It’s Not About You

by James Morris

Last week, the United Nations reported that one million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction. The high rate of extinction we are currently experiencing is a result of all kinds of human activities, notably climate change, pollution, hunting, over-harvesting, deforestation, land use changes, and the like.

This is not the first time that the Earth has experienced massive die-offs. Five times in the last half billion years, the Earth has seen what scientists call mass extinctions. The most recent occurred when a meteor slammed into the Earth, wreaking global havoc and leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs (except birds). But this was not the only mass extinction, nor the biggest.

This episode – what many are calling the sixth extinction – is different from previous episodes. What previously took hundreds, thousands, even millions of years is instead happening in the span of decades. In addition, this is the only mass extinction where we can point to a single species – us – as the cause. Finally, we can do something about it.

Our collective actions are causing irreparable harm. What’s even more disturbing is that none of this is necessary. Take climate change. As Nathaniel Rich compellingly described in The New York Times Magazine and in his book Losing Earth, we have known about climate change for at least a generation and even missed an opportunity to do something about it in the 1980s. And, as David Wallace-Wells wrote in The Uninhabitable Earth, we have the technological answers and economic resources to address climate change – we just lack a sense of collective urgency and political will.

Typically, discussions about climate change focus on the facts, or the effects of increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and oceans, or climate models. These are clearly important. And sometimes we end up debating whether it is real, or whether it is caused by humans, but these are all sideshows that only serve to distract us from the pressing problem at hand. A different way to view the problem is through the lens of compassion.

Climate change is not just about science or the environment or the loss of species – it’s about how our actions, decisions, and votes affect others. It is widely recognized that climate change will disproportionately affect the poor. And the real crisis won’t be felt by us, but instead by those who have not yet been born. Therefore, finding and implementing solutions is about looking beyond ourselves. It’s essentially an exercise in compassion, care, and community.

To deny climate change then is not just denying science or ignoring facts; it’s denying the way our actions affect others both near and far, present and future, particularly those without resources to manage, mitigate, or migrate. It’s ignoring the very tangible ways we are affecting the very fabric of the world around us.

The same is true of vaccines. Consider the recent measles outbreak. Just last week, 60 new cases of the measles, many in New York City, continue to drive the numbers to the highest in 25 years, and a record since the disease was declared “eliminated” in 2000.

Vaccines don’t just protect the person getting the vaccine. For vaccines to work and be effective, a certain percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated, typically in the range of 90%. This is known as herd immunity.

There are some people who cannot get vaccinated – the very young, very old, and people with compromised immune systems, for example. These people are vulnerable, not unlike people in coastal communities threatened by rising sea levels. When you get a vaccine, you not only care for yourself; you care for others. You participate in a collective endeavor to protect everyone.

Climate change and vaccinations both make visible the invisible – the web of connections that unite us in one large global community. This is essentially the message of evolution, another area that sometimes divides us. But what evolution teaches us is quite simple – we are all intimately connected through inheritance stretching back four billion years.

It is thought that all life on Earth has a single, common origin. What this means is that we are all related to one another. To be sure, we are related within our immediate family. Taking a step back, all humans are closely related – much more similar to one another than different. And, taking just one more step back, we are related not just to one another, but to every species on Earth.

Darwin knew that his idea of a branching tree of life would be disruptive, moving humans from a special, separate place. But he saw “grandeur in this view of life,” as he put it. The idea that we share a bond with all species is indeed a beautiful way of seeing the world, encouraging us to look at organisms that share the planet with us with care and compassion.

Special thanks to Jen Cawsey for the title. I was going to call it “A Case for Compassion” but I like her title better.

© James Morris and Science Whys, 2019

2 thoughts on “It’s Not About You

  1. Michael Dettelbach

    Jim, did Darwin really propose that all life has a single origin? Although he certainly entertained and probably believed materialist theories about life and the origins of life (spontaneous generation), he avoided statements about ultimate origins in print. I think. And in fact the passage you quote from the end of the Origin of Species–the “view of life” whose grandeur he is admiring–specifically suggests that God might have started life from several origins points.

    Reply
    1. James Morris Post author

      Hi Michael, Great point. You’re right – he didn’t propose a single common origin in his published work. However, in his notes in 1837, he drew a tree to represent the pattern of evolution over time. At the base of this tree, he wrote a “1” and circled it. And, famously, at the top, he wrote, “I think.” Note that a single common origin doesn’t make any suggestions of how it got there, and therefore leaves open the possibility that it was “originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one,” as Darwin wrote in some editions of the Origin. Also, today, although we think that all living things descended from a single common ancestor, it could be that life originated and went extinct several times before it stuck.
      Here’s a link to Darwin’s sketch of the tree:
      https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/darwin/the-idea-takes-shape/i-think

      Reply

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