Attitudes to human extinction

Hunam extinction

Attitudes to human extinction vary widely depending on beliefs concerning spiritual survival (souls, heaven, reincarnation, and so forth), the value of the human species, whether the human species evolves individually or collectively, and many other factors. Many religions prophesy an “end times” to the universe. Human extinction is therefore a part of the faith of many humans to the extent that the end time means the absolute end of their physical humanity but perhaps not an eternal soul.

However not all faiths connect human extinction to the end times, since some believe in cyclical regeneration, or that end times actually means the beginning of a new kind of existence.

Perception of human extinction risk

The general level of fear about human extinction, in the near term, is very low, despite the pronouncements of some fringe groups. It is not an outcome considered by many as a credible risk. Suggested reasons for human extinction’s low public visibility:

  1. There have been countless prophecies of extinction throughout history; in all cases the predicted date of doom has passed without much notice, making future warnings less frightening. However, a survivor bias would undercut the credibility of accurate extinction warnings. John von Neumann was probably wrong in having “a certainty” that nuclear war would occur; but our survival is not proof that the chance of a fatal nuclear exchange was low (or indeed that such an event could not occur in the future).
  2. Extinction scenarios (see below) are speculative, and hard to quantify. A frequentist approach to probability cannot be used to assess the danger of an event that has never been observed by humans.
  3. Nick Bostrom, head of the James Martin 21st Century School Future of Humanity Institute, has suggested that extinction risk-analysis may be an overlooked field because it is both too psychologically troublesome a subject area to be attractive to potential researchers and because the lack of previous human species extinction events leads a depressed view of the likelihood of it happening under changing future circumstances (an ‘inverse survivorship bias’).
  4. There are thousands of public safety jobs dedicated to analyzing and reducing the risks of individual death. There are no full-time existential safety commissioners partly because there is no way to tell if they are doing a good job, and no way to punish them for failure. The inability to judge performance might also explain the comparative governmental apathy on preventing human extinction (as compared to panda extinction, say).
  5. Some anthropologists believe that risk perception is biased by social structure; in the “Cultural Theory of risk” typography “individualist” societies predispose members to the belief that nature operates as a self-correcting system, which will return to its stable state after a disturbance. People in such cultures feel comfortable with a “trial-and-error” approach to risk, even to unsuitably rare dangers (such as extinction events).
  6. It is possible to do something about dietary or motor-vehicle health threats. Since it is much harder to know how existential threats should be minimized, they tend to be ignored. High technology societies tend to become “hierarchist” or “fatalist” in their attitudes to the ever-multiplying risks threatening them. In either case, the average member of society adopts a passive attitude to risk minimization, culturally, and psychologically.
  7. The bias in popular culture is to relate extinction scenario stories with non-extinction outcomes. (None of the 16 ‘most notable’ WW3 scenarios in film are resolved by human extinction, for example.)
  8. The threat of nuclear annihilation actually was a daily concern in the lives of many people in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then the principal fear has been of localized terrorist attack, rather than a global war of extinction; contemplating human extinction may be out of fashion.
  9. Some people have philosophical reasons for doubting the possibility of human extinction, for instance the final anthropic principle, plenitude principle or intrinsic finality.
  10. Tversky and Kahneman have produced evidence that humans suffer cognitive biases which would tend to minimize the perception of this unprecedented event:
  • Denial is a negative “availability heuristic” shown to occur when an outcome is so upsetting that the very act of thinking about it leads to an increased refusal to believe it might occur. In this case, imagining human extinction probably makes it seem less likely.
  • In cultures where human extinction is not expected the proposition must overcome the “disconfirmation bias” against heterodox theories.
  • Another reliable psychological effect relevant here is the “positive outcome bias”.
  • Behavioural finance has strong evidence that recent evidence is given undue significance in risk analysis. Roughly speaking, “100 year storms” tend to occur every twenty years in the stock market as traders become convinced that the current good times will last forever. Doomsayers who hypothesize rare crisis-scenarios are dismissed even when they have statistical evidence behind them. An extreme form of this bias can diminish the subjective probability of the unprecedented.

In general, humanity’s sense of self preservation, and intelligence are considered to offer safe-guards against extinction. It is felt that people will find creative ways to overcome potential threats, and will take care of the precautionary principle in attempting dangerous innovations. The arguments against this are; firstly, that the management of destructive technology is becoming difficult, and secondly, that the precautionary principle is often abandoned whenever the reward appears to outweigh the risk. At least one instance where the principle may have been overruled was when prior to the Trinity nuclear test, one of the project’s scientists (Teller) speculated that the fission explosion might destroy New Mexico and possibly the world, by causing a reaction in the nitrogen of the atmosphere. A calculation by Hans Bethe proved such a possibility theoretically impossible, but the fear of the possibility remained among some until the test took place.

Observations about human extinction

The fact that the vast majority of the species that have existed on Earth have become extinct, has led to the suggestion that all species have a finite lifespan and thus human extinction would be inevitable. Dave Raup and Jack Sepkoski found for example a twenty-six-million-year periodicity in elevated extinction rates, caused by factors unknown. Based upon evidence of past extinction rates Raup and others have suggested that the average longevity of an invertebrate species is between 4-6 million years, while that of vertebrates seems to be 2-4 million years. The shorter period of survival for mammals lies in their position further up the food chain than many invertebrates, and therefore an increased liability to suffer the effects of environmental change. A counter-argument to this is that humans are unique in their adaptive and technological capabilities, so it is not possible to draw reliable inferences about the probability of human extinction based on the past extinctions of other species. Certainly, the evidence collected by Raup and others suggested that generalist, geographically dispersed species, like humans, generally have a lower rate of extinction than those species that require a particular habitat. In addition, the human species is probably the only species with a conscious prior knowledge of their own demise, and therefore would be likely to take steps to avoid it.

Humans are very similar to other primates in their propensity towards intra-species violence; Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee (ISBN 0-09-980180-9) estimates that 64% of hunter-gather societies engage in warfare every two years. Although it has been argued (e.g. in the UNESCO Seville Statement) that warfare is a cultural artifact, many anthropologists dispute this, noting that small human tribes exhibit similar patterns of violence to chimpanzee groups, the most murderous of the primates, and one of two of our nearest living genetic relatives. The “higher” functions of reason and speech are more developed in the brain of Homo sapiens than other primates, but the relative size of the limbic system is a constant in apes, monkeys, and humans. The combination of inventiveness and urge to violence in humans has been cited as evidence against its long term survival.

Omnicide

Omnicide is human extinction as a result of human action. Most commonly it refers to extinction through nuclear warfare, but it can also apply to extinction through means such as global anthropogenic ecological catastrophe.

Omnicide can be considered a subcategory of genocide. Using the concept in this way, one can argue, for example, that:

“The arms race is genocidal in intent given the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union are knowingly preparing to destroy each other as viable national and political groups.”
As this claim illustrates, the concept of omnicide raises issues of human agency and, hence, of moral responsibility in discussions about large-scale social processes like the nuclear arms race or ecologically destructive industrial production. That is, part of the point of describing a human extinction scenario as ‘omnicidal’ is to note that, if it were to happen, it would result not just from natural, uncontrollable evolutionary forces, or from some random catastrophe like an asteroid impact, but from deliberate choices made by human beings. This implies that such scenarios are preventable, and that the people whose choices make them more likely to happen should be held morally accountable for such choices. In this context, the label ‘omnicide’ also works to de-normalize the course of action it is applied to.

Omnicide also refers to the destruction of everything.

In popular culture

The book The World Without Us by Alan Weisman deals with a thought experiment on what would happen to the planet and especially human-made infrastructures if humans suddenly disappeared. Weisman said that apes, with the highest IQ amongst animals other than humans, may be the species that succeeds humanity. The Discovery Channel documentary miniseries The Future Is Wild shows the possible future of evolution on Earth without humans. The History Channel’s special Life After People examines the possible future of life on Earth without humans. Life After People became a series on History. The National Geographic Channel’s special Aftermath: Population Zero envisions what the world be like if all humans suddenly disappeared. The British science-fiction drama Primeval also puts forward an alternative view of Earth after the extinction of humans: how other species of animals, such as rodents and insects will evolve to fill niches left by humans. It also implies that human extinction is due to predation by some of these evolved species.The videogame series Fallout is about life 100–200 years after a nuclear war, with most of the human population gone.

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