Saturday, 14 September 2013

Comment: A Reply to David Attenborough

Words: Charles Hay

Here’s something I thought I’d never hear myself say: David Attenborough nearly had me bursting a blood vessel with his wrongness recently. I refer to an interview in which he proclaims that human evolution has all but stopped and that the future will be worse than today due to massive overpopulation. My overall feeling about the whole interview is disappointment and irritation; the future is so much brighter than the one he paints here. His comments about humans having stopped evolving are just wrong-headed and seem to wilfully misunderstand what evolution actually is.  Furthermore, exponential population increase simply isn’t happening.

This eagle disapproves.

Evolution is a process whereby any organism adapts generationally to its environment, whatever form that environment takes. This is adaptation to anything, over time. This can be standard environmental pressure (things with big teeth want to eat my species, so I suspect Johnny Fast-Runner is probably going to be the one surviving to breeding age), sexual selection, cultural selection, or even unimpeded mutation, i.e. a mutation occurs and doesn't necessarily cause any harm or benefit and survives. This is not a transcendent process. It is not a ‘simple to complex' process. It is NOT a directed process. It is a series of adaptations changing the form of an organism over generations. This cannot be stopped. The environmental pressures can change, but there will always be environmental pressures.

Attenborough seems to be under the illusion that humanity exists in a vacuum and is somehow immune to the pressures of life around it. Problematically, humans have been adapting alone for many tens of thousands of years. The hominin control groups are all dead, so we have very little to directly compare ourselves to in order to make our adaptive changes more immediately obvious. But one thing is certain - adapt we do and adapt we will. Thousands of generations down the line, we may look the same, but we will have speciated away from our current norm. Evolution is not a blue-printing design improvement process. It is simply the gradual change in a species over time. It cannot be stopped. We are not gods.

Secondly, this population bomb style fatalism he brings to the table regarding over-population in the future: hogwash. The population bomb is a 1960s idea that the population would rise exponentially and cause an ecological apocalypse. In the late 1970s, the population increase (percentage increase per year) plateaued, and has been decreasing ever since. So whilst the population has continued to increase, the speed of increase has been slowing since the 1970s. With this in mind, the consensus is that the population will peak around the middle of the century at ten or eleven billion. This is not an apocalyptic number. Freeman Dyson said of climate change, “sounds like a land management issue”. Well the same goes for population increase. It is a land management issue. We need to keep developing agricultural technology and practice. We need to be creating increasingly well connected, distributed and efficiently powered cities. We need to fully accept responsibility for this Terran environment we have spread throughout. When we can do this, we can feel safe. And we can do it. We've done much crazier things.

Factual errors aside, my biggest source of disappointment is that David Attenborough, such a loved and influential figure, would express such malign views. There is no strength in defeatism, or fatalism. We must be innovative. We must be hopeful and starry eyed, and we must know the sheer power of human cooperation. On all counts, we need faith in humanity's ability to adapt and improve, as we always have. So for the first time in my life, I must say: “Don't listen to David Attenborough!”  The world and its future are much more wonderful than he would have you believe.

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