Distraction Free Reading


This anthropocene thing has really taken hold. We’re caught in the grips of extinction, visualizing our own end (or at least visualizing the data of our own end), urgently calling upon each other to act, convincing ourselves that we have the power – scientifically, technologically and maybe politically – to do something about it. We can organize marches, resurrect species, bank seeds, manipulate clouds, make videos of collapsing ice caps, drive hybrids, fly to space stations. Of course, our worry over the planet’s health is narcissistic, in the end. It’s not the planet’s survival we are worried about. It’s our own, human future.

These anthropocentric worries over human continuity make for a strange tension in the theoretical moment: they are appearing just as a range of disanthropic moves have attempted to decenter and displace the human as subject, agent, or figure: Actor-Network Theory, Post-Humanism, multi- and interspecies analytics, Object Oriented and other “ontological” turns, speculative realism and new materialism, to name a few. Despite this turn away from the human, however, the final disappearance of the species seems to mark a limit for most disanthropic theorists; few welcome the possibility of human extinction. Disanthropy yes, misanthropy no.

But perhaps misanthropy needs rethinking: perhaps it is time for a serious misanthropology. In their now famous book What is Life?, the biologist Lynn Margulis and her co-author and son Dorion Sagan revel in the productivity of the biosphere, where, with or without us, Gaia will exuberantly continue to spawn multiple life-forms. They propose not only a more expansive notion of forms of life, which would include biospheric processes, but ask us also to consider a more expansive notion of consciousness, one recognizing that “at even the most primordial level living seems to entail sensation, choosing, mind” (1995, 220). For them the biosphere as a whole is conscious; the planet is a “vast sentience.” Admittedly, humans play a crucial role in this mind, as “our technology-extended intelligence becomes part of planetary life as a whole,” forming the “brain or neural tissue of a global being.” This “global being,” however, will persist even after good old anthropos is done with. Margulis and Sagan make it clear that they are not afraid of climate change.

This is not unlike the transhumanist position of celebrating the self-evolution of humans into a non-carbon-based, superintelligent being. There, too, matter is understood as having been intelligent all along, with the human as merely a temporary instantiation. For transhumanists, the supreme unit of this evolution is information. They argue that soon this intelligence, in the form of information processing or computation, will become so vast and complex that the world itself will no longer be recognizable or predictable by us – the threshold that they call the Singularity. Ray Kurzweil is the most famous champion of this path to human obsolescence, and much has been written about his views (including by me). In his vision, if the end of humanity is a portal to greater consciousness, then we ought to celebrate that end as good in itself, without parochial anthropocentric anxieties. The goal of developing computational power, then, is not to avoid our extinction but to accelerate our obsolescence: the ultimate technofix.

The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT) has been working on its own version of misanthropy, although it springs from a slightly different set of questions: if life has intrinsic value, and if we admit to ourselves that humans have been a source of virtually unlimited damage to ourselves, to other sentient beings, and to the biosphere, is it not morally incumbent upon us to off ourselves? To end the Anthropocene, to let carbon-based life grow glorious again on its own as CO2 levels return to pre-modern levels? Would that not count as a noble death, a good sacrifice? The members of this movement are neither transhumanists nor technophiles, nor even scientists. Even though VHEMT gently encourages certain practical, minor technofixes, such as vasectomies for men, it sees itself more as a provocation for philosophical or political thought than a program of action. VHEMT’s position on the end of the human should serve to remind us that Alceste, Moliere’s misanthrope, was an outcast because he was too moral, because he couldn’t stand human hypocrisy and vanity and duplicity.

The founder of this movement, a west-coast teacher who goes by the name Les U. Knight, tells me that “the creation of one more human by anyone anywhere cannot be justified in light of the number of us dying every day and of the damage we are doing to the planet, causing other extinctions.” Instead of “passing the torch on” through procreation, we ought to just live out our lives and simply cease to exist. When I ask him whether VHEMT is a misanthropic project, though, he vehemently disagrees: “No, not at all. The way we are continuing to increase, by 220,000 a day, without caring for people who are here – a billion hungry people, poverty not being eliminated – that is misanthropic. Business as usual is misanthropic.” These conditions “cannot be changed until we disappear.” Then what? “Everything we do would no longer be done… what’s left of nature would restore itself; it would take three to ten million years for the biosphere to regain its biodiversity.” He thinks of our exit as a radical embrace of other life forms: “Instead of the anthropocentric notion of ‘what we need is more of us’, it’s the idea that what we need is more of them.” In case you were wondering (as everyone does): yes, Les U. Knight does have a vasectomy.

It is worth noting here that Les U. Knight’s imagination of a biodiverse, human-less future has already been visualized by Alan Weisman’s book and accompanying video, The World Without Us (a project suggested to him not by a marginal activist, but by an editor at the science magazine Discover). It was hugely popular, making multiple best-seller lists, including The New York Times, Time, and Entertainment Weekly (no, really).

In some ways, this fascination with a world without us is not new. What’s interesting about the current misanthropic end-time views – from the low-tech VHEMT to the super high-tech singularity, from simple extinction to heat death or cold death of the universe – is that they emerge out of science, rather than being religious left-overs. They are the outgrowth of a long discursive line in secular science that begins at least in the mid-19th century, when Rudolf Clausius, presenting his formulation of the second law of thermodynamics, declared that the universe tends inexorably towards entropy.  I think that we could go back further, though, to the original disanthropic turn: the Galilean-Copernican revolution, which knocked the earth off center at the same time as it materially (through the use of lenses and new forms of visibility) and mathematically (with new equations and understandings of planetary motion) expanded the universe, producing a radical sense of human finitude. This was picked up and articulated by Pascal, who passed it on to Schopenhauer, who turned it into anxiety, and ultimately Weber, who turned it into disenchantment. They did so as men of science, ruminating not on the eschaton but on the meaning of finitude and progress.

This post-Copernican finitude did not contain within it an explicit vision of the end times, but it in many ways set the conditions of possibility for the imaginaries and anxieties that would follow. The precise sequence, from Clausius and Lord Kelvin on, would be worth mapping. For now, it’s interesting to note that the worry over the heat death of the universe preceded, though not by much, worries over extinction; indeed, the two worries may not be so easily extricable: as Gillian Beer argues, they seemed to go hand in hand in Victorian society. Darwin himself, who in the Origin of Species speculated on the evolution of humans into new forms that would not be recognizable as human, seemed to be distraught over the eventual meaningless disappearance of all of it. In his Autobiography, he wrote: “Believing as I do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is, it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long continued slow progress” (2003, 433).

Much of the general anxiety of the age was conceptually routed through entropy, a concept that spread from H.G. Wells to Freud, and which runs “like a leitmotiv through turn-of-the-century cultural formations,” as Katherine Hayles puts it (2008, 101).  Bertrand Russell was not atypical in holding the belief, in 1903, “…that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.” (1953, 107).

This existential lament of science and scientists continued through the 20th century, with entropy rearing its despairing head in biology as in physics and cybernetics. In 1943, Norbert Wiener wrote that “we are swimming upstream against a great torrent of disorganization, which tends to reduce everything to the heat death of equilibrium and sameness” (in Browder 1966, 27). Indeed, the cybernetic version of teleology, in which information becomes a way of thinking about increasing order in the universe, must be understood as emerging within this context. The Nobel Prize-winning French biologist Jacques Monod, while maintaining that God had been utterly refuted by science, could still rehearse an old Pascalian terror: “The ancient covenant is in pieces: Man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance” (1970, 180). As the 20th century progressed, science would produce and recognize a panoply of potential scenarios of end-times chaos, from nuclear warfare, man-made biological agents, emergent diseases, asteroid collisions and runaway grey goo. Today, these eschatological agents are grouped together under the category of “existential risks” and analyzed incessantly by transhumanist philosophers and organizations such as The Lifeboat Foundation.

Science and technology, not religion, seem to have provided the most fertile ground for the proliferation of end-time scenarios; indeed, concrete end-time scenarios may be as endemic or indigenous to science and technology as hope and hype. This makes good sense in light of Foucault’s argument that finitude was the very condition of modern scientific knowledge. The terror peculiar to scientific end-times is also different from the terror of other apocalyptic visions: there is no promise of a transcendent redemption or salvation. If there is to be a way out from our exit, it can only be the product of the human and technoscientific forces that are causing that exit to begin with.

So perhaps it is unsurprising that there have been an increasing number of attempts from within science to rescue humans and the universe from their existential quagmire, to give them a teleological narrative – however much this runs up against what Freeman Dyson called “one of the most firmly entrenched taboos of twentieth-century science,” namely, the taboo on imputing purpose and values to the universe. Dyson himself has long been involved in this project, starting with the declaration of his desire, in Reviews of Modern Physics no less, “to hasten the arrival of the day when eschatology, the study of the end of the universe, will be a respectable scientific discipline” (1996 [1979], 529). Dyson’s project was to make the emergence of value, consciousness, and purpose in the universe thinkable and within the horizon of physics – for which one would have to assume an open, not closed, universe: “If my view of the future is correct, it means that the world of physics and astronomy is also inexhaustible; no matter how far we go into the future, there will always be new things happening, new information coming in, new worlds to explore, a constantly expanding domain of life, consciousness, and memory” (542). Dyson is far from alone, here, as attested to by the currency of the anthropic cosmological principle and the emergence of theories that make mind or consciousness a fundamental feature of matter and the universe.

Today, science toggles between entropy and creativity as dominant narratives for understanding the future of the cosmos. The probability of life and consciousness in the universe, as well as its demise on our planet, is now subject to scientific rationality: given the conditions of the universe, the development of complexity into life and consciousness was inevitable, in which case of course there likely are others like us and our rock out there. Or perhaps it is the complete converse: it was ridiculously impossible, and this weird Rare Earth is doomed to disappear as meaninglessly and singularly as it appeared. Everything is fine-tuned for our type, or everything is hostile to our type. In the scientific imaginary, the universe is either anthropic or misanthropic.

Perhaps a careful investigation of the misanthropic futures out there today will show them to be the rehearsed amplifications of a scientifically established finitude, a worry produced by and repeated through science. I do not want to imply that the threat of anthropogenic climate change (or for that matter, of asteroid collisions and the sun extinguishing) are imagined and not real. Rather, I’m committed to understanding the form that these scenarios take as part of a discourse internal to science and the secular; these visions of the end times mobilize a historically particular sort of despair, and invoke specific reactions. A misanthropology would trace such histories, compare their different units and scales of value (the continuity of the species, the biosphere, mind, life, nothing at all), and ultimately test the limits of the current turn away from the human. After all, several disanthropologists I spoke to reacted to VHEMT by saying things like “that’s just terrible” or “they’re just crazy.” Faced with the hard limit of a human-less future, a few even quietly confessed: “I guess I’m a humanist.”

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