There appears to be a lot of concern about extinctions nowadays -everything from spotted owls to indigenous languages pepper the list. Things around us that we took for granted seem to be disappearing before we even get to know or appreciate them. One has to wonder whether this is accompanied by furtive, yet anxious, glances in the mirror each morning.
Extinction. I wonder what it would be like -or can we even imagine it? If we could, then presumably we’re not extinct, of course, but our view of history is necessarily a short one. Oral traditions aside, we can only confidently access information from the onset of written accounts; many extinctions require a longer time-frame to detect… although, perhaps even that is changing as we become more aware of the disappearance of less threatening -less obvious- species. Given our obsessive proclivity for expanding our knowledge, someone somewhere is bound to have studied issues that have simply not occurred to the rest of us.
And yet, it’s one thing to comment on the absence of Neanderthals amongst us and tut-tut about their extinction, but yet another to fail to fully appreciate the profound changes in climate that are gradually occurring. Could the same fate that befell Neanderthals be forecasting our own demise -a refashioning of the Cassandra myth for our self-declared Anthropocene?
It would not be the first time we failed to see our own noses, though, would it? For all our perceived sophistication, we often forget the ragged undergarments of hubris we hide beneath our freshly-laundered clothes.
Religion has long hinted at our ultimate extinction, of course -especially the Christian one with which those of us in the West are most familiar- with its talk of End-of-Days. But, if you think more closely about it, this is predicted to occur at the end of Time; extinction, on the other hand, occurs -as with, say, the dinosaurs- within Time. After all, we are able to talk about it, measure its extent, and determine how long ago it happened.
And yet, for most of us, I suspect, the idea of extinction of our own species is not inextricably linked to our own demise. Yes, each of us will cease to exist at some point, but our children will live on after us -and their children, too. And so on for a long, long time. It is enough to think that since we are here, our children will continue on when we are not. Our species is somehow different than our own progeny…
Darwin, and the subsequent recognition of the evolutionary pressures that favour the more successfully adapted no doubt planted some concerns, but an essay in Aeon by Thomas Moynihan (who completed his PhD at Oxford), set the issue of Extinction in a more historical context for me, however. https://aeon.co/essays/to-imagine-our-own-extinction-is-to-be-able-to-answer-for-it
Moynihan believes that only after the Enlightenment (generally attributed to the philosophical movement between the late 17th to the 19th century) did the idea of human extinction become an issue for consideration. ‘It was the philosopher Immanuel Kant who defined ‘Enlightenment’ itself as humanity’s assumption of self-responsibility. The history of the idea of human extinction is therefore also a history of enlightening. It concerns the modern loss of the ancient conviction that we live in a cosmos inherently imbued with value, and the connected realisation that our human values would not be natural realities independently of our continued championing and guardianship of them.’
But, one may well ask, why was there no serious consideration of human extinction before then? It would appear to be related to what the American historian of ideas, Arthur Lovejoy, has called the Principle of Plenitude that seemed to have been believed in the West since the time of Aristotle right up until the time of Leibniz (who died in 1716): things as they are, could be no other way. It would be meaningless to think of any species (even human) not continuing to exist, because they were meant to exist. Period. I am reminded -as I am meant to be- of Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide and the uncritical espousal of Leibniz’ belief that they were all living in ‘the best of all possible worlds’ -despite proof to the contrary.
I realize that in our current era, this idea seems difficult to accept, but Moynihan goes on to list several historical examples of the persistence of this type of thinking -including those that led ‘Thomas Jefferson to argue, in 1799, in the face of mounting anatomical evidence to the contrary, that specimens such as the newly unearthed Mammuthus or Megalonyx represented species still extant and populous throughout the unexplored regions of the Americas.’
Still, ‘A related issue obstructed thinking on human extinction. This was the conviction that the cosmos itself is imbued with value and justice. This assumption dates back to the roots of Western philosophy… Where ‘being’ is presumed inherently rational, reason cannot itself cease ‘to be’… So, human extinction could become meaningful (and thus a motivating target for enquiry and anticipation) only after value was fully ‘localised’ to the minds of value-mongering creatures.’ Us, in other words.
And, of course, the emerging findings in geology and archeology helped to increase our awareness of the transience of existence. So too, ‘the rise of demography [the statistical analysis of human populations] was a crucial factor in growing receptivity to our existential precariousness because demography cemented humanity’s awareness of itself as a biological species.’
Having set the stage, Moynihan’s argument is finally ready: ‘And so, given new awareness of the vicissitude of Earth history, of our precarious position within it as a biological species, and of our wider placement within a cosmic backdrop of roaming hazards, we were finally in a position to become receptive to the prospect of human extinction. Yet none of this could truly matter until ‘fact’ was fully separated from ‘value’. Only through full acceptance that the Universe is not itself inherently imbued with value could ‘human extinction’ gain the unique moral stakes that pick it out as a distinctive concept.’
And interestingly, it was Kant who, as he aged, became ‘increasingly preoccupied with the prospect of human extinction… During an essay on futurology, or what he calls ‘predictive history’, Kant’s projections upon humanity’s perfectibility are interrupted by the plausibility of an ‘epoch of natural revolution which will push aside the human race… Kant himself characteristically defined enlightening as humanity’s undertaking of self-responsibility: and human rationality assumes culpability for itself only to the exact extent that it progressively spells out the stakes involved… This means that predicting increasingly severe threats is part and parcel of our progressive and historical assumption of accountability to ourselves.’
So, I don’t see this recognition of the possibility of human extinction as a necessarily bad thing. The more we consider the prospect of our disappearance, the more we become motivated to do something about it. Or, as Moynihan points out, ‘The story of the discovery of our species’ precariousness is also the story of humanity’s progressive undertaking of responsibility for itself. One is only responsible for oneself to the extent that one understands the risks one faces and is thereby motivated to mitigate against them.’ That’s what the Enlightenment was all about: humanity’s assumption of self-responsibility.
Maybe there is still hope for us… well, inshallah.