As animals, and especially visual animals at that, we have a particular experience of the light. For us it is illumination, information about our surroundings. For that purpose moonlight or even starlight will do. And for tens of millions of years, that’s all we ever saw. Somehow a few of us made it through the Permian extinction, and into the Triassic, but the ascendancy of the dinosaurs eventually forced us into the darkness of the night. Our world became dim, and our eyes went colorblind. Most mammals today see only two colors, but a few of us have re-evolved a third photoreceptor. Three colors is still inferior to the four or five or six seen by many near-surface fish, birds, reptiles, insects, and other arthropods. The stomatopods are almost biological spectroscopic imaging systems, with 12 color channels in each of their independently movable trinocular eyes. We are lesser than the eyes that never left the light. They stole the colors from us and made us hide within the night. They kept the sun for themselves, not knowing that our small and furtive ways, our burning endothermy and our fur would see us through the aftermath of the KT impact.
This book was as much a look at how we have changed the world as it was an exploration of what would happen were we all to vanish one day. I especially liked the chapter Polymers are Forever, about the ultimate fate of our plastics, and The Lost Menagerie, a chapter about the missing megafauna of the Americas. Missing, largely because we ate it. I thought he could have spent more time on nuclear waste and our laughable attempts to plan 10,000 years into the future in dealing with it. It would have been interesting to have a chapter on climate change too, in the event that we’ve already tipped it over the edge and into an Eocene like warm period. Maybe better than anything else, I liked his descriptions of the wild Earth, both before and after us. I still think we can have such a world without driving ourselves extinct. But it would take something on the order of his suggestion that we limit our fertility rate to 1.0 for the next few generations. Down to 500 million people by the year 2150. Are we up to the task? This is a real chance to demonstrate that our intelligence makes us special after all.
He occasionally rambles off into technobabble about holographically projecting our minds to other worlds… or other far out stuff, which is doesn’t really serve the purpose of the book, and is distracting to anyone with a science background. Those lapses aside, the basic message of the book is about the beauty and perhaps the inherent value, of the Earth, even without us here to observe it. It is an inspirational call to Zero, Now. It’s heartening that it spent so long on the bestsellers lists, if others got the same kind of message out of it that I did. If it’s just feeding some apocalyptic peakist zombie trance, well, then that’s less heartening. Certainly makes me want to visit all the remaining pristine parts of Earth. Dive the coral reefs while I still can. Walk in every different kind of remaining old-growth forest. And keep on composting my urine.
To plan long term we need time lapse eyes. We need to sense the world on geologic and evolutionary timescales. This is outside of our visceral experience. Astronomers and biologists and geologists get some sense of deep time, but it’s still not an experience. We need to build these eyes for ourselves.
The utter primacy of H. sapiens in all the theistic religions is one of the things that bothers me most deeply about them. I believe we are unique and unusually important amongst life on earth (as were the first oxygenic photosynthesizers, and the first eukaryotic organisms, and the first macroscopic multicellular life forms), but I don’t think that the earth without humans would be without value. Diminished, certainly, but still a precious place. By the same token, I think that we diminish the value of the earth by causing the extinction of other species.
I think this may actually be somewhat related to the abortion question, and the difficulty of coming to any kind of common ground on it. I don’t consider non-viable fetuses human, but to me that doesn’t mean they are without value, or undeserving of any kind of legal protections. I just don’t think those protections should be as extensive as our protections of humans. People are resistant to the idea that “humanity” is a continuum. Some might even say repelled by it, but it seems inescapable to me. I also believe that severely mentally disabled people are “less” human, and that a brain-dead human is, for all intents and purposes, a cell culture with no more moral value than a side of beef. This might seem like something we had better not talk about, since it starts off all kinds of slippery slopes to horrible places, but I think eventually, we will have no choice, because some time in the next few decades, or at most the next few centuries, we will be confronted with positive deviations as well as negative.
What will it mean to be human, when there exist super-humans? When some portion of the population is genetically or cybernetically enhanced, will they have super-human rights, privledges, and responsibilities, or will they simply be more powerful through extra-legal means?
A person, even a politician, can stand up for human rights while condoning abortion if they do not consider the fetus human. The core of the abortion argument is what does it mean to be human? Is it a discrete, or continuous classification? Unless we can come to some consensus on these questions, the abortion issue, and many others, will remain vexing indefinitely.