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Human extinction? It’s not just science fiction

At a recent science fiction conference (thematically called “East/West SF”), arranged under the auspices of the “Brain Korea” project by Professor Ilgu Kim of Hannam University, Daejeon, Korea (about an hour by high-speed train from Seoul), a number of excellent papers were presented, none more so than the one by American Peter Paik, titled: “Science Fiction and the end of Utopia: On Michel Houellebecq and Extinction Theory” (pp 1-13 of the Conference Proceedings, 2014).

In his paper Professor Paik frames Houellebecq’s novel, The Possibility of an Island (2007), in terms derived from extinction theory, and at the end of his presentation observed that he found the scenario sketched by, among others, Houellebecq, “entirely credible”. What is this scenario? First of all, one should note that the novel presupposes that, unless humans can be constitutionally modified through genetic engineering, they will not survive the by now unavoidable cataclysmic climate change set in motion by industrial capitalism — in fact, the spate of papers and books that have lately appeared in what is known as extinction theory was arguably prompted by the realisation that such a catastrophe is now inevitable.

The science-fictional element that the narrative of The Possibility of an Island turns on is the successful cloning of (only very rich) humans, and by this means a cult, the Elohim. The cult produces genetically modified neo-humans that are precisely capable of existing in a sustainable way despite the climate calamity facing them (p 8). As some may already have guessed, this entails removing from the neo-humans all those traits that have led to the destruction of the very environment, which has been the precondition for human existence.

Such characteristics are desire, the lust for reproduction, jealousy, and particularly the violent urge to dominate others and to devastate the natural environment in an effort to actualise their own short-term interests (p 9). Shorn of these ultimately self-destructive attributes of Homo sapiens, the neo-humans live out their lives — until their own clone picks up where the previous one left off at his or her death — in perfect tranquillity in “compounds” distributed throughout the world.

The price a genetically altered neo-human pays for such “angelic” serenity includes the loss of the ability to feel empathy or benevolence, so that they regard the few remaining, post-catastrophe survivors of their less fortunate predecessor species, humans, who have retrogressed to a barbaric existence outside the exclusive neo-human compounds, with detached indifference. So much so that one of the novel’s characters, Daniel24 (the 24th clone of Daniel1), can kill the neo-barbarian humans who stray too close to his compound with the same detachment as “swatting a fly” (p 9).

After the peaceful death of Daniel24, his identical clone-successor, Daniel25, sets out to explore the world outside the compound where he encounters sadistic and competitive behaviour among the barbaric remnants of humanity, which is reminiscent of exactly the same preponderant traits on the part of the inhabitants of the high-tech society (meaning, more or less, those living at present) who first created the genetically “cleansed” clones.

Interestingly, Paik detects in the neo-humans of Houellebecq’s novel the same “cold and inhuman gaze” (p 10) that one encounters in extinction theory, in so far as the latter perspective (the possibility of human extinction) forces one to expand the temporal horizon that frames human existence immeasurably, to be able to render a judgment over the actions of human beings. The point is that, paradoxically, the notion of the Anthropocene (the geological period marked by the human capability to alter the planetary conditions of its existence) de-centres anthropocentrism (human centrality regarding every conceivable question or event) because it places the comparatively brief geological period (during which people have visited ecological destruction on the planet) on an immense cosmic time-scale, with the result that previous planetary upheavals are brought into perspective. Significantly, many of these earlier global calamities pre-date the arrival of Homo sapiens, that is, they evince an inhuman past, compelling us, in turn, to project a similarly inhuman, or non-human future, where humans have become extinct. In short, we are brought face to face with the fact that humanity is not all that important in the history of the planet — we are entirely dispensable.

To be able to grasp this, Paik dwells on the difference between an individual’s death and the death of the human species, or extinction (p 1-2). The latter, he emphasizes, represents something far more drastic than individual death. When one of us dies, we live on in the memories of our family and friends, and the creative ones among us live on in what we leave behind (artworks, books, and so on). In a less personal sense the “traces” of all who have ever lived, live on in the “realm of the symbolic”. But extinction is an altogether different matter. It annihilates the kind of life-after-death that cultural continuity makes possible. In Paik’s words (p 1): “The consequence of extinction would be to wipe out the living as well as to erase that which culture preserves.”

To put this further in perspective, he reminds us that this is also entirely different from the existentialist tradition in philosophy and literature, which grappled with the thought of a meaningless universe, indifferent to human designs in the absence of the traditional metaphysical comfort provided by religion. The confrontation with one’s own mortality has often been one of the considerations in the search for an authentic existence, as in Heidegger’s work, for instance. But thinkers like Lyotard and more recently, Ray Brassier and Claire Colebrook, have moved way beyond the existentialist project, claiming that the possibility (if not probability) of human extinction robs humans of their former “privilege” regarding “the relationship to their own inexistence”, in Brassier’s words (quoted on p 2).

Disconcertingly Brassier (in Paik’s paper) proceeds by pointing out that, henceforth, philosophy must cease being a “medium of affirmation” of human life, adopting the novel role of an “organon of extinction” instead, uncovering typically human preoccupations as “negligible” in the vast context of “cosmic time” (p 2). Claire Colebrook — the other extinction theorist that Paik discusses in his paper — is no less disconcerting, but with a twist: an uncompromising indictment of the human species in the light of both its incapacity to act decisively in the face of anthropogenic climate change, as well as the powerlessness of rational critique and ethics, as encountered in the humanities, to spur society into action (p 4-5).

While other eco-critics still hold out the possibility that a poststructuralist critique of anthropocentrism promises a fundamentally different, non-dominating relationship with nature, Colebrook dismisses it summarily. Instead, she states with undisguised contempt that (quoted in Paik, 2014, p 5): “Man is an animal who has detached himself from putative ecological animality and lived in such a way that his life is destructive of his milieu.” In fact, according to her, the most deeply rooted trait of humanity is its “perverse” inclination to “destroy itself and its milieu … for the sake of its own myopic, short-circuited, and self-regarding future” (quoted in Paik 2014, p 5). In short, Colebrook (unlike most theoreticians today) has rid herself of the illusions of anthropocentrism. Her thinking, like Brassier’s, leads to imagining a world devoid of humans, and consequently to the cultivation of an indifference to the species’ vaunted centrality in the scheme of things.

To return to Houellebecq’s novel, the consonance between the work of extinction theorists (especially Colebrook’s) and the fictional scenario that he sketches there should be apparent, particularly in the neo-human clones’ indifference to the barbaric remnants of the human species, as well as to the last “civilised” humans, whose “myopic self-interest” led to the climate apocalypse in the first place. Food for thought, albeit somewhat late for commensurate action.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.