The Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It

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For all the pessimistic talk about the apocalypse, we still really don't know what humanity's future will ultimately look like. Where will our sea levels be? Will avian flu wipe us off the planet? Will computer viruses throw us into darkness and chaos? In this imaginative, gripping book, Fred Guterl, the executive editor of Scientific American, explores six looming scenarios in vivid detail—the way they might really happen. And along the way produces a portrait of where we are today, where we can be with the ...

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The Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It

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Overview

For all the pessimistic talk about the apocalypse, we still really don't know what humanity's future will ultimately look like. Where will our sea levels be? Will avian flu wipe us off the planet? Will computer viruses throw us into darkness and chaos? In this imaginative, gripping book, Fred Guterl, the executive editor of Scientific American, explores six looming scenarios in vivid detail—the way they might really happen. And along the way produces a portrait of where we are today, where we can be with the right effort, and where we might wind up if we're not careful.We find ourselves in a trap: Technology got us into this mess, and it's also the only thing that can help us survive it. Guterl's riveting book is a grand and necessary thought experiment, not merely a scary story, but a fresh perspective on the world we're remaking, which rings a note of optimism about what we're capable of.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Thanks to the sheer size of the human population and our increasing reliance upon technology, there are now more opportunities than ever for the human race to inadvertently cause its own extinction. Guterl, executive editor of Scientific American, offers a tour of “what-ifs”: a civilization-dooming supervirus, a disastrous paradigm shift caused by climate change, a catastrophic failure of the computer systems that regulate infrastructure and the world economy. There have been at least five mass extinctions in Earth’s history, and Guterl warns that there could be another. Grounding his speculation firmly in cutting-edge science, Guterl details the lives and work of a number of scientists who have developed computer systems for NASA, engineered lethal viruses using easily accessible lab equipment, or created security software to detect and neutralize increasingly sophisticated computer viruses. Despite its engaging prose, the book suffers from uneven content, occasionally falling into Hollywood fear factory clichés. However, with its enormous scope, the book functions as an introduction to contemporary immunology, computer science, climatology, and more. While Guterl’s pessimism is not for the faint of heart, it turns out to be remarkably entertaining to ponder the ways that the human race might wipe itself out. Agent: Sydelle Kramer, Susan Rabiner Agency. (June)
From the Publisher
 "An intelligent account of the mess we are making of the planet."—Kirkus Reviews

"While Guterl’s pessimism is not for the faint of heart, it turns out to be remarkably entertaining."—Publishers Weekly

"This is a beautifully written book that will make you think and worry. Fred Guterl explains everything that could go wrong in lucid prose. It is an arresting, though unnerving combination."—Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post-American World and host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS

"It feels strange to call a book about the end of humanity elegant and engaging, but so be it. Fred Guterl has researched the many, many ways in which we could bring destruction down upon our own heads, bringing them up to date with the latest research in climatology, synthetic biology, and computer science. I hope the world doesn't crash, but if it does, I can't say Guterl didn't warn me."—Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses

"An important, awe-inspiring book. This is a straight-from-the-shoulder assessment of the future of a humankind trapped by its own technological prowess. The Fate of the Species is written by a master of his craft with provocative, thoughtful elegance. Guterl combines measured optimism with scary scenarios in a telling synthesis of cutting edge science made understandable. This book should be required reading for everyone, and I mean everyone."—Brian Fagan, archaeologist and author of Elixir and The Great Warming

"Guterl has written 'How We Die' for the human species. From reverse genetics that creates a deadly flu virus to climate change that kills the Asian monsoons, his scenarios are so fascinating and compelling you almost forget what's at stake. Almost."—Sharon Begley, former science columnist for Newsweek and The Wall St. Journal

"The human species has no shortage of ways to meet its end—superviruses, climate change,  global famine. But unlike other species that have come and gone in the long and sometimes pitiless history of the planet, we'd be the agents of our own destruction. The good news is, a creature powerful enough to author its own demise is also smart enough to avoid it. The Fate of the Species tells both sides of that very big tale and does so with honesty, wisdom—and more than a little hope."—Jeff Kluger, author of The Sibling Effect

"The Fate of the Species somehow manages to frighten, amuse and enlighten all at the same time. It isn't about doom as much as the opportunity for the human race to come up with a happier ending to its story. Fred Guterl reveals how science can be by turns heroic, dangerous and helpless, and he proves a thoughtful, even-handed and sometimes playful guide to the risks that we ourselves have created. The news is sobering, but also fascinating and in some ways surprisingly uplifting."—David Freedman, author of Wrong

Library Journal
Guterl (executive editor, Scientific American) presents a look at the myriad ways humans and human technology could create disasters that might cause our own extinction. By starting with nonthreatening examples of scientific research (e.g., reversing the process of algae accumulation in ponds or developing artificial intelligence for Mars rovers), Guterl guides readers to more complex ideas chapter by chapter, such as disappearing lakes and oceans as well as the threat of cyberattacks. Each chapter covers a different area where human invention has backfired: superviruses, local species extinction, climate change, ecosystem fluctuations, biotechnology, and computers and other machines. VERDICT A good update to older books that have covered the same topic such as Edward O. Wilson's The Future of Life or Richard E. Leakey's The Sixth Extinction, this title also provides a solid overview of many polarizing issues, urging a balance of nature and technology to solve the problems humans have created. For readers invested in the future of the planet.—Margaret Henderson, Virginia Commonwealth Univ. Lib., Richmond
Kirkus Reviews
A fine scientific explanation of our abuse of the natural world that, despite the subtitle, does not explain how to stop it. Scientific American executive editor Guterl begins by discussing mass extinction, a process that has occurred half-a-dozen times over life's 2.5-billion-year history, eliminating up to 90 percent of species. The survivors thrived, and the current mass extinction (already in progress) may not eliminate the human species, but the consequences will be dismal. With frequent detours into discussions of terrorism, the author describes the science behind a dozen potential disasters provoked by a combination of sheer human numbers and technological advances. Deadly plagues are inevitable as microbes jump back and forth between animals and humans; if these natural mutations don't produce a superbug, genetic engineering (perhaps by a clever terrorist) might do the same. Guterl portrays global warming, now under way, with vivid specifics on rising sea levels, melting ice caps, vanishing fresh water and increasingly unstable weather. Widespread famine predicted by doomsayers isn't yet happening, but food prices are rising. The obligatory hopeful finale mentions eliminating carbon-based fuels, doing without energy-consuming conveniences and living in harmony with nature--though the author admits these measures are unlikely to be undertaken. Dramatic advances in genetically engineered plants and animals, atmospheric coolants, small-scale local, energy-efficient agriculture and massive carbon-sequestration will work when they arrive--but none have arrived yet. Aside from too many lurid terrorist scenarios, this is an intelligent account of the mess we are making of the planet; the unsettling conclusion: that humans may survive because we are resilient, not because we can fix matters.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781608192601
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 5/14/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Fred Guterl is an award-winning journalist and executive editor of Scientific American. He worked for ten years at Newsweek, most recently as deputy editor, covering the most important trends in science, technology, and international affairs. He has also appeared on CNN, Charlie Rose, the Today Show, and on other television programs to discuss popular issues in science. Guterl holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Rochester, and has taught science writing at Princeton University. He lives in the New York City area with his wife and two children.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Superviruses 7

2 Extinction 28

3 Climate Change 50

4 Ecosystems 84

5 Synthetic Biology 95

6 Machines 126

Ingenuity 167

Acknowledgments 187

Notes 189

Index 199

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