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The End


Normally January is a time to celebrate new beginnings, not endings, let alone THE End (of everything). Not that anybody would be celebrating it in any event (assuming there is an “anybody”), but as rationalists we should be willing to look the possibility dead in the eye.

Consider the graphic above. It shows that, for most of the nasty diseases in human history, the ones that were almost certain to kill you were hard to catch, and the ones you were almost certain to catch hardly ever killed you. But suppose (as many alarmed epidemiologists were doing during the COVID pandemic) we had the worst of both worlds, with evolution producing the ideal viral predator — something like pneumonic plague, easily transmitted via sneezing, fast-acting, and almost invariably lethal. What would that mean for humanity?

Well, something akin to that has happened before in human history, according to anthropologists, who refer to it as the “genetic bottleneck”. The Toba supervolcano, which erupted around 75,000 BCE, enshrouded the planet with dust for most of a decade, killing off plant life all over the world, starving many species into extinction, whittling our forebear Homo sapiens down to maybe 3,000 to 10,000 individuals, and probably hastening the extinction of the Neanderthals.

Of course, that was a pre-technological milieu, and the starting population was nowhere near the 7 billion humans we have today (AKA “way too many”). With language, modern medicine, and technology at our disposal, modern humanity is presumably better able to deal with such catastrophes. But certainly not with complete success, as over 6 million worldwide casualties from COVID-19 will attest.

What if a real super-duper-COVID came along? What if, instead of killing off 1% of the planet’s people, it took out 99%? What would life be like for the survivors? In particular, would the Hand of God be seen in all this? And, if so, as the deplorable cause or the only thing that kept the survivors alive?

Needless to say, such post-apocalyptic imaginings have long been a staple of science fiction. If you’d like to prep for our discussion of The End, recommended readings (all classics of the genre) are:
• “Nightfall”, by Isaac Asimov (1941)
Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart (1949)
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr. (1959)
• “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain”, by James Tiptree Jr. (1969)

This will be a virtual meeting conducted via Zoom. A link will be sent out at noon on the day of the event to people who’ve RSVPed.

Madison Skeptics
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