Humanity Does Not Strike Back

Why the end of the human species would be bad, actually
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Adam Kirsch, an editor of the Wall Street Journal’s weekend review section, a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, and a highly regarded poet, literary critic, and biographer with some dozen books to his credit, has written a new book that is clear, thought-provoking, and brief. Its thesis is simple enough to state. At what may be the cutting edge of contemporary thinking we are witnessing a “revolt against humanity” that is “a spiritual development of the first order.” The revolt consists of a convergence between the views of radical environmentalists, who are critical of the impact of modern technology on natural ecosystems, and transhumanists, who aim to use technology to rebuild completely the naturally given. The two don’t agree on much, but they do agree that humanity likely is, and certainly should be, on its way toward extinction. In other words, Kirsch, whose credentials as a humanist are impeccable, has written a book about contemporary advocates of human extinction, and we expect some sort of sharp rebuttal.

Kirsch is well aware that many of his readers will think that advocacy of human extinction is surely the kind of extremism that exists only at some unserious fringe. But he argues convincingly both that this idea is well established among contemporary intellectuals and elites, and that it can influence the future even if not all of its predictions pan out. He labels it a “spiritual” vision not only because he believes it has affinities with some religious doctrines, but because he understands correctly that it represents a normative ideal, a way of thinking about what life on Earth, human or otherwise, should look like. And as far as such ways of thinking go, we know full well, at the very least from the twentieth century, that there is a history of some pretty toxic ideas gaining widespread traction.

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Columbia Global Reports ~ 2023 ~ 100 pp.
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Throughout most of the book, Kirsch confines himself to a fair-minded explication of the strands of thinking that make up transhumanism and radical environmentalism. When he presents critical arguments, it is mostly in order to allow extinction advocates to answer them, and he suggests that the “logic of impermanence” — that humans will someday go extinct — is “hard to refute” in a world where so much scientific (and religious) belief already considers humanity in its present form to be but a phase. More than once he suggests that the extinctionists are perhaps simply more willing than most of us to look unflinchingly at the ultimate ephemerality of human life.

And yet the final chapter of his book is titled “The Sphere of Spiritual Warfare,” as if here we can expect that at last Kirsch the humanist-in-practice will take on the antihumanists-in-theory. And he does … sort of. As it turns out, his understanding of humanism provides him very little purchase against the antihumanists, to whom he finally surrenders. How it should come to that is, I think, the most serious issue raised by this interesting little book.

The first half of the book presents a wide-ranging synthesis of contemporary thinking on the topic of human extinction among those environmentalists who are looking forward to it. Kirsch calls this ideology “Anthropocene antihumanism,” the Anthropocene being a voguish term for the current geological epoch, which is supposedly defined by human influence. He identifies a key idea behind Anthropocene antihumanism as “the end of nature,” proclaimed by Bill McKibben already in 1989. This claim goes beyond noting the destructive power of humanity; more pointedly, McKibben argues there is no longer nature, at least on Earth, in the sense of a realm that stands outside of human choice and action. As Kirsch writes, “the nature that produced humanity is now itself produced by humanity.”

Kirsch does not interrogate this opinion, which has elements of overstatement. Those who believe we are headed toward disaster are usually committed to the proposition that in the end nature is so powerful that we will find that we messed with it to our peril. Nevertheless, the “end of nature” claim also reveals something true about meliorative or reform environmentalism, which still seems to define mainstream belief: that its advocacy of “green tech” or “sustainable agriculture” requires us in many ways to increase our power over nature. Conceptually, that is unacceptable to the Anthropocene antihumanists, as it increases the extent to which we put ourselves at the center of things. But in any case, many believe our attempt at green reform is also too little too late. Hence, Kirsch writes, some would welcome the tradeoff that “the only way to restore the sovereignty of nature is for human civilization to collapse.” “The state of the planet reveals that humanity is essentially a destroyer,” and has been from the start. So better that we should disappear.

There is some ambiguity as to whether Anthropocene antihumanists are all rooting for literal human extinction; some are merely hoping for or expecting the complete collapse of current human culture. And from Kirsch’s telling it is not entirely clear what the program to achieve either goal is, or whether there even is a program — as opposed to, say, letting nature take its course. He shows more clearly how the extinctionists believe that as we move toward a future without us, we need to be thinking in a new way about how we are related to the world. Any claims that might be made about human uniqueness represent “metaphysical arrogance.” “What is so special about a world that contains moral agents and rational deliberators?” asks antinatalist David Benatar in Better Never to Have Been.

We may come to understand this position, Kirsch explains, if we adopt the perspective of “object-oriented ontology,” a philosophical idea designed to make us see ourselves more as objects among others, and the rest of the world around us, living and nonliving, more as subjects. While this idea does not claim that a rock has a consciousness like ours, still, according to one object-oriented ontologist Kirsch quotes, “every nonhuman object can also be called an ‘I’ in the sense of having a definite inwardness that can never fully be grasped.” In terms of environmental thought, this idea is a new route to curtail our sense that humans are unique within nature, and to increasing our reluctance to treat the natural world as a resource for us to exploit. Acknowledging it also means we can look ahead to our disappearance with greater equanimity, since only our rather virulent mode of inwardness will disappear when we do, rather than inwardness as such.

Kirsch seems unaware that Anthropocene antihumanism is not entirely new, but was foreshadowed in the “deep ecology” movement of the 1980s developed by thinkers like Arne Næss, the Norwegian philosopher who founded the movement, George Sessions, Dolores LaChappele, and Bill Devall. Devall, for example, speculated that “Perhaps Sasquatch does exist — as an ideal. Perhaps Sasquatch represents a more mature kind of human, a future primal being.” Looking back to this bit of intellectual history would have supported Kirsch’s thoughts about how even strange ideas can catch on. Yet the deep ecologists did not often so overtly stress their antihumanism as much as today’s thinkers, content as they were to advocate building coalitions and identifying how human beings could live in less technologically mediated ways within the natural world. The closest they came to object-oriented ontology was “eco-egalitarianism,” the idea that all elements of nature are of equal value, at least in principle. But they also realized that in a world of predation such a principle could be achieved only very imperfectly. Perhaps because the philosopher Næss was rather antitheoretical himself, the deep ecologists seemed as a group to have understood the problems of acting on pure principle in a way that, from Kirsch’s telling at least, the Anthropocene antihumanists do not.

The second half of the book takes up the transhumanists, who believe humans as biologically evolved are full of flaws, like being mortal, that increasingly we will be able to fix by abandoning our current organic instantiation. Alternately, we will be replaced by super-, self-augmenting artificial intelligence. Either way, Kirsch writes, quoting futurist Toby Ord, “the future holds ‘possible heights of flourishing far beyond the status quo, and far beyond our current comprehension…. The future is immense.’”

The only fly in the ointment — although it may indeed be a feature and not a bug — is that it will not be humans who will be enjoying this immense future. Perhaps we will make ourselves obsolete by extensive genetic engineering, or perhaps by “uploading” our minds into computers. Perhaps the AIs we are creating today will “take over” and create a world that has little or no place for us — and that in any case we would be as unlikely to appreciate as a spider monkey could appreciate New York.

Here again, Kirsch’s presentation of the ideas in question is clear and fair-minded. He might be accused of ignoring some of the more long-term, science-fictiony elements of the transhumanists, like Hans Moravec’s projection that as robots and super AIs spread out into the universe, they will transform matter, dead or alive, into the computational substrate they require. Moravec seems to expect they will run a simulation of the natural world that was absorbed for that purpose, but this result hardly seems necessary, and indeed sounds rather sentimental. In any case, Kirsch is quite aware that already some of his readers are likely to find the transhumanist outlook hard to take seriously and may not have wished to push them too hard lest they think the ideas he describes are too “out there” to require serious attention — a genuine problem I am aware of from my own writing on this topic.

Kirsch obviously understands that it is indeed remarkable to find progress being measured by the speed at which humanity disappears, and he deserves a certain amount of credit just for documenting in such an accessible way how this outlook is playing out today. But it is no small thing to stand, in theory and in practice, against the very existence of human beings; the proposition, one would have thought, is sufficiently thought-provoking as to call for some kind of forceful response. In the end, Kirsch fails to supply it, even though he seems to try.

At first, it appears that Kirsch thinks it is hard to argue with the extinctionists, simply because they are completely correct that the human species is mortal. Just as with our individual mortality, humanity’s mortality is a very difficult truth to come to grips with, but we must do so. Yet this observation can’t tell the whole story. We don’t take the mortality of individuals in and of itself to justify either suicide or homicide, which seem to be close analogies to what the extinctionists are offering. So we have to go deeper to understand how little Kirsch offers on the side of humanity in the coming “warfare” over our fate.

To see how his predicament develops, it may be best to start by recognizing that his thesis about the extinctionist convergence between radical environmentalists and transhumanists is nothing new. For example, in my 1994 book The Green Crusade I discussed, albeit briefly, how “the postbiological world of the robots [envisioned by transhumanists], and the posthuman world of Sasquatch [imagined by deep ecologists] are two sides of the same coin.” For decades, the antihuman utopianism of certain strains of environmentalism and the many varieties of transhumanism have been a topic of discussion among those often labeled “bioconservatives.” Kirsch is aware that such people exist, but he would rather not be associated with them. Recognizing the central role Dr. Leon Kass has played in developing this way of thinking about biomedical and technological ethics, Kirsch attempts a critique of Kass’s well-known 1997 essay on the “wisdom of repugnance,” which was an argument against human cloning. But the criticism Kirsch offers shows only how little he has understood Kass’s argument.

Kirsch seems to think a decisive refutation of Kass is found in the proposition that there are things that once were repugnant that are no longer thought of in that way, like “racial mixing and homosexuality.” But Kass never claimed that all repugnance was wise. He simply observed that there are instances like incest, where our instinctive-feeling negative reaction is worthy of being investigated seriously, and that human cloning in particular falls into that category. Kirsch also thinks that “the wisdom of repugnance means that reason falls silent when it most needs to be heard.” But Kass is not saying that repugnance alone constitutes an adequate moral response; it is rather an occasion for reflection, as he has indeed reflected extensively on deep ethical problems with human cloning. Contra Kirsch, repugnance is not a substitute but a spark for rational discussion; we can see it as wisdom only if we think about it, if it clues us in to something we might otherwise take for granted.

Although Kass, according to Kirsch, is “one of the most eloquent opponents of transhumanist ambitions,” Kirsch seems to be sympathetic to the way in which the transhumanists reject this “moralizing opposition” in favor of a libertarian live-and-let-live principle.

Kirsch then considers the possibility that humanism itself could provide a response to the party of antihumanity. But this consideration does not go far:

Transhumanism and antihumanism attack the very achievements that humanists cherish; neither literature nor liberalism can flourish in a posthuman future. It is tempting to react by turning our faces against that future, sheltering behind an emotionally appealing concept like “the wisdom of repugnance.” But attempting to preserve the past by setting an arbitrary limit to progress, insisting that any further change would upset the natural order of things, is the classic posture of the reactionary. It is fundamentally incompatible with the principles humanists claim to honor — freedom, reason, moral autonomy.

In other words, to oppose the extinctionists, humanists would have to take up arms against ideals the extinctionists embody that humanists would otherwise honor too. But this point begs the question. Do extinctionists really stand for freedom, reason, and moral autonomy?

As we will see, Kirsch does not think that the extinctionists unambiguously represent “rational thought,” but he does attribute that quality to them and generally speaking also takes their claims to a scientific grounding seriously. But scientific materialism notoriously calls into question human freedom and moral autonomy, and scientific rationality is widely recognized to be only a subset of rationality. There is plenty of space for even secular humanists to object to extinctionism without self-contradiction.

Furthermore, transhumanists themselves are quite aware that their program, which sometimes sounds a bit like eugenics, needs to be defended against the charge that it is not on the side of freedom and moral autonomy. To say the least, their apologies are subject to reasonable critique. And should extinctionist-minded environmentalists ever develop a program that would end humanity (or fail to save humanity) on the rapid timescale required to meet the urgency of the situation they suppose we face, their program likely would not have much room for freedom and moral autonomy either.

Finally, it isn’t true that the arguments against humanity are fully grounded in even just scientific or technical rationality. Kirsch seems aware of this when he likens the beliefs of today’s extinctionists to religious apocalypses, and acknowledges that theorists of the end of humanity do not have to have completely accurate foresight in order to be influential. The transhumanists, Kirsch writes, are “used to treating hypothetical technologies as inevitable” — a mild but cogent criticism, because he knows that the basic goals of transhumanism will have a powerful ideological appeal to some people whatever particular technologies come along to implement the program.

Where Kirsch ultimately finds himself drawn to the antihumanist side is when he considers its “high ethical ambitions.” Anthropocene antihumanism and transhumanism alike supply something that is missing within the scientific worldview and our culture broadly. Extinctionism thus appeals “to people who are committed to science and reason, yet yearn for the clarity and purpose of an absolute moral imperative.” How he gets to this imperative takes some unpacking.

Kirsch seems aware that no “absolute moral imperative” in favor of human extinction can be derived from science or technology directly. From the idea that we may someday be able to upload our minds into computers, no moral imperative follows that we should do so, or should even seek to do so. The technological “can” does not create an imperative “ought.” Even if you believe that there are cases in which you may derive an “ought” from a “can,” it should still be clear that doing so is not, at least, within what most thinkers understand to be the domain of modern science. If you are trying to get from fact to value by some reasonable route, the more common one is an antecedent belief in something like natural right, natural law, or a Providential order.

Which, rather remarkably, is what Kirsch considers next. He mentions, not unsympathetically, Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule, the Catholic natural law theorists and critics of secular humanism and liberalism. It is true, he admits, that they are not “enlightened” humanists, as they do not cherish “our ability to abolish boundaries and challenge authority.” But from them we can still learn the value of self-limitation and self-sacrifice.

From the perspective of faith, self-limitation — voluntarily giving up some of our power and freedom — isn’t a loss. It is a sacrifice, a concrete expression of the belief that the believer serves something more important than himself.

Kirsch is on to something here, but it is a missed opportunity. You might expect that he will adapt this lesson to point secular humanists away from antihumanism: For example, the insight that more is not always better could curb transhumanist ambitions, while encouraging a positive view of human responsibility toward the environment. Or, given that Kirsch comes to conclude that antihumanism is “in many ways a scientific translation of religious impulses and categories,” you might expect that he will suggest that faith-based humanism could meet antihumanists where they already are — and then lead them somewhere better.

But Kirsch does not do either of these things. Even as he draws insight from faith-based humanism, he seems to find it anathema, beyond any sustained common cause. So instead, he goes out looking for and eventually finds something like self-limitation and self-sacrifice in antihumanism. And then he praises the antihumanists for expressing the kind of high moral ambition science cannot supply:

All the thinkers we have met in this book call for drastic forms of human self-limitation — whether that means the destruction of civilization, the renunciation of childbearing, or the replacement of human beings by machines. These sacrifices are ways of expressing high ethical ambitions that find no scope in our ordinary, hedonistic lives: compassion for suffering nature, hope for cosmic dominion, love of knowledge.

Self-sacrifice is the moral cause demanded of us by both antihuman ecological integrity and technological progress!

The world could certainly use more self-limitation and self-sacrifice, but associating those character traits with transhumanism is a stretch. Arch-transhumanist Ray Kurzweil sells virtual instantiation of minds and bodies at least in part on the basis of being able to experience hitherto unknowable sexual pleasure, and of course the big promises are immortality and the ability to inhabit any kind of virtual world one wishes. Transhumanists are selling empowerment of individual choice above all, as their tendency toward libertarianism suggests. Self-sacrifice seems more consistent with Anthropocene antihumanism, but, as we will see, its moral meaning and likely impact shift dramatically when the goal of that sacrifice is the elimination of humanity.

Having come to his rather surprising conclusion, Kirsch admits that humanists are not “obligated to embrace the posthuman future with joy,” but in the end he really does seem to require them to embrace it. Secular humanists can hardly be happy supporting the end of humanity based on a belief in self-sacrifice held by the faithful, but the argument goes where the argument goes. The closing sentence of the book is: “We can only hope that we don’t have the bad luck to be born into the last generation, the one that sees humanity as we have known it disappear.”

This conclusion is remarkable. Let us review. Kirsch has written a readable book intended for a broad audience on a major issue of our time: the argument that human extinction is a good thing. He believes that those advancing this position are likely to become only more influential in the coming years. He understands their vision is in some ways terrible, or at least likely to strike some people as terrible. But ultimately he cannot find solid grounds on which to reject it. His own book, then, becomes evidence for his projection of the growing influence of the extinctionist program. But evidently he remains uneasy about his conclusion, however honestly (if in my view mistakenly) he has reached it. So in the end, the best he can offer is to wish that the achievement of the goal he has effectively joined in advocating falls upon some future generation, so that “we” don’t have to face it. Or, to put the matter more plainly if less kindly, so that “we” don’t have to face the consequences of “our” own advocacy.

I’m going to call this move irresponsible. I don’t mean that in a personal sense, but closer to what Hans Jonas had in mind when he called working for the continued existence of mankind an “imperative of responsibility.” In that sense, the extinctionist program is by definition irresponsible, and I don’t see how irresponsibility toward the future will not bleed over into irresponsibility in the present. Kirsch recognizes this point; “If we knew that in, say, fifty years our entire species would disappear, all the projects that give our lives meaning would become absurd.” How much more absurd if we make human extinction a programmatic goal, even if the expiration date is extended. A global decision in favor of renunciation would take place in a world where there is still work to be done to keep the wheels turning until the happy day of our disappearance, unless a horrific mass suicide is the plan. Would not all such work seem absurd? Perhaps that is the point, for the breakdown of norms and expectations could only hasten our demise, as Arthur C. Clarke anticipated in the chilling conclusion of his novel Childhood’s End. Human extinction as a goal is not a tenable basis upon which to take responsibility for perpetuating the things that need to be perpetuated for a world of human flourishing to exist for however much longer it will exist (a project toward which much work remains to be done).

It is arguable that individual mortality contributes to a meaningful life, so why not species mortality as well? Because the meaning supplied by individual mortality is closely connected with our role as a link in the chain of generations, and because the meaning supplied by mortality is not found in death per se but in the aspiration to have lived well and to die well. To make species extinction a goal, or a fate we cannot fight, and not just some arguable reality at an unknowable date, seems unlikely to provide the same kind of meaning. We may imagine working toward an Earth with intact and diverse ecosystems that will prosper without our interference, for example, but in fact we would be working toward a situation where there would be no beings around that would have the slightest awareness of the value of this normative result. And that world would not be spared the results of the next major asteroid strike, that we (admittedly speculatively as yet) think we might avert.

No serious vision of progress could withstand the corrosive power of working toward such nothingness, whether in the form of the disappearance of human beings or the rise of superintelligences that would be incomprehensible to mere mortals like us. Kant, for example, noted that progress requires us to work toward ends we will not achieve or benefit from. This situation would be unsustainable, tragic even, were it not for the fact that our descendants will benefit, even as they make their own to some extent selfless contribution. The extinctionists are asking us to work not just for the sake of the future, but for the sake of “a future without us” — which may be no future at all, in the sense that “future” is a category of human understanding. So the obvious question becomes: what’s the point?

Why maintain or build institutions if AI is going to solve all our problems for us and then take over? And indeed, we seem to be losing the capacity to maintain institutions of government and civil society. Why build or maintain physical infrastructure, if it is just going to contribute to environmental destruction, and will in any case need to be undone? So in the United States at least, we live off the capital of achieved visions from more ambitious eras. Why be concerned with anything but short-term profit or reputation in the moment, if there is no long term? So we admire the “unicorns” and the “disruptors,” and if a surprising number of them end up in jail, well, that makes for its own kind of social media fun. And most consequentially, why have children if you think humanity has and should have no future? This question seems to be alive in many young minds already. I’m not suggesting causal relations here — the extinctionists cannot be blamed for our current ills. But if Kirsch is correct they will increasingly contribute to networks of affiliated ideas, and their consequences are already working together to our detriment.

There are also countervailing voices urging us toward a long-term perspective on humanity on Earth and in space, and advancing visions that, on their own terms anyway, promote the good of human beings across generations. But then there is Adam Kirsch, by all indications a decent and well-educated man, a poet no less, hoping to avoid having to live out the consequences of ideas he has helped to propagate. That hope is perfectly understandable, but perhaps there is a wisdom of hope as there is a wisdom of repugnance. It hardly seems wise to hope to avoid living out the consequences of one’s own professed ethical commitments, particularly when there is the option of directing one’s hope in support of doing the things it is given us to do to spare our descendants the fate of extinction, generation by generation by generation.

Charles T. Rubin, “Humanity Does Not Strike Back,” The New Atlantis, Number 73, Summer 2023, pp. 150–160.
Header image: BNA Photographic / Alamy

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