It's the End of the World as They Know It—and They Feel Fine

REVIEW: 'The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us'

Scientist Ray Kurzweil, activist Greta Thunberg, professor Timothy Morton, and professor Patricia MacCormack / Wikimedia Commons, Getty Images, and
March 5, 2023

What do Ray Kurzweil and Greta Thunberg have in common? On the surface, not very much. One is an American computer scientist and futurist famous as a prophet of "the singularity"—the moment when the line between man and machine disappears and our brains get an ever-improving software upgrade. Another is a Swedish teenager who made a name for herself by ditching school and shouting at world leaders about climate change.

To Adam Kirsch, though, they are connected in a profound way. Both are part of a phenomenon after which he has named a short new book: The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us. Kurzweil and Thunberg, argues Kirsch, belong to a disparate group that "from Silicon Valley boardrooms to rural communities to academic philosophy departments" is considering a revolutionary and novel idea: "that the end of humanity's reign on Earth is imminent and that we should welcome it."

This "turn against human primacy" takes two forms. One is "Anthropocene antihumanism," a "radical response to … ecological crisis" that rejects the philosophical notion of "humanity's traditional role as Earth’s protagonist, the most important being in creation." The other is transhumanism, a glorification of technological progress according to which "the only way forward for humanity is to create new forms of intelligent life that will no longer be Homo sapiens."

These notions seem less fringe by the day. Climate doomsaying is, increasingly, par for the course in much of the media, with predictions of our imminent extinction becoming so common as to have lost their power to shock. And while we roll our eyes at Mark Zuckerberg's cartoonish Metaverse and ask ChatGPT to tell us bad jokes, it's hard to shake the feeling that we're in the midst of a fundamental change in our relationship with machines. We slip further and further into our screens, blurring the line between the virtual and the real. That may not be transhumanism, but it is a step in that direction, and our age's most powerful tech titans, from Zuckerberg to Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, take the idea seriously.

With The Revolt Against Humanity, Kirsch, a poet, literary critic, and editor of the Wall Street Journal's weekend Review section, has produced pen portraits of these twin ideas and their potentially far-reaching moral and political consequences.

Kirsch explains convincingly why these ideas aren't like what has come before them. Take the environmental anti-humanists, for example. Their doomsaying has a lot in common with the apocalyptic fears of nuclear wipeout that were common during the Cold War and have made an unwelcome comeback in recent years. Both are warnings about humankind's own folly leading to its—and the planet's—demise. But, as Kirsch explains, the climate-change doomsayers have a "more radically unsettling" warning: "It means humanity is endangered not by our acknowledged vices, such as hatred and violence, but by pursuing aims that we ordinarily consider good and natural: prosperity, comfort, increase of our kind. The Bible gives the negative commandment 'thou shalt not kill' as well as the positive commandment 'be fruitful and multiply,' and traditionally they have gone together. But if being fruitful and multiplying starts to be seen as itself a form of killing, since it deprives future generations and other species of irreplaceable resources, then the flourishing of humanity can no longer be seen as simply good."

Kirsch approaches these ideas as an even-handed skeptic; he is clearly disturbed by their implications, but does his best to understand their proponents on their own terms. That said, he does allow himself to have fun with the more amusingly out-there elements in the antihumanist rebellion. There's Timothy Morton, for example: an adherent of "object-oriented ontology," or OOO. He urges greater solidarity with "non-human people," meaning not just animals but also plants and random objects like rocks. Or Patricia MacCormack, a philosopher who peddles a worldview so dark it is hard to take seriously. She has claimed to be "deeply saddened that there has never managed to be an annihilation of the human species, in spite of plague and war."

I doubt slogans like "rocks have feelings too" or "let's all die" have especially widespread appeal. Thankfully. But don't let these fringe cases encourage an already understandable temptation not to take the antihumanists too seriously. Kirsch appears aware of this urge to dismiss climate alarmism as, well, alarmism, and transhumanists' predictions of our cyborg future as science fiction. He urges more serious engagement.

And it is here where The Revolt Against Humanity is so persuasive. When faced with, say, the growing trend of millennials saying they aren't having children because of climate change, or predictions of species-transforming technological revolution just over the horizon, it is easy to be cynical: to assume that you have encountered glib hyperbole, not a serious worldview.

Kirsch understands that reaction: "Neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye, said La Rochefoucauld. The disappearance of the human race belongs in the same category. We can acknowledge that it's bound to happen someday, but the possibility that the day might be tomorrow, or 10 years from now, is hard to contemplate. That instinctive reaction contributes to an air of unreality that surrounds many of the ideas in this book. Calls for the disappearance of humanity are hard to understand other than rhetorically. It's natural to assume that transhumanism is just a dramatic way of calling attention to the promise of a new technology, while Anthropocene antihumanism is really environmentalism in a hurry."

But Kirsch warns us not to fall into the trap of dismissing a set of beliefs just because they rest on a prediction that you think is wide of the mark. After all, many world-changing religious traditions have made predictions of an end of humanity that have not borne out. As Kirsch points out, "In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his followers that the world is going to end in their lifetime. … This proved not to be true—at least not in any straightforward sense—but the promise still changed the world."

Kirsch is not the first author to draw comparisons between climate-change doomsaying or transhumanist tech-utopianism and traditional religions. He subscribes to the idea that these movements "appeal to the people who are committed to science and reason, yet yearn for clarity and purpose of an absolute moral imperative." This promise of enlightened sacrifice, Kirsch argues, is what makes the revolt against humanity so potent.

When Kirsch points out the differences between these voguish ideas and older theology, he offers disturbing new insights. Many religious traditions predict an end of humanity, but they offer something more: "Rather than simply vanishing, we will be physically and spiritually transformed." Contrast that with the modern idea of human extinction, which "implies that our disappearance will change nothing. The planet and the universe will go on in exactly the same way after humanity ceases to exist, except that other animals and planets will have a better chance to flourish. The death of the human race is as cosmically meaningless as the death of an individual, since both are soon swallowed up by oblivion."

That is a disturbing foundation on which to construct a worldview. And even if it proves to be an incorrect prediction, Kirsch is utterly convincing in his argument that this set of beliefs can nonetheless upend our politics, economics, technology, and culture.

The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us
by Adam Kirsch
Columbia Global Reports, 104 pp., $15.99

Oliver Wiseman is deputy editor of the Spectator World, the U.S. edition of the world's oldest magazine.