Many people say George Wald was the greatest lecturer in Harvard’s history. He was certainly the best I’ve heard.
Wald won a Nobel Prize in 1967 for his work on the biochemical basis of colour vision. He and I became friends in the 1970s because we shared a common concern about the misapplication of science, especially during the war in Vietnam. Wald once captivated me with a story he told:
For close to 150 million years, dinosaurs dominated the planet, and they were impressive. They were huge animals, armed with weapons like spikes on their tails, giant claws, and razor-sharp teeth. They were covered with armour plates. They seemed invincible, and when they roamed the Earth, other creatures fled in terror. But they had a fatal flaw: a tiny brain in relation to their body size. Despite their impressive traits, they disappeared – victims, in part, of their low brain-to-brawn ratio.
About 64 million years after the dinosaurs went extinct, a beautiful animal appeared on the plains of Africa. This animal stood upright and walked on two legs, and its skin was free of fur. Unlike the plentiful wildebeest, this animal was rare. It wasn’t as big as a hippo. It wasn’t even as fast as an elephant. It wasn’t as strong as a chimpanzee, and it couldn’t see like an eagle, smell like a dog, or hear like a gazelle.
But those first beautiful humans were endowed with the highest brain-to-brawn ratio ever achieved, and in only 150,000 years, they had spread to every continent on Earth.
Humans eventually outnumbered other mammals on the planet. Their high brain-to-brawn ratio served them well as they learned to domesticate plants and animals, and to live in environments as varied as Arctic tundra, deserts, coral atolls, mountain slopes, wetlands, and forests of every kind.
But then they invented guns and cannons and their brain-to-brawn ratio fell. They got into cars, tanks, and planes, and dropped napalm and nuclear bombs. And with each innovation, the brain-to-brawn ratio sank toward that of the dinosaurs.
I love Wald’s story because it encapsulates much of our dilemma.
The human brain was the critical factor that more than compensated for our lack of physical and sensory abilities. We had a vast memory, we were observant and curious, and we were creative.
In the past, our innovations such as the needle, bow and arrow, and pottery had huge repercussions but took centuries to evolve into the culture.
Agriculture was the big shift that released us from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to farmers and village dwellers. Then the Industrial Revolution heralded a massive change. In only two centuries, people were able to harness the cheap, portable energy of fossil fuels to create machines of incredible power. In the movie Avatar, the giant robots have no heads, a symbol of what we have become as a species. We have acquired vast technological power but far too little of the brainpower or wisdom needed to use that power well.
Consider this simple example.
When New Zealand fishers discovered a fish called orange roughy in deep-sea waters, they thought they had hit a bonanza. Technology to fish the deep sea – radar, sonar, GPS, freezers, giant nets – enabled them to exploit the abundant fish in massive numbers.
Despite the fact that these were a new target species about which virtually nothing was known, the animals were taken in vast quantities. It’s called “harvesting” but it was really a “mining” operation. Only years later did we learn these fish live more than a hundred years and grow and mature far more slowly than inshore species.
When was the last time you ate orange roughy? They have been nearly wiped out all around the globe because our technology was too powerful in relation to our knowledge. We didn’t consider our limitations, which should have caused us to be far more cautious and conservative. The technology meant that brain-to-brawn sank toward a level closer to that of the dinosaurs.
Technology can provide great benefits, but unless we learn to use our heads in applying our technologies, we will also go the way of the dinosaurs.
This column is co-written by scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki and Faisal Moola, a scientist.