Interested in discussing this article in your classroom, parish, reading group, or Commonweal Local Community? Click here for a free discussion guide.
Adam Kirsch’s examination of “Anthropocene antihumanism” and “transhumanism”—two quite different ways of revolting against humanity and welcoming the end of human life as we know it—is readable, informative, and bracing. Nonetheless, it ends not with a bang but a whimper, suggesting that even a true humanism might have to welcome, albeit sorrowfully, a world in which human beings no longer exist. Perhaps, however, before endorsing a prescription of species-suicide we should at least consider what insight Christian faith might offer.
Kirsch’s concluding chapter is titled “The Sphere of Spiritual Warfare.” And he is, in fact, depicting what might almost be called competing religious views. According to antihumanists, our species has exploited and despoiled the natural world, and our “disappearance would be a net benefit to life on earth.” The best thing we could do is to stop giving birth to others like us. Transhumanists, with their technocratic confidence in scientific progress, might at first seem to be the polar opposite of antihumanists. But not really. Their goal is to get beyond the limits of the body, tied as it is to organic life, and then experience a “virtual” existence, having uploaded to a computer the pattern of information that is one’s brain. If there is a sense in which this approach hopes for a continued existence, it is no longer what we normally think of as human existence. Hence, Kirsch writes, beginning from very different premises, “transhumanists and antihumanists could converge on an ideal of extinction, with rapacious humanity making way for wiser virtual beings who tread more lightly on the planet.”
From the perspective of either of these two seemingly different yet converging views, what is the real problem with the continued existence of our species? In a word: birth. The transhumanists have a vision of virtual human nature that makes it unnecessary. The antihumanists hope for a human destiny that will exclude it. In her poem “The Risk of Birth,” Madeleine L’Engle captures the despair of what Kirsch calls Anthropocene antihumanism and the gnostic dream hidden beneath the desire of transhumanism to slip the bonds that tie us to organic, bodily life.
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
What, if anything, can we set over against such a reluctance to give birth, to commit ourselves not just to the continuation of “intelligent life,” but to the survival of Homo sapiens in particular?