Critic Adam Kirsch joins Brian Anderson to discuss his new book, The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us, out now.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal.
Joining me on today's show is Adam Kirsch. He's an editor at the Wall Street Journal's weekend review section. He's a poet, literary critic, and author of several books, and he's written a number of times for City Journal. Today though, we're going to be discussing his latest book. It's called The Revolt Against Humanity: Imagining a Future Without Us.
In the book, Adam describes the development and increasingly mainstream embrace of the idea that humans are going to lose their preeminence on earth, and that we should welcome our species' demise or fundamental transformation.
So Adam, thanks very much for joining us.
Adam Kirsch: Thanks for having me, Brian.
Brian Anderson: Greater numbers of people are now espousing some form or another of this idea: that the downfall of the human species is imminent and well-deserved. You describe this as the revolt against humanity.
You write that two seemingly conflicting strains of thought are driving this. The Anthropocene antihumanism is one of these, and the other is the more recent development of the idea of transhumanism. So both of these trends or intellectual currents imagine a world absent humanity, at least in its current form, but they have different visions of what this future will look like.
So I wonder if you could describe these two themes, the Anthropocene antihumanism and transhumanism, how they differ, how they converge.
Adam Kirsch: Sure.
Well, first I want to make clear that when I'm writing about these ideas and about the revolt against humanity, I'm not arguing for it, and I'm actually not even arguing against it. The idea of the book is to sort of explore these ideas, look at some of the thinkers and writers who are advancing them, and it's a pretty wide range. It can go anywhere from people who are tech entrepreneurs and tech billionaires to people who want to be hermits and live in the forest away from society. Poets, philosophers, academics, a whole range of people who we wouldn't ordinarily think of in the same community are converging, as I say, on these ideas. And the convergence is interesting because it involves these two schools of thought, as you said. The first is what I'm calling Anthropocene antihumanism.
Now, the word Anthropocene is probably familiar to anyone who's read any academic critical theory over the last 10 or 20 years. It's a very popular, even trendy, word in the humanities and social sciences. But originally, it's a word that comes from geology. And the idea behind the Anthropocene is that we're in a new era of the Earth's history in which human beings, the Anthro in that word, are mainly responsible for what nature has become.
So in the past, geological eras were measured by things like continents moving, forms of life rising and falling, volcanoes. What we're talking about with the Anthropocene is the idea that we ourselves are now the most important force changing the surface of the Earth and nature. That idea is not necessarily a scientific idea. It's not universally accepted by geologists, for example, but it's very influential in the way a lot of people think about society, politics, and even religion.
The Anthropocene says that instead of nature being something that creates us, we are now creating nature, and that this has become a sort of reverse process, and that is true in a very concrete sense. It's human beings' preferences and activities that determine which species thrive and which ones disappear.
So for example, well, tree frogs might be going extinct. Cows and chickens outweigh all other forms of life on earth in terms of mass because we breed them to eat. It affects things like the ozone layer, which was depleted, although headlines this week say that it's now starting to recover from the chemicals that we used to deplete it. It means that you find plastic six miles under the surface of the ocean at places where human beings can't even see, where there's no light but you can still see evidence of our activities.
And in particular, the Anthropocene has the idea that a lot of that activity is destructive, that through industrial processes and through burning up carbon-based fuels, that we are changing the climate in ways that are bad for most living things and ultimately, will be bad for us as well.
And that's where the antihumanism comes in. It's the idea that humanity has become a destructive force and that therefore, if we were to destroy ourselves or at least destroy our industrial civilization, that would be a good thing in the long-term. Although it might involve pain and suffering for people who are alive when it happens, in the long-term and on balance, the Earth would be better off if humans didn't exist. So that's one strain of thought that I talk about in the book.
The other strain, transhumanism, is in some ways the direct opposite of that. It's very enamored of science and technology and it says that the most important thing about humans is that we can create technology and that we can use science to understand the world. But the transhumanists agree with the antihumanists that we've reached a point in our development where Homo sapiens is stuck. The species that we are and have historically been is sort of in a cul-de-sac or on a precipice that we can't get off of because we've reached the limits of what our current bodily capabilities can do.
We can't, for example, explore deep space as human beings because we can't survive the radiation. We need food and water, and it's beyond the basic elements of physics, say, that we will never be able to explore deep space. We might reach the limits of what we're capable of understanding in terms of what our brains are built to perceive and know. There might be whole dimensions of reality that we will never be able to access as long as we remain in the kind of bodies that we are.
And also, of course, we are demanding resources in terms of food and energy that we might not be able to continue to provide. And if we were to go extinct, for the transhumanists, that would be a disaster because it would mean the end of the mind. There would be no one left to learn, to explore, to come to understand the universe.
However, the solution to that problem, the transhumanists say, is to get rid of Homo sapiens in the name of something better and more advanced. And that can take different forms depending on which thinkers you're looking at or reading. Some say that we will be able to modify our bodies using nanotechnology and genetic engineering so that we will effectively no longer have to die. Natural death will be abolished. We'll be able to live for centuries or thousands of years and renew ourselves continuously. We'll be able to increase our brain power so that we'll be able to have experiences and thoughts far beyond what we can understand today.
More recently, I think a more ambitious and confident school of thought is saying that the future is with artificial intelligence that's born digital, so to speak, that we will create artificial intelligences that will be so much more capable and powerful than we are, that they'll essentially replace us. And from the transhumanist's point of view, that's not necessarily a bad thing. That's not something you'd think about in a sci-fi apocalypse. It would actually be the next stage of evolution. We would sort of push forward to this next stage where artificial intelligences can do things and go places that we ourselves are not able to do.
So what you end up with is these two schools of thought, which are both, I think, increasingly influential and popular and make sense to a lot of people, saying that humanity is not the solution to the future, it's the problem, and that the way to solve that problem is to get rid of us.
Brian Anderson: Now, who are some of the leading figures that you discuss in the book on both sides of this development of thought?
Adam Kirsch: Well, one thing I try to do in the book is set some of these recent developments in the context of older problems and older ways of thinking. So it's a book about science, but it's also somewhat about philosophy and religion. I talk about Darwin and Nietzsche a certain amount, but the people who are the focus of the book, people today, a good example of an antihumanist, an Anthropocene antihumanist, would be Paul Kingsnorth, who is a fairly well-known radical environmentalist theorist in the UK. And he is the head of a group or movement called Dark Mountain, which says that industrial civilization is doomed and that we should want to get rid of it, we should want to overcome it, and that the problem isn't going to be solved by mainstream environmentalism because what mainstream environmentalism wants is to make our civilization last longer and to grow, to give us more power at less cost.
What Kingsnorth and people who agree with him are saying is that as long as civilization exists, we will never really be free from its clutches. What we want is not to reduce the amount of energy we use, but to just destroy it, to get out from under its grip entirely and for humanity to disappear, at least in the form that it exists now.
There are some people who are even more radical like the South African philosopher David Benatar, who says that being born should be considered a curse, a bad thing, and that the most ethical thing that human beings can do is not reproduce, both for the sake of the people who will not have to be alive because he thinks of life as essentially an unhappy condition, and for the sake of the world, the environment, and other species that will be able to flourish in our absence.
So those are two examples of people whose work I talk about in the book, and there are others as well from different schools, some of whom are not talking directly about the environment, but about things like philosophy and epistemology, thinking about objects and whether objects can be considered more important than human beings or whether consciousness only exists in human beings or maybe it exists wherever there is any kind of organized information, in which case the end of humanity would not be the end of mind or the end of consciousness, but just shifting to a different form.
Brian Anderson: And in terms of a transhumanist figure, it would be somebody like Ray Kurzweil?
Adam Kirsch: Yes. So Ray Kurzweil is one of the best known, I think, because he writes a lot of popular books in which he says, he was saying 15 years ago, "I intend to not die. I think we're at the edge of technologies that will make it possible to live forever, and so I intend to sort of live long enough so that I'll be able to change my body using genetic engineering or robotics or upload my brain into a computer and live forever."
And there are other people who make similarly extreme prophecies. One of the people I talk about or engage with most in the book is a philosopher at Oxford named Nick Bostrom who thinks about some of these scenarios of transhumanism. What might happen, for example, if an artificial intelligence is invented, how it might interact with us, would we be able to keep it under control? Or things like how human existence might come to an end in different scenarios. Which would be the most desirable or the least desirable?
Those are two of a number of people that I focus on in the book.
Brian Anderson: Now, there does seem to be overlap in both of these areas with science fiction literature. Wouldn't you agree with that?
Adam Kirsch: Yes, definitely. I think that it's often been said that things start out as science fiction and then become reality. Things like video conferencing was once something you might see on Star Trek and now it's everyday reality, or microwave ovens that can cook food in a minute. A lot of things that started out in the realm of fantasy then became reality.
With some of these ideas, I think a lot of science fiction writers used the genre specifically to have these kinds of thought experiments. Isaac Asimov is a great example. He wrote I, Robot in the early '50s, and even then, he was thinking about some of these issues. What if robots replace us? What if we create a form of life that's so much more capable than us that they can control us instead of us controlling them? How would we keep them in check? Would it even be desirable for us to keep them in check?
One of the interesting challenges that you see in science fiction like that, or in Blade Runner, Philip Dick's novels, and now in a lot of more serious sort of real-world thinking is, if we create an artificial intelligence, what right would we have to keep it chained up in a box and say, "It can only do what we can do"? If it's a genuinely conscious, autonomous mind that happens to live in a computer, wouldn't that be just like slavery?
One thing Nick Bostrom talks about is, if you had an artificial intelligence that was self-conscious and knew what it was, knew that it was alive, could you reboot it, or would rebooting it be like killing it? What if you rebooted the same program millions and millions of times in order to refine it? Would that be like a kind of genocide?
That is the kind of thing that sounds like science fiction, but Bostrom says that his philosophy is philosophy with a deadline, meaning these are going to be real-world problems that we will be addressing in the near future. And in fact, every day we read headlines about things like ChatGPT, this artificial intelligence chat bot that can hold a conversation almost as well as a human being. There was even an engineer at Google last year who claimed that an AI that he was working on there was conscious and claimed that it wanted to hire a lawyer to defend itself in court.
So I think that there's no longer this air of total unreality about some of these scenarios, just as the idea that the environment will become radically worse and human life will be challenged and maybe even suffer an existential crisis. It's not necessarily true, but it no longer seems like a crazy idea. It seems like something that serious people think about.
Brian Anderson: The revolt against humanity certainly seems to demand from its adherents forms of self-limitation—sacrifice, even. And yet, this is a group of people who are ostensibly committed to science and reason. But as you write, they yearn for the clarity and purpose of an absolute moral imperative.
So it does seem that these currents of thought are infused with religious energies. So I wonder, in what ways might the revolt against humanity ideologies—I guess there's two here—provide belief systems that could be broadly appealing and motivate people who are seeking purpose?
I'm just curious about what your thoughts are on that.
Adam Kirsch: Definitely. And in fact, that, I think, is the real subject of my book. This is a short book in a series called Columbia Global Reports. It's not a full exploration of the subject, and I'm not a science-tech writer; I'm really a humanist. And the angle that I take on this is about belief systems and ethics and values. I'm looking at if people believe these things, start to think this way about humanity, what are some of the implications for things that have traditionally been the province of religion or spirituality?
I think that one reason why the revolt against humanity has a future, why these ideas have appeal, especially to younger people and to more educated people, is that as traditional religion declines and traditional religious explanations of the world don't make sense to some people, there's this natural look for something to replace them that will tell us what is good, and what is evil, what are we living for? What's the purpose of our being here?
The revolt against humanity answers that question in a very interesting way. It says the purpose of our being here is to replace ourselves, to do away with ourselves, and that that's actually the most important and most ethical thing that we can do, is to cede the stage to something else, whether that's animals and plants or artificial intelligences and genetically engineered life forms, that we are the problem and that's the solution.
That, I think, although it sounds paradoxical and it's obviously frightening, if you take it very literally, it also appeals to our urge to sacrifice ourselves, which is something that religions draw on and cultivate, that by giving something up, showing that you're giving up something very important to you, you show your dedication to a higher ideal, to a higher mission. So people might give up sexuality in the name of celibacy or they might give up riches in the name of taking a monastic oath. They might give up eating certain foods as a religious obligation.
The revolt against Humanity says we should give up our civilization, we should give up our machines, we should give up our species’ being in the name of values like progress on the one hand, or justice on the other hand, that the best way to serve those values is for humanity to sacrifice itself. And I think that that is paradoxical, but it has the same kind of paradoxical appeal that a lot of religious movements have.
Brian Anderson: And how do you see the political dimensions of this phenomenon playing out? How is the revolt against humanity going to shape our future political struggles and ideological conflict?
Adam Kirsch: I talk about this a bit at the end of the book, and of course, it's speculative because, like all of these ideas, it's looking at the future and prophecies about the future usually turn out to be wrong one way or another. But I'd say that the revolt against humanity maps very well on divisions that already exist in society and politics with people's attitudes towards science versus religion, the environment, how seriously they take environmental decay. Things like how many children is it right to have?
There are strong divisions on these questions that map onto political divisions. So people who are religious are more likely to be politically conservative, to want to have more children, to be more suspicious of scientific expertise and people who claim to tell them what to do in the name of science. You saw some of these issues come up during the pandemic with distrust of vaccines.
And on the other hand, you have people who are less religious, who are more highly educated, scientifically educated, who believe in the authority of science, who have fewer children.
All of those divisions could really be supercharged once some of these questions about the future of humanity become real political questions. For instance, should the government's role be to encourage having children and raise the birth rate, or should it be to lower the birth rate so as to lessen our impact on the planet? Should countries that care about the environment first and foremost consider themselves hostile to countries that extract and use a lot of energy? I think you can see some of that coming out in Europe right now. Would a green government be opposed to extracting oil, put sanctions on countries that produce oil? Could that lead to national conflicts?
I think that all of these are things that will be dawning in the next 10 years, and we can already see some of them happening today. And that's especially the case because, as I also discuss a bit in the book, younger people say that they're much more concerned about some of these issues. They're much less confident about the future of humanity, about whether it's right to have children at all, that it disturbs them, that it's the cause of profound anxiety and depression in large numbers of people. That has the potential to really change the way governments think about problems.
Brian Anderson: Adam, thanks very much. It sounds like a book that a lot of people are going to have a great deal of interest in, and it is, as you say, a pretty compact overview of what is an important development in our society.
Don't forget to check out Adam Kirsch's work. He's written for us a number of times, as I mentioned earlier. It's available on the City Journal website. You can check it out there, www.city-journal.org. We'll link to his author page in the description, and you'll be able to find a way of getting the book there. The book is available on Amazon, other stores as well.
You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal, and on Instagram @CityJournal_MI. And as always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a rating on iTunes.
Adam Kirsch, great to talk with you. Congratulations on the book.
Adam Kirsch: Thank you, Brian.