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A techno-optimist’s prediction for the next mass extinction, and how to survive it

 SCATTER, ADAPT, AND REMEMBER: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction By Annalee Newitz. Doubleday. 305 pp. $26.95 . ISBN 978-0385535915 Some years ago, in preparation for a college semester in Costa Rica, I secured a copy of John Lofty Wiseman’s SA

SCATTER, ADAPT, AND REMEMBER: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction By Annalee Newitz. Doubleday. 305 pp. $26.95 . ISBN 978-0385535915 Some years ago, in preparation for a college semester in Costa Rica, I secured a copy of John Lofty Wiseman’s SA

Some years ago, in preparation for a college semester in Costa Rica, I secured a copy of John Lofty Wiseman’s SAS Survival Handbook. After assembling a survival kit inside an Altoids tin, I studied how to evade a volcanic gas ball or trap a monkey. Should I be forced to ditch my plane in the Gulf of Mexico, I felt confident that I could obtain fresh water by sucking on fish eyes.

Such skills, however, may be practical only if fish remain in our oceans and monkeys in the trees. MacGyvers in the 21st century – or the 31st for that matter – will face a suite of existential challenges that cannot be remedied with nylon fishing line. A warmer Earth could unleash continent-wide droughts and wars over water supplies. Or a new plague could sweep through our cities and kill millions.

Although these doomsday scenarios may sound like fantasy, only the solutions to them are. In Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, Annalee Newitz presents a sort of prophylaxis for the apocalypse. As the founding editor of io9, a Gawker Media blog about science and futurism, Newitz is a techno-optimist, convinced that we humans can outwit just about everything our solar system throws at us in the coming millennia.

“How can I say that with so much certainty?” she asks. “Because the world has been almost completely destroyed at least half a dozen times already in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history, and every single time there have been survivors.” She’s probably right.

The worst extinction in Earth’s history, the Great Dying, took place 250 million years ago – long before humans were around – when a massive volcano spewed particles into the air, blocking the sun and triggering a brief but catastrophic ice age. About 95 percent of species were wiped out, turning the oceans into a bacterial sludge that scientists have nicknamed Slime World. A few larger animals did survive, including a half dozen species of “shovel lizard,” a pig-sized beast known as Lystrosaurus.

One of their secrets seems to be that they burrowed underground, so that they wouldn’t be cooked by the first fiery blasts.

The most engaging sections of the book come when it veers into Cormac McCarthy territory, sketching out scenarios where the dregs of humanity must recolonize the Earth’s surface. If we’re lucky, the hangers-on will have access to a repository of human knowledge called the CD3WD database – possibly preserved in a survival kit as “a thick sheaf of papers” – containing instructions on building a water pump, preserving yams and treating diarrhea in sheep.

But as Newitz ventures further into a speculative future, describing a technologically augmented world where our brains are uploaded onto computers and humans with artificial lungs bounce around one of Saturn’s moons, she seems more caught up with the hows of species survival than the whys.

Some may find comfort in the idea that our species’s DNA survive for eternity in this icy universe, but as far as I can tell, staving off extinction is more about vanity than morality.

It is the romantic hope that we are heading toward something larger than each of us, and that some similar being will one day admire the tweets we wrote and the asphalt we poured.

For her part, Newitz would like her “post-Homo sapiens offspring” to “remember us as brave creatures who never stopped exploring.” It’s a nice sentiment.

My guess is they’d prefer it if we just found a good way to turn our bodies into biofuel.

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