Will we soon be extinct?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. You've got Josh. You've got Chuck here. We're a couple of writers from HowStuffWorks.com, right, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant: That's right.

Josh Clark: So, Chuck?

Chuck Bryant: Yes?

Josh Clark: Are you familiar with any Turkish authors?

Chuck Bryant: I've heard this one. What's the punch line?

Josh Clark: There is no punch line.

Chuck Bryant: Oh. That's a real question?

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: No, I don't know any Turkish authors.

Josh Clark: I didn't either until I was reading an article today about a Turkish author who writes in the name Harun Yahya.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, not familiar.

Josh Clark: I believe that's how it's pronounced. I may be butchering it. My Turkish is a little rusty.

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: But Mr. Yahya recently offered 10 trillion Turkish lira, which is about $8 trillion dollars - it's not one of those upside-down things, like -

Chuck Bryant: Right, wow.

Josh Clark: - it's about 0.8 Turkish lira to the dollar last time I checked - to anyone who can provide definitive fossil evidence of evolution.

Chuck Bryant: Wow.

Josh Clark: Yes. That's a lot of money.

Chuck Bryant: What's his motive?

Josh Clark: His motive is he's an outspoken creationism - creationist - he's an outspoken creationismist.

Chuck Bryant: Wow. That's impressive.

Josh Clark: That's a new word now. And he is so vehemently opposed to it. Have you heard of Richard Dawkins?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Okay. Dawkins has a website, and he's a zoologist who is a huge evolutionary theorist. He actually believes that we're nothing more than a vehicle for our genes. That's all we are, just big bags of flesh, and our genes are really in control. So he's a huge, huge evolutionist. And Mr. Yahya got Dawkins' website banned in Turkey -

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: - so if you go to Turkey, you can't get onto RichardDawkins.com or .co, .uk or whatever. So he's really a kind of - he thinks evolutionary theory is false and it's not correct.

Chuck Bryant: So he's sort of, in jest, throwing out this huge sum of money because he claims that he doesn't think anyone can actually prove this.

Josh Clark: Right, yeah. I didn't get the impression that he is a trillionaire.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: I don't know how many trillionaires there are, and he's -

Chuck Bryant: He sounds like a smart aleck to me.

Josh Clark: Kind of a smart aleck, sure. But he was pretty specific. He said that he wanted an intermediate formed fossil, and this is like an animal that is clearly a species that is the connecting species between one and another, like some fossil that links us humans to frogs because on the tree of life, we all, if you go back far enough, are related, everything, every species on earth came from some little strand of RNA in the primordial soup here on earth billions of years ago, right?

Chuck Bryant: That's what I believe.

Josh Clark: That's what a lot of people believe. But the fossil record, which is this record of all the fossils, all the sedimentary layers, all this stuff over the last 550 million years, is admittedly spotty.

Chuck Bryant: Right, the history of our planet essentially.

Josh Clark: It is, it is. And so you go and take an ice sample, and you go down far enough, and you reach a point where no one has sampled yet, that gets added to the fossil record. It paints this whole picture of the evolution of life on earth depending on what you believe.

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: Everything may have been placed there. That's another theory.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Okay. So we're still trying to figure out if evolution occurs, like, consistently over a long period of time, which is called phyletic gradualism, or it could be in short bursts is the competing theory, which is punctuated equilibrium. So it's still, like I said, it's spotty, but it does have its uses.

Chuck Bryant: What uses, Josh?

Josh Clark: I'll give you a use there, Chuck. Last year, October of 2007, some British researchers came up - or, well, they published a study where they used the fossil record and compared it to global climates over a 520-million-year period because we have climate information in the fossil record as well. And what they found was that in times of warm global temperatures, like we have now - I think the mean global temperature, which is land and ocean, average temperatures put together - it's about 54º, 56º Fahrenheit, which is about 13º Celsius.

Chuck Bryant: Which is warm historically?

Josh Clark: We're in - it's a greenhouse period, which is what we're in now.

Chuck Bryant: Exactly.

Josh Clark: Traditionally, when the earth has seen greenhouse periods, mass extinction has taken place. So the question we're forced to explore is, will we soon be extinct?

Chuck Bryant: Right, which, if you look at the history of our planet, you know, there's a case for that. And if we're not extinct, certain organisms on our planet might become extinct, which could lead to the domino effect, and eventually we might be extinct after all.

Josh Clark: That is very true. There's one case in point. A mass extinction, the worst one apparently on the fossil record, happened at the end of the Permian period, I believe. Two hundred and fifty-one million years ago, 95 percent of all the species on earth died out, like, all at once.

Chuck Bryant: Man, when I read that, I was just blown away.

Josh Clark: I mean, can you imagine if, all of a sudden, it was, like, you know, humans, dogs, cats, goldfish -Chuck Bryant: And mosquitoes.

Josh Clark: - yeah, mosquitoes and maybe a cockroach -

Chuck Bryant: Right, with my luck.

Josh Clark: - something like that, and all the rest is gone, you know, you didn't see anything when you went outside?

Chuck Bryant: Right. Well, humans wouldn't last long if that were the case.

Josh Clark: No, because we require biodiversity, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: You wanna tell them about biodiversity?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah, I can speak a little bit about that.

Josh Clark: Please do.

Chuck Bryant: You know, the earth basically, Josh, is like just a big machine. And if you compared to, like, a car engine, each little part has its own function, and if one nut on the car engine goes off, that leads to something else to break and something else to break. And the earth is kind of like that as well. There are no unnecessary parts. Everything is important.

Josh Clark: Yeah. Even if, looking at a car engine, you don't really understand what this does or what that does, it's still essential. It was put there for a reason if you'll, you know, excuse the comparison.

Chuck Bryant: Right, excused.

Josh Clark: Thanks.

Chuck Bryant: So I know one example you used was nitrogen in your article, if you wanted to enlighten some folks what you know.

Josh Clark: I love enlightening folks. You ready, folks?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Let's do this. So nitrogen basically is present in the soil. It's an essential food for crops, our crops, right? We've learned to harness wild crops to be produced under conditions we like, let's say corn, right? And we can control how many grow and how well it grows and that kind of thing. But really, ultimately, none of this would work if it wasn't for the nitrogen present in the soil. And we can add nitrogen, but it occurs naturally in the soil through, like, worms digesting all sorts of different microbes, that kind of thing, and the microbes themselves are involved in digesting things, and what they put out as a waste product in many cases is nitrogen, which feeds the crops, which feed us.

Chuck Bryant: Right. It's the circle of life.

Josh Clark: Yeah. So, I mean, the lowly worm or the even lowlier microbe -

Chuck Bryant: Bacteria.

Josh Clark: - bacteria, things that just seem so unimportant or even threatening to us are essential to life on earth. That kind of goes with that machine you were talking about, the interrelated parts that each one's very important, even if it doesn't seem like it. So with the loss of biodiversity, say we lose the worms, we lose a lot of the nitrogen in the soil, all of a sudden, our crops fail. So we will be affected one way or another, despite our technology.

Chuck Bryant: Right. It's pretty amazing when you think about that. The smallest thing can have the trickle effect.

Josh Clark: Um hm. And we may actually be able to survive some sort of mass extinction. I mean, we're a pretty smart species. Like, technically, we're subtropical. You know that, right?

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: And we've mastered the colder climes by technology like clothes or tankless hot water heaters, that kind of thing. So we're supposed to be living kind of near the equator. So we could conceivably survive a mass extinction.

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: We have before actually.

Chuck Bryant: Right.

Josh Clark: Supposedly about 70,000 years ago, humanity faced an evolutionary bottleneck, which is where there's some - a species is brought to the brink of extinction. So imagine it like a bottle, and then the bottleneck comes, and you lose all that life and all those genes, and basically, the populations squeezed down. And they estimate that there was about 15,000 people worldwide on planet earth at that time -

Chuck Bryant: Really?

Josh Clark: - because of that bottleneck. It got that low.

Chuck Bryant: From what number? Do you know?

Josh Clark: I don't know the number, but I think a lot more than 15,000.

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: So, on the other end, you come out. So really, the evolutionary bottleneck, if the species survives, goes from a bottleneck to an evolutionary hourglass where it becomes robust again and populated. But, if you go back to that bottleneck, it took a lot of inbreeding to get past that point, which, under a theory that I have, explains why a lot of people today mouth-breathe.

Chuck Bryant: Wow.

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: Let's hear it.

Josh Clark: That was it.

Chuck Bryant: Oh.

Josh Clark: I think there's mouth-breathers on planet earth today because 70,000 60;years ago, it took a lot of inbreeding to get past our evolutionary bottleneck.

Chuck Bryant: And previously we breathed -

Josh Clark: Probably through our nose.

Chuck Bryant: Right, gills?

Josh Clark: No, no, no, I mean, you know, like, you ever watch 24?

Chuck Bryant: I watched the first day, so probably no.

Josh Clark: Well, Kiefer Sutherland, he's a good example of a mouth breather. He breathes through his mouth. He breathes with his mouth open. He's a little slack-jawed. You know what I mean?

Chuck Bryant: Yeah.

Josh Clark: Okay. Mr. Sutherland, no offence.

Chuck Bryant: He doesn't listen.

Josh Clark: So, Chuck, that's pretty much the long and short of whether or not we will face a mass extinction. I think it's entirely possible. I know I've been storing water ever since I wrote this.

Chuck Bryant: Really? In your basement! Do you have a bomb shelter?

Josh Clark: I don't know if I'd call it a bomb shelter. It's more like an emergency bachelor pad.

Chuck Bryant: Right. So you've got your Nintendo and your liquor and -

Josh Clark: Yeah, exactly.

Chuck Bryant: Okay.

Josh Clark: And the water.

Chuck Bryant: And the water.

Josh Clark: It legitimizes everything, you know.

Chuck Bryant: Sure.

Josh Clark: If my wife pokes her head, you know, in the door, I'm just, like, "Just, you know, preparing for a mass extinction," you know what I mean?

Chuck Bryant: Get some canned goods, some canned beans and things -

Josh Clark: Oh, I got plenty of that.

Chuck Bryant: - and sleeping bags, and you're all set.

Josh Clark: Yeah, I'll invite you over. You can learn whether or not you're going to die in the next couple of years by reading, "Will We Soon Be Extinct?" on HowStuffWorks.com.

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