The Poison Pill

I originally wrote this more than ten years ago, not long after the WTC attacks.  Since then the problem has remained, and even worsened.

In his book, “The End of Faith,” Sam Harris makes a convincing case that the world’s two major religions, Christianity and Islam, are heading for a climactic confrontation.  Since the origin of Islam in 610 CE, this conflict has simmered and festered.  The Crusades and the Ottoman Empire’s conquests of southern Europe were samples of what is to come.  The largely Christian West currently dominates the world economically, culturally and militarily, but the Muslim world is stirring.  Unlike earlier wars, this one will not be fought by large armies in pitched battles.  There were terrorist attacks before the centerpiece of the Islamist assault, the WTC attacks, and they have continued since then.  There is no reason to expect that they will not continue indefinitely into the future.  Eventually they will involve nuclear or biological weapons of mass destruction (WMD’s) and when that happens, the resultant escalation of attacks and reprisals could result in the end of human life, maybe all life on earth.

There is a reason why this is happening now.  It is a combination of population growth and technology.  At the time of the Crusades the population of the earth was around 250 million people.  War consisted mainly of assaults by massed armies and sieges of fortifications.  The weapons were swords, spears, arrows, catapults and scaling ladders.  The total loss of life in the Crusades has been estimated at around 9 million people.  That was less than 4% of the world’s population at that time, and those wars took place over a period of almost 200 years (1095-1291).  Clearly, the killing efficiency of weapons at that time was not sufficient to threaten the survival of our species. 

Since then, the population of the earth has risen to over 6 billion, and weapons technology has made it possible to kill hundreds of thousands, even millions in an instant with a single bomb.  Indeed, such massive losses of life appear increasingly likely, as terrorists seek access to WMD’s.  Sooner or later they will get them.

How have we arrived at this point?  Several things have combined to create this apocalyptic scene.  First, no other animal has ever developed the capabilities of Homo Sapiens.  Early hunter-gatherers learned to domesticate plants and animals, so that most of every day was not spent just searching for food.  Once organized agriculture arose, people could settle down, build permanent homes…villages…towns, and eventually cities grew.  Part of the population could grow enough food for everybody, so the rest of the populace was freed up to do other things…arts, crafts,  commerce, politics…and war.

Meanwhile, the abundance of food led to a steady increase in the population.  There were some setbacks, like the Plagues.  Ignorance of health and medical care resulted in high infant mortality rates and short life spans, but the fecundity of our species overcame that, and the earth’s population continued to expand.  Meanwhile the weapons of war grew increasingly sophisticated, as did the scale of our wars, culminating in the two World Wars of the Twentieth Century, and the development of nuclear weapons, opening the ultimate Pandora’s Box.

Following WWII, mechanization of large-scale agriculture all over the planet led to a population explosion.  Most population experts say that with over 6 billion inhabitants, the earth population is in “overshoot,” an unsustainable level for any extended period of time.  This is evident in many areas…farmland is being depleted, underground freshwater aquifers are being pumped down, pollution of surface freshwater as well as the oceans and the atmosphere is common in many areas.

In the last twenty or thirty years, the problems have worsened.  We now have a lethal combination of worldwide problems:  Too many people competing for a finite and dwindling set of resources, a rapidly spreading capability to make and use WMD’s, and a festering enmity between Christianity and Islam.  Some of the people involved in the religious confrontation view even their own death as a good thing, if it happens in the “defense” of their religion.  The annihilation of all life on the planet is not completely repugnant to them since they expect to meet all their friends and family in Heaven.

It seems almost inevitable.  What is it about our nature that has led us to the edge of this precipice?  Could it be that God or Nature (if there is a difference) has caused this to happen?  If we are indeed the product of an intelligent designer, shouldn’t he have realized that the combination of intelligence, competitiveness and aggressiveness that he gave to us could prove to be dangerous?  Maybe he has other “design projects” in the Universe, and he wanted to protect them from the inhabitants of Earth if we run amok.  Did he insert a “poison pill” into the design so that if things get out-of-hand, we will self-destruct, like an errant space shot headed towards a city?  Or did some hitherto undiscovered dimension of the evolutionary process of natural selection provide the seeds of our destruction?

Consider, for a moment, how Earth and its inhabitants would appear to an entity who views us objectively from “out there.”  Our population is exploding.  Our weapons technology is too.  Literally.  We have made the first tentative steps into space, exploring our satellite with manned missions and we have launched unmanned explorations to all the other planets in our system.  One more breakthrough…space travel capability…and we are poised to fling our population…germs, weapons, and genes…all over the galaxy, and maybe beyond.  Like the mutant bacteria in Michael Crichton’s book, “Andromeda Strain,” we could cause a lot of damage if we escape from our “container.”

If you were an infinitely intelligent designer who anticipated this problem, what would you do?  Maybe you would include in the design a test that includes a self-destruct button.

As our population increases and our technology develops, if we fail to mature and become responsible stewards of the planet, coexisting peaceably and sharing resources equitably and sustainably, it would eventually rise up and destroy us.  Like a Trojan Horse, it would appear to be innocent until it was activated.

What is the one thing that the vast majority of humans seem to need, and yet today it is the thing that is threatening to destroy us all?  Could the Trojan Horse, the “test” with the self-destruct button, be religious faith?

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