An abstract collage with Kevin Esvelt, a road, a DNA spiral and multi-colored squares in the backgro...

If you care about the future of Earth, you must care about the human species

Future 50

How biologist Kevin Esvelt came to know the planet, in his own words

Biologist Kevin Esvelt, in his own words about the upbringing that made him such an influential biologist and geneticist.

by Chloe Williams

Originally it was dinosaurs, of course.

I remember when the novel of Jurassic Park first came out. I was just getting into reading novels then, and I was just absolutely enthralled.

Later, I was fortunate enough to travel to the Galápagos Islands when I was in the sixth grade. I was blown away by the diversity of creatures, and by Darwin's writings. Because that really got me into reading Charles Darwin for the first time.

My favorite was probably the Marine iguana, which Darwin called the “imps of darkness.”

They're iguanas, but they swim.

How wild is that? Why did they do that? And how is it that you could get such an incredible variety of features?

So, I wanted to learn how that happened and how can we do it as well as nature.

That was what really got me into genetics.

I have cats. I love cats. Before my cats were indoor-only, when I was a kid, I remember being gifted with presents from the outdoor cats in the form of crippled small creatures who were clearly suffering horribly. I tried to rescue these creatures, which of course made the cat think it was a game. Darwin actually said, no, I cannot conceive of how a benevolent God could have created the Ichneumonidae, which are these wasps that lay their eggs and living caterpillars, paralyze them and then the larvae eat their way out. Or the manner in which a cat plays with its prey.

But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. -- Charles Darwin

So the suffering has always been an issue. Evolution is a physical process, right? It's like gravity. You can't blame gravity for pulling things down. You can't blame evolution for creating things that are made to replicate, because that's all that evolution does.

And if it takes pain sensation and causing agony in order to improve the odds of replication, that's what evolution will make.

We shouldn't be angry about it. There's nothing to be angry at.

But we should learn how it creates such marvelous things, and see if we can do it without the suffering.

[See also: The full Future 50 interview with Kevin Esvelt]

In high school, I was definitely enthralled with the beauty of nature, and I was just disgusted with how readily we were destroying it. I viewed every species as a beautiful work of art, and here we were going around just ripping them to shreds.

Dynamiting Buddha statues left, right, and center you might say, but in the natural world.

I read The Population Bomb, all of that stuff — the usual extreme environmentalist things — and concluded that you know, this wasn't good for us and it certainly wasn't good for the rest of the planet, and we should just figure out how to stop.

That led me to look into better ways of reducing human fertility. I still believe this is true: It's kind of absurd that you can accidentally create a thinking moral human -- that we bring people into the world accidentally.

Because you should only undertake that sort of thing when you're ready, and when you can ensure that the world is ready for that additional person, to whom we have moral obligations.

So I thought, well, the default status of human fertility should be set to off. You should have to consciously choose to have children.

And it's true that depending on where you go, somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of children are “unwanted.” That doesn't mean they're “unwanted” by the time they're born of course, but that the conception was not planned, to be more specific.

We should really figure out some way to change that switch.

Ideally, the switch should be in men, because women have had enough of the burden. My undergraduate thesis was examining mechanisms of sperm surface protein maturation in the epididymis because I was interested in something that could be broken in such a way that you could resupply it and temporarily become fertile again.

That could become a temporarily reversible sterilization treatment for men. The idea is that you could get it when you're very young and then you wouldn't worry about having children until you decide you want to and then you take a pill and become fertile.

As time went on, I became a little bit more respectful of the incredible variety of entities that humans can create. Because if you only focus on the natural world, you leave out all of human art and culture and music and exploration, the beautiful edifices of knowledge. If we ascribe value to the beautiful things that nature has created through evolution, then we should equally value those things that we have created through cultural evolution.

These are patterns that are utterly dependent on humanity to create them, to replicate them, to evolve them. We are the soil in which they grow.

That was an insight that took me a while to come to. What really weaned me off of the radical environmentalism was when I realized that if you care about the diversity of natural species and the future of life on Earth, you must care about human civilization — and ensuring that it continues.


As told to Chloe Williams for Inverse.

[See also: The full Future 50 interview with Kevin Esvelt]

Kevin Esvelt is a member of the Inverse Future 50, a group of 50 people who will be forces of good in the 2020s.

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