Part 1 – Memo to a Dying Species – Homo Sapiens Secret Code to Survival


Part 1 of 2….

It was mid-March. I was on my way back from Manila to Mexico, transiting through San Francisco.A number of folks, like me, had congregated at a bar, perhaps for the last time in a long while, chatting nervously about the emerging coronavirus pandemic.  Suddenly, a woman appeared.  A gauzy scarf wrapped loosely in many layers about her neck over a slivery dress, set off by spidery web gold earrings and necklace.

She said nothing at first, standing there like wisdom personified, listening to the rest of us, cocking her head to one side whilst enjoying her cocktail. Then, as suddenly as she had appeared, and without due hesitation, she announced, “This thing…” pausing for a sip,  “it’s a culling of the herd, nothing personal.” With that, she tipped her glass, drained her drink, licked her lips, looked at each one of us in turn, mysteriously whispered some words none of us could hear, turned and walked away without a glance back.

She was stunning

Stunning, was the only word to use, both her presence and her pronouncement.  Most shocking, was her truth.  The virus is a culling of our herd. We are mammals and we have a herd, 8 billion strong. 

She spoke truth to our supposed and rather arrogant power.  Culling.  It is what Nature does: it gets rid of the weakest.  It tests species’ survivability.  It’s nothing personal. Nature test all species, all the time.

Just because we are overly sensitive to life and death, more so than almost all our fellow species, we shouldn’t feel singled out.  Nature only wants the best for all of Nature.

Unlike all other species, Homo Sapiens take threats to their lives in a deeply personal way.  A dog will fight for its life to the end, but not once think, why me? A fungi even less so. But Homo Sapiens? We don’t like nature’s tests much. We see all life – young, old, firm, infirm – as equally precious. It is a morality-based prime directive, not a natural imperative. If Homo Sapiens choose to protect every last one of its members, that their decision.  If the strategy works within Nature’s greater scheme, it works,

if it doesn’t it doesn’t: Nature could care a less.

The Lady in the silver dress was not wrong

The coronavirus is Nature’s latest assault on human survivability.  Though a nearly unique assault, it is not a singular test, and a means to perfection, both of Nature and our own. It is a test defined by the enduring, indelible treatise of ecological balance of all species. If one species gets too strong, Nature finds a way to cut it back with zero compunction towards ‘culling that herd’ to save both the species it attacks, and to ensure balance in the ecosystem to save and strengthen all others.  Just ask the lemmings how it works.

Survival of the fittest? Yes, in a way. But in the most literal sense that is a bit misleading. Rather, it is survival of the best adapter.  Many species are weak but survive quite nicely without the strength of a gorilla or the mental capacity of a dolphin. Cockroaches can be squished with your foot but are among the few species might survive a nuclear holocaust.  Could Homo Sapiens?

Bill McKibben of recently said, “we cannot argue with the laws of biology and physics.” Like the mysterious lady in the silver dress, he’s not wrong.  But if you think our survivability vector is defined by natural science alone, you would only be half right. Homo Sapiens have come to dominate the world’s ecosystem not by transcending mechanical laws of nature, but through ever greater incremental knowledge of them.

Have we unlocked all the secrets of physics and biology? No, though our ability to see smaller and further grows daily. This increases our knowledge of how to manipulate and exploit Nature, but it is not our secret to survival.

Ethics: Our the secret code to survival

The secret is our guiding moral codes which are imbued with survival instincts, part which tell us human life, our own and our loved ones, is to be guarded at all cost. It’s an all-powerful sentiment, learned from hard lessons over centuries of conflict, that also makes being human such a human experience.

But this code, in combination with our growing understanding of nature,  is also possibly our greatest survivability Achilles heel as well.

Not that long ago, our limited grasp of Nature’s mechanics and related technical capacities so severely restricted our ability to gather and store resources, we were forced to put our infirm and elders on the proverbial ‘ice flow.’ We didn’t like it, but there was not much we could do about it.

Now, of course, we apply massive resources, more than Nature can withstand, to keep all members of the tribe alive as long as possible, at almost any cost. It is perhaps the highest achievement of our moral if sentimental prime directive.

Nature tests us and doesnt mind the outcome

The current pandemic is pretty clear about how difficult, and, frankly, unnatural this strategy is as older, sicker, and poorer people are suffering disproportionately from COVID-19 and its economic impacts. 

Someone on Twitter set off a viral storm claiming Homo Sapiens, “are the virus.” Nonsense. We are just doing what we do to survive. Our ethical systems are not by accident, they are a vital part of our survival tool kit. Sure, internecine warfare breaks out between the ‘clans’ from time to time, but a common set of principles teach us coming together and valuing our own is usually preferable to mortal aggression

Rules give Homo Sapiens a framework, albeit elements that are variously weak or strong depending on the context and clan, for working together, for solving common problems, to better the chances for all of the species. Killing our own or ourselves for the common good is simply not acceptable even though, and regrettably, we have engaged in this as well. But as a tenant, we don’t like it: too much of a slippery slope trying to decide who lives and who dies on the basis of resource availability.

Collectivism = Survivability: Division = Death

So, we extend and protect life as best we can. Our ethics have been a successful part of our survival strategy, and if not for their dictums, we might still be knocking about in small warring tribes in the savanna, or, at best, bunkered down behind the walls of fetid medieval-city states.

By working together, Homo Sapiens have solved millions of problems we couldn’t possibly have done so individually. This has made us materially ‘well off.’ We have multiplied successfully, battling and winning Nature’s constant tests, and in the process, taking an disproportionate share of natural resources to the great disadvantage of other species.  Each year, Homo Sapiens use more resources than are regenerated by Nature by a factor of four. No other species comes close to this level of exploitation and related destruction even in local habitats, and Nature’s global carrying capacity is in severe and massive disequilibrium.

And we wonder why Nature is responding with climate change and coronaviruses?

To be continued – Watch for Part 2 of this essay next week on This Week in Sustainability.

Note to readers so there is no confusion: I firmly believe and have worked all my life for a better world based on the premise that all life, for all species is precious. No person of any persuasion, let alone the vulnerable, should be left to fend for themselves against the coronavirus or any other test of Nature for that matter either.

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