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Origin Day Lecture: Audience Question Three

Updated Tuesday, 24th November 2009
In 50 million years' time is the impact of modern man on biodiversity going to look significantly different from the meteorite strike which we believe wiped out the dinosaurs?

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Armand Leroi (as Chair)

Chap on the front row... 

Male speaker (in audience)

In 50 million years’ time, is the impact of modern man on biodiversity going to look significantly different from the meteorite strike which we believe wiped out the dinosaurs?

Armand Leroi

In 50 million years’ time?  I’ll answer that.  Yes.


Sandy Knapp

Could be flushed down the plughole.

Armand Leroi

Sandy, I mean you're very much a biodiversity person, you tell me about the impact of asteroid strikes versus humans on the nightshade family.

Sandy Knapp

Well, now where shall I begin?  No, I think one of the interesting things about thinking, and I gave a talk here on Friday in this same room, so I've been here a lot recently, is about just that, about origins and invasions.  And if you think about human beings - and this is I think one of the things that was one of Darwin’s great advances and one of the traditions that he crystallised, because it wasn’t a new idea with him - is that human beings are not special.  We are a species like any other species.  And what species are therefore, what species do, is they reproduce themselves.  And so we as the homo sapiens are immensely successful.  And so I would say that if you were to characterise, if you had to have a one liner for what is the human species like, is we are an invasive mammalian weed and we've taken over the surface of the planet.  And I think conservation is a complicated thing and I think Randal’s right, that Darwin would have been horrified at what’s happening, but I think he also would have had as an ultimate goal to conserve not just species or even not just habitats, but an earth that retained its evolutionary potential, to continue to generate forms most beautiful and wonderful.  And asteroid impacts are different because they're very quick and you can't do anything about them, and they are actually transient.  And although we think, I mean we know we’re having a huge impact on the planet, I mean we know that we’re having an impact on the planet, but in terms of geological time we’re a flash in the pan.  My youngest son’s favourite video when he was five was Life on Earth by David Attenborough and there is the wonderful analogy in the beginning of that film about the clock, where if you have a 24 hour clock human beings arrived at less than one minute before midnight, and so we really haven’t been here that long.  So we are in effect an asteroid impact, we’re doing the same sort of thing, because if you think about time, our time span of human generation seems vast to us but in terms of life on earth it’s very, very tiny.




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