Our Own Worst Enemies


When my best friend and I are in the mode for an intellectual debate, we discuss the end of humanity.  What will happen to make humans go extinct?

Her favorite is either a virus or bacteria.  My favorite is something we have created, non-microscopic.  Oddly, neither of us worry that it will be an outer space cause, a la the dinosaurs.  On occasion, when I’m feeling particularly mischievous, I’ll suggest the super volcano under Yosemite or the Pacific Fault line… but most of the time, I firmly stick to my belief that we will engineer our own demise.

Yes, we could technically engineer our own downfall in the form of a virus or bacteria.  For example, we have discovered that streptococcus because more virulent and lethal when the bacteria is grown in the vacuum of space.  This means anyone that gets strep throat from space bacteria is in for a really bad day or two and will probably meet a brutal, painful end after that.

It is also possible that nature will take care of the problem.  If she does, it will most likely be viral in nature.  The Ebola epidemic is a good example.  In the confines of the Sudan and Congo, where it was discovered to be wiping out entire villages, it was bad, but not something the average person is going to worry about.  Now though, well, now’s a different story.  We can attempt to keep it contained, but viruses are pretty sneaky… That’s how it made it into an urban center to begin with and our belief that we can confine it to three or four countries in Africa is mildly arrogant and if we’re wrong, could have devastating world consequences (see Flu Pandemic of 1918, The Black Death of the 14th Century, The Justinian Plague, etc).

It is also possible that we will (or have) created a weapon that could result in our annihilation.  However, this seems less likely, after all, people survived the dropping of an atomic bomb… twice… on Japan.  There were horrible side effects to be sure (during one of my history classes, I saw a taped interview with an old Japanese man who had been so affected by radiation that his fingernails had grown blood vessels and he could no longer clip them… I had nightmares for a week or more about that), but people lived.  They also survived in Chernobyl, despite he parades and the best efforts of the Soviets to prove that there was nothing wrong as the reactor melted down.  So, nuclear weapons do not seem to be the end all, be all.  It would have to be something worse and anything worse is currently, unfathomable for me.

Another scenario is that we will simply ruin the planet.  Unfortunately for us, nature likes balance and for every ounce of damage we are doing to the planet, it is plotting revenge.  Unfortunately for nature, we have survived at least one ice age.

But for me, it is genetics that will be our enemy.  The genome is an interesting, wonderful, amazing, and powerful thing.  To understand it is to the unlock nearly god-like powers.  Dolly the Sheep wasn’t very scary, but aggressive red tail boas/burmese python hybrids are… and they eat alligators.  I don’t know if I’m bigger than an alligator or not, but I’d prefer not to find out that way.  This hybrid is partly our fault and partly nature getting back at us.  We imported the snakes and they thrive in the Everglades and other, more inhabited parts of Florida.  In the natural world, they would never meet to breed.  Only after the disaster of Hurricane Andrew and the continued release of pets into the wild do we have this problem.  I imagine Katrina probably made a mess in Louisiana too and we just haven’t figured it out yet.

Forty years ago, scientists managed to screw up and release Africanized Honey Bees in the Americas and it turns out they can breed with our more docile and climate tolerant native honey bees (or European honey bees).  Of course, this was another instance of nature thumbing her nose at us… Haha, stupid humans.  We now have proof that wolves and coyotes interbred from time to time.  That’s a little terrifying.  Polar bears and grizzly bears are mating… even more terrifying.  The jaguar is moving back into North America… they can breed with cougars.  I find this strange because cougars are considered a “small cat” and jaguars are a “big cat,” but maybe that isn’t a breeding detractor.

These hybrids are scary to be sure, but they don’t really hold a candle to what can be done with genetic engineering.  Recently, a scientist in China managed to infuse a rabbit ovum with human DNA.  It was destroyed because who needs that kind of headache, but it can be done.  It worked.  There has been speculation that the Tasmanian tiger will be brought back, using a mix of DNA from the Tasmanian tiger and the Tasmanian devil, it’s closest relative.  I’m all for bringing back something we made extinct, but I see a terrible Jurassic Park situation with that… It isn’t full thylacine DNA so what will the Tasmanian devil bring to the mix and how significantly different will the new thylacine be from the original?

Just something to consider.

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