Book Review: X-Risk, How Humanity Discovered It’s Own Extinction

Taken from here.

‘I have seen the dark universe yawning. Where the black planets roll without aim, Where they roll in their horror unheeded, Without knowledge, or lustre, or name.’ ~H.P Lovecraft, Nemesis.

Over 99 % of all species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct. A tiny few died off while leaving radically different descendants much like the birds which came out of the dinosaurs, but most leave no trace but their fossils. Humans may be the first species that we know of to be aware of the concept of extinction itself, but we have only begun to entertain the idea that it could happen to us in relatively recent history.

X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered It’s Own Extinction‘ by Thomas Moynihan, is a history of human mortality as it was experienced on an unfolding basis by thinkers and authors. A work of immense scope and a truly impressive level of research, ‘X-Risk’ shows us that contemplating human extinction is a surprisingly modern idea. Old myths and fables that postulated an end to humanity were not the same as they postulated the greater world would also be ending in supernatural cataclysm. Everything was either going into the twilight all together or being subjected to a hard reboot. Human extinction is a different concept, one that says that the universe will continue on without us, unheeding of our departure. Perhaps, on this planet anyway, even with other species relieved by the passing. Much as we are unbothered by all the lost former species on this world, so too will the greater ecology of Earth not miss our presence as birds and bats colonize the rafters of our empty and fossilizing cities.

This realization began with the Copernican Revolution and the knowledge that neither Earth nor the sun was the center of the universe but rather one star among many in the heavens, dethroning us from our previous assumptions of protagonist syndrome. But an even more important often overlooked revelation came not from the stars, but from the ground beneath us as more details about geology and the fossil record came to be understood in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The planet was undeniably a graveyard. A tectonically active and weather beaten charnel house that was hiding who knows how many bones from a still unknown amount of species that had once called it home.

Moynihan gives us the history of this revelation and the cultural and philosophical reactions to it from thinkers, scientists, and creatives alike. This is the majority of the text of his book, and it is truly a unique a necessary addition to contemporary philosophy. Though he comes out early on the side of the more hopeful revisionists who said we can or should at least try to fight back against our extinction, he gives summaries of the thought of all types of reactions including those who actively embraced the prospect of an end to humanity. In the end, Moynihan pleads with us to embrace expansion into space. Not, thankfully, as part of a unified euphoric destiny like so many mindlessly do, but in order to further diverge our species in different environments. This would make us harder to wipe out by fate as our genetics and what we adapt to carry on the human legacy beyond one world, one lifestyle, and one model which could become obsolete at any moment. His version of space exploration is less like Star Trek or even Foundation and more like Alastair Reynolds (especially the excellent novel House of Suns) or Jack Vance. Diversity and divergence is the key to Darwinian survival. All your eggs in one basket is a recipe for disaster when it comes to adapting to existential danger. A point that seems uncontroversial today until you realize most contemporaries in academia, media, and government in many societies never include the ideological aspect of diversity when they nod along.

Since the book is both good and informative and I obviously recommend it, I figure it would be more interesting to bring up the points I diverge from it rather than just spend the rest of this review stating the now obvious fact that I enjoyed reading it and outlining the examples that you could read for yourself in the text if you are so inclined. This is what now follows:

The Fermi Paradox Is Not Actually Interesting.

Like many thinkers interested in astronomy or the ethics of the future, Moynihan opens with The Fermi Paradox, the famous thought experiment trying to figure out why with our modern telescopes and hyper sensitive detection tools we have so far failed to find any signs of intelligent life out there in the cosmos. But all discussions of this inevitably (if you are speaking with a sane person anyway) break down to the likelihood of the most mundane explanations. Intelligent life is rare enough that the spaces between them is too great to see the signs. The Lightspeed barrier might be truly unbreakable, and so even the most advanced civilizations are at best confined to a handful of stars in one cluster, and of course, there is not just distance in space but distance in time. We are probably more likely to find planets one day which *could* have advanced life but haven’t evolved to that level yet, or planets that once did and left behind ruins. The threat of extinction is not just for us, after all. As far as I am concerned, The Fermi Paradox is just an interesting college dorm tier discussion framework and nothing more. Hardly a game changer one way or the other.

Extinction, Like Death, Is Hardly To Be Feared.

While I love reading pessimistic authors because they offer such a welcome break from our relentlessly euphoric public culture, I am in the end an indifferentist rather than a pessimist. And while there are things I fear like becoming paralyzed or imprisonment or declining living standards, I have never been afraid to die. Maybe this makes me an outlier for my species, but I find the concept of every story coming to an end not only inevitably true but also good. What value could something eternal possibly have? Lingering past ones time has always struck me as not only boring, but malignant on the future for others. Sure, no one loves old stuff more than me, but that old stuff would lack value if it was omnipresent and everywhere. It would just be more of the mundane rather than the special places and objects that allow us to remember there were once different peoples and eras. This has the effect of making me remarkably indifferent to the fate of humanity long past my own demise. In a time when I won’t be there and neither will anyone I will ever know around today, what care I? It is fun to speculate about, of course. But that is about it. I guess it is for this reason that I never saw the appeal of the concept of an afterlife or life extension biotechnology either. Even your favorite movie would get boring if it never ended. The temporary nature of things, mono no aware, if you will, is what makes the burden of human consciousness bearable.

Moynihan gets very concerned with these questions of inevitable endings to the point that I find quite hard to fathom. Though his instinct is obviously correct that the species as a whole has a survival drive, and he is right to point out constructive ways for us to harness this as a policy recommendation, he is also far to quick to jump on planning for the far future when it would be much more efficient to plan for the short term future. Here we are, on Earth, suffering from climate change. If you want to get to point C you must first cross point B. And that includes listening to what the pessimists have to say about humanity. It is better to be prepared for worst-case scenarios than to not be.

We know now that the universe will most likely either die or face a hard re-set. Not unlike ragnarok after all. Be it the cyclic model of a big crunch or rebirth through the extremely mind-bending conformal cyclic cosmology, or the path of heat death or tearing apart that dark energy unchecked might well be leading us to, our perpetuation does not transcend the end of the stage our play is acted out on. All things around now will one day be unrecognizable, whether we survive long term or not. And this brings me to my final point of divergence.

Consciousness Conflation?

Moynihan is very into the idea that people are happy to accept the concept of extinction so long as they can believe that somewhere out there in space or time other beings are conscious too. This means that he implies that as long as we can only prove ourselves to be such beings, we must tend this fire as it could very well be unique in the universe.

Since we have no data of other life elsewhere in one way or the other, but know for a fact it arose here, I find this a strange conclusion to jump to. Other forms of consciousness might be utterly alien and unrecognizable to us, even horrifying. Or they might be comically similar to the point where we have to confront that consciousness itself is just a biochemical adaptation mechanism like any other behavior (my personal suspicion).

But this isn’t my main criticism. Perhaps its the international relations scholar in me, but my main critique of this point is actually that humanity would find aliens threatening whether they were mundane and caused us to question our specialness or if they were radically different. We wouldn’t be happy to share the universe with such beings so much as on become guard, threatened, and whatnot. Sure, there would be an initial euphoria, but we tend to react negatively when our position at the center of existence gets dethroned. While thinkers may feel some reassurance others elsewhere are thinking about them, for most people I would say that they are not reassured by this. Our species comes first, its in our genes. Our willingness to accept extinction or not will come down to our own survival drive no matter what else is out there. Therefore, this will not be a factor in either making us complacent or fueling a death drive.

Additionally, in order to make this point of our apparent specialness, the author disavows the possibility that conscious life has arisen before and could do so after us on Earth as unhelpful. As a person who recently finished a graphic novel script on humans finding dinosaur civilizations out in space on one side and being threatened by the rise of sadistic sentient dolphins back on Earth, I tend to find the opposite is true…not because I fear being a lone conscious entity, but because the questions of how to use consciousness are far more interesting if we demystify it and remove anthropocentrism for the equation of our hypothetical thought experiments.

My Own Conclusion

All species have survival drives. I do not worry, like Moynihan, that we will end ourselves intentionally (accidentally is a very different proposition). The author is correct to advocate for his position and in turn give us a wonderful history of humanity’s surprisingly modern engagement with thoughts of its own demise. But there is a reason some ancient cultures divided up people based on their engagement with greater society into renunciates and householders. Householders have something at stake in all of this, renunciates are less interested in merging with the mass and more interested in detached observation. I am, myself, certainly part of this other group.

This may seem surprising since I work in the field of policy advocacy and strategic re-alignment. And I am not about to claim that I am fully detached or even want to be. But I have found that it helps ones ability to critically appraise or offer more usefully unique analysis if one is at least somewhat removed from investment in the ‘normie’ world. Even going back to childhood I never wanted to have children because it seemed like too much of an anchor in the rest of humanity (not to mention an invasion into my treasured solitude). Once I got over the hormone rush of puberty I also realized I never wanted a spouse either for similar reasons. It is for reasons like this I think I make a better analyst than many of my contemporaries, as I have little attachments to things than ruin observing the present as fully integrated into the past and the future as one moment full of fads like any other. I can advocate positions to make life better for lots of people, indeed, I view having a sense of civic duty quite highly, but I still do so with the knowledge that these moments in crisis will fade in time. We are managing problems in the relative short term only.

I love ruins. I love to wander amongst them. Possibly the coolest place I have ever been are the ruins of Pagan, in Myanmar. Once it was a thriving temple-riddled city and capitol of an empire whose ground water was inadequate for continual occupation and who never survived its sacking by the Mongols. What it left us is an entirely unpopulated city of stone and brick buildings. Wandering amongst such a place, which, at that time, was almost totally undiscovered by foreign tourists (it is different now, I hear) gives one a true sense of cosmic wonder and connection with Graveyard Earth. Moving this same sublime sensation forward into the future, imagine even our most terrifying ruins and the effect on legend and travel experience for future entropic Epicures.

I feel connection with cultures and peoples lost not because it was a tragedy they are gone but because they remind us that all our current struggles too will one day be lost too. This is what makes life not terrifying, but bearable. Perhaps Moynihan would admonish me in the words of a Clark Ashton Smith poem for becoming a ‘phantom among phantoms‘ who is lost in the space between ruins, but not all of us have to be on the same boat here. It is our cultural and psychological divergences that serve as a check on the whole species following just one rigid path after all. In the ideal space-expansion future both he and I seem to want, that of endless divergence in the stars, there will be planets of renunciates as well as euphoric strivers and many different balances in between too. The strives will no doubt have more numbers, but the renunciates won’t care.

And one of those planets, perhaps, will be Earth herself. Where eccentric curators wander the halls of an emptied out planet turned over to be part museum and part nature reserve, archiving data and giving tours to visitors.

It sounds like a fun place to live to me.