cortex, the emergence of sapience, minimal as it might have been, was probably like an afterburner burst to the existing circuits for cleverness. Brain circuits develop to larger sizes as much because of stimulation during development as of genetic predisposition. A new circuit stimulating lots of other circuits during embryogenesis may have well been part of what caused the brains of sapiens to expand so much.
There is no point in lamenting the way evolution brought us to this point. Either the further non-development of sapience was an accident of timing or a necessity, either way that is what seems to have happened and there is no use crying about it.
Of course it is true that we have a mess on our hands and that cleaning it up is what nature will get around to shortly. We can cry about that, but not as victims, just unhappy bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time. The real question is how do we face a collapse of civilization and a more than likely (IMHO) bottleneck event with dignity and solace? In part, I think, we draw solace from recognizing that we are not a cancer per se, that things developed as they did because there was not another pathway open to evolution's persistent exploration of design space. And because, as it turns out, the overpopulation situation actually makes it more likely that some very highly sapient varietals have already emerged. Wish them luck.
But if you want to stick with the cancer analogy then at least look at a phenomenon that more closely resembles how a cancer comes about in the first place - mutations in key genes in susceptible cells that then causes them to grow out of control. Specifically cast your eyes on capitalism as a meme that effectively mutates the thinking of people, turning them into over consumers and profiteers. It is the relentless drive to grow profits that pushes us to do what we do. And that meme has metastasized globally. That is the real disease.The original capitalism arose as a means to aggregate enough excess harvest so as to re-invest in capital equipment (before formal depreciation entered the scene) for the farm or village. It quickly led to investment in growing the capacity of a community to support more people and have more stuff and that led us, eventually, to what we have today — unbridled avarice and waste. Our brains are not sufficiently strong enough to have resisted the temptation (though history records several attempts to do so).
In today's version of economics there are so many fallacious beliefs that stem from this early subversion of normal autopoeisis. For example, consider the accepted “fact” that everyone should get a raise to compensate for the cost of living inflation. But also consider the fact that when everyone gets a raise the cost of living is pressured to rise since labor had been a major component of most products and services up until recently. An endless cycle of inflation, compensation, more inflation. The only thing that may have masked the obvious was the increases in technology that helped drive some other costs down allowing the upward pressure to build slowly, but inevitably resulting in increases in prices. Why do you think so many corporations have sought cheaper labor costs through off-shoring? Ironically now the Chinese and Indian factory laborers are starting to want the same creature comforts as had by the Westerners who buy their goods; you know what that means vis-a-vis prices!
OTOH: All of our advanced technologies would not be here either. Inhabitants of the planet in this time (the NOT-YOU) would not be reading a blog by a speculating crackpot. Without capitalism's peculiar motivation much innovation would probably never have happened in the time frame it did. Sure, humans might have eventually figured some stuff out. But wisdom often entails careful consideration of new things and the consequences of their uses before blundering in. While a lot of modern technology is really not very useful in the sense of producing happiness, it is really hard to make judgments about such things. I conjecture that to get the good stuff as rapidly as we did, you have to accept the worthless and even bad stuff as well. I guess you could call it collateral damage.
Humans and culture are locked into a coevolutionary, mutually causal spin. It is the way it is and that's just the way it is. My hope is that once humans evolve greater sapience they will be able to sort the wheat from the chaff and get on with developing and using more sane technology. I'm betting iPhones will be left far behind.
I Say Rejoice in Evolution
Even when you don't understand it of feel like you are the one being selected against!
We can't really know what is going to happen. We only dimly understand (and more often guess) about how things got to be the way they are. But we can assume that evolution will persist and as long as the Sun continues to pour energy into our biosphere something more complex, but also more controlled will emerge. My money is on eusapience and real eusociality down the road a ways.