Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Riddle of the Sphinx: Are we in our sunset as a species?

Dr Abe V Rotor 

  “This world, which appears to be a great workshop in which knowledge is developed by man – which appears as progress and civilization, as a modern system of communication, as a structure of democratic freedom without any limitations – this world is not capable of making man happy.”
Pope John Paul II
Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 1994

      The riddle of the Sphinx goes this way. “What animal walks on four feet at sunrise, two at noon, and three at sunset?”

      I first heard this riddle when I was a child, and when I failed to answer it my father casually explained the life cycle of man to me. It was one of the many mind teasers taken leisurely and with humor. But in a lecture which I attended at the University of Santo Tomas Graduate School, Science as Critique of Society, where the future of man was discussed, the riddle flashed back to mind serious repercussions. 

      Has man, as a species, reached his sunset?  Or is history merely repeating itself?

      The world now and then remembers a sweet-bitter memory of its past.  After “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome,” mankind plunged into the Dark Ages, which lasted longer than the two previous civilizations combined. Are we taking the same road to destruction, a road strewn with roses, but facing abyss at the end? 

       This may be a tough question to handle.  It is discomforting to consider, but necessary to absorb in the context of a wake up call. How can a world of computers, open universities, mega cities, supersonic transport, and satellite communications, find affinity with world of the ancients to draw such a conclusion?   “No, not in our modern world,” we say.

We Live in a Modern World

      Modern is a Janus word.  It is seldom perceived this way because we take “modern” for granted since it is all around us in different forms: modern medicine, modern transport, modern education, modern technology, and modern weapons.  You name it and the malls and the Internet may have it. What is modern is something we put to use, often hastily, replacing a present implement or practice.

      For example, modern agriculture is pictured as using a combine, a huge  air-conditioned tractor that can simultaneously perform several jobs. Modern industries are automated using robotics. Modern society is said to be successful when it brings people of different races, backgrounds and walks of life together.  Modern education is one that makes learning computer-dependent. Electronics has invaded our lives, such as e-commerce, e-learning.

  How wired is our globe? Today, 95 percent of PC power is idle; the grid aims at tapping it all. As the Net evolves, all machines and people will become nodes on one network, and any one computer will be able to tap the power of all. But by using the grid, crooks could commandeer cars, even home appliances.  It is scary.
 Time, Life in the Grid

      Let us take a look at the other side of midnight, so to speak.  It is modern agriculture that created pesticide residues and spurred resistance in pests. It is also responsible for making man-made desert we call in ecology, desertification. 

     It is modern industry that has thinned the ozone layer and created non-biodegradable wastes. One the one hand, population increases have crossed the line beyond the threshold reserved for wildlife sanctuary. On the other hand, affluent living has thickened the atmosphere with waste gases and particulates, causing the phenomenon called Greenhouse Effect. As cities grow, the quaintness of living disappears. Much of the essence of the lyceum has been lost in modern education. The common sense that often goes with the intelligence of naturalism is now being poorly cultivated.

Instinctive Versus Acquired Intelligence

       There was a conversation between a bushman and a visiting scientist in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. (Excerpt from The Gods Must Be Crazy.)

      “Why are you so illiterate?” asked the bushman of his guest in his unique language.

      It was a question a civilized person, a beautiful woman and a doctorate holder at that, would have asked instead. 

      But the bushman knew when a hyena had just passed; if the wind is dangerously picking up human scent and delivering it to waiting predators; and where to find water in a no-man’s land.

      Today, instinctive intelligence has been juxtaposed with, if not replaced by, acquired intelligence, that one hardly knows the difference between the two. In times of peace and plenty, instinctive intelligence tends to become dormant, lulled by the many amenities of living. We are like a typical person from New York, who may be street-smart but may be illiterate in matters of nature and may be pathetically helpless when disaster strikes.  We do not even know if we are existing in a “desert”, at a loss in realizing danger, because we are so used to the good life. This is the condition into which modernism has transformed us.       

Where Does Modern Life Lead Us?

      In Shelly’s celebrated fiction novel, Frankenstein, wasn’t the monster Dr. Frankenstein created, a product of modern science of the time? It is not different today. Wittingly, or otherwise, we are creating a modern Frankenstein monster in our quest for power and wealth  -  a monster which first appears as an obliging genie, but at the end refuses to go back into the  bottle.

      Let us look into the monster modern man has created.

1.     By splitting the atom man has unleashed the most explosive force the world has ever known. This tremendous power can plunge the world into Armageddon. Today’s nuclear stockpile threatens the globe with obliteration of humankind three times over. This means a thermo nuclear war can instantly kill a population of 18 billion people, notwithstanding the gross destruction of other organisms, and obliteration of the environment, as we know it.

      The proliferation of nuclear weapons – atomic, hydrogen and cobalt bombs - reached its peak during the Cold War. With the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR, in 1987, the accountability of nuclear stockpiles became a big question among its former satellites. It is not impossible to smuggle a nuclear warhead which is only about the size of an attaché case, or produce radioactive material for making a nuclear bomb in the guise of nuclear power generation. We know that nuclear weapons technology is no longer the monopoly of the West and highly industrialized countries.  The latest additions to the list of countries capable of making nuclear weapons are reportedly North Korea and Iraq.  

2.     Unrestricted massive expansion of frontiers of production and settlements has resulted in loss of natural habitats, in fact, whole ecosystems as evidenced by the death of rivers, lakes and coral reefs, and destruction of forests and wildlife. It is a fact that if man can tame the earth, so can he destroy it.
 The demise of a single species can produce a cascade of extinctions and threaten an entire ecosystem.
3.     Growing affluence continues to accelerate man’s conquest of nature through industrialization.  Practically every country in the world is on a race towards industrialization in order to meet capitalistic parameters for economic growth and development. But Gross National Product (GNP) merely sums up a country’s output.  Very   little focus is given to Human Development Index (HDI), the guarantee of equitable distribution of benefits that elevates quality of life in a country. In certain societies such us ours, socio-economic inequity can be aptly summarized as having 10 percent of the population controlling 90 percent of the nation’s resources, and that 50 to 60 percent of the population are trapped in a cycle of poverty.

      Industrialization has widened the division between the affluent and the poor, stunting migration patterns that have caused massive urban growth, while siphoning off the resources of the countryside.  This, in turn, has created a world order dominated by multinational companies and self-proclaimed global leaders now questioned by the free world, and challenged by civil initiatives and terrorism.
4.     The recent scientific breakthrough, the breaking of the code of heredity - DNA (Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid), the Rosetta Stone of genetics, has opened up an entirely new concept of the origin and development of life.
      But more amazing and frightening is the new power of man to tinker with life itself – playing God’s role in the creation of new life forms, extending human life to nearly twice its present longevity, and in eliminating diseases even before their symptoms are manifested. Cloning suddenly became a fearful word as applied to humans, following the success with “Dolly, the sheep”. Even this early we are warned of food products manufactured from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), dubbed as Frankenfood.

      One by one, countries are coming out against crops with engineered genes – and there may be more to the skepticism over GM crops. Genetic modification can be a strategy to bring agriculture under the dominance of foreign corporations. On the grassroots level farmers doubt if GM crops can be grown side-by-side with non-GMO plants and not being affected negatively since open pollination knows no boundaries.

      The biggest scare that can be spawned by genetic engineering is Genetically Modified Man (GMM) - a being different from the original man described in Genesis, who is God-fearing, loving, sociable, intelligent, and with a sense of values.
A transformation of our technology and values could make it possible to build a society that will stand the test of time.

Time, A Culture of Permanence

5.     It was unprecedented that the world has traveled far and wide on two feet – communications and transportation – with the West discovering the East, and subsequently resulting in intermarriages of the races, in trade and commerce, education and culture, politics and government, religion and philosophy. With the advances of science and technology, the world has shrunk further into the size of a village, now it is wired with fiber optics. But such union cannot be merely characterized as gross merging of characteristics.  Here the rule of compatibility may bring diverging directional paths, especially when we force the union of dynamic processes, such as the liberalism of the West and traditionalism of the East. Through time and with continuing “intermarriage”, perhaps a global society will form and   accelerate towards homogeneity. We rejoice in meeting friends from across the globe, at getting international news live, and in finding commonalities of interests, and in being part of a genetic pool. 

      Remember the universal soldier?  The Renaissance man? This new kind of man --- will he be superior over say, man in the times of the Greeks and Romans?  This superman may yet represent the fittest of the survivors, in accordance with the standard of Charles Darwin; or righteousness in the pursuit of the precepts of the church.  

The Dangerous Game of Numbers

        The basic biological principle concerning the survival and dominance of an organism is having a large population, surrounded by a wide range of genetic diversity.

      We know that each organism has a life cycle of its own patterned by its species, but the intriguing part is that each species has a unique population cycle.

      To attest to this natural law, observe the swarms of locusts and gnats, the spontaneous appearance of mushrooms to make many a fairy tale, the aggregation of corals following a once-in-a-year orgy, large herds of reindeer, salmon runs, schools of tuna.

       Additionally, diseases run into epidemic levels, decimating large numbers of people in the bubonic plague which killed one-third of the population of Europe. Sometime between 1918 and 1920, the total number of deaths due to the Spanish influenza was estimated at 40 million with the United States and India, hardest hit. Based on the world’s population at that time, one out of six people on earth was killed by this pandemic disease.  Today, we are confronted with similar threats, AIDS (Acute Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome), and the recent SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).  The world stands alert in preventing the repetition of another epidemic.

      Many of us may still remember Pied Piper of Hamlyn, a German folk story. If one would only realize its theme, which is mass suicide, the story would make a horror box office, rather than one for bedside reading.

      Once upon a time a strange young man called on the mayor of Hamlyn who was worried about how to get rid of the rats infesting his town.  “I will eliminate the rats,” assured the Pied Piper.  To which the mayor, on seeing his jester’s costume and a small musical instrument in his hand, laughed,  “I’ll give you all the money you want if you can do just that.” 

      So the Pied Piper played a strange music with his pipe and walked through the town, and rats followed him.  Rats from the attics, canals, the kitchens, rats from everywhere, were drawn by his music. Playing until he reached the edge of the sea, the piper caused the rats to plunge into their death, thus ridding the town of these pests.

      But the mayor did not keep his promise of paying the piper his money.

      So the Pied Piper played again, this time with a stranger music that caused children to follow him.  Children came from their homes, schools, and the streets, were drawn by the music of the piper who led them to the mountains.  They entered the misty forest, and thence into a yawning cave that closed after them.  The children were never heard again.  Only a lame boy was spared.  He saw it all happen and told this story.

      Does the Pied Piper story have any scientific explanation? 

      Scientists in Scandinavia observed a similar mass suicide among lemmings. Every once in a while, the population of this rodent increases substantially and becomes a pest to farm folks and homeowners.  In large numbers, they move from place to place, ravaging agriculture and articles of commerce.  After this rampage, they plunge themselves in hordes into the sea in the same manner as the rats of Hamlyn. 

      Here is another celebrated case.  Locust (Locusta migratoria manilensis), a major insect pest, follows a more complicated population growth pattern. There are four stages in its life cycle. In the solitaria phase the insect behaves individually like the grasshopper in an Aesop fable. As food becomes scarce in the summer, the individual locusts group together to form congregans.  These then coalesce to form larger groups, proceeding to the swarming stage, migratoria. Except for those that revert to the solitary phase, the dissocians, the swarm continues to expand.  Because of sheer numbers, an overnight attack by the pest can virtually demolish entire crops like rice, corn, legumes and vegetables. The swarm darkens the sky in midday, hisses in deafening sound, rides on wind current to reach far and wide, destroying many things on its path.
      This population growth pattern that ends in mass extinction is also happening in the microscopic world. This can be observed in yeast during alcohol fermentation.  The yeast cells rapidly increase in number, so with the enzyme – zymase -  which they secrete.  Zymase converts sugar into alcohol, so that alcohol builds up, while the amount of fermentable sugar proportionately decreases.  Ironically it is the accumulated alcohol and starvation that ultimately kill the yeast cells, a phenomenon known as autotoxicity.   
      Do we carry in our genes the Pied Piper or Lemming syndrome?  Has human society any similarity with the migratory habit of locust?  Are we internally building toxic materials, like the yeast, which will lead us to our doom?
      These are questions that will trouble and challenge our most profound thinkers.  But there is one thing that we should remember.  It is not man’s superior mind that is the saving grace of the world, because the more he discovers things, the more he asserts himself in the biosphere. 

      It may be man’s intelligence that is bringing his doom closer.  It reminds us of the Fall when man disobeyed God and ate the fruit of the Tree of Wisdom.  Whatever is our interpretation of Paradise Lost, the fact remains that mankind’s vulnerability lies in the improper use of his rationality.  One such blatant act is the destruction of his environment as man craves to fulfill his unending quest for food, lumber and minerals.  There appears to be a theological and ecological dimension to this thesis.  When we destroy nature, we invariably disrespect the Creator. 

Today’s Hercules and the Modern Hydra

       We present a stage play to portray man and the monster he created; man being a modern Hercules pursuing the Hydra with its many ugly heads.  It will be more dramatic than the romanticized Greek mythology. And the task will be enormous.  Will this neo-Hercules succeed?                                         
 Four horsemen of Apocalypse 

      These are tools that we would offer to our hero to use.

v Elimination of all weapons of mass destruction;
v Preservation of ecosystems
v Renewal of values and strengthening institutions
v Population planning and control
v Social control for equitable distribution of resources.
v Restrained agriculture and industrial development. 
v Science and technology with conscience
v Enlightened education and media
v Effective governance and order
v Investment in the new generation and the future 

      Let us imagine that the play will last for days, years, generations, or eons of time.  We must be patient and persistent, like the Sphinx on the watch, but let us not fall victim to it.

      We know that nothing is permanent in this world. Everything has a life cycle – even the stars – and this is what makes things transient. Take for example our sun.  It is no longer the young blue-flamed torch in the sky for it has aged.  It is now reddish and approaching a nova, the last stage of a star about to explode, and die.

      There was once a scientist who expressed the highest level of optimism for humankind. He envisioned that as the sun becomes senile and prepares for its demise, man shall then have colonized the other planets, thus insuring the continuity of his species.

      Our species has its birth, growth, maturity and stability, before it too, shall perish and give way to another dominant being.  What will it be?  Nobody knows.  This natural law of succession is evident from the fossil record that tells of the earth’s natural history. Of the five billion years of the earth’s existence, scientists found evidences of early life forms as early as three billion years ago, progressing very slowly to break away from simple, unicellular life forms.

      Then, a billion years ago, life burst into a myriad of multi-cellular forms. Very recently did man arrive. If the world’s history is a year calendar, man arrived in the evening of December 30th.  That is how young our species is as compared with, say the coelacanth thought to have perished 60 millions years ago, or the dragonfly and cockroach which have been existing on earth since before the age of the dinosaurs.

      Man in the last one million years became a dominant species, but not for the reason that he possesses the instincts of other dominant organisms before him, but by the use of a special singular tool, intelligence, which no other organism at present or in the past ever possessed.

      The question today is not how we dominate the earth but for how long will we dominate it.  It is not appropriate to compare man with the dinosaurs, or the early mollusk, or amphibians or fishes. These organisms cannot shape their environment and their destiny as man can. Man has conquered every corner of the earth, and soon the space above and around it, and the depths of the oceans. He has studied how nature works and has been able to duplicate it in a growing number of ways. He has created new elements and compounds, including amino acids which are building blocks of life itself.

      There is reason to believe that our species, if unchecked, may soon face   extinction. But it is not unlikely that this demise will come from a giant meteor crushing earth, similar to what is believed to have caused the disappearance of dinosaurs.  However, some scientists like Dr. Schumacher, the proponent of “Impact Technology”, believe that this extraterrestrial accident is not remote from happening again.

      But if the death of our species would come, it is likely our own doing. Our intelligence may be unable to overcome the dictates of our survival instincts, leading to our own mass suicide. 

      Will our society, perfect as Utopia, simply drift like the migratory locust searching just for food, mate, and other biological needs?

      Will our species remain entrapped in a geometric population growth pattern, unable to use its intelligence to break free? It is possible that the population explosion, unending materialism, and breakaway science and technology will combine to create autotoxicity similar to that which killed the yeast cells? 
      We are engaged in a drama where we are not only the audience, but also its characters, playing the role of a new kind of hero, one who can save our environment and our species.  The hero’s victory means the survival of mankind.  It is a long struggle and will triumph.

      Going back to the answer of the riddle of the Sphinx, man is that animal. 

      As a child in the morning he crawls on all fours; as an adult at noon he walks erect on two legs; and as an elderly person, reaching the evening of his life, he walks with a cane for his third leg. 

      If we play the hero’s role well, we can yet delay the arrival of sunset. ~

 Acknowledgement: Internet photos   

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