While unanswered questions are challenging, I wonder if an unquestioned answer could doom the species. Be forewarned, the slope I am about to ascend is so unbelievably slippery, I am frightened to even begin.
For the species Homo sapiens, the answer to most any threat is annihilation. The greater the threat, the more willing we are to use every resource, no matter its cost or unintended consequences to destroy it. Simply fending it off is inadequate. Total destruction is the unquestioned answer.
Does any other species do likewise? Others will do what they can to fend off enemies when under attack, but they use resources readily at hand, and their losses are often substantial; they generally lack the ability to create exhaustive deadly counterattacks. Over the past decade, tens of millions of ash trees (genus Fraxinus) have succumbed to the emerald ash borer. The species was not destroyed by this enemy, but its footprint was significantly reduced. Fraxinus did not muster resources to obliterate its enemy. Over many generations, it will likely develop, through mutations, an effective defense.
Imagine, for a moment, a species that could muster the necessary resources to destroy every threat it faced. Its footprint would continue to grow. As it did, it would require evermore resources. An expanding number of competing species would become threats, and inordinate resources would be put to the task of making sure they stayed out of the way of “progress.”
In reality, not much imagination is required. Enter Homo sapiens. We have a history of vanquishing enemies, those we dislike among our own species, as well as any that threaten the entirety of the species.
Suppose for whatever reason, Homo sapiens was able to defend itself against enemies with resources readily at hand, but never acquired the ability to create exhaustive, deadly counterattacks. Throughout history, viruses, plagues, even other species would have, like the emerald ash borer did to Fraxinus, kept our collective footprint dramatically smaller. Ironically, it is the size and density of the human population that made COVID-19 far more deadly. Because there are so many people, the virus was able to spread more quickly and mutate more effectively. I wonder, if there were 1 billion humans, rather than 7.8 billion, would the virus have had difficulty infecting us so broadly? Might we have had fewer infections and deaths? Might we have developed immunity more naturally and easily?
There is another, more serious irony that stems from the massive human population. A virologist recently predicted we will face a raft of new, as yet unknown, pathogens in the coming years. As we continue to slash rainforests and other natural habitats, demanding resources to feed our insatiable appetite for wealth, safety, and convenience, we will unleash them at ever increasing rates.
One unintended consequence of our refusal to question the annihilation of any and all threats is that we have become the pathogen that threatens every other species. I wonder if Mother Nature is trying to show us the wisdom of questioning our most sacred, frequently employed, and deadly answer.
It is, as I suggested, the most slippery of slopes.