With Covid-19 afflicting the world, and a climate crisis looming, humanity’s future seems uncertain. While the novel coronavirus does not itself pose a threat to the continuation of the species, it has undoubtedly stirred anxiety in many of us and has even sparked discussion about human extinction. Less and less does the end of the species seem an area of lurid fantasy or remote speculation.
Indeed, the opening decades of the 21st century have seen investigation into so-called ‘existential risks’ establish itself as a growing field of rigorous scientific inquiry. Whether designer pathogen or malicious AI, we now recognize many ways to die.
But when did people first start actually thinking about human extinction?
The answer is: surprisingly recently. As ideas go, the idea of the extinction of the human species is a new one. It did not, and could not, exist until a few centuries ago.
Of course, we humans have probably been prophesying the end of the world since we began talking and telling stories. However, the modern idea of human extinction distinguishes itself from the tradition of apocalypse as it is found across cultures and throughout history.
In the ancient mythologies you will not find the idea of a physical universe continuing, in its independent vastness, after the annihilation of humans. Neither will you find the idea of the end of the world as a totally meaningless event. It is invariably imbued with some moral significance or revelatory lesson. Meaning and value lives on in a spiritual afterlife, in anthropomorphic gods, or an eventual rebirth of creation.
The modern idea of human extinction distinguishes itself from the tradition of apocalypse as it is found across cultures and throughout history.
Only very recently in human history did people realize that Homo sapiens, and everything it finds meaningful, might permanently disappear. Only recently did people realize the physical universe could continue — aimlessly — without us. However, this was one of the most important discoveries humans have ever made. It is perhaps one of our crowning achievements. Why? Because we can only become truly responsible for ourselves when we fully realize what is at stake. And, in realizing that the entire fate of human value within the physical universe may rest upon us, we could finally begin to face up to what is at stake in our actions and decisions upon this planet. This is a discovery that humanity is still learning the lessons of — no matter how fallibly and falteringly.
Such a momentous understanding only came after centuries of laborious inquiry within science and philosophy. The timeline below revisits some of the most important milestones in this great, and ongoing, drama.
c.75,000 BP: Toba supervolcanic eruption rocks the planet. Some evidence implies Homo sapiens nearly goes extinct (though scientists disagree on the details). Around the same time, advanced human behavior and language emerge: This kickstarts cumulative culture, as recipes for technology begin to accumulate across generations. An immense journey begins…
PHASE 1 (PREHISTORY–1600): INDESTRUCTIBLE VALUE
No clear distinction between ethics and physics, so no true threat to the existence of ethics in the physical universe. Indestructibility of value. No ability to think of a possible world without minds.
c.400 BC: Even though they talk of great catastrophes and destroyed worlds, ancient philosophers all believe that nature does not leave eternally wasted opportunities where things, or values, could be but never are again. Whatever is lost in nature will eventually return in time — indestructibility of species, humanity, and value.
c.360 BC: Plato speaks of cataclysms wiping away prior humanities, but this is only part of eternal cycling return. Permanent extinction is unthinkable.
c.350 BC: Aristotle claims that everything valuable and useful has already been discovered. Everything knowable and useful can be found in the ‘wisdom of the ages.’ Precludes thinking on perils and risks that have not previously been recorded. Material conditions of mankind cannot radically change, or fail.
c.50 BC: Lucretius speaks of humankind ‘perishing,’ but also asserts that nothing is ever truly destroyed in nature, and that time eventually replenishes all losses. Our world may die, but it will eventually be remade.
Around 1100, Persian theologian Abu Hamid Al-Ghazâlî developed ways of talking about possibilities in terms of logical coherence rather than prior experience.
c.1100 AD: Persian theologian Al-Ghazâlî develops ways of talking about possibilities in terms of their logical coherence rather than availability to prior experience — crucial to all later thinking on risks previously never experienced.
c.1200: Hindu-Arabic numeral system introduced to Europe, later allowing computation of large timespans that will be instrumental in discovery of the depth (rather than eternity) of past and future time.
c.1300: Islamic and Christian philosophers invent logical possibility as a way of thinking about the ways God could have created the world differently than it actually is. Theologians like William of Ockham conduct first thought experiments on a possible world without any human minds. Still, God would never manifest such a world, they believe.
1350: Black death kills up to 200 million people in Europe and North Africa. Around 60 percent of Europe’s population perishes.
1564: Using new logical conceptions of possibility, Gerolamo Cardano inaugurates the science of probability by thinking of each dice throw as the expression of a wider, abstract space of possibilities.
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