Tag Archives: Humanity

We have the first genetic evidence of human self-domestication

New research at the University of Barcelona (UB) found the first genetic evidence that humanity has self-domesticated.

Comparison of Modern Human and Neanderthal skulls from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
Image credits DrMikeBaxter / Wikipedia.

The team found a network of genes involved in the evolution of human face structure and prosociality in modern humans which is absent in the Neanderthal genome. This suggests that our ancestors preferred to hang out and mate with friendlier and more cooperative companions over less-cooperative, more aggressive ones. In effect, this amounted to selective pressure for prosocial behavior over time, meaning that we domesticated our own species.

Our own best friend

Certain anatomical, cognitive, and behavioral traits of modern humans — chief among them docility and a fragile facial structure — are hallmarks of the domestication process. This led to the idea of human self-domestication being developed all the way back in the 19th century, the team explains. However, we lacked the tools to confirm that this process took place (i.e. that there’s genetic evidence for it).

The study builds on the team’s previous research that looked into genetic similarities between humans and domesticated animals. Now, the team went one step further and looked for genetic evidence for self-domestication in neural crest cells. This is a population of cells that have a major role to play in the early development of vertebrate embryos by differentiating into more specialized cells.

“A mild deficit of neural crest cells has already been hypothesized to be the factor underlying animal domestication,” explains co-author Alejandro Andirkó, a Ph.D. student at the Department of Catalan Philology and General Linguistics of the UB.

“Could it be that humans got a more prosocial cognition and a retracted face relative to other extinct humans in the course of our evolution as a result of changes affecting neural crest cells?”

In order to test their hypothesis, the team focused on Williams syndrome disorder, a human-specific neurodevelopmental disorder caused by a deficit of neural crest cells as the embryo develops. It is characterized by mild to moderate intellectual disability or learning problems, unique personality characteristics, distinctive facial features, and cardiovascular problems.

The researchers used in vitro models of Williams syndrome (stem cells derived from the skin of patients with this syndrome). After poking around, they found that the BAZ1B gene, conveniently located in the region of the genome associated with Williams syndrome, is responsible for controlling the behavior of neural crest cells. If this gene was under-expressed, it led to reduced migration of these cells; higher expression levels led to greater neural crest migration. Then, they compared this gene to its equivalent in samples of archaic (i.e. extinct) and modern (i.e. our ancestors’) human genomes.

“We wanted to understand if neural crest cell genetic networks were affected in human evolution compared to the Neanderthal genomes,” says Cedric Boeckx, ICREA professor at the Department of Catalan Philology and General Linguistics.

Differences in the BAZ1B gene between archaic and modern humans led to a high frequency of mutations in that accumulated over time in modern humans — but not in any of the archaic genomes currently available. The team says this points to BAZ1B as being “an important reason our face is so different when compared with our extinct relatives, the Neanderthals.”

“In the big picture, it provides for the first-time experimental validation of the neural crest-based self-domestication hypothesis,” Boeckx adds.

The paper “Dosage analysis of the 7q11.23 Williams region identifies BAZ1B as a major human gene patterning the modern human face and underlying self-domestication” has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Paper leopard.

The UN says humanity is causing an ‘unprecedented’ decline in biodiversity — and it’s picking up

A new report from the United Nations says that humanity is putting a never-before-seen strain on the planet — over 1 million species of plants and animals are facing extinction.

Paper leopard.

Image via Pixabay.

Species loss is accelerating to a rate tens or hundreds of times faster than in the past, the report said. More than half a million species on land “have insufficient habitat for long-term survival” and are likely to go extinct, many within decades, unless their habitats are restored. The oceans are not faring any better. However, the report also says that it’s not too late to fix the issue.

Remade in our image

“We have reconfigured dramatically life on the planet,” said UN co-chairman Eduardo Brondizio of Indiana University at a press conference detailing the report.

Conservation scientists from around the world convened in Paris to issue the 1,000-page strong report. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) included more than 450 researchers who drew data from 15,000 scientific and government reports. The report’s summary had to be approved by representatives of all 109 nations.

The damage isn’t evenly distributed across the Earth. Some of the harder-hit nations, such as small island countries, wanted the report to be broader and use more conclusive language. Other countries however, such as the United States, were cautious in the wording they used but agreed that “we’re in trouble,” said Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist for the World Wildlife Fund, who observed the final negotiations.

“This is the strongest call we’ve seen for reversing the trends on the loss of nature,” Shaw said.

The findings don’t just show a planet where plants and animals need our intervention to survive (our own actions). It also shows a world in which humanity has a harder and harder time living in, according to Robert Watson, a former top NASA and British scientist who headed the report. The loss of biodiversity threatens to impact food and water security, the ecological mechanisms upon which our societies are built, and our health, he told Associated Press. It will also have a massive effect on our economies and can potentially give rise to security issues as countries and later, individual communities and groups, fight for ever-scarcer resources. The poor in less developed countries bear the greatest burden, Watson adds.

Here are the five main ways humanity is driving down biodiversity today:

  • Clearing forests, grasslands and other areas for farms, cities, and other developments. About three-quarters of Earth’s land, two-thirds of its oceans and 85% of crucial wetlands have been severely altered or lost, the report said. This basically destroys the natural habitats that species rely on, driving them to extinction.
  • Overfishing: A third of the Earth’s fish stocks are experiencing overfishing, according to the report.
  • Continued emissions of greenhouse gases which drive climate change. Almost half of the world’s land mammals — not including bats — and nearly a quarter of the birds have already had their habitats hit hard by global warming.
  • Land and water pollution. Between 300 to 400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, and toxic sludge are dumped into the world’s waters each year.
  • The introduction of invasive species that outcompete native plants and animals. The number of invasive alien species per country has risen 70% since 1970, with one species of bacteria threatening nearly 400 amphibian species.

“The key to remember is, it’s not a terminal diagnosis,” said report co-author Andrew Purvis of the Natural History Museum in London.

The report says that fighting climate change and species conservation are equally important and that work on the two problems should go hand in hand. Both problems exacerbate each other because a warmer world means fewer species, and a less biodiverse world means fewer trees and plants to remove heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the air.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, reported in March that 27,159 species are threatened, endangered, or extinct in the wild out of nearly 100,000 species biologists examined in depth. That includes 1,223 mammal species, 1,492 bird species, and 2,341 fish species. Nearly half the threatened species are plants. The present report estimates that up to 1 million species are trouble by extrapolating the IUCN’s 25% threatened rate to the rest of the world’s species.

Orangutan.

Orangutans can ‘talk’ about the past and the future, study suggests

Orangutans seem to be able to transmit information about a past or future event, a new study concludes.

Orangutan.

Image via Pixabay.

They say goldfish can only remember three seconds — but orangutans definitely don’t share this limitation. A new study reports that these primates can transmit information about events in the past, an ability that was thought to be virtually exclusive to humans.

Watch out… seven minutes ago!

When danger lurks about, orangutans issue a specific alarm call. It probably wouldn’t sound particularly distressing for us hairless apes: it’s quite similar to what you’d recognize as a kissing noise. From what we know so far, orangutans will produce this sound to warn the group. However, there’s also debate regarding exactly how they use it — such a signal would also inform any predators that they’ve been spotted, which may determine it to make a hail-mary assault on any exposed group members.

So the team set out to investigate whether such alarm calls involved ‘displaced reference’ — i.e. if they can be issued for threats in the past or future, not the present. They did so by scaring a group of orangutans in the  Ketambe forest, Sumatra, with colorful sheets.

These coverings were either white, spotted, patterned (for example with a tiger-stripe pattern). The researchers (quite hilariously, I imagine) donned the sheets and then bumped around the forest floor for two minutes, making sure orangutan mothers perched in the trees above could see them.

Tiger coat researchers.

One of the researchers playing a tiger. Terrifying!
Image credits Adriano R. Lameira.

Half of these staged stalkings elicited a kiss vocalization, the team reports — the tiger-stripe cover being the most successful.

Only one of the vocalizations occurred when the faux predator was still visible. All others were delayed (for an average of 7 minutes) until the simulated predator left. One particularly old female orangutan delayed this warning by roughly 20 minutes, the researchers add. Once she started, however, “she called for more than an hour,” Adriano Reis e Lameira, one of the researchers, explained to Science Magazine.

“She stopped what she was doing, grabbed her infant, defecated [a sign of distress], and started slowly climbing higher in the tree,” he says. “She was completely quiet.”

“Twenty minutes passed. And then she finally did it.”

The team thinks this isn’t a case of the orangutans being overcome with fear and thus failing to sound the alarm while the predator was prowling. Instead, they believe the mothers might have been waiting to protect their child.

“Vocal delay was also a function of perceived danger for another – an infant – suggesting high-order cognition,” the study reads. “Our findings suggest that displaced reference in language is likely to have originally piggybacked on akin behaviours in an ancestral hominid.”

The findings are quite exciting as they suggest that humanity’s ability to understand and communicate information regarding past (or future) events may be directly rooted in our ancestors — most likely in a common ancestor between humans and orangutans.

This is far from a definitive conclusion, however, and further research will be needed to fully confirm the findings. But orangutans have proven themselves to be quite intelligent animals, so personally, I wouldn’t put displaced reference beyond them.

The paper “Time-space–displaced responses in the orangutan vocal system” has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Foragers farmers fossil fuels.

Book Review: ‘Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve’

Foragers farmers fossil fuels.

 

“Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve”
By Ian Morris
Princeton University Press, 400pp | Buy on Amazon

What we consider as ‘right’ or ‘just’ isn’t set in stone — far from it. In Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, Stanford University’s Willard Professor of Classics Ian Morris weaves together several strands of science, most notably history, anthropology, archeology, and biology, to show how our values change to meet a single overriding human need: energy.

Do you think your boss should be considered better than you in the eyes of the law? Is it ok to stab someone over an insult? Or for your country’s military to shell some other country back to the stone age just because they’re ‘the enemy’? Do leaders get their mandate from the people, from god, or is power something to be taken by force? Is it ok to own people? Should women tend to home and family only, or can they pick their own way in life?

Your answers and the answers of someone living in the stone age, the dark age, or even somebody from a Mad-Men-esque 1960’s USA wouldn’t look the same. In fact, your answers and the answers of someone else living today in a different place likely won’t be the same.

Values derive from culture

They’ll be different because a lot of disparate factors weigh in on how we think about these issues. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll bundle all of them up under the umbrella-term of ‘culture’, taken to mean “the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society.” I know what you’ll answer in broad lines because I can take a look at Google Analytics and see that most of you come from developed, industrialized countries which (for the most part) are quite secular and have solid education systems. That makes most of you quite WEIRD — western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.

As we’re all so very weird, our cultures tend to differ a bit on the surface (we speak different languages and each have our own national dessert, for example). The really deep stuff, however — the frameworks on which our cultures revolve —  these tend to align pretty well (we see equality as good, violence as being bad, to name a few). In other words, we’re a bit different but we all share a core of identical values. Kind of like Christmass time, when everybody has very similar trees but decorates them differently, WEIRD cultures are variations on the same pattern.

It’s not the only pattern out there by any means, but it’s one of the (surprisingly) few that seem to work. Drawing on his own experience of culture shock working as an anthropologist and archaeologist in non-WEIRD countries, Professor Morris mixes in a bird’s eye view of history with biology and helpings from other fields of science to show how the dominant source of energy a society draws on forces them to clump into one of three cultural patterns — hunter-gatherers, farmers (which he names Agraria), and fossil-fuel users (Industria).

Energy dictates culture

In broad lines, Morris looks at culture as a society’s way to adapt to sources of energy capture. The better adapted they become, the bigger the slice of available energy they can extract, and the better equipped they will be to displace other cultures — be them on the same developmental level or not. This process can have ramifications in seemingly unrelated ways we go about our lives.

To get an idea of how Morris attacks the issue, let’s take a very narrow look at Chapter 2, where he talks about prehistoric and current hunter-gatherer cultural patterns. Morris shows how they “share a striking set of egalitarian values,” and overall “take an extremely negative view of political and economic hierarchy, but accept fairly mild forms of gender hierarchy and recognize that there is a time and place for violence.”

This cultural pattern stems from a society which extracts energy from its surroundings without exercising any “deliberate alterations of the gene pool of harvested resources.” Since everything was harvested from the wild and there was no way to store it, there was a general expectation to share food with the group. Certain manufactured goods did have an owner, but because people had to move around to survive, accumulating wealth beyond trinkets or tools to pass on was basically impossible, and organized government was impractical. Finally, gender roles only went as far as biological constraints — men were better tailored to hunt, so they were the ones that hunted, for example. But the work of a male hunter or a female gatherer were equally important to assuring a family’s or group’s caloric needs were met — as such, society had equal expectations and provided almost the same level of freedom and the same rights for everyone, regardless of sex. There was one area, however, where foragers weren’t so egalitarian:

“Abused wives regularly walk away from their husbands without much fuss or criticism [in foraging societies],” Morris writes, something which would be unthinkable in the coming Agraria.

“Forager equalitarianism partially breaks down, though, when it comes to gender hierarchy. Social scientists continue to argue why men normally hold the upper hand in foarger societies. After all, […] biology seems to have dealt women better cards. Sperm are abundant […] and therefore cheap, while eggs are scarce […] and therefore expensive. Women ought to be able to demand all kinds of services from men in return for access to their eggs,” Morris explains in another paragraph. “To some extent, this does happen,” he adds, noting that male foragers participate “substantially more in childrearing than […] our closest genetic neighbours.”

But political or economic authority is something they can almost never demand from the males. This, Morris writes, is because “semen is not the only thing male foragers are selling.”

“Because [males] are also the main providers of violence, women need to bargain for protection; because men are the main hunters, women need to bargain for meat; and because hunting often trains men to cooperate and trust one another, individual women often find themselves negotiating with cartels of men,” he explains.

This is only a sliver of a chapter. You can expect to see this sort of in-depth commentary of how energy capture dictates the shape of societies across the span of time throughout the 400-page book. I don’t want to spoil the rest of it, since it really is an enjoyable read so I’ll give you the immensely-summed-up version:

Farmers / Agraria exercise some genetic modifications in other species (domestication), tolerate huge political, economic, and gender hierarchies, and are somewhat tolerant of violence (but less than foragers). Fossil-fuelers / Industria was made possible by an “energy bonanza,” and are very intolerant of political hierarchies, gender hierarchy, and violence, but are somewhat tolerant of economic hierarchies (less than Agrarians).

These sets of values ‘stuck’ because they maximised societies’ ability to harvest energy at each developmental level. Societies which could draw on more energy could impose themselves on others (through technology, culture, economy, warfare), eventually displacing them or making these other societies adopt the same values in an effort to compete.

Should I read it?

Definitely. Morris’ is a very Darwinian take on culture, and he links this underlying principle with cultural forms in a very pleasant style that hits the delicate balance of staying comprehensive without being boring, accessible without feeling dumbed down.

The theory is not without its shortcomings, and the book even has four chapters devoted to very smart people (University of Exter professor emeritus of classics and ancient history Richard Seaford, former Sterling Professor of History at Yale University Jonathan D. Spence, Harvard University Professor of Philosophy Christine Korsgaard, and The Handmaiden’s Tale’s own Margaret Atwood) slicing the theory and bashing it about for all its flaws. Which I very much do appreciate, as in Morris’ own words, debates “raise all kinds of questions that I would not have thought of by myself.” Questions which the author does not leave unanswered.

All in all, it’s a book I couldn’t more warmly recommend. I’ve been putting off this review for weeks now, simply because I liked it so much, I wanted to make sure I do it some tiny bit of justice. It’s the product of a lifetime’s personal experience, mixed with a vast body of research, then distilled through the hand of a gifted wordsmith. It’s a book that will help you understand how values — and with them, the world we know today — came to be, and how they evolved through time. It’ll give you a new pair of (not always rose-tinted) glasses through which to view human cultures, whether you’re in your home neighborhood or vacationing halfway across the world.

But most of all, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels will show you that apart from a few biologically “hardwired” ones it’s the daily churn of society, not some ultimate authority or moral compass, that dictates our values — that’s a very liberating realization. It means we’re free to decide for ourselves which are important, which are not, and what we should strive for to change our society for the better. Especially now that new sources of energy are knocking at our door.

Stephen Hawking revises his deadline for humans escaping Earth — it’s now just 100 years

Last November, Stephen Hawking said humanity needs to establish itself on another planet in the next 1,000 years or risk extinction. We probably did something very wrong since then, as Hawking revised his deadline — we’ve got to get out in the next century.

Stephen Hawking in front of sun with coronal mass ejections.

Image credits Lwp Kommunikáció / Flickr.

In a new BBC documentary titled “Expedition New Earth”, which will debut this summer as part of the program’s science season, Stephen Hawking has severely cut down on his initial deadline set in November. From a full millennium, we’re now down to one hundred years, a number disturbingly close to the length of a human lifetime.

So what prompted this change?

“Professor Stephen Hawking thinks the human species will have to populate a new planet within 100 years if it is to survive,” an online BBC statement reads. “With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious.”

“In this landmark series, Expedition New Earth, he enlists engineering expert Danielle George and his own former student, Christophe Galfard, to find out if and how humans can reach for the stars and move to different planets.”

The documentary gives Hawking a chance to detail the evolving science and technology, from rockets to astronomy to suspended animation, that will underpin any attempt to survive on another planet, BBC notes. And to be sure, Earth does have a lot on its plate right now. A spare human civilization somewhere in the Universe would be awesome, but is it feasible?

Uh-oh

Let’s start with “where”. In the Professor’s own words, Mars is “the obvious next target” for colonization but it’s not exactly lush right now. We’re making progress on establishing supply lines on-planet for oxygen and building materials and food, but that’s only scratching the surface of the issue. The fact remains that without its atmosphere Mars has deadly temperature shifts, nothing to breathe, and nothing to shield against radiation. Taken together, all these factors would immensely limit any budding community on the planet, let alone a civilization. Given time to work their magic, scientists and engineers could probably turn Mars into a very welcoming home — just not right now. A colony would require a steady stream of supplies from Earth to function, and that’s not really an option if society breaks down (or under a slab of space-rock) back on good ole Earth.

Mars.

Home…?
Image credits Aynur Zakirov.

The next option is to look farther away. Odds are on our side to find a human-habitable planet somewhere in the galaxy, but with so many to sort through it’s going to take time. Our telescopes can give us a general feel of the planets we look at, but can’t peer on the surface to let us know what to expect down there. And lastly, we need to consider if humanity can make a trip of hundreds of years to a new home.

Can we even build a ship to withstand that in time? Not now. The best ships we have at the moment are intended to carry up to six people on NASA’s mission to Mars. Very nice for their intended role, impressively ill-suited to ferrying humanity somewhere else. The most ambitious ship designs in the works are probably SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport Systems. They’re intended to carry about 100 people on an intra-system journey to Mars so even they are still a very far cry from what we need — ships capable of supporting thousands of people for hundreds of years of trekking to another system.

But even if we did get our hands on a suitable ship, how will generations upon generations of humans be able to survive in a tube in space? We don’t know. All resources will have to be carefully monitored and recycled (we’re very bad at that even down here), any disease would be devastating, and we have no clue what the biological and psychological effects would be. It’s possible our colonists won’t even technically be ‘human’ when we reach our destination. Which segways into the next point: people.

Specifically, the fact that we’d have to shuttle a lot of people to have a shot at a sustainable colony. It’s not only about the risks they will face in transit or on the planet and the unavoidable deaths they will lead to — small populations would have a lot to suffer from inbreeding, so we need to ensure that a wide genetic stock is available from the get-go and can sustain itself over time. And lastly, the moral issue of who goes and who stays.

Do the rich get to go, while the poor are left to go by as well as they can/die off? Do we send our smartest? Do we send our social elites? And whom from these groups do we send? We can barely shuttle six people around. Tens, hundreds — maybe. Billions? Not a chance. Nobody will be happy to give up on the chance to survive — and yet most will have to. Good luck cracking this nut.

No planet for old habits

Dead Tree.

Image credits Colin Kinnear.

During his hour-long talk at the Oxford University Union in November, Hawking expressed his belief that humans have done a lot to hasten the end of Earth as we know it through a rampant and unsustainable exploitation of the planet’s resources. Climate change, antibiotic resistance, economic inequality, social and political unrest — anyone left behind will have to sort this mess or perish. And even if they pull it off, humanity might meet its end when an asteroid decides to pay us a visit — it happens. A lot.

He also approached the subject of artificial intelligence during the talk, where he issued some of the most explicit warnings. He said that humanity’s challenge is twofold: develop the technology that will enable us to leave the planet and start a colony elsewhere, while avoiding the frightening perils that may be unleashed by said technology. Despite the undeniable usefulness of AI, Hawking has said that it represents “our biggest existential threat.”

“Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it will take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever-increasing rate,” he warns. “Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded.”

“I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” Hawking told the BBC in a 2014 interview.

Phew.

Bummer of an article, right? Well, you have to keep in mind that while the challenges we face are pretty daunting, we’re also better equipped than ever before to deal with them. We know more than ever before, and we understand the world better than we previously did. In a way, the fact that we can see the edge we’re walking to is a boon because we can at least try to stop.

But we all have to bunch together to make it happen. We’ve had a whole history to learn from. We’ve seen how good men and women, harboring the best intentions for their fellows, made horrifying atrocities possible simply by keeping silent, by not standing up for what they believe in. We’re the ones making history now, each and every one of the choices we make each day add up to shape the world.

If you don’t count asteroids, we’re not faced with an unfair fate, either — we’re mopping up after thousands of years of other people doing well or messing up. And just as we judge those before us, the textbooks schoolkids will be reading one hundred years from — regardless on which planet — will judge or praise us, remember or damn us, based on what we decide and how we live each and every day.

In Hawkins’ own words:

“However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

 

Technosphere

There are 30 trillion tons of human-made stuff all over the planet

The mass of humanity’s footprint on Earth, all the structures, vehicles, infrastructure, garbage dumps, everything — collectively known as the “technosphere” — comes down to roughly 30 trillion tons, a new study estimates.

Technosphere

Image credits Kasuma F. Gruber / Pexels.

If my last dorm room taught me anything it’s that people have a lot of stuff. And if each one of us has a lot of stuff, then just how much stuff do all of us have put together? It must be a huge pile of stuff — one that would weigh about 30 trillion tons, according to an international team of researchers.

So it would be a pretty impressive pile. But that’s to be expected; everything processed, altered, or made by humans is counted here — every bit of rural and urban infrastructure, all buildings as well as vehicles and other machinery on land, sea, or air, all the computers, smartphones, and all the garbage in landfills. All this makes up the technosphere.

“It is all of the structures that humans have constructed to keep them alive, in very large numbers now, on the planet: houses, factories, farms, mines, roads, airports and shipping ports, computer systems, together with its discarded waste,” study Jan Zalasiewicz, professor of palaeobiology at the University of Leicester, UK, and study co-author said in a statement.

It’s not the largest of the spheres, but it’s definitely big. If we were to distribute the total mass evenly across the Earth’s surface, the technosphere would cover every square meter (11 sq-feet) of the planet in about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of man-made stuff, the researchers say. And it’s bound to grow in size as time passes.

The technosphere is in a way the sum of our action on the planet. As such, it has a close connection to the newly-declared geological age Anthropocene — a period in which human activity has the power to shape the whole planet. But unlike the other sphere of life, the biosphere, our system does a very poor job at re-using and recycling the materials and energy used to create it. It doesn’t break down to power further growth (think of how animals digest plants into dung which then provides fertilizer for other plants,) instead it just adds to itself, taking more space as new buildings, new cars, or in landfills.

“The technosphere is a system, with its own dynamics and energy flows – and humans have to help keep it going to survive,” Zalasiewicz said.

“The technosphere may be geologically young, but it is evolving with furious speed, and it has already left a deep imprint on our planet.”

Right now, the study concludes, the technosphere outweighs humans 3 to 1. Considering that the “present human biomass is more than double” that of all large terrestrial vertebrates before us and that the primary source for technospheric growth comes from the transformation of the biosphere and other natural resources, the sustainability of further growth under a business as usual model comes into question.

But then again, people need houses, food, roads, and all that good stuff. With the huge population growth we can expect in the future, the technosphere will need to expand to accommodate these needs — putting further pressure on natural resources already spread thin. Some new technologies will also require more resources and energy to implement.

The strain this growth requires might be dampened by re-using materials already available in landfills or infrastructure we don’t need anymore, but that won’t cover all the demand. In the end, there’s a limit to how much the technosphere can expand.

“While the long-term development of the technosphere remains uncertain, its scale and accelerating diversification of form means that it already represents a distinctive new component at a planetary scale,” the study concludes.

The full paper “Scale and diversity of the physical technosphere: A geological perspective” has been published in the in the journal The Anthropocene Review.

“Escape our fragile planet” in the next 1,000 years or perish, Stephen Hawking says

Addressing the Oxford Union Debating Society on Monday, theoretical physics living legend Stephen Hawking issued a dire warning: humanity will probably not survive if we don’t establish viable colonies in the next thousand years.

Off I go, then! Image credits Unsplash / Pixabay.

Off I go, then!
Image credits Unsplash / Pixabay.

If you think things are looking dire right now, you might be surprised to find out that Stephen Hawking says you’re on point. It’s gotten so bad, in fact, that he says we should be on hard at working founding home-planet-B in the next 1,000 years to have any hope of survival.

“We must […] continue to go into space for the future of humanity,” Hawking said in a lecture at the University of Cambridge this week. “I don’t think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.”

This isn’t the first time the professor has broached the subject of humanity’s fate. Last year, Hawking signed alongside more than 20,000 researchers and experts, including Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, and Noam Chomsky on a letter calling for the ban of autonomous AI weapons, constructs that can use deadly force without human consent. He has also spoken out against concentration of wealth, climate change, overpopulation, and talked about the specter of pseudoscience. As Heather Saul from The Independent reports, Hawking has also estimated that viable human colonies on Mars won’t be a realistic option for another 100 years or so. In the meantime, we need to be “very careful” with the going-ons on Earth and beyond. Current troubles at home, including climate change, the rise of antibiotic-resistant plagues, and the very real threat posed by warring nations with nuclear capabilities, aren’t the full story.

Given his belief that humans seem hell-bend on repeating the mistakes of the past, Hawking says the development of “powerful autonomous weapons” is likely and will have grave consequences for humanity despite his warnings. The rise of such weapons may pit us against an enemy we don’t even understand yet, while in a precarious position. Robots are limited in what they can do today, but what happens when they equal, or even surpass us? And how can we deal with that and the effects of climate change — with shortages of land to grow crops, sinking shorelines, and spent ocean food resources — at the same time?

And then, cherry on top, an advanced alien race finds us in our desperate struggle — and decide they’re better entitled to Earth than we are.

“I am more convinced than ever that we are not alone,” Hawking says in his online film, Favourite Places.

“They will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria”.

That’s why Hawking advocates for a back-up plan. We might survive all this if there’s another place in the Solar System we can go to, a “safety planet” of sorts where we can go to lick our wounds. But the professor is still optimistic about our odds, given what we’ve accomplished so far.

“It has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research into theoretical physics”, he said. “Our picture of the universe has changed a great deal in the last 50 years and I am happy if I have made a small contribution.”

“The fact that we humans who are ourselves mere collections of fundamental particles of nature have been able to come so close to understanding the laws that are governing us and our universe is a great achievement.”

He closed his speech with a word of encouragement.

“Try to make sense of what you see, wonder about what makes the Universe exist. Be curious,” he told those attending the lecture.

“However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”