Our Self-Destruction Gene

Nature is full of exponential phenomena, and population growth is the prime example. Given optimal resources, any species will multiply exponentially before becoming limited by the availability of these resources, or by a predator. As a molecular biologist and microbiologist I spent six years of my life growing bacteria and other organisms, in order to study their growth and survival strategies. I experimented with different conditions including temperature extremes, acidity, and starvation. One of the first patterns that became evident was that no matter what the conditions were, the bacteria would always maximize their use of available food. Not only that, but they would also continue to multiply, even as their food began to run out.

This is a pattern that is observed not only in bacteria but in most other life forms. There are organisms in fact who, the more they become exposed to environmental stress and diminishing resources, the more energy they spend. This is of course something of a paradox, as you would expect the organism to begin conserving energy. The paradox begins to make sense though, once it becomes clear where this energy is spent: making progeny. It is well documented in biology that, once an organism senses that something is not quite right in their environment, specific genetic and hormonal pathways are activated which, may encourage some energy conservation in some areas, but at the same time stimulate diversion of most of the remaining energy into reproduction. The parents are sacrificed so that children are produced, usually in the form of bacterial spores or plant seeds, or in the case of many animals fertilized eggs that can stay dormant for a while and distribute themselves across large distances until they come across favorable conditions.

Although this strategy may waste energy in a time when there is little to spare, and result in the premature death of the parents, it ensures the survival of the species. The “last ditch to procreate”, which could be described as a suicidal breeding frenzy, is actually part of the normal life cycle of many organisms, as one generation gives way to the next. Countless are the stories of species of birds, or the octopus, becoming emaciated as they refuse to leave the nest to search for food, so that their eggs are not left unattended. It is a process which has been given the stamp of approval by evolution, as it increases the chances of survival of the species, at the expense of the parent.

This cascade of hormonal and physiological responses that dictates self-destruction and procreation at the same time may make sense from an evolutionary point of view, but always strikes an emotional nerve with us humans. We live in a society where the value of the individual is paramount, and where ideally we want both the parents and the children to survive, for as long as possible. There are in fact certain parents in the human species who challenge the evolutionary paradigm described above, and make a conscious choice to have fewer children or no children at all, should they feel that they do not have all the available resources for their children to thrive. By doing so, these parents are not only saving their children from a tough life, but they are prolonging the quality of their own life as well.

But these parents represent a segment of the human population that isn’t enough to make a dent in our unsustainable and continuing population expansion. They usually represent the educated, urban dwellers who have enough mental capacity to reflect, and override the overwhelming social pressure to have children, enforced through “norms”: from extended family, religion, or Hollywood. It would seem that, no matter how much education we acquire, our critical judgement is rarely ever strong enough to overcome our urge to reproduce and comply by the norms of society and peer pressure. At the end of the day we are not different from the bacteria, plants, animals in this sense, and it can be argued that the fact that certain parents-to-be are able to resist having children is nothing short of a miracle, given the strong natural instinct and social pressure to produce children, even within a collapsing world.

There is an urgency for all humans to have this conversation, and to counteract our inherited nature to procreate, even though it was gifted to us by the wisdom of evolution. Unfortunately evolution only works with the evidence it collects in the present. It is a process that is blind to the future. It does not anticipate the finite size of our planet’s resources or the state of our climate which almost guarantee a treacherous life of war and starvation for the majority of humans surviving into the next few decades. Evolution does not care about the survival and well-being of the individual, but that of the species. Evolution would rather see billions of hungry, war-torn humans survive into the apocalyptic world unravelling in front of us in the next few decades, than a few healthy individuals. But we have a choice between these two worlds.

Many organisms have advanced genetic pathways that allow them to survive an apocalypse, as they have in previous mass extinctions. Extremophile bacteria produce Noah’s Ark-type impenetrable capsules called spores, which allow them to enter a dormancy period. A more familiar example is that of plants: they leave behind seeds that can last for hundreds of years until rain or other favorable conditions return. Many other organisms have a Noah’s Ark versions of themselves that can “hunker down”. However for humans so far this has only been explored in Hollywood, often through the cryopreservation chambers that allow humans to enter hibernation in order to travel through the universe. The concept has been explored in so many motion pictures that so many people think it can be developed, but this is near impossible for a complex organism like a human being. And although it is certain that bacterial spores will not only survive our climate apocalypse but thrive into the next version of this planet, the possibility of the survival of complex human societies into the future of an uninhabitable Earth we are quickly entering is as much a subject of serious conversation as it is of science fiction.

Our dilemma is simple: can we override our self-destruction genes? Can we choose between the two worlds, or are we locked into, as it appears, a destiny of displacement, dispossession and disaster? Is our civilisation destined to follow this exponential growth, until it reaches a spectacular collapse? Should we focus our brains on creating futuristic cryogenic chambers, or on bringing Earth back into balance, so that we don’t have to evacuate the planet in the first place?

5 thoughts on “Our Self-Destruction Gene

  1. Yes, its our species’ tragedy that apparently given a mind capable of considerable
    lucidity and imaginative thinking we remain content in pursuing our parasitic/narcisstic ways. (Your choice of “parasitic” relates so well to our
    ways of operating!)

    Don’t understand why. Our passivity, ignorance, lack of time, energy, interest???
    In any event believe our species is on its way out. Perhaps to be replaced even by our present energetic COVID virus said to be without a brain but still able to mutate
    sufficiently well to have most of our planet on its knees.

  2. Thank you so much for this. I’d been thinking myself how humans are like species that consume until they run out of habitat and then they die but you’ve described it so much better from a evolutionary point of view ie that that is the behaviour of most species. I’ve been so confused as to why no-one wants to talk about the ship going down but maybe it’s that our intellect is no match for our human nature (and so intellect has to go!) As I’m one of those in the frame of mind that we’re in a hospice situation, it somehow gives me a little peace in this unfolding tragedy to see us humans as like locusts. I don’t mean that pejoratively, but that we are simply like locusts, just doing our locusty thing.

    I should add, this doesn’t preclude me doing all I can on the off-chance our species could avoid extinction, I don’t know what will happen, but I do so now with a more accepting heart.

  3. Makes sense for bacteria & plants but humans are not kangaroos so it’ doesn’t make any sense for humans?

    There’s no future Earth because nuclear power plants can’t run themselves; 450+ nuclear power plant explosions later and the Earth just ends up a worse version of Mars.

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