Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, reading group, or Commonweal Local Community? Click here for a free discussion guide.
In The Revolt against Humanity, Adam Kirsch observes that as long as humans are around, life on earth is in trouble. In view of rapid anthropogenic climate change and other threats humans have posed to plants and other animals, Kirsch wonders whether our species can any longer justify its presence on our planet. He does not answer the question himself, but his readable survey of recent antihumanist environmentalism and adventurous transhumanism gives rise to an uncomfortable thought: perhaps now is the right time to let humanity perish from the earth for the sake of the rest of life.
How, I want to ask here, may contemporary Christian thought respond to such a proposal? Christians have previously been taught that humanity is not just one species of life among others. We are uniquely created in God’s image, called to be stewards of creation, but endowed with freedom to do wrong as well as right. To save life on earth, including human life, we need to pull away from our wasteful abuse and follow our true calling to care for the nonhuman natural world. We need to get rid of our sins, not ourselves.
Kirsch’s book provokes us to think anew about humanity’s place in nature. In addition to contemplating the antihumanist solution, the author considers another way of “revolting” against humanity: contemporary transhumanism. Current scientific developments in the fields of biochemistry, robotics, nanotechnology, information science, artificial intelligence, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience seem to promise unprecedented new offshoots of humanity. Perhaps we don’t need to get rid of human beings; perhaps it is enough to transform them into more durable and portable vessels of rationality, the kind of creatures who do not depend on a planet we may have damaged beyond repair.
First, though, let’s consider the antihumanists. As a Christian theologian with a long interest in science and theology, what strikes me most about the antihumanist recommendations is their avoidance of a cosmological point of view. Their ideas are narrowly earth-centered, biological, and geological. After Einstein, scientifically educated people must acknowledge that the journey of life on earth is part of a much longer epic, that of a whole universe coming into being. The four-billion-year-long journey of life and the much shorter period of human existence are part of an immensely long, and still unfinished, cosmic drama. The universe is an epic of awakening whose massive spatial and temporal dimensions we began to learn about only in the past century. After Einstein, I suggest, the antihumanists should reexamine their schemes by taking a more panoramic, cosmic point of view. What would they see?
The new scientific story of cosmic awakening tells us that after ten billion years, matter became complex enough that what we call life began to stir on at least one planet in our average-sized galaxy. With the arrival of life, the universe—at least on earth—began playing host to something unprecedented: the interior experience of organisms striving and struggling. Starting around 541 million years ago the embers of life on earth billowed into increasingly more complex organisms, some of them eventually endowed with sentience, subjectivity, and ever wider patterns of awareness. With each new advance in life’s complexity, the element of striving and struggling intensified. So did the prospect of failure and tragedy. The universe had become dramatic.
Then, with the more recent arrival of humans, the universe gave birth to “thought.” A conscious and self-reflective species came into cosmic history (starting around three hundred thousand years ago on earth) and began hunting large animals and taking over local environments—all in what Charles Darwin called the struggle for existence. Endowed with the capacity to see, understand, seek truth, and aspire to goodness and beauty, this thinking species has also damaged, wasted, and destroyed life along the way.
So yes, our human presence here has been problematic. By welcoming the extinction of our species, however, antihumanists are not simply offering a strange new solution to ecological calamity. They are also severing thought from the long cosmic drama of awakening life, a remarkable story to which their own ethical sensibility is also contributing. In the phenomenon of thought and moral aspiration, something of undeniable value has come into the universe. The discovery of deep time—in which we learn that evolution’s most precious outcomes take millions and even billions of years—is one of the great achievements of scientific thought. But for many thoughtful people today, including Kirsch’s antihumanists, deep time is a vast emptiness. For them, the improbable arrival of self-conscious minds in cosmic history is a lonely blossoming in a desert, soon to be blown away. The universe does not really need to carry the disruptive burden of thought any longer. Let it go, and everything may improve.
The antihumanist intuition that life and the universe will be better off without us is not entirely new. It can claim the backing of ancient and modern myths according to which our most distinctive traits—self-awareness and the capacity to reason—have never fully belonged to the cosmos anyway. It may be seen as no great loss to the universe, then, if the thinking species just vanishes for good.