Annalee Newitz isn’t a top scientist with the clout to carry the burden of her book’s title. Still, she has a doctorate in English from the University of California at Berkeley and is co-founder of 109, a Gawker-owned science-fiction blog named by the New York Times as one of the top science blogs on the Internet.
The result is that there is something profoundly ambivalent about what Doubleday calls its author’s “brilliantly speculative work of popular science” focusing on humanity’s long history of dodging the bullet of extinction. Should we believe her nonexpert’s keen research and clear writing?
My answer is: Yes, we should. Sometimes, a brilliant observer can make an end run around what appears endless scientific quibbling daubed with politics.
In “Scatter, Adapt and Remember,” she helps us understand deep science and our future as a species. Newitz has done this by working her way through a series of interviews with experts and readings about how “scientific breakthroughs today will help us avoid disasters tomorrow.”
Our earth has been battered before. First, our planet has almost been erased a half dozen times in its 4.5 billion-year history, shattered by asteroids, entombed in ice and smothered by methane. Her argument is that we’ve survived the first half-dozen extinctions; why not another one?
I am not sure that I agree with her assertion that “humans will survive a mass extinction.” It seems to me that we humans “may” or “might” survive. But she is positive and that’s a good thing.
What has she found out in her study? These are her characterizations:
• Newitz’s hope is based on hard evidence gleaned from the history of survival.
• The title of the book is a distillation of strategies that have already worked.
• Evidence of the next mass extinction begins with bees’ Colony Collapse Disorder. “If bees go extinct,” she says, “their loss will trigger an extinction domino effect.”
• Extinction is a fact of life. At present, “E.O. Wilson of Harvard estimates that 27,000 species of all kinds go extinct per year.”
• Thus, we may be at the beginning of a mass extinction that includes us. This is what proponents of the “sixth extinction” theory believe. It is a term coined by paleontologist Richard Leakey in the 1990s. (Elizabeth Kolbert, the New Yorker’s environmental journalist, has tirelessly reported for two decades on this phenomenon called “The Great Dying.” Are we sure of it? The answer is “no.”)
Newitz says that in any case, the sixth extinction is going to happen and we should begin to prepare for the inevitable. Rather than be depressed about it, she advises that we switch gears and get into a survival mode.
She says we can survive by “… simulating tsunamis to studying central Turkey’s ancient underground cities; from cultivating cyanobacteria for “living cities” to designing space elevators to make space colonies cost-effective; from using math to stop pandemics to studying the remarkable survival strategies of gray whales, scientists and researchers … are discovering the keys to long-term resilience and learning how humans can choose life over death.”
Buzz Aldrin, the 83-year-old astronaut, seems to be on the same page with his new book, “Mission To Mars, My Vision for Space Exploration.”
All this may be beyond the capacities of people who have a hard time carrying home groceries from the supermarket.
But it’s a consolation that at least one non-expert with a capacious mind is doing more than storing comestibles in a bomb shelter in her yard.
Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction
By Annalee Newitz
320 pages, $26.95
Michael D. Langan is a former employee of the Labor and Treasury departments.