I just finished a remarkably good book, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. It is a book that is going to stick with me a long time and continually keep me thinking. It changed my world-view. There was so much provocative information that he shared that I’m sure I will need to read it several more times.
The book seemingly got more intriguing and expansive the smaller he focused, when he was talking about living cells and how crazy lucky it is to be “alive,” and how reckless humans are in taking care of what we are surrounded with (including ourselves, which he didn’t talk about but my mind immediately went there). His last page really hit home.
“I mention all this to make the point that if you were designing an organism to look after life in our lonely cosmos, to monitor where it is going and keep a record of where it has been, you wouldn’t choose human beings for the job.
But here’s an extremely salient point: we have been chosen, by fate or Providence or whatever you wish to call it. As far as we can tell, we are the best there is. We may be all there is. It’s an unnerving thought that we may be the living universe’s supreme achievement and its worst nightmare simultaneously.
Because we are so remarkably careless about looking after things, both when alive and when not, we have no idea – really none at all – about how many things have died off permanently, or may soon, or may never, and what role we have played in any part of the process….
The fact is, we don’t know [about extinction figures]. Don’t have any idea. We don’t know when we started doing many of the things we’ve done. We don’t know what we are doing right now or how our present actions will affect the future. What we do know is that there is only one planet to do it on, and only one species of being capable of making a considered difference. Edward O. Wilson expressed it with unimprovable brevity in The Diversity of Life: ‘One planet, one experiment.’
If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here – and by ‘we’ I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course: We enjoy not only the privilege of existence but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better: It is a talent we have only barely begun to grasp.
We have arrived at this position of eminence in a stunningly short time. Behaviorally modern human beings – that is, people who can speak and make art and organize complex activities – have existed for only about 0.0001 percent of Earth’s history. But surviving for even that little while has required a nearly endless string of good fortune.
We really are at the beginning of it all. The trick, of course, is to make sure we never find the end. And that, almost certainly, will require a good deal more than lucky breaks” (477-8).
The book reinforced my theory of humans being just another “germ” on planet earth, just easier to see than, say, the invisible bacteria that exists in multitudes everywhere (which Bryson does talk about). The question is, are we going to be a cognizant, helpful type of invasion, or will the earth eventually kill us off in favor of other species?