History of Awareness of Humankind Extinction Threats
If you want to understand just how slowly humankind has responded to existential threats, and how difficult it is to get serious attention and care about this issue, then this section is for you.
This section may also convey to you my extreme frustration over the years ...
The human development of outer space was started because of military competition between the USA and the USSR. It was first the missile space race, especially the plan for intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles, which initially drove the space race, and then became military applications of satellites around Earth, and space technologies in general. Commercial applications followed later, after military developments. This raises the question of whether humans would even have a chance of survival, by the race of space settlement vs. a synthetic biology extinction event, if the USA-USSR military arms race had not started the outer space race. Biotechnology and synthetic biology were sure to arise commercially, but outer space development is a much different kind of field of interest.
The topic of space settlement using lunar resources ramped up in public discussions in the 1970s. This was greatly led by Dr. Gerard K. O'Neill, who developed a practical plan, organized workshops and conferences, published articles and a book, became a prominent public figure as a persistent advocate in the 1970s, and created the Space Studies Institute (SSI). O'Neill and his close associates received a little funding from NASA, but those small amounts were eventually cut off. For example, after the popular US TV show "60 Minutes" ran a segment on space settlement, the Senate's chairman for the subcommittee responsible for NASA funding (the Senate Appropriations Committee, which controls spending), William Proxmire, stated "it's the best argument yet for chopping NASA's funding to the bone.... I say not a penny for this nutty fantasy."
(Proxmire later introduced an amendment into NASA's 1982 budget to also end the program to Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Yet, Proxmire, a Senator from the state of Wisconsin which is known as "America's Dairyland", yes, basic mammalian mammary products, consistently promoted tax dollars spent on price supports of dairy products for the benefit of people in his home state, never mind others in the Milky Way beyond his own personal voting constituency. Proxmire won votes in Wisconsin by wide margins. Populists for selfish special interests often win in democracies of equal votes of all people. Human politics and societies...)
It was fairly well known that the contradiction between the Fermi Paradox (no extraterrestrial civilizations observed) and the Drake Equation (there should be a very large number of extraterrestrial civilizations) made Dr. Sagan think that technological civilizations may tend to self-destruct.
When estimating the number of extraterrestrial civilizations there may be, Dr. Sagan stated: "Civilizations then might take billions of years of tortuous evolution to arise and then snuff themselves out in an instant of unforgiveable neglect. If this is a typical case, there may be few others, maybe nobody else at all for us to talk to. But consider the alternative, that occasionally civilizations learn to live with high technology and survive ... If only 1% of civilizations can survive technological adolescence, then ... [there could be millions of extraterrestrial civilizations ...]" Earlier, he spoke of civilizations surviving "the trap jointly set by their technology and their passions." (Sagan used The Drake Equation in his presentation, as discussed earlier.)
Dr. Sagan ramped up warnings about the risks of nuclear war to civilization, and concerns over other environmental issues. (Dr. Sagan died in 1996.)
By 1980, I understood the science well enough to know that even an all out nuclear war would not make humankind extinct by itself, though it might lead to the death of over 99% of humans. (Notably, even though some people have said that Sagan believed nuclear war could cause human extinction, I don't believe that Sagan really thought that, as I find it hard to believe. There is a difference between catastrophic collapse of civilization affecting generations vs. actual extinction. I have not yet seen a quote of Sagan saying nuclear war would cause full extinction, only extreme devastation in so many words.)
So, there had to be something else, not just nuclear war, if humankind was to become extinct ... and I started thinking about which technologies could really make humankind extinct. Biological and chemical weapons were candidates, though I had not clarified how they could be engineered and spread sufficiently back in the early 1980s, but I was looking out into that realm, and thought we must move life beyond Earth's biosphere into isolated, self-sufficient space settlements.
After the Cosmos TV series is when I started getting very serious about space settlement, and started seriously following the work of Dr. Gerard K. O'Neill and his colleagues for utilizing lunar and near-Earth asteroidal materials for space industrialization and settlement. Out of all the solutions I looked for, that was the only one which seemed realistic and practical.
I traveled to meet Dr. O'Neill when he gave a presentation in Tulsa. After that, I also did a little bit of work for Dr. O'Neill's group while still at the University of Arkansas myself, and started to get to know people associated with O'Neill. I was persuaded by O'Neill that private sector enterprises were a key to faster space development and settlement, though I still thought the large up front costs might require government support initially. Of course, NASA was not supporting this, and it was O'Neill's experiences with NASA's unreliability and the relatively very weak sociopolitical interest in America which also drove his outlook to try to develop a business plan for lunar development which would be profitable to attract elite investment in the private sector, and be sustainable. It was these two things of O'Neill which shaped my outlook: (1) his practical and feasible space settlement and industrialization vision using lunar resources, and (2) his private sector reliance.
After finishing my time at the university, I moved to the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region to try to promote space settlement. I will skip nearly all of that here ... except:
Drexler's work discussed the great potential benefits of molecular nanotechnology engineering, which were the emphasis of the book, but Drexler also balanced this by mentioning risks. His writing became very popular and influential. (Shortly after publication, I sought out and met Drexler briefly at a conference. He seemed to be a very balanced and open minded person, pleasant, and had a humble demeanor. He was accessible rather than aloof.)
(Notably, Drexler called one such scenario the "grey goo", a self-replicating machine which basically destroys the environment. He used it in just two paragraphs and a note in the book, but it was highly publicized by others and became a well known phrase, including in current times. Years later, Drexler publicly stated regret that he used the phrase "grey goo" because it's poorly descriptive. Of course, threats are unlikely to be goo or colored grey, and he intended to just portray a general concept of something boring, not useful, and very inferior in complexity to ordinary plants, but extremely dangerous to far superior life.)
Notably, in 2001-2003, Nobel Prize recipient and chemist Richard Smalley engaged Drexler in a series of debates. Smalley at Rice University had been part of the creation of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST) which focused on molecular nanotechnology, and was trying to develop beneficial commercial applications of molecular nanotechnology. However, Smalley was known to be concerned that Drexler's stated dangers of molecular nanotechnology could become a major issue in the general public, which might threaten public support of nanotechnology development. Smalley argued against Drexler. While an interesting debate, it also had an adversarial tone. Smalley even accused Dr. Drexler of failing to understand basic science (despite Dr. Drexler getting his degrees from MIT), and Drexler accused Smalley of publicly misrepresenting Drexler's work. We can expect similar debates in the future when debating the commercial and individual benefit000000s vs. the risks of synthetic biology.
Of course, it triggered another wide debate on the many benefits vs. the risks of these technologies. The article became another landmark in emerging public awareness. (The article is now behind a paywall, unfortunately.)
(Bill Joy used "robotics" though now that comes under "artificial intelligence", and other terms have moved to the forefront in the decades since his choice of terms, but he was generally on the mark.)
2001 September 11:
The same article notes: "...in the 61 years since the Doomsday Clock’s creation, the risk of human extinction has received relatively scant scientific attention, with a bibliography filling perhaps one page. Maybe this is because human extinction seems to most of us impossible, inevitable, or, in either case, beyond our control. Still, it’s surprising that a topic of primary significance to humanity has provoked so little serious research. ..."
"... perhaps the most effective means of reducing the risk of human extinction is to colonize space sooner, rather than later. ..."(reference: BAS2008)
The website of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 2023 now has many good articles on biosecurity, and has gone a very long way in shifting from the threats of nuclear war and climate change towards biosecurity.
Clinton also officially acknowledged the generally accepted situation that "A crude but effective terrorist weapon can be made by using a small sample of any number of widely available pathogens, inexpensive equipment, and college-level chemistry and biology" and noted that "it is not possible, in our opinion, to create a verification regime" for preventing biological weapons. Yes, “not possible”. Definitely not feasible to control this tech.
There was recognition that a big part of the threat of biotechnology and super pathogens is that they could be created by a small laboratory anywhere on the Earth without being detected, such as by DIY bio or biohacking, i.e., it does not require a government or institution. In defense circles, this is called "an expanded range of actors". In the case of biotechnology, the capabilities are vastly expanding year by year as the technology develops.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statements came just a few months after two independent developments, by a scientist in the Netherlands, and by a team led by a Japanese scientist at the University of Wisconsin, both announced that they had modified the H5N1 virus (aka “bird flu”) in the laboratory to become far more virulent than its naturally occurring form. The H5N1 virus has been 56% fatal, one of the most dangerous viruses known to humans, but its naturally occurring version is difficult to transmit human-to-human so that there has not yet been a human pandemic, though it has killed very large numbers of birds. What the scientists did was modify it to be much more easily transmitted by air and respiratory infection between mammals, which was observed in ferrets. These scientists were apparently planning to publish their research openly soon after Clinton's address.
The US government's National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), a division of the National Institute of Health (NIH), requested they not publish the details. The NSABB has no legal authority, and is only an advisory organization. The authors disagreed with the decision but agreed to adhere to it. All of the authors had already received funding from the NIH and it might be presumed they would continue to receive funding... unless they did not follow the request. What would their response have been if not funded by NIH?
After also being contacted by the NSABB, the two scientific journals, Nature and Science (two highly established journals), still planned to publish the two papers minus some of the details. The journal Science stated it would agree with the NSABB to refrain from publishing the details only if the government created a system whereby scientists worldwide could access the details if they had a legitimate need to know the information. However, at least one of the scientists had already presented his work at a major conference. (reference: SciAm-Albert)
Indeed, the editor of Science Magazine said "This finding shows it’s much easier to evolve this virus to an extremely dangerous state where it can be transmitted in aerosols [i.e., by coughing or sneezing] than anybody had recognized.” (reference: NYTimes-1220)
This kind of news has stimulated interest worldwide, resulting in more laboratories wanting to compete, but also including bad actors such as terrorists. You can be sure that the news media will broadcast such gains very prominently, because it sells their service and makes them money, and can selfishly rationalize away the greater interests of our species.
The genome of the H5N1 virus can be found on the internet and copied or downloaded, as can the genomes of other pathogens. Of course, hackers might pick up a lot more things than ordinary people, from various targets, including research results of modifications. However, entirely new, alien pathogens can be created from scratch, too.
2023 (the time of this document)
There are countless articles on the internet about the risks of human extinction or civilization collapse, but I find that so many have one or more of the following weaknesses:
The Wikipedia page on Human Extinction, as of September 2023, has amazing shortcomings and doesn't project a very practical outlook. Within this page, the high estimated probabilities of humankind surviving the current century and longer time periods reflects the poor analyses of the topic by various cited sources. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_extinction
This section is new as of September 2023. I plan to start a blog on articles as they come out, discussing both the plusses and minuses of things which come up. However, the first priority is completing this website and its publicity.
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: TheBulletin.org
Syn-Bio-Wiki: Wikipedia article on Synthetic Biology
Clinton-UN: Speech to the UN General Assembly on December 11, 2011, by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Source of quotes: Foreign Policy
SciAm-Albert: Scientific American, Sept 19, 2011, which gave early publicity to Ron Fouchier's method of making the H5N1 far more contagious.
NYTimes-1220: Seeing Terror Risk, U.S. Asks Journals to Cut Flu Study Facts, New York Times, December 20, 2011, by Denise Grady and William J. Broad.
Science-org-A-2023: Benchtop DNA synthesis raises alarms, May 19, 2023, by Robert Service.
Hudson-Robotics-A: Hudson Robotics page on Synthetic Biology Workstation
dataintelo-A-2023: Dataintelo's Global Synthetic Biology Workstation Market ... Forecast From 2023 To 2031, a $4200 publication, 129 pages, with online summary and free sample report.
My brief section of this website on Synthetic Biology Timeline ...
Below are some additional dates of interest, not covered in my brief synthetic biology timeline.
The menu at the top of the page lists the pages of this website, shows you exactly where you are within, and suggests the next page to read.
Please note that you can rate this page at the bottom. Any feedback is appreciated. This is a lot of work and a huge challenge, so encouragement is appreciated.
This website is intended to be a brief summary. Much further details can be found in two other websites written and curated by the author of this publication:
https://www.SpaceSettlement.com -- details on the best solution for survival of humankind, for a wide range of people, from newcomers needing an introduction to engineers looking for the state of the art. It includes a professional publications database, and tries to track who is doing what, for collaboration, coordination, and working efficiently to reach our goals.
https://www.GAINextinction.com -- further details, where G.A.I.N. is an acronym for Genetics, Artificial Intelligence, and Nanotechnology, which are extinction threats we must try to prevent for the survival of humankind.
You can reach this website by any of the following:
If somebody types either "humanity" or "mankind" instead of "humankind", they will still be redirected to this Humankind URL, so it doesn't matter which of the three you type. While "humanity" is stated more often, sometimes habitually, I think "humankind" better applies to this context. I also agree with this analysis of usages of humankind and humanity. Nonetheless, you can put any of the three between "help" and "survive" and you'll still get this same website. (Of course, uppercase/lowercase doesn't matter.)
The author of the text of this website is Mark Evan Prado. Copyright © 2023 by Mark Evan Prado, All Rights Reserved. If you want a printable, PDF copy of this presentation, such as for printed distribution rather than an electronic link to this website, please send me a request. I am trying to keep it within a few dozen pages of size A4 or 8.5x11 inches, in reasonably large print, and in simple to understand language. I'm not doing this for money nor ego, I'm doing this to try to help humankind survive, i.e., not go extinct. It is our responsibility within this generation. Please contact me for any collaboration or uses.
If you have any requests or comments, you can also connect with me, Mark, at +66-811357977 (+66-8-1135-7977) and I am on WhatsApp and Line, plus other apps. I am in Thailand but you can send messages any day at any time.
In the purpose and meaning of life, we are parts of something astronomically greater than just ourselves individually. (The author sees individuality as just temporary, and has a panentheistic outlook on the Universe. That's somewhat typical for some of us physicists.) The author is easygoing and is trying to selflessly help create a sustainable collaboration of individuals, companies, governments, academic institutions, and other organizations for the survival of humankind.
As President John F. Kennedy ended his inaugural speech in 1961, I'll end this the same way:
"Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us here the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on Earth God's work must truly be our own." [End of speech. Bold and italicized emphasis added.]
If you choose to submit feedback, then I wish to thank you in advance. After you click on Submit, the page will jump to the top.
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