Origins Project debate examines great extinctions

February 11, 2015

Can humans, through our pluck, cleverness and indomitable spirit, somehow avoid the fate that has befallen 99 percent of the planet’s species before modern-day Homo sapiens ever arrived on the scene (i.e., extinction)? Or will our actions, the emergence of another species or even smart robots lead to our ultimate downfall?

These questions were among the topics explored in a stellar panel discussion moderated by Arizona State University physicist Lawrence Krauss, director of the ASU Origins Project. science panel on stage at ASU Gammage Download Full Image

Krauss kicked off the Origins Project Great Debate "Extinctions: Tragedy to Opportunity,” held Feb. 7 in front of a captivated crowd at ASU Gammage, by framing the debate as “a subject of great current interest, because we might already be involved in another” mass extinction event. Now, for the first time in Earth’s history, it is the consequences of human activity that may be propelling us to a new precipice.

According to Krauss, who serves on the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “We’ve pushed the doomsday clock up by two minutes, so we are now at three minutes to midnight, which means we are three minutes away from doomsday. In principle, this is the closest it’s been since the height of the Cold War. So there are a lot of concerns about what humans may be doing to the planet, and to ourselves.”

Panelists for "Extinctions" included poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman; paleoanthropologist and curator emeritus of the American Museum of Natural History Ian Tattersall; ASU President Michael Crow; ASU planetary scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton; professor and director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms Neil Gershenfeld; and Max Planck Institute professor and sequencer of the first Neanderthal genome Svante Pääbo. The audience also got an opportunity to mingle with several of the panelists at a book signing after the event.

Through her research, Elkins-Tanton, an ASU Foundation Professor and director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, explores the links between present and past from an catastrophic event about 250 million years ago called the end-Permian extinction.

“This was much bigger than the extinction of the dinosaurs," Elkins-Tanton said. "Seventy percent of the terrestrial life became extinct and 90 percent of species in the ocean went extinct. It was almost the end of multicellular life on Earth.”

At the exact same time, a huge volcanic event occurred, creating Siberian flood basalts, where lava flowed freely for a million years, enough to cover the entire U.S. in a crust almost a mile deep.

“We have an event in the geological record, that created a global catastrophe for life by putting into the atmosphere the exact same chemicals that humankind is putting into the atmosphere right now. But what we are doing is much more rapid,” she added.

Humans were also the culprits about 40,000 years ago in some “Pleistocene hanky- panky,” as Tattersall dubbed it. As modern humans migrated out of Africa, they first encountered Neanderthals living in Europe. Remarkably, they began interbreeding with Neanderthals. That intermingling caused their downfall, and yet, because of their interbreeding, still makes us all part Neanderthal.

Paabo’s research team was the first to complete the Neanderthal genome, and has catalogued 30,000 changes that make us uniquely human. And vice versa.

“Neanderthals are not totally extinct,” said Paabo. “They live on a little bit in many of us today, and sometimes, in rather important ways.” One tantalizing tidbit Paabo discovered was a variant of type 2 diabetes found only in Neanderthals that seemed to make them uniquely adapted to surviving during starvation conditions.

President Crow, who recently had some of his DNA sequenced, quipped, “I was 3.2 percent Neanderthal, which was unbelievable. You can pinpoint where your ancient, ancient ancestors came from, and the mating that was so politely referred to earlier was very vigorous in my neck of the woods.”

What was it that gave us the edge to become the top hominid, and most dominant species on the planet? Tattersall believes it had to be the unique way in which our species processed information.

“The burgeoning modern human spirit had been exhibited for some time, expressed in the cave wall art," Tattersall said. "It had its downside as well. We appear to be totally intolerant of competition, and once more, we are capable of enforcing this intolerance. We are the very first hominid species to be able to do that.”

While nature evolves very slowly, the present day human age continues advancing at a breakneck pace, driven by cultural, social and technological innovation. Or, as Ackerman so aptly described: “Creating big hives of megacities that spiral up into the sky, that would be impressive enough. But to generally vex and bother every plant and every animal on every continent and in every ocean; that’s a level of mischief that the planet has never seen before.”

Ackerman pointed out that during the last century, it took us only 60 years to go from traveling by horse-drawn carriage to the moon rocket.

“Our culture has become a very powerful force of biological change," she said. "Throughout our history, our inventions have always reinvented us. All of the inventions of today’s everyday life came about in the last 200 years. We’ve been extending our senses in that time and what it means to be a human being.”

Among today’s innovations, Gershenfeld is leading a global research effort called digital fabrication, which goes beyond the hype of 3-D printing to “turn data into things and things into data. We will turn it into the 'Star Trek' replicator, literally. It’s about a 20-year research roadmap to get there.”

President Crow pointed out that the rapid evolution of social technical systems that we manufacture, live in and co-evolve with all force extinctions.

“Humans are the product of a great extinction," he said. "Earth is life’s incubator, but it’s a slow process. Much faster are our society’s social and economic upheavals.”

This was most famously identified with economist Joseph Schumpeter’s business cycle theory of innovation, called creative destruction: “The pace is accelerating. Three hundred years from the first printed book to a billion books. Twenty-five years from 100,000 Internet sites to more than a billion sites. Now, I am an optimist. Only opportunity lies ahead through social and technical extinction.”

This sea cultural change is also having a profound influence on individual learning and higher education, where Gershenfeld believes one half of today’s universities will go extinct, replaced by digital technologies to make learning more personal, distributed and global.

Crow embraces these technologies in the evolution of ASU: “Finally, through technologies, personalized learning. The birth of a new kind of knowledge creator. The death, or extinction, of the sage on the stage, and the extinction of class-based learning systems.

“It is likely that all of those systems combined will allow us to create, for the first time as we move forward, in an opportunity way, the concept of living and learning and adapting across our entire civilization, in real time for a person’s entire life,” he added.

The evening ended with a question-and-answer session from the audience, hitting upon themes of artificial intelligence, evolving senses, the ethics of attempting de-extinction by biobanking DNA or even, though technically not feasible today, bringing species like Neanderthals back from their dead-end of the gene pool.

The panelists were ultimately optimistic about the human capacity to learn from past extinction and bring societal forces together to better our lives and the planet.  

“Never before have we been so dangerous to the planet or to ourselves, but never before have we been so capable of working together to find solutions,” said Ackerman.

“We may have the wisdom to know how to actually manage our own very, very, very strong footprint on the rest of this planet, to both the planet’s benefit and ours,” said Crow.

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences), Media Relations & Strategic Communications


ASU students help guide future of public transportation in Phoenix

February 11, 2015

The future of public transportation in the greater Phoenix area could undergo some changes in the near future, and a group of Arizona State University graduate students appreciate the opportunity to assist.

The Phoenix Public Transit Department established a 35-member citizen committee to examine how to pay for public transportation and get public input. The department asked David Swindell, director of the Center for Urban Innovation in ASU’s College of Public Service and Community Solutions, to assist in creating a public survey to help collect data on how Valley residents feel about various public transit issues. A light rail train travels south along Central Avenue in Phoenix Download Full Image

“The community faces the sunset of the sales tax that currently supports operations and maintenance of the light rail and bus systems in five years,” says Swindell.

Swindell decided to not only undertake the project, but to also integrate graduate students from his PAF 502 Public Service Research II statistics class as part of their course study.

“This was an opportunity to work with real data,” says Master of Public Administration student Chelsea Chotena. “In classes we get a good overview of the theory, and professors can share case studies. But real information has challenges, and this was an opportunity to learn and grow.”

The team of 15 students built an online survey of 19 questions ranging from transit-related (which included socioeconomic and demographic topics that were aimed at highlighting respondents’ usage patterns) to service satisfaction and public opinion about the future of public transportation in the Phoenix region.

The students distributed the survey and received responses from more than 350 people who use public transportation (bus and/or light rail) frequently and from those who do not.

Here are some of the highlights from the data collected:

• Over two-thirds of bus users report being very or somewhat satisfied with bus service. Higher income riders are more satisfied with bus service than lower income riders, and female riders were more satisfied than male riders.

• Approximately 89 percent of light rail users report feeling safe riding the light rail during the day while only 71 percent say they feel safe riding at night.

• Nine out of 10 respondents agree or strongly agree that expanding bus and light rail services is important for the city’s future.

• Those favoring expansion of services prefer funding the expansion through an increase in the sales tax.

• Among respondents who do not use public transportation, the majority (54.2 percent) prefer that any expansion of services be paid for through increased fares. Those who use either light rail or bus services prefer any expansion be paid for through a gasoline tax. Respondents that use both light rail and bus services prefer expanded services be funded by an increased sales tax.

The survey and results were then compiled into a 34-page report and presented to the committee. Members gave Swindell and his students high marks. While students appreciated the praise, they were happy to gain experience working with actual data.

“Being able to understand and process data is critical,” Chotena says. “The experience gave me the most tangible, realistic approach for how to handle and manage data.”

Swindell was pleased that the Phoenix Public Transit Department came to the Center for Urban Innovation and the College of Public Services and Community Solutions for assistance with this project.

"It’s another illustration of the school’s and college’s commitment to the local community and to helping in the development of solutions to public problems,” Swindell says.

Written by Chris Hernandez

Paul Atkinson

assistant director, College of Public Service and Community Solutions