Contemplating human extinction


Whether designer pathogen or malicious AI, we now recognize many ways to die.

But when did people first start actually thinking about human extinction?

The answer is: surprisingly recently. As ideas go, the idea of the extinction of the human species is a new one. It did not, and could not, exist until a few centuries ago.

Of course, we humans have probably been prophesying the end of the world since we began talking and telling stories. However, the modern idea of human extinction distinguishes itself from the tradition of apocalypse as it is found across cultures and throughout history.

In the ancient mythologies you will not find the idea of a physical universe continuing, in its independent vastness, after the annihilation of humans. Neither will you find the idea of the end of the world as a totally meaningless event. It is invariably imbued with some moral significance or revelatory lesson.

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Only very recently in human history did people realize that Homo sapiens, and everything it finds meaningful, might permanently disappear. Only recently did people realize the physical universe could continue — aimlessly — without us. However, this was one of the most important discoveries humans have ever made. It is perhaps one of our crowning achievements. Why? Because we can only become truly responsible for ourselves when we fully realize what is at stake.

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