by Poul Anderson

What were you doing when you first heard that an atomic bomb had exploded over Hiroshima? I remember every detail of that afternoon with a terrible clarity, and most especially the feeling of dread that followed the first amazement and the "Luna, here we come!" Since that time the original half-panic has faded from most of our minds, to be replaced by a more dangerous apathy, but subconsciously we have still been living in the shadow of doom. It is time to do a little thinking and to assess our chances rationally.

Man has not always been preoccupied with his own extinction, but there have been eschatologies previous to the several offered us today. The Biblical Apocalypse, The Eddic Weird of the Gods, the myths and philosophies of many nations have foretold the ruin and death of the world. Our fear is not new, though we have given it new names.

I should like briefly to discuss the scientifically possible blackouts which have been imagined as falling on humanity. What are they, how do they work, how likely are they? Too many thinkers have come up with loose statements such as "a race between education and extinction." That race, if it ever existed, is hopelessly lost already; but it may be that it has been a race against a shadow. Let's see what our chances as a species are. I do not speak of the chances of individual survival, which may well be poor, but of the long-range prospects for genus homo.

In general, the gloomy predictions seem to fall into five rather vaguely defined categories: war, some other cultural blunder, world-wide plague, astronomical catastrophe, and extinction through the million-year workings of biological laws. These cannot really be separated - for example, the biological effects of cultural traits such as war may be important over long periods of time - but the classification given is for convenience only. Let's take up these various unpleasant possibilities in order. Hang on to your stomachs!

WAR. This is the most imminent dread. It is assumed that atomic bombs will be developed and used which can utterly wipe out all men everywhere. Variations of this theme include poison gas, radioactive dust or gas, and artificially cultured plagues. We can dismiss chemical warfare immediately; it is a local and limited weapon, and there is simply no way of manufacturing enough poison to saturate the Earth's atmosphere. We will leave the discussion of plagues for their proper heading. Then we are left with radioactive substances, which the piles now in existence create in large amounts and which we imagine could be spread in the form of dust or gas as an especially vicious form of poison; and, of course, the Bomb.

Now whatever the terrible weapon may be, it is not going to exterminate all mankind unless both sides in a war have it and use it. A monopoly simply means victory for the possessor. So let us assume that both contestants try to spray the other's home territory and outlying bases with radioactive material of high activity. If this is to destroy us, there is first the problem of interception and ground defense -- obviously, not all the bombers or guided missiles are going to get through. Second, there is the problem of saturation -- after all, any country's area is a lot of acreage. Third, there is the matter of radioactive decay: as a general rule, the more active a substance is, the shorter its half-life, which means that the most vicious materials will only contaminate the ground bombed for a few days or weeks -- years or decades, if you will, but not forever. A little thought will show that radioactivity, while it could be terribly destructive, cannot annihilate the Earth's population or even a very large percentage thereof. Which is small consolation to those who do die, but reassuring as far as the fate of our race goes.

Now we come to the Bombs -- fission bombs, hydrogen bombs, lithium bombs, and whatever other varieties of hell may be dropped on our heads to save us from communism, capitalism, or some other current shibboleth. It is theoretically possible to build weapons more destructive than anything yet on hand. The ultimate limit, as far as science today can tell us, is the total-conversion bomb: the device for converting matter completely into energy instead of the piddling one tenth of one percent achieved by the one that fell on Hiroshima. Such a device would have fantastic destructive powers, and could probably set off earthquakes as well as vaporize whole cities; dust thrown up would produce several bitterly cold years and millions of people would die at one stroke. But the whole human race would not die. Not only the natives of backwaters such as Central Africa or the Matto Grosso would survive; even the citizens of the country assailed would live if they were outside the immediate radius of destruction (which the curvature of the earth would limit to ten or twenty miles or fifty at the most). Open plains inhabited only by farmers would hardly be bombed.

(Without going into the details of nuclear physics, I might add that there is no known way, including this total-conversion bomb, by which the Earth's crust or atmosphere could be atomically kindled. It might conceivably happen, but if so, it would happen according to natural laws which our science has not discovered yet)

A civilization which had such weapons and insisted on using them against itself would probably collapse, and a new barbarism return - though even then I cannot see technology wiped out altogether. But that collapse would itself end the production and use of the bombs. The generations to follow would have a hard and hungry time of it until they were re-adapted to a natural economy and enough forest and topsoil had come back to support them properly; but a sufficient number would live to carry on the race.

-and this, be it noted, is a fantasy of the wildest sort. There is no way known to make such a total-conversion bomb. Even the great atomic furnace of the sun does not do it.

Admittedly, there are nasty byproducts of this kind of warfare. The induced radioactivity of enough atomic bombs would create more havoc, of a creeping sort, than the original explosions. The long-range effects on human heredity would be a grave problem, to be discussed later. But man as a species seems to be too tough and too widely spread to be annihilated by anything which did not wipe out all higher forms of life - even he himself doesn't seem able to do the job.

Let us not be pollyannas. There are some harsh years ahead, and possibly many individuals will die. But the race will survive. And I think that even our technological civilization will go on. Any area, however small, possessing our knowledge - or a sizeable fraction of it - could soon reconquer a barbarized planet. A wave of anti-scientific hysteria might prevent further advances, but it is unlikely that the prophets of medievalism would forego the material benefits we already have - electricity, medicine, agronomy, and the rest of it; and the stasis they brought about would not last forever.

BLUNDERS. This brings us to other possible mistakes. Man has made ghastly errors in the past - might not some future recklessness wipe him out altogether?

A favorite theme of doom mongers used to be racial degeneration. It was held that technology, by making life safer and easier, had annulled natural selection so that the unfit can now breed and spread their unfitness to all of us. Medical science in particular has come in for blame, though the aforesaid prophets rarely hesitated to visit a doctor when they themselves fell sick.

Now any society, primitive or civilized, naturally shifts the emphasis on desirability to some degree. A warlike culture as, for example, the fifteenth century Aztec, exalts the aggressive warrior type, providing him with riches and honor and wives, while the naturally quiet and contemplative man is put at a severe disadvantage; a diametrically opposed culture such as the Zuni bestows rewards and penalties in reverse order. Perhaps the turbulence of the European races can be traced in part to the Middle Ages, where the unwarlike intellectual tended to withdraw into a celibate monastery (though we should not exaggerate this, especially since clerical celibacy was not taken too seriously before the Counter-Reformation). But while over a long period of time this would probably have some biological effect, it has never yet served to extinguish any one type; human heredity is so complex that the rejected sort still gets born in every generation and abides the eventual inevitable change of social climate. So there is little danger of over-specialization. This is especially true in the case of modern technological culture, which seems able to find a niche for almost everybody.

The fear that birth control may make a race of morons out of us seems equally unfounded. "The only class which practices birth control is the upper class, the intelligentsia, who are thus breeding themselves out of the race." Sorry, but according to recent population figures that just doesn't seem to be true; college trained people are producing at least their share of children. Furthermore, this equation of intelligence and all-around worthiness with social and economic position rests to some degree on pure snobbishness. The present generation of truck drivers is perfectly capable of furnishing the next generation of college professors.

Indeed, our civilization puts an unusually high premium on sheer intelligence - perhaps unfairly high. Wiener has pointed out that the unskilled pick-and-shovel laborer has been almost ruined as such by the development of machinery, and that the third-rate intellectual, capable only of routine thinking, will soon be on the way out. This will generate social tension, yes; but it will favor the genius, who will be economically enabled to have more children. The prospect for the next few centuries - Lord knows what comes after that! - seems to be one of a rather sharp cleavage, with the bright, more or less unobtrusively, ruling the not-so-bright and the stupid, and with little interbreeding between rulers and subjects. This is not too pleasant a vision, but it is at least free from any notion of everyone being dragged down to moron level.

As for the ailments from which science protects us, admittedly many artificial aids weaken our racial immunities to disease, but they do not destroy them. And many a valuable life which in nature would have been lost due to accidental injury, has been saved.

Again, we can not afford to laugh off this problem; but let us not overrate it either.

A much graver error, which has been thoroughly discussed by such authorities as Vogt and Osborne, is that of overpopulation and the exhaustion of natural resources. Our children and grandchildren will suffer because of our present greed and stupidity; but they will not die on this account. Substitute materials can be found; the oceans are still a virtually unopened treasure chest; proper conservation measures can reduce much loss. And eventually we may hope for a rational world with the courage to face the problem and begin a sane program of population reduction through birth control, scientific agriculture, conservation of minerals, and restoration of organic and water resources.

PLAGUE. George Stewart's novel Earth Abides considers the possibility of a world-wide plague all but annihilating the human species. This is a problem to which we can give no final answer here, for not enough factors are known; but we can make some intelligent guesses. The new germ would have to be one which attacks us fatally, to which we have no immunity, and on which our medicine has no effect. It could occur as a natural mutation of some existing type, or perhaps an artificially bred strain for use in war, or conceivably it could drift here from some other planet, borne across space by light pressure (as Arrhenius speculated all life might originally have come to Earth). If the disease had a fairly long incubation period during which it was contagious, modern transportation would soon spread it everywhere - though there would still doubtless be outlying tribes who were not affected.

Even assuming that all peoples were exposed to the germ, it is most unlikely that it would destroy the entire race. Some individuals could be expected to have strength enough to recover from the illness, or even to be naturally immune to it; that has certainly been true of every great plague in the past. As the population fell, the rate at which the disease spread would naturally fall too; and it is a statistical certainty that there would be people here and there who were not exposed until the storm had passed over.

If enough people died, civilization would, of course, go under; but the race would carry on. And we needn't worry about a disease attacking, not us, but an important food source; we can eat too many things if we have to.

CONCLUSIONS: New diseases will doubtless appear from time to time in the future, but it is highly improbable that any will get so completely out of hand as to threaten a world-wide civilization, and the probability that the whole species will die of it is vanishingly small.

ASTRONOMICAL CATASTROPHE. Several novae are observed every year in this galaxy; these are stars which suddenly flare up to hundreds of thousands of times their original brightness and presently fade again. If the sun should blow up in this fashion, all life on Earth would disappear - the planet itself would probably be vaporized.

Those who remember Mr. Velikovsky's naive fantasies may also consider the chance of a wandering planet or star approaching close enough to Earth to destroy it. If either of these things happen now, mankind is obviously finished; but I am happy to say that the probability of both is negligible. There is no reason to suppose that our sun will "go nova" for millions of years to come, nor has anyone reported planetary perturbations assignable to some invading body. And considering what a small target the Solar System is in the vastness of interstellar space, it is highly unlikely that anyone ever will.

Furthermore, we only need another century's grace or so, with man and his technology surviving, to be beyond the reach of this apocalypse. The spaceship will doubtless be with us in a matter of years. In a hundred years, more or less, we should be able to construct spaceships capable of reaching the stars; such voyages might take centuries, but the ship would be a self-contained unit with its own ecology, and some few humans could escape to seek new planets.

Not properly astronomical, but relevant to this heading, is the invasion of a huge fleet from outer space in the manner of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. You need only consider the problems involved, and then ask yourself what a race capable of solving them would have to gain by wiping us out, to dismiss that one.

Conclusion: As far as sheer astronomy goes, man should be able to last till the final star burns out.

BIOLOGY. The dinosaurs were great in their day; and they died. There are more extinct than living species. Why should we be immune?

Now it is not known exactly why the dinosaurs died, but it was certainly because of some environmental change to which they could not adapt themselves. And man is notoriously the most adaptable of all animals - not by changing himself but by creating an artificial environment. This holds equally good for the Eskimo in his igloo and the New Yorker in his air-conditioned apartment. There is simply no prospect of any environmental change sudden enough and radical enough to defeat the human race.

Man has conquered his world by virtue of intelligence; might not some other species evolve an equal brain, under our very feet, and then hunt us down? Well, hardly. Such evolution takes a good long time, and man is not going to tolerate possible competitors. If rats, for instance, suddenly started making tools and fires, you can be sure the world would forget its wars long enough to concentrate all energies on exterminating rats.

Indeed, something like this may already have happened. Australopithecus, the mysterious South African "fire ape," seems to have been a geological latecomer, contemporary with man and quite probably exterminated by him.

But how about man himself? It is well-known that hard radiation causes mutational changes in genes; that most such mutations, being Mendelian recessives, can spread widely through a large population before appearing openly; and that when they do appear, the change can often be lethal or very badly disabling. It has been suggested that some such factor is responsible for the population cycles in rats, lemmings, and other animals. Since we can expect quite a bit of hard radiation on Earth in the near future, may this not mean a wave of mutation in our descendants?

It may. At the risk of being called a pessimist, I shall add that I even think this is probable. But I do not think it will end the human race. Let us examine the reasons for this belief.

First, mutations tend to follow similar patterns, so that many of the possible ones have already occurred. Four-leafed clovers are a familiar example; hemophilia and albinism are instances found in man. None of these has killed us all off yet, or even shown up in very many people. A really radical mutation generally kills or sterilizes its possessor, thus passing out of the race in one generation. Monsters born to human mothers will not find mates; sickly people, handicapped by some unfavorable mutation, will have few or no children; and we have already considered the disadvantages of the moron in our society, a disadvantage which may be expected to increase rather than diminish.

In general, a little arithmetic shows that any new recessive mutation will find its like and show up in children - thus making its existence known - before it can be spread to the entire human population. Then, if the mutation is a bad one, preventive measures can be taken.

This brings up our second point, that man has more control over his destiny than any other animal. He can eliminate any really undesirable traits from his own heredity in the course of a few generations by forcing celibacy, sterilization, or death on the unfortunate possessors. Moreover, we may expect man's knowledge of genetics and his ability to select and manipulate the units of heredity to increase in the centuries to come.

There is thus no known biological factor which can reasonably be expected to extinguish our species. About the unknown factors we can, of course, say nothing, except to assume that human knowledge as it learns of them can cope with them. Certainly there have been animals in the past which reached a high point of evolution and then degenerated and died out - one thinks of the ammonites or the mosasaurs. But unless we become mystics and talk vaguely of "exhausted racial vitality" or the like, we have no good reason for believing that the same fate is reserved for us. After all, there are many very old types - sharks, cockroaches, termites, to name only three - which have not changed for millions of years and show just as much racial vitality as ever.

Some of these are still with us because of perfect adaptation to an unchanging environment - the sea. Others, the social insects, have survived because they are to some extent able to manipulate the environment and shelter themselves artificially against its fluctuations. But this ability is man's in a supreme degree.

Incidentally, on this same basis I am inclined to doubt that a "superman" will ever appear, a new, superior race born of man and supplanting him. The social insects have not become extinct, but neither have they evolved further. Man, with his artificial environments and his tools ranging all the way from crowbars to digital computers, does not need to become other than what he is.

My personal guess is that in millions of years to come man will slowly become more intelligent - up to a point - and will modify his bodily structure toward better adaptation to the bipedal stance - also up to a point. The end of this process, who will not look very different from us today, will probably remain the same into the indefinite future.

Data entry and page scans provided by Judy Bemis

Data entry by Judy Bemis

Updated June 28, 2015. If you have a comment about these web pages please send a note to the Fanac Webmaster. Thank you.