What a piece of work is man? Seen from outer space, we homo sapiens, dwelling on the third planet from a middling sun, appear to be unique in that we are conscious. Our imagination is limitless and we use it to alter our environment for the benefit of our species.
Over time, imagination and technology have brought us some clever innovations. Samsung, for example, has engineered a system that allows drivers to see through the trucks in front of them on the highway, making it easier to determine when it is safe to pass. A wireless camera on the cab of the larger vehicle sends a video of the road ahead to the rear trailer, giving the driver behind a clear view of on-coming obstacles. (“Innovation of the week,” The Week, July 10, 2015, pg. 18.)
Another breakthrough is “email for hot heads.” If you’ve ever fired off a note by accident or in the heat of an argument and then regretted it, Google has invented an “undo” button. It retrieves the message before reaching its destination. You have 30 seconds in which to react. Not an eternity but good enough in some cases. (Ibid pg. 18)
This same ingenuity has recently been applied in an effort to save elephants from extinction. Now wildlife biologists have a way of tracking poachers who are slaughtering the animals at the rate of tens of thousands each year for the ivory. The secret is in the dung. For 15 years, researchers have been analyzing the stuff in an effort to map elephant migrations. The storehouse of this information now makes it possible to retrieve genetic material from these samples and compare them to the stolen ivory. So far, the results have identified Gabon, the Republic of Congo, Cameroon and the Central African Republic as having the greatest amount of poaching activities. Now that we know, we have a chance to reduce the number of animals lost annually. (Ibid, pg. 19)
Of course, the good we do gets undone by other human actions. We know species die off as a part of natural selection, but homo sapiens have become extinction’s handmaiden. Normal losses occur over thousands of years. Estimates are that 68 mammal species have gone extinct, along with 400 types of vertebrates, fish birds and reptiles as a part of the natural weeding process. Thanks to human intervention in the form of pollution and deforestation, however, scientists predict “75 percent of the species we know today could be killed off” in the not so distant future. (Ibid pg. 19.)
In making the world safer and more productive for ourselves, we have tipped the balance in the ecology and despite our efforts to save a species here or there, we have doomed others and one day, perhaps, ourselves. “What a piece of work is man… The paragon of animals.” (Hamlet II, ii)