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Question of the Month
How Will Humanity End?
Each answer below receives a book. Apologies to the many entrants not included.
The question can be thought of in at least two different ways: (1) How will humans die out?, or (2) How will the characteristics that make us human cease to exist? Humanity ends not only if there are no more people, but also if the traits that define us as ‘humans’ disappear.
Humans have brought about the extinction of innumerable species, and most of this has been inadvertent, a byproduct of our success, or if you prefer, our carelessness. So it seems reasonable to suggest that if humanity ends, the cause will be humans themselves. We can handle almost anything else. The biologist Edward O. Wilson noted that we’re endowed with a Paleolithic brain but godlike technology. That’s a scary combination, and it means one can point to nuclear war, bioterror, or climate change as prominent possible human causes of human extinction.
On the one hand, these human threats to humanity seem indisputable, and arguably present an ever-increasing existential threat. That’s why some futurists see the colonization of the Moon or of other planets as essential to ensuring the survival of our species. On the other hand, even if one or more of these threats were to eliminate 99.9 percent of our species, there would still be eight million of us. That would be disastrous, but it would not end humanity. Even if a threat eliminated 99.999 percent, there would still be almost a hundred thousand of us still alive to reproduce and once again begin taking over the world.
The bigger threat to humanity arguably comes from our ability to change ourselves. I will not even attempt to conclude whether the changes brought about by our ability to control DNA, or by artificial intelligence, or by brain chip technology, etc., will, on the whole, be positive or negative. They could be either or both; but the changes will most likely come very quickly. Artificial selection turned wolves into dogs over thousands of years, but our godlike technology could turn our species into something as different from today’s humans as a Chihuahua is from a wolf in just a century or two (if that). Maybe it’s my stone-age brain that fears the unknown, but I would rather be a wolf than a Fido; and rather be an early twenty-first century human than the domesticated twenty-third century quasi-human being that could emerge from today’s humans.
Howard Landis, Naples, Florida
Is this the ultimate existential question? Despite much current doom-mongering about global warming and the effects of AI, only vague theorising on how human life will end is possible. How humanity develops, and therefore what factors will become relevant to its end, cannot be foreseen. The Sun still has five billion years or so before becoming a red giant, and we will then become extinct – unless of course in the meantime space travel has allowed other planets to have been reached and colonised.
Homo sapiens is the planet’s dominant species. Arguably, however, we are now at such a stage of technological development that traditional evolutionary drivers such as competition for resources and reproductive rights are no longer applicable as such. Internally generated existential threats such as nuclear weapons or and external threats such as asteroid impact could annihilate such a high proportion of Earth’s population that only small isolated pockets of humanis were left. The previous evolutionary drivers would become applicable again with human populations increasing to the point when the indirect results of this process can be applied equally for good (health, medicine, conservation of resources, individual equality) reasons as for bad (military confrontation, control of resources). Thus human development may be cyclical.
On the other hand, a really big asteroid striking could extinguish not just humanity, but all life on Earth. Then the whole process of the development of life might, eventually, start all over again. There’s no guarantee that an intelligent humanoid species would evolve again; but with up to five billion years left there would be plenty of time. If a new type of self-aware species developed, evolutionary drivers might take it in a direction in which equilibrium with the global environment was more favoured. Equally though they might not. So, will humanity end as a species if or when it loses its humanity?
Lindsay Dannatt, Amesbury, Wiltshire
I asked an AI the question. It listed natural disasters, but also named itself as a possible cause of our demise. However, it also said that humanity could prevent it. I suggest the AI has identified our weakness: we are unable to prevent it. There is a fault in human nature: the inability of humans to challenge our beliefs or rationalise our prejudices. This aspect of humanity will be the cause of our demise. Humanity cannot evolve fast enough to keep pace with the rapid changes we have created in our society and technology.
In the 1970s, three books set the scene for the future. Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, predicting environmental disaster. In 1971 Alvin Toffler wrote Future Shock, in which he highlighted the inability of humanity to cope with the rapid changes in society and technology. In 1972, the Club of Rome ran computer simulations of the world’s economic and environmental issues and produced a report, The Limits to Growth, which gave an uncompromising challenge to world leaders to work together to avert the predicted breakdown. Despite recent updates, the predicted timescale of the collapse of the world’s social and economic systems, at around 2050, has not moved.
Given that the necessity worldwide action was fully predicted by 1972, the failure of international bodies to take heed of the warnings thus far bodes badly for meaningful change happening. If we combine this with the recent pandemic, present global financial instability, increased environmental disasters, wars, and political division, the probability of a globally coherent action plan is even less likely. Instead, more is spent on improving weaponry than on saving the world. In the words of Slavoj Žižek, 'Humanity is OK, but 99% of people are boring idiots'. It is with this inherent flaw that our AI technology will likely be programmed to end humanity’s dominance in the world rather than help prevent humanity’s end. The end of humanity therefore will be caused by the evolution of our technical ingenuity outpacing our intellectual ability to control it. Or, put more concisely, by our stupidity.
Richard Tod, Desborough
There could be natural ends to humanity, such as a super volcano or an asteroid. But the greater likelihood is through anthropogenic causes like climate change, resource depletion, and food shortages brought on by the rampant destructiveness of capitalism. Two centuries of industrialization and rapid economic growth have led to massive greenhouse gas release into the atmosphere. The core ideology of capitalism is to convince people that the aesthetic qualities of life are enhanced not by an appreciation of nature but by rampant consumerism. But consumerism and climate change are causing environmental degradation, pollution, desertification, the loss of food production, supply chain failure, the destruction of animal habitats and animal species, disease, and migration due to geopolitical instabilities and dislocation. Meanwhile the blame for climate change is disassociated from consumer culture by propaganda implying that the value of everything lies in its potential for commodification. To a typical global corporation, the exchange value of consumer goods is of more consequence than the planet. Capitalist ideology portrays a planet that is disposable and has a price. Deciding what is sacred is left to the bottom-line calculus.
Present capitalism requires the assumption that the atmosphere is capable of absorbing endless emissions of greenhouse gases while providing endless sources of clean water, air, arable soil, and other irreplaceable resources. But the truth that the planet cannot be replaced exposes the lie to the premise of limitless resources. Climate change denial shows the self-contradictory nature of capitalism, which requires this denial for the continuation of the system. This self-contradiction will lead to the destruction of capitalism itself. So capitalism is a death cult. The tipping point of catastrophe among complex natural systems from global temperatures rising above 1.5ºC is moving ever nearer, and with it the impossibility of reversal.
What is surprising is the complacent response of a supposedly intelligent species to climate change. Other species take avoidance actions when confronted with impending threats. Our great intelligence now works against us. Convincing yourself that climate change is not as bad as scientists say, together with the never-ending media bread-and-circuses consumerist charade, may yet lead humanity to its own destruction.
Robert Oldfield, Harlech, Gwynedd
My iPad is over a decade old and not too well. There’s no email access. Should I buy a new device?
Technology has solved many problems for the human race, not just communications, but simply our survival. For example, the production of modern fertilisers increasing food supply for a growing global population proved Malthus incorrect – not to mention what hydrocarbon technology has done concerning the logistics of food. But technology could also be the end of us all.
The raw materials required in manufacturing, say, computer chips, are of course not infinite. I suspect China wants control of the much smaller landmass of Taiwan because it’s rich in rare earth metals. The US has been triggered into rivalry which could draw it into war with China for control of Taiwan. Could it become a nuclear war? At the bottom of all the political talk and excuses for territorial rights is greed fuelled by human desire for more and more stuff. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is usually presented as territorial, but is it more about resources – food being one? But the war is damaging the land, and if nuclear weapons are used further damage will result, wounding the planet and threatening human survival. In the words of the lay philosopher Private Fraser [from Dad’s Army], could we all be ‘Doomed’? We need a population-wide knowledge of what’s happening to our planet and the will to change where we possibly can, or we may become extinct. ‘Ubunta’ is a South African word meaning we are all connected. Those of us who are living more comfortably are going to be increasingly affected by places more damaged.
I began by asking if I should buy a new device. If I do I’m buying into the planet’s problems. So, will I take the very human trajectory of a 30 minute drive in my petrol car to the Apple shop, with the lovely excuse I’m saving paper, and buy a new iPad or not?
Kristine Kerr, Gourock, Renfrewshire
It would take a major catastrophe to kill literally everyone. Looking far into the future, the Sun will eventually swell and swallow the Earth. Even if humanity has made it to other star systems or other galaxies by then, the heat death of the universe will eventually do us in. But will something wipe us out before then? Some cosmic disasters could do this: a large-enough asteroid, or a nearby supernova or gamma-ray burster, to name a few. But all very large asteroids are tracked, and there are no warning signs of the other threats.
The immediate danger is from home-grown disaster. There are plenty to choose from: climate heating, pollution (microplastics, ocean acidification), resource depletion, ecosystem collapse (bees, corals). Individually, these might lead to a collapse of civilisation, but would leave at least some survivors. Furthermore, by collapsing civilisation they would arrest the effects driving them. The terminal threat is that of reinforcing effects of different processes, or of a positive feedback loop developing; for example, melting permafrost releasing methane. These might have truly catastrophic results such as runaway heating or deoxygenation. If these were to happen, no billionaire’s bolthole in New Zealand would be safe.
Some evidence that we are doomed to an early demise is provided by the Fermi Paradox. This isn’t really a paradox so much as a question, posed by the physicist Enrico Fermi. Given the immense age and size of the universe, the Earth should have already been visited by extraterrestrial civilizations, or at least their probes. So, Fermi asked , ‘Where is everybody?’ One plausible answer is that once a species appears that can learn to use its planet’s resource capital, it inevitably burns through it or fatally abuses it before it can evolve the intelligence to stop, like throwing a lit match onto an open barrel of petrol. That might just be the way things go when our cleverness passes a threshold that overtakes our wisdom.
Paul Western, Bath
For Robert Frost the possibilities were alternatively ice or fire; and these cold or fiery cataclysms seem all too prescient. Spectral horsemen compete for our nightmares. The fevered heat of a pandemic, or the tumult of a super-volcano. The slow annihilation of climate degradation, or flash of multiple mushroom clouds. Or shall we build our assassins in the workshops of artificial minds, whose lofty and pitiless contempt will push us aside? Or like the dinosaurs, will a growing shadow in the heavens extinguish our (much briefer) reign? The odds of us escaping this posse of pursuing wraiths seem slim. However, I believe that, against the odds, humans will live on well past the end of humanity.
This is not a semantic dodge, but a major concern of philosophy, since humanity is not simply defined by our biology. Instead, humanity is the carapace that separates and shields us from the community of the animals, and from mere objects.
In Ecclesiastes, the human animal is presented as engaged in vain and pointless fretting over the accumulation of objects, empty of meaning, and God provides the redeeming meaning which salvages humanity. But what remains when belief, and even disbelief, are gone? Hegel and Marx attempted to fill the chasm with systems of progress toward some future triumph. Kant tried to enthrone the rational mind as a builder of worlds through categorical rules. These projects will be seen as the last hurrah of humanity.
Kierkegaard predicted that the world might end with the audience laughing as a frantic clown implores them to leave the burning theatre. Later, Camus observed that the ‘absurd’ had become the sensibility of his times. Although the existentialists urged us to embrace the void and build some purpose in the insubstantial moment, the path was laid and the end was already creeping like vines around our ankles. For we are not supermen, nor were we meant to be. The noble project begins to crumble in a world of numbers and ceaseless algorithms, where art becomes a game and consciousness a recording. The long weary age begins. The stars recede, not from view, but from meaning. In a grey landscape, the tedious age of humans without humanity begins.
John Gibbs, Pattishall
Let us define ‘Humanity’ as the set of Homo sapiens. So the end of humanity will mean death of all living Homo sapiens, either on Earth or anywhere else. First let us look at some commonly perceived possibilities. A world war in which nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons will be used can never be ruled out. However, completely wiping out the human race in this way appears to be too far-fetched. Complete elimination of mankind through any world wars is therefore ruled out. Getting hit by a huge asteroid, large tsunamis, or earthquakes etc. is possible, but with the advancement of science, predictions of such events are becoming increasingly accurate. Preventive actions would therefore be possible and humanity will not end this way. Although artificial intelligence is developing at an exponential rate, a complete destruction of mankind by AI is also ruled out due to more and more nations are taking up regulations for AI. A self-evolving AI system which will develop a liking for speciescidal violence is highly unlikely.
Humans being the most intelligent species, we will make the best use of developing science with a focus on achieving immortality. We already have pacemakers, artificial limbs, hearing aids, and the like. It is therefore likely that in not very far a future, many parts of our bodies will be artificial, including the vital organs like lungs or hearts. In a strict sense the resultant people will not be humans, but rather humanoids, specifically, cyborgs. We may conclude that the process of evolution will continue, and that humans will evolve into humanoids. In this way, mankind will never come to an end.
Anil Kulshrestha, Noida, Uttar Pradesh
Humanity must end when the Sun runs out of nuclear fuel in about 5 billion years and expands, to engulf our planet. But we will probably die off well before that; for instance, in about 1.5 billion years, when the steadily increasing Sun’s radiation becomes too much for life on Earth to cope with when the oceans evaporate and the atmosphere is stripped away. But the Earth will become inhabitable long before. The only hope for humanity is to relocate well before then to a habitable planet outside the Solar System.
Yet if we ignore or disbelieve this scientific (and rather depressing) reality about the literal end of the planet, the wording of the question is curious, as it seems to assume that it’s inevitable humanity will end one way or another. I disagree with this assumption. Humans have nearly become extinct at least five times, but still we persist, often in precarious circumstances. We are nothing if not resilient. Asteroids, ice ages, natural disasters, world wars, famine, nuclear weapons, overpopulation, or pandemics have not managed to wipe us out so far. For you to exist today, all of your ancestors, going back, well, four billion years, had to be sufficiently healthy and smart (or lucky) to avoid death to live long enough to reproduce. Climate change is cited as the largest threat to humanity, along with unprecedented population growth and imminent potential food scarcity. Call me naive, but I believe we will find ways to largely overcome these threats. While it’s more dramatic (and popular, it seems) to be part of the doomsday ‘we’re going to hell in a hand basket’ brigade, I would argue that this pessimism is not warranted. As an example of what can be achieved when we pull together for a common goal, look at how quickly scientists produced the Covid vaccine. Going back much farther, Homo sapiens managed to inhabit and thrive in all the corners of the globe, in a wide variety of brutal climatic conditions, and in the face of constant threats to survival. Of course it’s easy to point out all the ways industrialisation is harming the planet, the inequalities and social injustices many face, the long history of human conflicts, and feel pessimistic about humanity. But problem-solving and co-operating is something we’re pretty good at. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t still be here. Hope is one of the characteristics that differentiates us from the lower animals. We need to nurture it.
Rose Dale, Floreat, Western Australia
Next Question of the Month
The next question is: What Are The Limits of Knowledge? Please give and justify your answer in less than 400 words. The prize is a semi-random book from our book mountain. Email the Editor. Subject lines should be marked ‘Question of the Month’, and must be received by 16th Oct 2023. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your physical address.