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Misanthropy and Species Suicide

[Author’s note: this turned into a longer and decidedly more rambly post than I anticipated.  I may come back and edit it for flow and clarity in the near future.  Then again, I may not.]

In a recent post at the wonderful Centauri Dreams, Paul Gilster talks tangentially about one sort of anti-Humanism that’s currently in vogue with a lot of people:

“The worst example of this misanthropic worldview I’ve encountered occurred at a dinner party where the subject of space exploration came up. I was defending the idea of expanding into the Solar System as a necessity in terms of acquiring the tools of asteroid deflection, at which point my host said that an incoming asteroid would do the universe a favor if it destroyed our planet, and that we shouldn’t try to stop it.”

Now this resonates with me for two reasons.  One, I’m a space nerd and an unapologetic Get-Off-The-Rock advocate.  I genuinely feel that we need to be eyeing near-space colonization in this century.  The sooner, the better.  (My personal favorite target for this is Mars.  For a sensible, well-defended explanation on how this could be done, see The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin and Richard Wagner.)

Secondly, as a Humanist, this sort of species-wide misanthropy offends my deepest held beliefs and sensibilities.  Simply put, I believe that the human race is not only worthy of preserving, but something special, beautiful, and unique enough that saving it is unreservedly a Good Thing.  Further, I think that the sorts of mental contortions necessary to believe that we should all be wiped out are unnatural enough in the first place.  That people could bold-facedly assert that mankind deserves destruction and then continue to fight to continue their own lives and further their own interests smacks of rank selfishness.  Quite frankly, to say that “humanity should be let to be destroyed” coming from someone who doesn’t follow it up by checking themselves out one way or another has always struck me a “death for thee but not for me” sort of sentiment.  They hold the whole species in lethal disdain, save for themselves, and perhaps a few close friends and relatives.

Before I go further, I can hear a few voices in the audience shouting “strawman”.  In order to dispel those accusations, let me make two arguments for this sort of species-oriented misanthropy actually being a broadly held (or at least held by some) position.  First, there was a time in my life (at least a decade or so ago) when I thought this way.  I looked at the effects that people were having on the planet, on other species, and on one another and that, combined with a healthy dose of teenage iconoclasm and misanthropy, drove me to the conclusion “fuck it, everything’s better off without us.”  (N.B. This in no way contradicts what I said earlier about the selfish hypocrisy of such statements

Secondly, I’m far from the only person who has thought that way.  A couple of google searchs (yes I am aware that proof-by-google-search is far from rigorous, but I think it’s sufficient for my purposes) turned tons of pages of people seriously suggesting that the entire human race ought to be destroyed.  And while the ones that seemed to advocate a complete destruction seemed juvenile, they were genuine.  Others held onto a more tepid, Malthusian view that, really, we only needed to destroy MOST people in order to bring the world population back inline with some perceived “reasonable number.”

So perhaps instead of a strawman, I really only had an oversimplified account.  There’s total anti-Humanism and then there’s a sort of neo-Malthusianism.  The first is largely rooted in the belief that people are inherently evil, the second in the belief that, whatever people are like, there are too many of them.

The second sort of species-oriented misanthropy is more conveniently dispatched, so I’ll look at that one first.  To the neo-Malthusians I have two things to say.  First, the progenitor of much of the modern population reduction advocacy, Thomas Malthus, was shown wrong in much the same way I think his modern counterparts will be.  Essentially, Malthus looked at the current state of agricultural and economic affairs and suggested that the population capacity of the world was limited by those and other factors.  He argued that, for this reason, certain die-offs, plagues, wars, and genocides might be viewed as advantageous because they help to keep in check an otherwise exploding populace.  Aside from the fact that such Malthusean events usually put a fairly minor dent in the global population, the limiting pressures that Malthus identified on the population of the planet have been slackened many times since his death by the force of human ingenuity and development.  New agricultural techniques, new tools, new industries, and new modes of living have repeatedly pushed by the theoretical limit of the global human population.  Practically speaking, it seems like this trend is only continuing.  With the recent development of modern fertilizers and pesticides and genetically modified food stuffs, agriculture is providing more food than ever to feed the global population.  Economically, despite recent dips, the global gross production of goods is orders of magnitude higher than when Malthus was writing.  Medicine has eradicated several killer diseases and is on the verge of eradicating or severely limiting others.  Every year the force of human advancement makes ever more room on the planet and improves the lives of those who are already here.

The second point I have to the neo-Malthusians is, regardless of WHY they believe the human population ought to be reduced, wouldn’t a more productive and humane way to deal with the situation be to spread that population out?  Why not begin to try to shift some people off this rock and on to others?  To complain that the Earth is over-populated doesn’t necessarily mean we need fewer people, only that we need fewer people on Earth.

My arguments in response to the true anti-Humanists are, of necessity, less clear and straight forward.  The mind of someone who truly believes people to be and inherent detriment to something more valuable has already made several axiomatic assumptions that differ greatly from my own.  I believe that people are something special and something inherently possessing of value, beauty, and greatness.  I believe that we are possessing, through accidents of evolution, of unique faculties and proclivities which are worth exploring, preserving, and developing.  I believe that these faculties along with the bonds we share with one another and the great works that we’ve already accomplished and continue to accomplish ought to compel us to preserve our achievements and strive further for others.

But now, trying hard to find a way to defend these, it’s tempting to make them simple, axiomatic assertions of faith.  This I believe: that people are beautiful.  This I believe: that people are worthy.  This I believe: that people are meaningful.  It’s likewise tempting to respond the anti-Humanist with a recording of Bach’s Mass in B Minor and a picture of the Alhambra.  Or to ask them how a creature, as Hamlet put it “How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, … in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god”, could be unworthy of its own best efforts at survival and propogation.

Of course, Hamlet’s line wasn’t even enough of an argument for himself.  He immediately follows it by bemoaning man as the quintessence of dust.  And rightfully so, since these arguments rely on nothing more than my own personal sense of wonderment and enchantment with the human.  If I suggest that reason, art, and understanding are worth saving, it begs the question “why?”  If I suggest that our charity for one another and (burgeoningly) for the planet around us merits our salvation, one might answer that the world would tick along just fine without us.

About the only answer I can give that might satisfy naysayers is that I truly believe we have something to offer the universe.  Our drive, curiosity, wonder, aesthetics, reason, and beauty can expand through the universe and make it a truly better place.  And while I’m sure that sounds like starry-eyed drivel to most, I truly believe that a universe with people in it is better than one without.  We are not without our flaws, but nor are we without our merits.  And these merits I believe are without precedent on our planet.  And some, even, I’m sure are without precedent in the universe.

And I believe that spreading out into the galaxy will not only benefit us, but our planet, the other species with which we share it, and, if I may continue to be melodramatic, the universe at large.

Posted in Geekery, Misc, Music, Politics, Science/Tech.

7 Responses

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  1. Paul Gilster says

    Nice work indeed! I like this:

    I believe that we are possessing, through accidents of evolution, of unique faculties and proclivities which are worth exploring, preserving, and developing. I believe that these faculties along with the bonds we share with one another and the great works that we’ve already accomplished and continue to accomplish ought to compel us to preserve our achievements and strive further for others.

    Another thought that comes to me on these lines is that, despite all our theorizing, we still have no idea whether the universe offers up abundant technological civilizations. We’re learning that life may be common, based upon the odds and the presence of organic materials elsewhere in the universe, but is it complex, intelligent life, or are most planets home to little more than bacteria? It is at least conceivable that planets with advanced civilizations are rare, and if so, the prospect of vaporizing one because its inhabitants developed terminal self-loathing is dismaying indeed!

    Again, nice post (and thank you for the link).


  2. Ann says

    I agree with your second premise (humans are worth being preserved)… but I have reservatiosn about the full-tilt drive to colonize space with our glorious, messy, short-sighted humanity.

    Yes, making the move to space would be a boon for many reasons… but the truth of the matter is: if we’re going to do it — put an unparalleled amount of money and effort into this endeavor, we better do it right. And the only way we’re going to be able to fully do it right is if we make Earth Test Case #1, in terms of how we can live sustainably and respectfully in an environment.

    Moving some of our more automated processes (from factories to farming) to space would seem to be the first step. This would accomplish two things: 1. it would let us get a firm foothold on whichever rock we decided to conquer first, with contained scope of presence there — working out the kinks of living on Mars is going to be just that much more streamlined if everyone is working on, essentially, one project. 2. it will give Earth a more human breathing room.

    But in terms of actual colonization — people living on another rock for the sake of living on another rock — I am more leery of this. At least as an initial, or driving-force goal. Let’s learn how to really take care of the Earth first, so that when the time comes, we’ll be prepared to not screw up whichever new rock we decide to stake humanity’s future on. And this, unfortunately, just takes practice, it takes training, it just takes the time to see how our “good behavior” as a society actually plays out over years and decades.

    I do hope, as much as you do, that some day we end up as an interplanetary species… but I am very leery of the idea that we need to look to the stars to escape Earth or “redo” Earth. Rather, it should be, ideally, an extension of Earth. But that means, first, we need to learn the skills here. Not ad hoc up there.

  3. Citizen Jane says

    An eloquent, thought-provoking post and reasonable, fascinating comments. Thank you all!

  4. The Tarquin says

    Paul – Thank you very much for stopping by! I’m a big fan of your blog, and I particularly enjoy your posts about alternate propulsion and near-space colonization.

    I think you’re quite right that, if technological civilizations are a rarity, it would be a real shame for us to destroy the only such civilization in which we have a say. Then again, maybe this is part of a complex answer to Fermi’s Paradox. As sad as it is to ponder, maybe “terminal self-loathing” is a phase through which some significant portion of technological civilizations pass?

    (As an aside, I love the phrase “terminal self-loathing” and fully intend to use it myself. With attribution, of course.)

    Thanks again for stopping by!

  5. The Tarquin says

    Ann: Thanks for your comment. I guess my response is two-fold. First, what is the harm in moving people to a barren or human-terraformed world like Mars? (I know you gave some answers to that earlier over IM, I’m just shamelessly trying to spur debate here. 😀 )

    Secondly, as you rightfully point out, living in harmony with a planetary ecology takes practice. What better practice than starting anew on a world with all the knowledge we’ve gained over the past few centuries about what effects human habitation has on the planet? Also, what if the lessons of how to live in a sustainable fashion are lessons that have to be re-learned for every planet we settle? What’s socially, ecologically, and economically sustainable on Earth certainly won’t be on Mars. Quite possibly even less so on a distant, life-bearing world.

    Thanks again for your comment. Further thoughts?

  6. Ann says

    I guess I am a bit concerned with the blitheness with which you approach transferring life to another planet. Maybe I’m overly cautious or paralytically respectful, but yes — learning how to live sustainably takes practice… but I would be much more in favor of a “measure twice, cut once” scenario than hopping our way over to another rock and “trying to make a better go of it there”.

    As I said, I think, on IM: the litmus test for whether or not we should start living as an interplanetary society is whether or not we NEED to. If we’re so backed into a corner on earth that the only place to escape is up, we did something VERY wrong. Becoming an interplanetary society should be a choice, not a last-breath forced resort. If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right… or else we may just have double the issues of Earth. What then? Planet #3? Maybe we’ll get it right this time?

    Yes, living with respect to the individual planet’s ecology and environment are going to differ everywhere you go — but human community and social ecology aren’t. Those factors are going to be what will be the longterm make-or-break points of a colony’s success, I would think.

    If we, as a global community, are going to expend the unparalleled amount of time, money, and effort to actually get a human colony on another planet up and running, it would seem to be in everyone’s best interest — both in the short and the long term (and yes, I am more concerned with the long term than you seem to be… but that’s just me and my pie-in-the-sky dreams for the centuries-long future) — to not, as it were, fuck things up. The operation should be, from the get-go, made as sustainable and as organically organized as possible. And you’re not going to get that if the project is ad hoc, forced, or based on the premise “well, let’s see what happens!”

    Again, I am speaking ideal case scenario… and I realize that we will probably never be able to afford this. But it’s something to strive for, yes?

  7. The Tarquin says

    Ann – I can see where you’re coming from, and I guess my response is several-fold.

    1.) We may not have the luxury of “figuring it all out here before we head out there.”

    2.) I think that human curiosity and ingenuity is such that, given the ability, I don’t think we would be able to suppress the drive. That is to say, once we CAN move elsewhere, we will. I think that human nature makes this more or less inevitable.

    3.) I don’t understand what problems of human community and social ecology might prevent us from going elsewhere or, indeed, wouldn’t be helped by allowing some of the human population to move elsewhere.

    4.) You say that I’m the short-term minded one, but I’m exactly trying to argue for a solution that will allow us to account for increasing social and resource pressures and the long-term inevitability of some sort of global disaster.

    I guess my real objection to your proposed “get it all sorted out now before we leave” course is that what it is we would need to “sort out” remains undefined and whatever it is, things may go from bad to worse to fatal before we get it all figured.

    Add to that the fact that I think it’s a real, positive Good to get human boots on other planets, and I really can’t bring myself to agree with you.

    That being said, I do appreciate your input. No bad has ever come of voicing a well-articulated other side to the argument.