Every religion have a concept of world destruction.Hindu mythology says that universe is destroyed at end of every “Yuga” and is reborn again. Islam has concept of “Qayamat” or the “Day of Judgement”. The point is that it is quite common for humans to think that humanity is doomed in future.
This begs the question, Is total human annihilation possible? Short answer Yes, but it not likely to happen. I mean, if a pulsar form a neutron star hit earth today, everyone of us will be fried and we cannot do anything about it. But, end of humanity is less likely than you might think, here’s why.
First, lets take a look at how human species have come close to annihilation in past.
- Meteorite/ Comets :You may not realize importance of this threat, but earths orbit is crossed by thousands of Meteorites which are capable of destroying life on earth. A meteorite doesn’t have to be big to destroy us, one that killed dinosaurs was 10⁹ times smaller than earth in terms of volume.
- Ice Ages: The last ice age happened nearly 22,000 years ago, and it reduced human population to fraction of what it was.
- Plagues and other deadly diseases: The black plague wiped out a third of Europe’s population in 13th century, And that to in matter of few years. diseases are such a major concern that, Bill Gates thinks that it is greatest threat to humanity. Here’s a video regarding this.
- Famines: A famine is extreme shortage of food caused by natural or man made factors that leads to deaths of millions of people. There are several extreme examples of famine in past. even today many African countries faces dangers of famine. With current rate of climate change,drastic drop in worlds food output is possible. This situation is best showcased in movie Interstellar.
Leaving meteorites aside, we have actually survived the other three threats. Despite whatever idea you might get form watching ‘Man Vs Wild’, we humans as a species are quit good at surviving on planet earth. We survived Ice age by fabricating better clothing and shelters. We survived Black plague by improving level of hygiene and maintaining quarantine zones. We have reduced chances of famine by the green revolution. The point is, We as a species, survived because of our ability to develop technology to tackle these threats. I repeat, we survived because we developed technology.
So, what is technology anyway?
Wikipedia defines technology as: Technology is the collection of techniques, skills, methods and processes used in the production of goods or services or in the accomplishment of objectives, such as scientific investigation. Technology can be the knowledge of techniques, processes, etc. or it can be embedded in machines, computers, devices and factories, which can be operated by individuals without detailed knowledge of the workings of such things.
If you skipped the above paragraph after “Wikipedia defines technology as …”, then don’t worry, you are not alone. The above definition is complex and quit frankly boring. We can define technology simply as:
Technology is the ability to control and utilize elements of nature.
Let me explain, better the technology, more is our control over the forces of nature. For example, when primitive human developed technology to light fire, we gained ability to control the energy stored in wood. When we developed steam engine, we gained control to convert this energy to mechanical energy and when we invented generators, we further increased our ability to control utilization of this chemical energy stored in fuel. Another example could be invention of vaccines, which allowed us some control over our own immune system. Or the radio, which made us masters of electromagnetic spectrum.
So, as we develop better technologies we gain more control over the environment which translates in better chance to mitigate an apocalyptic instances. And we are developing technology at increasingly faster pace.
We are developing technology at increasingly faster pace
This is something most people do not realize is happening. The rate at which we are developing new technology, is itself increasing. That means if we develop 10 Buttload of technology in 2010–2015 period, we may develop 20 Buttload in 2015–2020. Now this phenomenon can be better explained by the following thought experiment.
Imagine we can send 2 person from past, 50 years in future. First we select someone from 1600s and send him to 1650, will that guy be awestruck with the technological advancement in those 50 years? No, apart from few political changes, his knowledge of society and technology is still relevant. Now, we send someone from 1960s to 2010, Imagine how strange this world would be to him. He might have seen a Black and white TV, and now everyone around him is carrying some pocket size TV and watching moving cats on it. You can imagine how hard it would be for him to get his head around things like smartphones and internet.
Thus the technology advanced much slower in 1600s than it did during 1960–2010 period. May be, this is the reason many of the technological predictions are wrong. People fail to account for accelerated pace of technology. Like one time, Bill gates said 640 Kb ram will be enough for the computers, and we all know how that turned out. My chrome browser is currently using 200 times more memory than Bill gate’s limit.
The real rate of technological growth can be seen in the figure below.
Coming back to our topic of destruction of humanity, we know that better technology means better chance of survival. Lets us define T(ice age ), be the level of technology needed to combat Ice age, similarly lets define T (plague), and T (meteorite). Now the figure below describe when and how reach the necessary technology level to combat these threats
Thus as time passes we become more and more capable of handling these threats. Also if Elon Musk delivers on his promise, the probability of human extension from any planet wide event will be cut in half in coming 100 years as we form settlements on mars.
But you might say, even we accept the above explanation, what about human created threats.
What about Nuclear weapons and biochemical weapons and other WMDs ?
The technological advancements which enables us protection against natural threats also pave way for weapons that can kill humans at increasingly efficient rate.
Nuclear bombs are probably first technology developed by humans that can effectively wipe out humanity as we know it. And as technology progresses we might develop technologies which will be even more deadly than nuclear weapons. This begs the question, will the probability of human catalyzed apocalypse increasing?
I think it wont, and here is why.
Governments today care much more about human lives than they did few decades ago.
As gloomy as you might feel reading news about isis and boko haram, we currently are living in probably the most peaceful era of human kind. There are no countries fighting wars. Sure there are civil wars but there scale is much localized. Here is a video by Kurzgesagt which explains why war is going out of fashion. Destruction is simply not economically possible in our increasingly connected world.
So, humans may survive till the end of time, or we might be the last generation of humanity as we know it. What do you think ?