Saturday, August 16, 2014

Events of Mass Extinction


     Are God and Nature then at strife,
     That Nature lends such evil dreams?
     So careful of the type she seems,
     So careless of the single life.

     "So careful of the type?" but no.
     From scarped cliff and quarried stone
     She cries, "A thousand types are gone:
     I care for nothing, all shall go."                     
                                                     —Tennyson

     People nowayears often mention the topic of greenhouse gases and global warming, and the current theory seems to be that it's almost certainly going to produce major, possibly catastrophic, upheavals in the earth's environment. Almost certainly, because we humans are too self-centered, stubborn, and myopic to change until the hammer has already come down—such, apparently, is human nature. Many environmentalists, including James Lovelock, father of the Gaia Hypothesis, believe that increased global temperatures will turn large areas of now fertile land into hot, barren deserts, resulting in a major human population crash due mainly to starvation. I've wondered about this, and am not sure how they have arrived at this prediction. There have been many times in the history, or rather prehistory, of this planet when the climate has been much warmer than it is now (for example, during the age of dinosaurs the Antarctic Circle was warm enough for dinosaurs to live there), yet at such times it has often been humid and jungly, not dry and deserty. 
     Still, there are very likely going to be major changes in the environment, possibly resulting in a mass extinction event in the earth's biosphere. In fact, a human-induced mass extinction event has probably already started on this planet, but we are too short-lived to have seen it clearly. Already species are dying out in the Amazon rain forest, or so they say, faster than scientists can record them. For that matter, even in the stone age we apparently drove a few species to extinction, like the woolly mammoth and the cave bear. And in the so-called "Age of Discovery," especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, hungry sailors not content with eating sea biscuits wiped out entire species, like the Stellar sea cow, the great auk, and the dodo bird. Just today I happened to read about a species of parakeet that once was common in the eastern United States but became extinct back in the 1920's. So the mass extinction event seems to have already started, but, like geological changes in general, it's happening too slowly, thus far, to be really obvious to most people.
     Not that driving most species of life to extinction, or lots and lots of them anyway, is anything new under the sun. There have been plenty of mass extinctions on this planet already. For example, around 240 million years ago there was a very big one, in which around 95% of marine genera (i.e., almost all kinds of living things in the ocean) became extinct, although only about 50% of terrestrial genera disappeared. One theory as to what happened is that a gigantic coal field somehow caught fire, pumping countless millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, creating a much more serious greenhouse effect than we humans have managed to create so far. When some of this overwhelming amount of carbon dioxide was absorbed into the ocean, it changed into carbonic acid, which acidified the ocean sufficiently that most organisms with calcium carbonate exoskeletons—like corals, clams, snails, tube worms, marine arthropods, animals most people have never heard of, and even some microscopic plankton—had their shells dissolved, and they died. After which, the creatures higher up on the food web that specialized as predators on these organisms also died. It was very much worse than we humans have managed to accomplish as of yet.
     Another, more famous mass extinction is what, when I was in college, was called the "C-T Boundary." This is the one that notoriously caused the dinosaurs to become extinct about 65 million years ago, so it is like the bookend to the age of dinosaurs on the other side from the other mass extinction, mentioned a moment ago, which helped the dinosaurs get started. This extinction was not so bad overall as that one, but while it was happening it was pretty damn awful: some say the mass extinction mostly took place over a matter of days, maybe even hours. When I was in school I was told that it was caused by a mountain-sized meteor smacking into the Atlantic ocean where Iceland is now, Iceland being essentially a scab where the magma gushed up through the wound. But now they say the meteor struck what is now called the Gulf of Mexico, causing a cataclysmic wall of fire to sweep across much of North America. As it turns out, cataclysmic walls of fire cause dinosaurs to become extinct pretty quickly.


extinct ammonites, with thanks to the Hooper Museum

     Much more recently—literally recently, since geologists say that anything that happened less than 10,000 years ago is "recent"—there was another mass extinction: the most recent Ice Age. Every Ice Age, and there have been several in geologically rapid succession, causes more than half the living things on land, if not in the ocean, to become extinct. Most terrestrial life becomes squeezed into a relatively narrow band near the equator. Many species die every time this happens. They say that we are in an Ice Age Age, an Age of Ice Ages, and that another one is due to happen at any time; although I assume that our greenhouse effect will probably hold it at bay for awhile, especially if Ice Ages are caused by world-wide primeval forests sucking the carbon out of the atmosphere in a kind of anti-greenhouse effect, thereby chilling everything. That's not likely to happen soon; although it would be nice if global warming and the next, expected Ice Age could cancel each other out.
     Much more recently than the last Ice Age we have been threatened by mass extinctions of other kinds, the most blatantly obvious being the threat of thermonuclear Armageddon. People don't worry about this nearly as much as they did when the Cold War was raging at full intensity. The early 1960's especially were a very scary time, with people digging fallout shelters in their back yards, government officials declaring that a nuclear war with Russia was inevitable, and both sides threatening, in accordance with the game rules of "brinksmanship," to annihilate the other. Nuclear war is still possible, of course, because even though America and Russia are not so hostile towards each other as they used to be, now there are lots of other countries with H-bombs, including the likes of North Korea. And still some fool could push the button, or a malfunction somehow could push it for us.
     But nowadays people seem more concerned with global warming, the sea level rising higher than coastal cities, overpopulation, and the terrible effects of wheat gluten. People aren't concerned enough to make any of these problems go away, however. We have our everyday lives to attend to. Let tomorrow tend to itself.
     Yet a mass extinction in modern times will not necessarily be our own doing. There could be other causes, like another mountain-sized meteor or comet smacking into the world. It does happen sometimes; and although it seems safe to gamble that it won't happen anytime real soon, in the long run it's practically inevitable. Sooner or later the earth will be smacked into again, possibly by a large asteroid, possibly even by some invisible black hole. 
     In fact, in accordance with the universal law of impermanence, our entire planet will someday cease to exist. At the very latest this will occur when our beloved sun starts running out of fuel and metamorphoses into a red giant star, thereby swallowing, or at least vaporizing, Mercury, Venus, and Earth. This is assuming that astrophysicists understand the development of aging stars aright, and that I understand the astrophysicists well enough not to misrepresent them.
     But the whole planet, or at least all life on it, could meet its end long before the sun swells up or goes nova. For example, it is a bizarrely, terribly common occurrence out there in space for entire galaxies to explode. This kind of bothers me sometimes. Assuming that what happened on earth (i.e., the evolution of life) could happen on other worlds too, then when a galaxy of literally tens or hundreds of billions of stars explodes, there's a very good likelihood that some of those stars are suns for planets with intelligent life on them. One day a race of intelligent, sensitive, relatively happy space aliens are calmly going about their business…and suddenly an astronomically immense shockwave of extremely lethal radiation slams through their world and disintegrates it, and them too. This is probably really happening out there, assuming that the astronomical universe is real, and that some Semitic deity hasn't singled out our little species as the main purpose of the whole Universe.

An exploding galaxy, courtesy of the Hubble space telescope

     As a teenager my favorite science fiction author was Larry Niven, and he actually explained, somewhere in his writings, his understanding of how galaxies explode. According to him, the central core of a galaxy has its stars very close together, on average much less than one light year apart from each other. The night sky on a planet in a galactic core must be spectacular. Anyway, what happens is that when an old star finally goes supernova, an immense shockwave of radiation is unleashed; and when it hits nearby stars it gives them an energetic jolt which brings them closer to their own time of exploding. Eventually, enough old, repeatedly jolted stars at the core are poised so that one really big supernova is sufficient to trigger the supernovae of them too…starting an unimaginably gargantuan chain reaction that eventually spreads throughout the galaxy, eventually reaching even the remote areas. It may even be that most galaxies eventually explode.
     In Larry Niven's "Known Space" series (probably the most well-known story of which is Ringworld), the author assumes that our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is currently in the process of exploding. There's no way we could know this, though, since we couldn't see the core exploding until the light from there, thousands of light years away, finally reaches us; but the deadly radiation travels at the same speed of light, so we'll probably be killed before we can know what is going to happen, or is happening. And even if we did have some advance warning, there's nothing we could do to stop it. It's really strange to think that our earth could suddenly, at any moment, be vaporized by the radiating shockwave of billions of exploding stars. But again, it's probably a safe bet that it won't happen any time real soon. We may as well get out of bed tomorrow morning.
     But the threats to our planet's extinction are not exhausted, and can be even weirder than an exploding galaxy. In fact our extinction could be caused by some cosmic phenomenon totally un-understandable to us, or even totally unimaginable. 
     Possibly the mind-blowingest story I've ever read in my life is "Heresies of the Huge God," by Brian Aldiss (who became my favorite science fiction author when I was in my twenties). In this story, one fine day, possibly any day now, a creature like a metallic lizard with six legs, about a thousand miles long from head to tail, falls from space and smacks into the Mediterranean Sea, landing with its tail end in North Africa and its head end in Southern Europe. The impact causes earthquakes, tsunamis, and millions upon millions of human deaths. After this it just rests there, motionless; but nevertheless it is so huge that it disrupts weather patterns, resulting in droughts, floods, famines, and lots more deaths. So before long the nations of the earth decide to get rid of this thing by launching missiles at it—the first heresy of the Huge God, incidentally, being that It was just some thing to be gotten rid of—but with no discernible effect. Next they try nuclear weapons, but even nukes fail to scratch the surface of the Huge God. Many more people die from the radioactive fallout though. Occasionally, maybe every few decades, for no known reason, the creature shifts its position, usually jumping up and smashing back down, resulting in the inevitable earthquakes, tsunamis, millions of deaths, etc. Of course before long a new religion is born, of worshipping this being. And not long after that, naturally, hostile sects of this religion begin waging holy wars against each other over matters of doctrine (the losing side being guilty of gross heresies), possibly resulting in almost as many deaths as the Huge God's shifts of position. Finally, after more than two hundred years of this, the last scattered vestiges of the human race come up with the last of the great heresies: They begin praying to the thing, "We're unworthy of Your greatness! You are too good for us! Please go somewhere more worthy of Your Huge Majesty!" Perhaps It hears their prayers, because at last it suddenly, unexpectedly leaps into space and disappears. The trouble is, though, that it kicks off so hard that it knocks the earth out of its orbit. The story concludes with the monk who has chronicled all the heresies begging the Huge God to forgive them and to come back, because it's getting very cold and they're running out of virgins to sacrifice.
     Now, for all we know, something like this really could happen. As Arthur C. Clarke used to say, not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine. So there's really no telling when and how this earth of ours is going to meet with destruction. Who knows, maybe some multidimensional deity who is dreaming us right now will wake up at any moment, causing us instantaneously to poof out of existence. His alarm clock will suddenly go off; and although he'll press the snooze button, it will already be too late for us. (Later on he'll be at work, drinking a multidimensional deity's equivalent of coffee, and he'll tell the deity in the next cubicle, "You know, last night I had the weirdest dream—but now I don't remember what it was.")
     Even so, even though we cannot possibly know when our planet is going to explode or otherwise stop supporting organic life, it's a fair guess that it won't be real soon. It is, however, inevitable. The end of our world, if anything is certain, is certain. Not to mention the end of polar bears, Asian rhinoceroses, Amazonian tree frogs, and a prolific species of ape called Homo sapiens.
     Another point to consider, for me to consider anyway, is that according to my theory of everything (TOE), in a truly infinite Universe, which I consider our Universe to be, anything that possibly can happen does happen; and anything that is conceivable, is possible. So assuming that the Universe is really infinite, then somewhere Adolf Hitler didn't mess up and let the British Army escape from Dunkirk, and came up with a better strategy for invading Russia, so that the Nazis won World War II. Also, somewhere, the Cuban Missile Crisis led to World War III, a meteor the size of Manhattan Island is smacking into the earth, the Huge God is landing in the Mediterranean Sea today, etc. etc. If it can be imagined, then it is happening somehow. It all has to happen in order for the Universe to be infinite. This is not just a crackpot theory, but may actually be scientific; a similar idea found in physics is called the Many Worlds Hypothesis.
     However, as Eckhart Tolle says in his first famous book, it doesn't matter at all. From the perspective of Ultimate Reality, our entire galaxy could explode, and it wouldn't make any difference. Reality, or Being, or "God," would not be harmed or lessened by this event, not in the slightest degree. As venerable Mr. Tolle also says, what is Real does not die. Only an illusion seems to die. It just doesn't matter.
     Some may be of the opinion that, if it doesn't matter, then why think about it? Why should I bother to write about mass extinction events or the Huge God on an ostensibly Buddhist blog, unless it is simply out of the self-indulgent exhilaration of contemplating the morbidly apocalyptic? Well, all this is a variation on the theme of maraānussati, or recollection of death, one of the forty standard themes of meditation taught in Theravada Buddhist texts. In fact, recollection of death is considered so important in Dharma that it is called one of the Great Protectors. It protects us by preparing us for arrival at the end of the road we are walking.
     So, we're all going to die. The whole world is eventually going to die. The entire galaxy is going to die too. Everyone and everything will die, and is in the process of dying even now; and ultimately it doesn't matter. Life is strange. Such is life. 


"Yeah, I'm extinct too. Don't worry about it."




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