Human extinction: appalling or appealing?

The Australian author Clive Hamilton’s recently published a book-length analysis of the roots of resistance to the truth about climate change, and why this makes it harder to do anything about it. It is a pretty convincing look at the reasons for denial. But Hamilton’s sobering essay is marked by one key miscalculation, its title.

He calls it Requiem for a Species. That is a misjudgement not because it is over the top (though it is) but because, it seems, some of us quite like the idea. The extinction of Homo sapiens is a gloomy prospect, on the face of it. Yet there is plenty of evidence just now of its appeal.

The end of all things, or just of all humans, in a flaming finis, is a fictional staple with recognisable roots in myth and religion. But the titillation of extinction is not quite the same thing as apocalypse as entertainment. I have in mind stories in a rather different mood, in which the end is, usually, more gradual. The long fade allows a few protagonists to stay around and animate the story, but this is a distraction from the main interest, which is depicting what the world would be like if we went away.

This tradition of, if you like, Last Man novels (Mary Shelley’s being the first notable example) is epitomised by George R Stewart’s great science fiction tale from the 1940s, whose titles evokes just the mood I am trying to pin down: Earth Abides. Strictly, it is not about extinction, but about the removal of civilization by a disease which does for the vast majority of humanity. But what stays in the mind are the elegiac descriptions of what happens to the world with hardly any people in it, related from the point of view of the ecologist who is the main witness of what follows.

This ambiguous mood, a kind of dark euphoria to borrow a phrase from the futurist Bruce Sterling, is also found in, for instance, Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, where there are some people left but it is pretty clear their days are numbered. And it animates the attention-grabbing thought experiment of Alan Weisman’s (sort of ) non-fiction book of 2007, The World Without Us. As one reviewer put it, Weisman’s book is a kind of pop-science ghost story, in which the haunted house is the Earth. The same idea was explored soon after in a two-hour documentary for the History Channel in the US, Life After People.

All these stories fascinate. And those who try and stir us to action by warning of the danger of extinction, or near-extinction – as when Australian microbiologist Frank Fenner asserts there is “no hope for humans” or James Lovelock envisages humanity reduced to “a few breeding pairs” by extreme climate change – need to consider that some may embrace the vision they want us to react against. But what, exactly, is the appeal?


The most recent depictions of Earth after human extinction tend toward the Edenic. The moral of such tales appears to be that an intelligent, upright primate that uses technology to reshape its environment is an unwelcome intrusion in a natural world that would get on much better without us.

But this contemporary twist, understandable at a time when anxiety about human-induced global change is high and we are shamefaced but mostly passive witnesses to the end of innumerable other species, is a variant of an older story. That is still modern, I think – no need to go back to Ecclesiastes, or even Mary Shelley. It begins with the Victorians, and with Charles Darwin.

There were two great blows to Victorians’ belief in progress and the pointfulness of life. One was the second law of thermodynamics, put forward by Sir William Thompson (Lord Kelvin) in 1852. Its inescapable implication was that the universe would move gradually toward “heat death”, becoming old, cold and inhospitable to life. Although this dispiriting prospect was unimaginably far off, it still set a cosmic limit to progress.

Within a decade of Thompson’s unwelcome announcement Darwin put extinction in a new light in The Origin of Species. Fossils had already shown that there were creatures roaming the Earth in the past which no longer exist. Darwin made their disappearance a cornerstone of his work. Evolution by natural selection, biology’s grand unified theory, is an essentially tragic framing of the story of life. Although Darwin himself figured evolution as progressive, on occasion, others were quick to point out that it ain’t necessarily so. At best, it is a theory of creative destruction. New species supplant old ones, and the price of their appearance is extinction. Speciation can occur simply via expansion into a new niche. But equally often success of one type is at the expense of some competitor. In time, now estimated at around ten million years on average, new species become extinct in their turn. Some go on far longer than this, but overall simply disappearing is a constant possibility.

This was not an immediate threat to human hopes, but was certainly closer to home than the heat death of the universe. Darwin’s most eloquent disciple, Thomas Huxley, put the point forcefully in his classic lecture on Evolution and Ethics in 1893. There, he described human existence as precarious in a way which combined the thermodynamic and evolutionary hazards: “nature is always tending to reclaim that which her child, man, has borrowed from her and arranged in combinations which are not those favoured by the general cosmic process.”

One of Huxley’s students, H. G. Wells, showed what this meant a few years later in his great evolutionary fable The Time Machine. The most striking scenes today are not the battles between the degenerate future Morlocks and Eloi, but the glimpses of the far future of Earth which the time traveller explores when he escapes from their era. In ten intense paragraphs Wells offers snapshots of a desolate world, populated first by monstrous crab-like creatures wading through algal slime, then flashing forward to a time when even they have vanished and all that is left on an otherwise deserted beach are lichen and liverworts and “a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about”.

It is an unforgettable vision, dark and peculiarly enjoyable. Is that because it shows the ultimate futility of it all? Maybe. There can be relief in the idea that there will be an end to human striving. But there is also comfort in imagining things going on after us. That has led to many more such visions, whether of worlds where we are simply absent, or have been succeeded by creatures no longer recognisable as human. To take just one example, consider Kurt Vonnegut’s great Galapagos, another evolutionary fable shot through with his trademark black humour and featuring an aquatic species, descended from a remnant of humanity that escaped a global plague, happily bereft of higher intelligence.

Whatever the details, all these variations on extinction have one thing in common. They play on the thing we all have to try and imagine, hard as it may be: how the world will carry on after our own death. But they expand it to a larger vision of the future, in which there is a time after the death of our species. Good or bad, imagining human extinction partakes of a particular, bittersweet quality which needs a name – post-Darwinian tristesse seem to fit.

Explore posts in the same categories: extinction, fear of the future

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One Comment on “Human extinction: appalling or appealing?”

  1. KenB Says:

    Brian Aldiss’s book “Greybeard” similarly treats the issue of a world (nearly) without humans, but at the end it leaves hope of a human resurgence.

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