Monday, July 2, 2007

Human Extinction

In the Scientific American (and via Belmont Club) a review of Weisman's book The World Without Us:

I’m not suggesting that we have to worry about human beings suddenly disappearing tomorrow, some alien death ray taking us all away. On the contrary, what I’m finding is that this way of looking at our planet—by theoretically just removing us—turns out to be so fascinating that it kind of disarms people’s fears or the terrible wave of depression that can engulf us when we read about the environmental problems that we have created and the possible disasters we may be facing in the future. Because frankly, whenever we read about those things, our concern is: Oh, my God, are we going to die? Is this going to be the end? My book eliminates that concern right at the beginning by saying the end has already taken place. For whatever reason, human beings are gone, and now we get to sit back and see what happens in our absence. It’s a delicious little way of reducing all the fear and anxiety. And looking at what would happen in our absence is another way of looking at, well, what goes on in our presence. ...

Weisman's a bit late to this party. The science fiction writer Stephen Baxter beat him to the punch five years ago or so, when Evolution was published(Bill informs me in the comments that the first mention was actually
in 'The Earth Abides', G. Stewart, 1941.) It wasn't traditional science fiction, exactly: throughout most of the book, the main characters are speechless animals, representatives of various precursor and (in the last third or so) successor species.

The book essentially gives a vivid picture of how we evolved to our present state, postulates that we then succumb to a vicious mixture of climate change, natural disaster, and of course war, and then imagines how the world might go on without us (basically, intelligence never re-evolves, though the hominid line persists to the death of all life, five hundred million years later, when the earth is hot, dry, flat, and geologically still.) I found the first two thirds immensely interesting, but the final third hard to bear.

Science fiction often invokes plot elements that are highly unlikely, if not impossible, and I'd suggest Baxter's postulation that we go extinct to be a novel and very clever innovation. I can easily see a whole genre of fiction - posthuman extinction SF or some such - spawning around that one book, for I have to say I was deeply impressed with it overall. But although it's certainly be interesting to think about, but that the species could really disappear, gradually or precipitously, strikes me as unlikely. I know that puts me in quite the minority, these days, but it's never troubled me to be in sharp disagreement with the rest of my species.

What's really the issue here is less the extinction of man, however, than it is the extinction of civilization. And in a very short time - with developments in the usual litany of genetic engineering, robotics, AI - civilization will become independent of man; man may fall, but civilization? It's here to stay, and it's going to eat the stars.

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Bill said... do know that human extinction has been a staple of Speculative Fiction since the early days?

But the first statement of it turned into a whole theme that I know of was in 'The Earth Abides'. G. Stewart 1941

Keitousama said...

Duly corrected. Sadly my knowledge of SF thins out quickly much earlier than 1980 or so, and I've been reading it voraciously since I was a kid.