Saturday, March 28, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Eleven

“Men versus Insects,” pages 149-151

The current talk (and action) of letting slip the dogs of war among men overshadows the important, ongoing conflict between humans and insects. Humans were once the prey of large animals, but now, it is only ourselves and the very small animals that put us at risk. Recall that the huge and seemingly dominant dinosaurs on our earth were eclipsed by much smaller mammals. It may be that the combination of small brains and massive offensive weapons – horns – doomed the dinosaurs.

After supplanting the dinosaurs, mammals grew in size, though the largest mammal, the mammoth, has disappeared, and other large mammals are threatened. Man’s survivability is not at risk, except at the hands of insects and microbes. [Russell altered this view after the invention of nuclear weapons – RBR.] Insects such as ants exist in unfathomable numbers that dwarf those of humans. Germs are spreading as people migrate; yellow fever used to exist only in West Africa, but it has moved beyond those borders, and is likely to threaten massive human fatalities in China and India.

Scientists can devise ways to keep problem insects under control, often by relying on other organisms that are parasites of the targeted insect species. But scientific knowledge can be used for good or evil. The German professor who developed a method for fixing nitrogen was aiming to make a potent fertilizer, while his political masters wanted bombs, and they exiled the professor for insufficient interest in explosives. “In the next great war, the scientists on either side will let loose pests on the crops of the other side, and it may prove scarcely possible to destroy the pests when peace comes [pp. 150-151].” The only lasting winners in the next, biological war, might be the insect combatants. The universe might view this result with apathy, but I [Russell] would be saddened for my species. [Elsewhere Russell expressed greater ambivalence about the continuation of homo sapiens – RBR.]

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