If humanity were to disappear from the Earth, what would be lost? On the human scale, the answer is everything; but on a planetary scale, it’s tempting to concede that such a loss might amount to a net gain. It is probably not necessary to enumerate the various ways that humanity has been unambiguously bad for the planet and pretty much every other living creature on it. But we tend not to think of our species, and the prospect of its extinction, in such bluntly utilitarian terms. We’d rather we weren’t so terrible, but we’d also like to think, even if it means fooling ourselves, that we might in time become less terrible—and either way, an enthusiastic embrace of our extinction would surely be taking things a bit far.
Or would it? This is the question that animates The Revolt Against Humanity, a brisk and bracing new book by the poet and critic Adam Kirsch. It charts a scattered and heterogeneous constellation of radical thinkers, all of whom share a conviction, in one form or another, that the end of our human era is close at hand, and that such an event, far from being a catastrophe to be evaded or postponed, should in fact be welcomed. In surveying the stark territory of this idea, Kirsch is guided by two apparently opposed points on the ideological compass: an extreme environmentalist pessimism that he calls “Anthropocene antihumanism” and the wide-eyed futurism of the transhumanist movement that for some decades now has emanated from the techno-capitalist heartland of Silicon Valley.
The first of these intellectual tendencies is a response to our deepening environmental crisis and can be seen as a kind of curdled Romanticism; its adherents believe that our alienation from nature has become so extreme, our ongoing destruction of it so irrecoverably dire, that the only hope for the planet is our extinction. The transhumanists are a more optimistic group of thinkers, though theirs is an optimism that can seem both absurd and unsettling. They believe, with the peculiar religious intensity of committed rationalists, that a fallen humanity will be redeemed by the advent of future technology, and that it is our destiny to merge with machines and become a species of computer-enhanced, immortal cyber-gods.
Although these groups might appear to the casual observer—and to each other—radically opposed, they are in fact united by the single apocalyptic conviction “that the end of humanity’s reign on Earth is imminent, and that we should welcome it.” Together, Kirsch argues, they amount to an emergent “revolt against humanity,” which “has the potential to transform politics and society in profound ways.”
The Anthropocene—the geologically disputed but culturally embraced term for our present era—is characterized, Kirsch writes, by a profound shift in our relationship to the natural world. Following the Enlightenment, we redirected our feelings of wonder and terror away from a deposed God and toward the idea of an equally strange and mercurial Nature. Now, with our miraculous technologies and the noxious appetites that drive them, we have domesticated that power and made something pitiful of what was once sublime. Kirsch links this act of symbolic parricide to Nietzsche’s pronouncement, at the end of the nineteenth century, of the death of God at human hands—a crime so vastly ramifying that we needed to become gods ourselves to be worthy of having committed it. In the Anthropocene, Kirsch argues, something analogous is happening at the fringes of our intellectual culture. The often mutually antagonistic thinkers who for him form the revolt against humanity propose two radical solutions to the crisis of our existence: either we do the planet a final kindness and fall on our swords, or we ascend to the state of AI-enhanced Technomenschen.
Kirsch makes no attempt to argue that either of these vectors of apocalypse has penetrated to the center of our culture, or that they are likely to. But he does note that extreme apocalyptic prophesies have changed the course of history. (Christ’s whole deal, for instance, was fairly eschatological, as in another sense was Marx’s.) Even at their most absurd and unlikely, such prophecies and their attendant movements can be viewed as symptoms that might assist a diagnosis of underlying civilizational maladies. And Kirsch does not shy from absurd and unlikely ideas, but rather takes them seriously on something like this basis.
One of the thinkers we encounter in these pages is the Australian philosopher Patricia MacCormack, whose morbid environmentalism is, in the realm of theoretical abstraction at least, about as antihuman as it gets. In her book The Ahuman Manifesto: Activism for the End of the Anthropocene (2020), MacCormack calls for “an end to the human both conceptually as exceptionalized and actually as a species.” We humans, she writes, are an essentially “parasitic” species; our growth and dominance has been a uniquely disastrous process for the planet and for those other species who must live on it. We suck, in other words, and we should kill ourselves by bringing an immediate and universal end to reproduction.
She is careful to note that it’s not eugenics if nobody can have kids—presumably because it’s important to stop the fascists from gaining a foothold in the human extinction scene. “The death of the human species is the most life-affirming event that could liberate the natural world from oppression,” she writes. “I am deeply saddened that there has never managed to be an annihilation of the human species, in spite of plague and war.” (For a literary critic of his sensitivity and skill, Kirsch is remarkably forbearing when it comes to the prose styles of the writers he examines, presumably on the grounds that it’s hardly a pressing matter in comparison with the obliteration of humanity.)
We are, palpably, on the far margins of the plausible here, and arguably drifting, too, into the realm of intellectual unseriousness. The brisk treatment of MacCormack’s book in The Revolt Against Humanity piqued my perverse curiosity enough that I sought out a copy, and I learned that its author is surprisingly bullish on cannibalism as both radical queer praxis—as “queer in its collapse of subject and object and food and sex”—and as a sustainable alternative to livestock farming. (“Our world,” she writes, “is groaning under the weight of the parasitic pestilence of human life and yet our excessive resource is the human dead.”) Kirsch doesn’t touch the cannibalism, which is fair enough, and neither does he try to sell the reader on the significance of the manifesto as a philosophical intervention. But he does make a credible case for it as an extreme manifestation of a broader cultural gesture toward human obsolescence and extinction.
The Ahuman Manifesto could certainly be shelved, for instance, alongside the work of the South African philosopher David Benatar, the leading intellectual figure of antinatalism, a movement that advocates for the end of reproduction as a means to putting humanity out of its misery. The central contention of his work, as laid out in Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence (2006), is that human lives are, on balance, far more painful than pleasurable, and that we who’ve had the misfortune of being born have a moral duty to stop the same thing from happening to others.
Benatar writes less as an environmentalist than as a moral philosopher, but Kirsch counts him as an Anthropocene antihumanist in any case, because of his conviction that human extinction would not deprive the universe of anything unique or valuable. “The concern that humans will not exist at some future time is either a symptom of the human arrogance,” writes Benatar,
or is some misplaced sentimentalism…. That humans value a world that contains beings such as themselves says more about their inappropriate sense of self-importance than it does about the world…. Things will someday be the way they should be—there will be no people.
He is, in other words, a kind of forlorn and alienated utilitarian. Bentham’s “greatest happiness of the greatest number” principle gets inverted, by Benatar, into a simpleminded equation: No people, no pain. (One thing that has to be acknowledged about utilitarians is that, whether you agree with them or not, they’re typically better at making themselves understood than, say, poststructuralists. You can always count on a consequentialist for a modest prose style.)
The problem with antinatalism—apart from human extinction, if you’re sentimental enough to count that as a problem—is that its unflinching moral rationalism can quickly start to look like an elaborate intellectual front for bone-deep depression. Anyone who thinks that life, despite its various miseries, is worth living must be, in Benatar’s view, fooling themselves. “If people realized just how bad their lives were,” he writes, “they might grant that their coming into existence was a harm.” We have a tendency, he says, to ignore just how much of our experience is characterized by negative mental states. Some of these, of course, are seriously negative, but for Benatar even the frivolously negative ones are admissible as evidence for the prosecution. For instance: “How often does one feel neither too hot nor too cold, but exactly right?” As of this writing, I will grudgingly concede that the room I am sitting in is a little on the chilly side, but not to the extent that I’m ready to succumb to cosmic pessimism; I can always put on a sweater.
Not all the thinkers Kirsch categorizes as Anthropocene antihumanists are quite as down on humanity as Benatar and MacCormack. He discusses a cluster of contemporary philosophers whose work worries the conceptual seam separating human and nonhuman. Thinkers like Graham Harman and Timothy Morton, often grouped together as “object-oriented ontologists,” and the political theorist Jane Bennett aim to level the metaphysical playing field so that we humans are not viewed as inherently superior to, or categorically distinguishable from, other animals and even inorganic objects. These philosophers want us to stop thinking of ourselves as subjects among objects, and to attend instead to the thinghood of ourselves and the selfhood of things. “Every nonhuman object can also be called an ‘I’ in the sense of having a definite inwardness that can never fully be grasped,” writes Harman. They wish to dissolve this distinction between subject and object because of the harm that has been done to the planet in its name: “The image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter,” as Bennett puts it, “feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption.”
Kirsch does not particularly condemn object-oriented ontology. Despite the startling implications of the book’s title, The Revolt Against Humanity is less interested in condemnation than in identifying and analyzing a set of trends. He tends for the most part to let his judiciously chosen quotes speak for themselves, though he does present object-oriented ontology as an “antihuman” philosophy, rolling it together with writers who enthusiastically embrace our extinction. But these philosophers seem more concerned with dismantling the conceptual barriers around humanity than in ending human existence per se. They are certainly not humanists, but this doesn’t make them opposed to humanity. They refuse to draw lines between self and other, and between organic and inorganic; as much as we might think of bodies as unified and circumscribed domains, they are determined to remind us that we contain, and are in a way composed of, innumerable nonhuman entities such as bacteria. (“The its outnumber the mes,” as Bennett observes.) Object-oriented ontology is antihuman only in the sense that, say, Buddhism, in its denial of an unchanging essential self, is antihuman.
Kirsch stretches his own concept at times to the point of structural fragility. It’s easy to see how something like the Dark Mountain Project—a loose alliance of artists and writers who view environmentalism as a doomed venture and foresee an imminent end to human civilization—counts as Anthropocene antihumanism. “We do not believe that everything will be fine,” as the group’s manifesto puts it. “We are not even sure, based on current definitions of progress and improvement, that we want it to be.” (Although, even at its most poetically eschatological, Dark Mountain is more opposed to postindustrial modernity than to the existence of our species as such.) It’s harder to see how the trippy metaphysics of Bennett, Morton, and Harman fits this description. Similarly, Kirsch cites Richard Powers’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Overstory (2018), in which certain eco-activist characters voice opinions about the superiority of trees over humans, as evidence of “the embrace of antihumanist ideas by the reading public.” But the themes of a novel, or its characters’ words, are no more reflective—are probably much less reflective—of its readers’ convictions than they are of its author’s.
Transhumanism, the focus of the book’s second half, might seem a similarly awkward fit for Kirsch’s revolt against humanity. As the name suggests, the movement advocates for pushing beyond, rather than against, the boundaries of the human. Its adherents don’t want to abolish humanity so much as force it into overdrive, using technology to hasten the evolutionary progress of the species. There is, in this sense, something obviously contradictory about it: nothing is more fundamentally human than the desire to transcend the human condition. And at least some of the movement’s roots, as Kirsch notes, are deep in classical liberal humanism. In an essay on the history of transhumanism published in The Transhumanist Reader (2013), Max More, a philosopher often credited as a founder of the movement, cites Oration on the Dignity of Man by the Renaissance writer Pico della Mirandola as an early precursor. In it, Pico imagines God delivering a divine pep talk to his highest creation:
The nature of all other beings is limited and constrained within the bounds of laws prescribed by Us. Thou, constrained by no limits, in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hand We have placed thee, shalt ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature…so that with freedom of choice and with honor, as though the maker and molder of thyself, thou mayest fashion thyself in whatever shape thou shalt prefer.*
Transhumanists are fond of invoking Pico’s riff, Kirsch observes, because it portrays a humanity whose essence is its lack of essence. They want to present the posthuman future they are arguing for—technologically enhanced cognitive capacities and life spans; an end to the various frailties and infirmities of the human body and soul—as simultaneously a radical break with everything that has gone before and a continuation of what humans have always sought through innovations in medical science and technology. There’s a case to be made, after all, that if you have a pacemaker fitted, or you’re on the pill, or you wear spectacles, you are already posthuman, and that in our use of tools—which is arguably one of the things that defines Homo sapiens in the first place—we have always reached beyond the boundaries that delimit the human estate.
But in its more fervent expressions, the movement is undeniably apocalyptic. Among its most prominent proponents, for instance, is Ray Kurzweil, the inventor of the flatbed scanner and founder of Kurzweil Music Systems, who later became a director of engineering at Google. Kurzweil’s best-selling futurist writings have established him over the past two decades as a kind of business casual John of Patmos. In The Singularity Is Near (2005), he argues that we are approaching a moment—which he calls the Singularity—when we will finally transcend our frail and cumbersome human bodies and rise to a higher plane of existence by merging with superintelligent AI, whose advent is near at hand. (As a prophet of apocalypse, Kurzweil is hopeful that the Singularity will happen in his own earthly lifetime. He’s not complacent about it, though: he ingests a truly prodigious daily array of vitamins and other supplements in the hope of extending his own longevity by more or less natural means, until the great cosmic operating system upgrade comes along.) “The Singularity,” he writes,
will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want…. We will fully understand human thinking and will vastly extend and expand its reach. By the end of this century, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence.
The Singularity, in other words, is not just the point where humans merge finally with technology; it is also the horizon where scientific rationalism, pushed to its most radical extremes, merges with the dark matter of religious faith.
The Singularity, in this sense, feels like a particularly lurid illustration of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s formulation in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944): “Myth is already enlightenment, and enlightenment reverts to mythology.” Transhumanism is interesting less as a set of predictions about our possible technological future than as a religious idea. What transhumanists are after is fundamentally a form of redemption, not through God but through technology. To regain our prelapsarian state of grace, we must become machines. Heinrich von Kleist, in his essay “On the Marionette Theater” (1810), illuminated something very close to this idea: it is only by following the path of knowledge that led us out of Eden that we might return to a kind of innocence. The essay’s enigmatic final lines, in which the narrator relates an exchange between himself and his friend the dancer Herr C., seem to anticipate the emergence of the techno-utopian movements of our own time:
“Does that mean,” I said in some bewilderment, “that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”
“Of course,” he said, “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”
At one point in The Revolt Against Humanity, Kirsch describes an inherent problem with what he calls “human-centred environmentalism”: there is no way to divest the planet of industrialized civilization without divesting it of ourselves. “As long as there are seven billion–plus human beings to feed and shelter, to keep warm, clothed, and comfortable,” he writes,
it is simply impossible to climb down from the teetering height of twenty-first-century technology. We have to keep pushing further into the Anthropocene, in the hope that we will somehow come out the other end into a green world.
It’s a logic reminiscent of Kleist’s Herr C., and, in another sense, of the transhumanists. The only way out—or back—is through.
Although transhumanism tends to express its ideas in vauntingly optimistic terms—technology will provide, death shall have no more dominion—much of its rhetoric betrays a barely repressed ambivalence about the relationship between humanity and machines. One of its minor-key motivations is a fear of human obsolescence in the face of the technological progress about which it is otherwise so evangelical. Transhumanists are mechanists in the Cartesian sense: they believe that a human being is already a kind of machine. (In his Treatise on Man, Descartes argued that all our psychological “functions”—our memories, thoughts, and emotions—“follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels.”) What they want is not for us to become machines but to become better versions of the machines we already are. And one of the reasons they want this is because they fear that if we don’t, we are likely to be superseded by our own technological innovations, made obsolete by artificial intelligence.
This has been, over the years, one of Elon Musk’s many hobbyhorses. When he launched his brain–computer interface company Neuralink in 2016, it was with the long-term aim of achieving what he called “symbiosis with artificial intelligence,” in order to avoid the inevitable existential threat posed to humanity by the advent of superintelligent AI. His anxiety was a characteristically transhumanist one: machine intelligence would supersede human intelligence and consequently either make us obsolete or wipe us out entirely—and we would suffer, under a higher intelligence, the kind of fate that other primates have suffered under us. Just as they tend to be secular humanists, transhumanists tend to be libertarians and, if not always outright cheerleaders for capitalism, then certainly on the whole uncritical of it. Whatever else it is, capitalism is an engine of technological progress and, to the transhumanist, therefore a good thing.
But there is an unexamined contradiction here: when someone like Musk—who is, let’s remember, among the foremost beneficiaries and figureheads of capitalism currently living—claims to worry about artificial intelligence making humans obsolete, he is unconsciously expressing, as though against his own will, a fear about capitalism. Because technology itself is not what makes people—workers, artists, communities—obsolete, but rather the uses to which technology is put in the interest of capital. Another way of looking at this anxiety about obsolescence, along with the related anxiety that an AI superintelligence might choose to wipe us out entirely, is that it is a kind of sublimated horror at what we ourselves have done to the world. Technology has progressed in tandem with the domestication and destruction of nature. It would be a kind of poetic justice, in the end, if the process of our technological supremacy were to culminate in our own obsolescence or obliteration. (If MacCormack and Benatar are looking for an alternative means toward their apocalyptic ends, investing in AI research might not be the worst way to go.)
Despite his justified reputation as a critic of range and depth, Kirsch’s treatment of transhumanism is really more of a journalistic survey than an essayistic engagement. He pays little or no attention to the fact that the movement is a metastasized outgrowth of capitalist individualism, concerned as it is with the perfection of the self and the extension of its reign into perpetuity. It’s an odd omission, because there’s a case to be made that capitalism—embedded though it is, like transhumanism, in liberal humanist principles—has itself become a profoundly antihuman phenomenon.
In response to Kurzweil’s claim that “today’s electronic circuits are more than one million times faster than the electrochemical switching used in mammalian brains,” Kirsch makes the playfully absurd calculation that “an AI exactly as intelligent as, say, Albert Einstein, should be able to think about 2,739 years’ worth of Einstein’s thoughts in one day.” If an AI can do everything that humans can do “but better and faster, as well as things we can’t even conceive of, what reason is there for us to continue to exist?” The transhumanist answer to this question would be that there is no reason at all, and that we should therefore discontinue humanity like the outmoded technology it is. But this reveals a deeper and more troubling dimension of transhumanist thinking that Kirsch only gestures toward: it is predicated on a very impoverished conception of human life.
It’s easy to imagine artificial intelligence making large parts of the labor force obsolete, but the belief that it’s likely to make humanity itself obsolete says less about AI than it does about the person with that belief. If you think intelligence is merely a matter of solving complicated mathematical problems or winning games of chess, then yes, AI has already begun to displace humanity; but if you believe that a human being counts for more than computational power—or, for that matter, economic productivity—then the very notion of obsolescence can only ever be a bizarre category error.
It’s also a strangely comic one. Transhumanists like Kurzweil and Musk, with their insistence on conflating humans and computers, bring to mind Flann O’Brien’s surreal postmodernist masterpiece The Third Policeman. One of the novel’s weirder plot strands concerns the insidious phenomenon of people slowly turning into bicycles and bicycles into people, as a result of too much time spent biking. Sergeant Pluck, the policeman of the rural Irish parish gripped by this confusion of men and machines, explains the problem using a spectacularly garbled version of atomic theory:
The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles.
O’Brien would have recognized, and would surely have been richly amused by, the phenomenon of men spending too much time on the computer and getting their personalities, and their fellow humans, mixed up with the personalities of their machines.
Both flanks of Kirsch’s antihuman revolt share the conviction that, to put it in Kleistian terms, the page has been turned on the final chapter. It’s in the nature of apocalyptic movements, and of human beings, to think of history as a narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end that is about to be revealed. And our current moment, with its rising sea levels and viral pandemics, its Mars-colonizing billionaires and fragmenting global orders, certainly feels apocalyptic. But there is something undeniably self-flattering in the idea of an imminent apocalypse, in that it places us—our generation, our time—at the very center of the meaning of things, as the ultimate protagonists of history.
And this is related to the somewhat grandiose appeal of the end of the world as a subject. I say this as someone who has written not only a book about transhumanism, but also one about apocalyptic anxieties. When I was writing the latter book, a friend commented that it must be quite a reassuring subject to work on, because if you’re writing a book about the end of the world you can be confident that there is nothing more pressing to consider, and thereby be assured of your own intellectual seriousness. If it was a compliment, it was one that contained within it an unmistakable, and accurate, charge of intellectual vanity. The apocalypse, as a subject, might be too serious for its own good.