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What We Owe the Future – A new look at deep time?

27 June 2023

What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill puts forward the case for what has become known as ‘longtermism’, the idea that humanity should think more about the distant future and the moral value of future intelligent life and civilisation. MacAskill, a philosopher at the University of Oxford, says that humanity is at a crucial point in history, being in a position, through accumulated wisdom, to positively influence the lives of people who are as yet unborn. The book is an interesting look at the future and the idea of contingency (‘what if?’) and is more optimistic than many other books I’ve read recently. MacAskill and other moral philosophers have seen a new way to look at the future, but perhaps we geologists should look at the geological past with an eye on contingency. It might be an interesting exercise.  

Influence for good 

MacAskill’s ideas of moral longtermism and the branch of philosophy called population ethics are a continuation of those of John Broome and the late Derek Parfit, both philosophers at the University of Oxford. Although the book covers some weighty issues, for example, utopia and dystopia and the so-called ‘repugnant conclusion’ (that there are some hard moral choices between prosperity and population size), it’s always readable and even funny in places. The book characterises some of the eccentrics of the philosophy world and dips into literature, for example, Shakespeare’s sonnets, to illustrate how poetry can preserve people for all time. MacAskill surveys some of the great movements for good in human history, for example, the abolition of slavery, while applying the concept of contingency. In the main bulk of the book, MacAskill shows how our present knowledge of history and science should put us in a great position to influence Earth for good into the distant future. It’s an inspiring read. 

What if? 

I read MacAskill’s book when researching a new book of my own on the palaeontology of Arabia. I became interested in some of the ‘what if?’ moments of recent Arabian geological history, for example, the migration of Homo sapiens out of Africa, but I was surprised to find how little MacAskill had looked at the more distant past. In early parts of the book, he turns his eye to the hotly disputed demise of the Pleistocene megafauna. He goes through the arguments on why big animals like elephants and giraffes aren’t present in large numbers outside Africa. He concludes that human hunting and climate change caused their extinction, except in Africa, where megafauna had evolved alongside humans and so were better prepared for Homo sapiens as a predator. Whether you agree with this or not, it shows his approach. His reasoning goes: if we understand where we went wrong before, perhaps we can get it right next time.  

My own research, which has the more modest aim of plotting the development of life through fossils in Arabia, immediately alighted on how contingent the evolution of Homo sapiens and the genus Homo was in the early Pleistocene, and how geological and human history is a list of ‘what if?’ moments with myriad alternative futures flowing from them. Homo was an ice-age Pleistocene innovation, a genus formed in Africa, a continent generally untroubled by the advances and retreats of glaciers that would have impeded evolution. The continent was a hothouse, creating species of Homo that continually spread out of Africa looking for more space or following the conducive savanna climate as it waxed and waned across the Sahara and Middle East. With a different arrangement of continents this would never have happened. Perhaps most contingent was the precise route out of Africa. With the Strait of Gibraltar ruled out (too deep, even in the low sea levels of the ice age), humankind drifted in waves through the 100-kilometre gateway of land between what is now Port Said and Suez, which remained land throughout the Pleistocene. Recent research shows how each of these waves was different culturally and how the early adaptability of sapiens, honed in the deserts of the Middle East, helped its later colonisation of the rest of Asia and Europe. But just think – if the Pleistocene seas had flooded the Suez Isthmus, what would sapiens look like now? What if the Isthmus had been wider? What if one of the freezing Pleistocene glacial periods had been long and cold enough to delay the African evolution of sapiens 

Turning points 

It may be true that humankind is, at present, in an epoch-defining moment to influence the future, but there have been many moments in the past when choices would have been made – some for the worse, some for the better. Some decisions, such as whether to migrate or not, would have been forced on early humans. This may be beyond MacAskill’s remit, but human and geological history are undoubtedly full of ‘what if?’ moments. 

It might be interesting to analyse some of the alternative routes of recent or more ancient geological history in relation to the evolution of Homo and other animal and plant groups, as MacAskill has done for moments in human social history, like the abolition of slavery. A highly contingent event was the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, around 3 million years ago, separating the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and initiating the Gulf Stream, thereby stimulating allopatric speciation of marine species either side of the Isthmus, and allowing terrestrial species to migrate between the Americas. There is evidence that this also made Africa colder, windier, and drier, perhaps spurring the evolution of Australopithecus, the earliest hominid. What would different species look like today if this thin neck of land had never formed, or had formed later? Perhaps there would have been more terrestrial allopatric speciation between the Americas, perhaps, even, a slower route to Homo sapiens? Are there other key turning points in deep time and what were the alternative futures of those turning points? What might this kind of analysis reveal to geologists about our present Earth?  

MacAskill and his predecessors developed a new way of looking at the future, a more optimistic view that allows us to see the good we might do for people and other living things of the distant future. But perhaps this also helps us as geologists to see deep time differently – not just as a series of events but as an evolving tree of possibilities. Who knows what insights we might get? At any rate, What We Owe the Future is a great read, if only to make us think about the past a bit more!

By Mike Stephenson 

Mike Stephenson is the Director of Stephenson Geoscience Consulting Ltd. and of the Deep-time Digital Earth program of the International Union of Geological Sciences, https://www.ddeworld.org.

Read more about Mike’s comments on ‘longtermism’ and deep time in The Economist: www.economist.com

Mike’s book Fossils of Arabia is scheduled for publication in 2024. 



BY: W. MacAskill (2022). Oneworld Publications. 352 pp. (hbk) 

ISBN: 9780861542505 

PRICE: £20.00 www.waterstones.com