Science Questions

If humans went extinct what would take over?

Tue, 10th Nov 2015

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Question

Gary Hamilton asked:

If humans became extinct and all other animals were unaffected. What species of animals would be the next great dominator of the planet and which would be the most likely to show the same level of intelligence that humans show?

Answer

The world has been dominated by different groups of animals over time but undoubtedly humans have a huge impact on the planet today. If we were to disappear could you think of any obvious contenders to take our place? Zoologist Max Gray had a go at answering Gary's question...Cockroach

Kat - That's a good one, isn't it? who's going to be the next king of Earth?

Max - That's a great question. Mostly in fact, it's almost impossible to come up with an accurate answer for. It's very difficult to say?

Kat - What about cockroaches? Everyone is like cockroaches. When the nuclear apocalypse comes, it's going to be the cockroaches.

Max - Yes and that cockroaches can survive radiation quite well, but that doesn't mean they're going to become super intelligent. I mean, the whole thing about radiation altering your anatomy or giving you super powers is obviously a complete myth.

Kat - In terms of thinking about what might takeover though. You think you need something that's smart but the primates aren't very widespread individual species.

Max - It's almost impossible to view it from a non-human standpoint like when the way you're asking the question is, what would take our place which isn't necessarily what would happen at all. That's not how evolution works. There might not be a next most dominant species.

Kat - Well, it might be cats. I think they can probably use a kettle.

Max - Really?

Kat - Well, I think they could learn.

Max - Depends on the kettle. You have to have people designing a kettle that could be used by cats. And so, this is one interesting question about all of the ways we interact with the world is mitigated by tools and by our technology which is all very much geared towards our manual dexterity. That's what sets us apart. And so, to replace us, kind of to have a dominant animal so to speak in the way that we fit in the world, you'd need an animal that could develop technology to then devote a lot of time to things other than hunting and reproducing which is what all animals spend most of their time doing, either struggling to survive or struggling to reproduce.

Kat - Not speak to yourself.

Max - Whereas humans don't do that. We've developed the means of surviving largely by spending an hour a week going to the supermarket and then that's about it and then we’re all alright, and can spend the rest of our time doing whatever else we like. That's where technological advancement and literature and the arts, and everything that's why we have that.

Kat - I mean, there's a slightly philosophical thing about, "are we the dominator of the planet" because something like bacteria, arguably probably more successful than we are in terms of where they’ve got to and what they're up to, apart from their lack of literature and all that kind of stuff.

Max - But again, is that dominant? I mean also, bacteria are…

Kat - They never made Breaking Bad.

Max - You're saying bacteria as if that's an animal and it's not right. I mean, bacteria is an entire kingdom of species of which are innumerably more populous than the animal kingdom. I don't know if there's one bacterium that you could say that about.

Kat - I think we can't really answer your question Gary, but nice and speculative.

Max - The short answer is, I have no idea.

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