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Arthur O. Lovejoy’s 1936 book, The Great Chain of Being, tells the story of a remarkably durable conception of humanity’s place in the cosmos. Imagine every mineral, plant, and animal arrayed vertically, from least to greatest. Humans stand at the top, followed by other sentient beings, then plants, and, finally, the rocks and soil that support the whole. Some thinkers have interpreted this hierarchy as man’s dominion over earth, justifying all manner of depredations of the living world. Catholic social thought has emphasized a duty of stewardship, particularly in Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’. The Chain of Being admits of both interpretations, encapsulating both hierarchy and interconnectedness. As Lovejoy shows, it is a capacious metaphor, embraced by very different thinkers in very different times to contemplate ultimate questions.
Both modernity and postmodernity have undermined this metaphor. David Hume saw our reason as little more than a servant of our passions—the kind of irrational appetites and aversions we share with other animals. In the work of Darwin, Dennett, and Dawkins, the human appears less as the apex of nature than as one of myriad possible outcomes of blind evolutionary struggle. On this view, the planet could just as easily have been dominated by cockroaches or crabs. Despite the refinements of civilization, psychologists affirm the enduring influence of our “lizard-brain” limbic system. Meanwhile, what were once deemed lasting cultural achievements now appear, from some postmodern perspectives, as little more than a matter of taste, itself as contingent as the evolution of humans. These intellectual currents have coalesced around a posthumanist consensus on the exhaustion of “the human” as a normative category: it no longer provides reliable guidance on what we ought to do as ethical, political, or social beings.
Adam Kirsch’s The Revolt Against Humanity tours a variety of posthumanist worldviews, ranging from “dark ecology” to transhumanism. In the antihumanist environmentalism of dark ecology, we are culpable for having destroyed too much nature already, and incapable of conserving what remains. The dark ecologists despair of coordinated climate action, and also doubt that we’re capable of any effective defense against other threats arising from the Anthropocene, such as future pandemics. Some even welcome the imminent extinction of human beings and celebrate the endurance of an earth without us.
Kirsch ably contrasts this fatalist creed with transhumanism’s immortalist plan for superhuman self-improvement. For transhumanists, human bodies and brains as we know them are just too fragile, especially when compared with machines. “Wetware” transhumanists envision a future of infinite replacement organs for failing bodies, and brains jacked into the internet’s infinite vistas of information. “Hardware” transhumanism wants to skip the body altogether and simply upload the mind into computers. AIs and robots will, they assume, enjoy indefinite supplies of replacement parts and backup memory chips. Imagine Westworld’s Dolores, embodied in endless robot guises, “enminded” in chips as eternal as stars.
Kirsch worries that eco-antihumanism and tech-driven transhumanism are poised to ensnare even well-meaning persons in a baleful rejection of the human. It is indeed possible that new media will push these now-marginal viewpoints toward mainstream acceptance, just as they have so often promoted anti-vax nonsense. But both antihumanism and transhumanism are also susceptible to critical thinking, and that should prove resilient over time.
The worldview of dark ecologists is relatively easy to refute. Failures to arrest global warming, or to respect biodiversity in an equitable manner, are contingent. They are political failures; they are not determined by human biology. Skillful politicians and cultural leaders can change minds. There have already been enormous technological advances toward affordable green energy. Wilderness reserves are a proven preservation tactic, and wise governments will invest more in them. If we expand existing nature preserves, we might eventually move toward a respect for biodiversity that enables a high percentage of present species to persevere, bothered only by the occasional ecotourist or nature documentarist.
The transhumanist challenge is more difficult to answer, because of the varied and overlapping efficiencies that advanced computation now offers. A law firm cannot ignore ChatGPT; not only can it automate simple administrative tasks now, but it may also become a powerful research tool in the future. Militaries feel pressed to invest in AI because technology vendors promise it will upend current balances of power. Even tech critics have Substacks, X (formerly Twitter) accounts, and Facebook pages, and they are all subject to the algorithms that determine whether they have one, a hundred, or a million readers. In each case, persons with little choice but to use AI systems are donating more and more data to advance the effectiveness of AI, thus constraining their future options even more. “Mandatory adoption” is a familiar dynamic: it was much easier to forgo a flip phone in the 2000s than it is to avoid carrying a smartphone today. The more data any AI system gathers, the more it becomes a “must-have” in its realm of application.