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Technology and the Lethal Mutation

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Ernst Mayr, leading biologist of the twentieth century, referred to human intelligence as a lethal mutation in evolution in that it was not a mutation that would have been favored by natural selection but is a mutation that will precipitate the extinction of the human species.   Its lethality is due to our cleverness in developing even more sophisticated technology while lacking the wisdom for its application.

Mayr's hypothesis, although untested, coheres with common sense given the state of the world in which such perils as a nuclear accident or war, a menacing level of greenhouse gases and a refusal by major polluters to even address the crisis, destruction of the oceans, a declining supply of potable water and pervasive and ubiquitous toxins in our air, water, land and food, threaten our existence.

Our seemingly inexorable descent into extinction is not attributable to our failure to adapt to our environment but rather to the anthropogenic degradation of our environment into one to which we will be incapable of adapting.   Billions of species throughout the history of life on earth have failed to adapt to natural changes in the earth's ecosystem, but our species will disappear due an ecosystem which we ourselves have created; however it will be beyond natural selection's ability to ensure our survival.

Human traits such as competiveness, greed, selfishness and our lust for power have seduced us into developing technology to satisfy our insatiable appetite for a more comfortable and convenient lifestyle while at the same time tolerating the proliferation of highly destructive weapons to protect us from the enemy du jour.

Human prerequisites for an acceptable lifestyle progressed from necessity to contentment to luxury to superfluity.   All these paradoxical advancements opened a new Pandora's Box of externalized costs resulting in a more toxic and dangerous world.   Each new technology produced unsuspected and unintended by-products whereas its benefits were obvious, immediate and coveted and their siren song will lure us to the rocky shoals of disaster.

For example, even antibiotics, an astronomical benefit to human health and longevity, has now become a mixed blessing as we not only overuse them but eat food laced with small quantities sufficient to destroy their effectiveness.     Cell phones, by now a primitive technology, are replete with externalities such as school children and slave labour mining coltan in the Congo and young women in sweat shops cleaning circuit boards in toxic chemicals resulting in birth defects.   Finally, there is the environmentally unfriendly transportation from one country to another as the semi-finished product travels to its next exploited country and then finally arrives at its market where workers who handle and sell it are underpaid.

A huge part of the problem is the ignorance, indifference or feelings of helplessness which have gripped and silenced people in North America.   In Canada, the opening, extraction and transmission of bitumen in the Alberta tar sands is one of the worst blows to controlling greenhouse emissions to date, yet only a few Canadians seem to grasp the alarming consequences.   Both the United States and Canada want to transport the dirty oil through pipelines to Memphis, the British Columbian coast and to eastern Canada. Yet again, most people are oblivious to the dangers inherent in shipping tar sands oil by such a method.   Furthermore, reserves in the tar sands will delay the onset of peak oil thus prolonging the use of fossil fuels.   Another example of destroying the ecosystem is the quickly accelerating growth of fracking throughout North America while people seem unaware of its myriad costs to the ecosystem.

These are only a fraction of the catastrophes propelling us to extinction; therefore, it is important to understand why a majority of people in North America are not rioting in the streets despite the militarization of the police and the crackdown on dissent.   After all, survival trumps all other concerns.     

One strategy for understanding the behaviour of governments and individuals who are confronted with these exigencies is to apply the prisoner's dilemma model which is derived from game theory.   In the prisoner's dilemma, played with two players, betraying the other player appears to be the rational strategy for achieving the optimum outcome.   But if each player betrays the other, the outcome is worse than if they cooperated.   Paradoxically, acting rationally and seeking the best outcome for yourself leads to an inferior result than cooperating with each other.

Applying the prisoner's dilemma to climate change, it can be argued that the immediate benefit of continuing to utilize fossil fuels is perceived to be greater than the long-term benefit of gradually replacing fossil fuels with sustainable forms of energy. Since the consequences of climate change are incremental, the worst of which may be many decades in the future, ignoring them as a compelling devastation is conveniently simple.   However, by pursuing self-interest, the ultimate outcome is tragic for everyone.   Cooperation through converting to sustainable energy veritably produces a better outcome for all.

Note that three human traits are decisive in this model: rationality, cooperation and self-interest.   North American culture promotes both self-interest and competition.   Rationality is only used to determine the optimal outcome for ourselves in the short term whereas wisdom would dictate that rationality also considers the long term.   It is this deficiency that induces us to make decisions or accept actions that are inevitably pernicious.

Similarly, the prisoner's dilemma can be applied to the suicidal compulsion to develop, stockpile and deploy increasingly sophisticated weapons.   Choosing to strengthen their military capabilities appears to be the rational choice for the major powers.   On the other hand, disarming seems to be foolish due to increased vulnerability and loss of power.   In addition, by disarming, major powers would lose their ability to maintain vital leverage internationally either in negotiations with other countries or in exploiting weaker countries.

Weaponization of the planet can only result in a catastrophic outcome for the human species but appears to be the rational choice despite the very high risk of either an accidental or deliberate nuclear war.

Disarming leads to the superior outcome for everyone.   Self-interest and competition underlie the decision to choose arms buildup while rationality is only applied in the short term where many harbour the delusion that since we have avoided a nuclear war through the specious efficacy of MAD, this strategy will always offer the same guarantee indefinitely.

Self-interest, immediate benefits, selfishness and greed combined with a failure to conceptualize the future beyond our next purchase will trigger changes to the ecosystem that might not sustain life for the human species.   Whether Mayr's hypothesis is valid is irrelevant since empirically, we are behaving as if it were true.

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I have been a professor of political science at Seneca College in Toronto. I have published five books the last of which "Selling Out: Consuming Ourselves to Death" was released in May/08. As well, I have been featured in CounterPunch, Z (more...)
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