Human Species Heading Towards Extinction?


In a recent lecture, Prof Noam Chomsky implied that the human species may be heading towards extinction.  Quoting Ernst Mayr, the grand old man of American biology, Prof Chomsky said that “intelligence is a kind of lethal mutation.”  The very same intelligence that helped mankind to become lord of the universe may drive it to its end. 

The organisms that do quite well on the earth are those that mutate very quickly like the bacteria or those that are stuck in a fixed ecological niche like beetles.  Such organisms may survive environmental crises.  “But as you go up the scale of what we call intelligence, they are less and less successful,” says Chomsky presenting Mayr’s theory. “By the time you get to mammals, there are very few of them as compared with, say, insects.”  The origin of humans may be about 100,000 years ago.  According to Mayr, “the average life span of a species, of the billions that have existed, is about 100,000 years, which is roughly the length of time that modern humans have existed.” 

Chomsky is of the opinion that with the present environmental crisis mankind seems to be on the verge of extinction.  Human intelligence which helped the species to become masters of the environment may end up as the root cause of the extinction of the species.   With the help of the intelligence, man made tremendous progress on the earth.  Science and technology came from that intelligence.  Our craving for luxury and comfort kept on increasing without limits.  Our needs went from necessity to contentment to luxury to superfluousness.  For example, we needed efficient means of communication.  We had the telephone.  It improved and became more and more efficient in the form of better and better mobile phones.  Today, we are wallowing in the quagmire of mobile phones discarded sooner than they are bought because our superfluousness makes our phones outdated too soon.  The same is the case with a lot of other things like cars, TV, computer, and so on. 

The impact of such discarded things or things sold secondhand on the environment is tremendous.  Chomsky calls the impact an ‘externality.’  The impact is external and we are not aware of it directly.  The impact caused by the ever-increasing number of vehicles on the environment is not known to us when we go to buy yet another new car for another member of the family.  Even the transaction of a secondhand mobile phone has certain externalities.  A lot of our activities today are marked by externalities.

The aggregate of such externalities will be the root cause of the extinction of mankind.

Our social and political attitudes are of no help either.  Environment summits collapse without coming to wise conclusions.  Such summits are jettisoned by the selfish interests of different countries.  Some countries like the developed ones do not want to cut down their pursuit of superfluousness.  Others like the developing ones raise the question why they should pay the price for the damage done by the developed nations, and why they shouldn’t pursue contentment, if not superfluousness like the developed nations. 

Economics is the ultimate driving force of people’s outlooks today. How to make more and more money, how to use that money for more and more comforts and luxury some of which are plainly superfluous, and how to amass more and more money maybe in a Swiss bank – these are the concerns today.  The market is the place which satisfies all these quests.  The market is no more the traditional one where you went to buy essential things like food items, clothes, etc.  The market today means far more: the real estate, gold and diamond, stock market, fashion, beauty…  Even professions such as medicine, teaching, and journalism have become markets.  Politics is a giant market.  Anything is!

Unless we revolutionise our outlooks we may drive our species to extinction.  The final solution seems to be a very Gandhian one.  The earth has enough to satisfy everyone’s need, but not many people’s greed.  Even Chomsky’s solutions seem to be a slightly different version of the Gandhian one.

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10 Responses to Human Species Heading Towards Extinction?

  1. baruk says:

    lol.i can’t say i’d particulalrly regret homosapiens going extinct, though i *would appreciate it if i was spared the discomfort of it happening in my lifetime!

    • matheikal says:

      Baruk, I remember a few years ago I happened to mention in a class (XII) that the age of our solar system is finite. A few billion years from now our star would be a black hole that would swallow the nearby planets including the earth. A few days later, the father of one of my students confronted me with a sour face and ansked, “What a stupid teacher you are to teach the students that the end of the world is coming. My son has stopped studying…”

      No, don’t distress yourself [nor console yourself, either] with the thought of an imminent end of our species. Even Chomsky says that there will be quite a few human creatures left here and there in some safe niches even after the extinction descends on us. There’s much hope for you and me, you see…

      • Raghuram Ekambaram says:

        This is top notch. I am glad to see you giving a nod to what you may call “environmental thinking”. I have been arguing this for such a long time I am tired. Now, I am glad you have picked up the gauntlet. Thanks a lot.

        You ahve to focus on how those “externalities” are internalized enough not to raise uncomforatble thoughts. The “growth through consumption” economic paradigm. Simple.

        Raghuram Ekambaram

  2. matheikal says:

    Thanks, Raghuram, for your rare endorsement.
    Yeah, I agree that the crux of the matter is not focused enough in the article. Yet I hope some people may start thinking… I have become rather cynical when it comes to expecting people to think!

  3. Shajan says:

    Even though we claim to accept the idea of Time and Evolution, most people confuse their inner clock with universal time. My birth is the beginning and my death is the end. We are unable to digest the fact of this world existing after our death. I am the center of this universe and my death puts an end to everything. Species extinction is only a topic of academic interest!


    • matheikal says:

      Shajan, are you saying that [what you have said] is the reason why people take the environmental issues lightly?

      • Shajan says:

        I believe so.

        We haven’t yet worked out where and how to place our individuality (Self/’I’) in the evolution of life.
        This has caused enormous confusion. For example look at what a scientist and a creationist has to say about the origin of man:

        Scientist: Man is the product of an evolutionary process that goes back 3.5 billion years in time.

        Creationist: Man was created (by God) in the year 4004 BC.

        I think both these observations are correct (or very nearly correct).
        Problem is that the word ‘man’ is used to mean different things, there is no agreement on what exactly is ‘man’.

        ‘Man’ means the physical body for science where as it means primarily the spirit/soul for the religious fundamentalist. Physical body has a long evolutionary history but the spirit/soul/self/’I’ is something that emerged not so long ago on evolutionary time scale.

        See how confusion grows. Scientist is sure about the evolutionary history of body. He goes onto look for a soul, a ‘ghost-in-the-machine’, finds nothing.

        Creationist on the other hand is absolutely sure that the spirit/soul/self/’I’ appeared much more recently. So he goes onto argue that the physical body (which houses the soul) also must have been a recent creation!

        Sorry for the diversion, but I think this is important.

        We haven’t yet worked out how man (body and mind) is related to nature. Educated people ‘knows’ the facts of evolution, but there is no scientific basis to relate the most powerful of our inner experiences to rest of nature. Hence the confusion and apathy.


  4. matheikal says:

    Shajan, here I’d agree with you on a lot of things. The confusion between the understanding about man’s appearance on the scene is the best example. But you’re still confusing me a bit. Isn’t it more a question of semantics than science or religion? For example, when the scientist says “Man is the product of an evolutionary process that goes back 3.5 billion years in time”, the meaning (semantic aspect) is what makes the difference. It does not mean that man evolved 3.5 billion years ago. Man appeared on the scene much, much later. The process of evolution might have started 3.5 billion years ago of which man is a much later product. But the sentence confuses a layman. [I’m a layman where science is concerned.]
    But your claim about the religious statement that man was created “in the year 4004 BC” is semantically very simple as most religious statements are. But it creates a lot of problems logically. When you explain it the way you’ve done, it become meaningful. But to whom? Only to the ‘initiated’, to the intelligent and educated readers. [The secular readers too, should I add?]
    Most religious believers do not bother about such niceties, I think. That’s my experience, of course. That’s why the “confusion”. Otherwise, aren’t things quite clear, without confusion?

    • Shajan says:

      The statement “man is the product of an evolutionary process that goes back 3.5 billion years in time” means man is only incrementally different from his immediate ancestor, and the chain continues all the way to the first living cell. Appearance of man as a separate species is not terribly important in that sense. There were no discontinuities in the evolutionary process. Everything that makes up man has a natural explanation.

      Problem is most people cannot see this continuity. Evolutionary history of the physical body is clear from the fossil records and other evidence, but how about the soul/spirit? Science doesn’t have a natural history of soul going back 3.5 billion years, and soul/spirit is much more important than body for a lot of people.

      So where does the soul/spirit come from? One way is to say such things don’t exist. This is what some scientists do. Another way is to believe these are special to man, bestowed by a supernatural god.

      It appears that both these positions are wrong. So most of us choose a third option of remaining confused! This ambivalence shows up as apathy in the way we treat nature.


  5. sanjay says:

    ohh intelligence is not a “lethal mutation” mutation at all. it’s good for us but as everything brings something bad with its so its brings some devils which through the time start to accumulate and finally cause bad things. our extinctions will be by product of that only

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