Endearing optimism

Scientific American online made me smile today. I get the newsletter; I don’t usually read it, because the SciAm website ranks somewhere between Cracked and TVTropes on the scale of time sinks. I hardly need another chance to procrastinate. Anyway, for some reason I did open several articles this morning. One of them was headlined “Earth’s Days Are Numbered,” and of course I clicked the link for the opportunity to grump, because I was pretty darn sure that the title was pure sensationalism and I’m mean like that.

I was right. Right after the headline, the article (which they borrowed from Nature) warns us of the impending catastrophe thus: “Researchers calculate that the planet will leave the sun’s “habitable” zone in about 1.75 billion years.”

Yeah. Should I laugh or should I cry? (I have to say I laughed. I must be in an uncharacteristically charitable mood today.)

But then I read the whole thing, because my officemate started wondering what would kill poor earth in 1.75 billion years, and that made me wonder. Was it orbital instability, or was it just grumpy old Sol getting hotter and roasting us? (To spare you the suspense: it was the sun.)

The article closes with a quote from one of the folks who did the maths. A really sweet, naive, optimistic quote. A quote that makes you think this guy would never ever write dystopian sci-fi. Here’s the last paragraph and the quote:

Just as the sun brightens and the Earth becomes too hot for life, Mars will be entering the habitable zone. “If humans are going to be around in a billion years, I would certainly imagine that they would be living on Mars,” Claire says.

I… just… awwww!

Maybe I’m a cynic. (No, scratch that “maybe”.) But I’m also an evolutionary biologist and have more than a passing familiarity with the history of life. If you show me a species of animal that survived even for a hundred million years, never mind a mammal that lasted a billion, I’ll be impressed*.

(Of course, there could be a chance that the human lineage draws the jackpot and survives. Technically, cladistically speaking, maybe, all of our descendants should be called humans. “Human” is a colloquial term, not a clade name, but let’s forget that for a moment. Even so, I’ll bet you my beloved hat that whatever’s left of us in a billion years would only be “human” in technicality.)

Even though I should probably rage at the way these guys make it sound like humans being around in a billion years is a plausible idea, it only kindles a strange fuzzy kind of warmth around my shrivelled little heart. There go my principles… 😉


*No, “living fossils” don’t last billions of years. Don’t get me started on living fossils.


2 thoughts on “Endearing optimism

  1. Dave Bapst September 26, 2013 / 20:49

    What a ‘species’ is really breaks apart when we start trying to think of species over any sort of geological interval. Morphotaxa do last… and on the subject of ‘living fossils’ there’s living genera of pterobranchs that are nearly indistinguishable from Cambrian fossils. But that probably speaks to the incredibly boring morphologies of living pterobranchs, and any so-called ‘living fossils’ are probably not equivalent to species or genera in other groups (and probably paraphyletic).

    But, anyway, the future of humans. Well! Have you read Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men? It’s a scifi classic. Even has dolphin men on Venus. Eventually, the last of “humanity” will die out as strange quasi-inorganic beings barely living on Neptune.

    • Naraoia September 27, 2013 / 09:12

      Fair points. I tend to come at the concept of “living fossils” from a very… genomic point of view, and every instinct I have about genomes screams ARRGH, JUST ‘CAUSE THEY *LOOK* KIND OF THE SAME DOESN’T MEAN THEY ARE!!! Interesting to hear that there’s more than Lingula that looks the same since the Cambrian. If the graptolite guy says they are nearly indistinguishable, I’ll assume they probably are 🙂

      That said, IIRC the average lifespan of a mammalian “species” is only a few million years.

      *sigh* Taxonomy is funny. Genus Drosophila is like twice as old and encompasses several times more genome divergence than family Hominidae, and that’s not even counting the Lingulas. It’s almost like hominids are doing the classification.

      As for the book, no, I haven’t read it. I must say my sci-fi reading is woefully patchy.

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