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Five Questions with Ferris Jabr

Five Questions with Ferris Jabr

In celebration of the publication of his book, Becoming Earth: How Our Planet Came to Life, we spoke to author Ferris Jabr about the future of humanity, the meaning of life, and much more.

You can also explore Closer To Truth’s newest addition of videos pertaining to Life on Earth and beyond here.

5Q With Ferris Jabr

1. What is widely misunderstood about life that you would like to correct?

Life is not something that simply resides on or inhabits the planet, but is rather a literal, physical extension of the planet. What we call life emerged from and is made of Earth. Life is Earth animated.

2. What do you expect to happen to humans on Earth in the future?

Humans are a highly intelligent, versatile, and tenacious species. We are also extremely numerous and widespread. It is entirely possible that our species may one day go extinct, but our ubiquity, sheer numbers, and adaptability are significant barriers to true annihilation. I don’t think anthropogenic climate change alone is likely to extinguish the human species in its entirety.

But there’s a vast spectrum between existence and extinction. If we fail to halt anthropogenic heating, then the planet will become a new world unlike anything our species has experienced—a world potentially incapable of supporting modern human civilization and the ecosystems on which we depend. Billions of people would, at the very least, suffer immensely, losing their homes and livelihoods, forced to migrate, faced with famine, conflict, and constant jeopardy. Crops would fail, infrastructure collapse, and ecosystems fragment and wither. Many people would die from extreme heat, drought, wildfires, and superstorms. Conversely, if the nations most responsible for the climate crisis and most capable of managing it meet their obligations, we can still preserve a version of Earth that, while not the same as it was before, is familiar and stable enough to support a large and thriving human population, as well as innumerable nonhuman species.

3. What does it mean to be alive?

Science does not yet have a consensus definition of life, nor a fundamental explanation of the physical phenomenon we call life, nor a way to objectively measure it. Instead of a precise definition, most textbooks continue to list features that presumably distinguish the living from the nonliving: growth, metabolism, reproduction, evolution, and so on. The trouble is that there are so many examples that break the rules: inanimate things that have supposedly unique features of the living, or living things that lack them.

Over the decades, however, many experts have focused on a characteristic that seems to be truly unique to life: a capacity for active self-preservation. Thermodynamics dictates that everything will eventually fall apart. The universe moves inexorably towards a state of complete dissolution. The systems of matter we call life use free energy to temporarily evade this fate by reducing their internal entropy and maintaining what would otherwise be improbably high levels of organization and complexity. Life is not a distinct class of matter, nor a property of matter, but rather a process—something matter does. To be alive is to maintain oneself, regulate oneself, and preserve oneself. To be alive is to defy the forces that would pull us all apart. 

4. What’s a fundamental question about the Universe that keeps you at night?

What is life, exactly? How did life arise? And how common is life throughout the cosmos?

5. Is there anything about life that you wish was common knowledge?

At the same time that living things adapt to their environments, they also transform them. Microbes, fungi, plants, and animals have radically altered the continents, atmosphere, and ocean, turning what was once a lump of orbiting rock into our cosmic oasis. Life oxygenated the atmosphere, dyed the sky blue, made fire possible, concocted modern ocean chemistry, stimulated the production of thousands of new minerals, and maybe even played a role in the formation of the continents. In many ways, life made the world as we know it.