The New MisanthropyReading Time: 5 minutes
The Problem With Handing Our Survival Over to the Tech Billionaires, We’re woefully unprepared to confront humanity’s biggest threat., Why we’re unprepared to confront the threat of extinction.
An expert in philosophy and existential risk responds to Carter Scholz’s ‘No Regrets.’
One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s great early essays opens with a strange, science fictional vignette. Set on a melancholy little planet where ‘clever beasts invented knowing,’ the philosopher’s parable recounts the rise, reign, and ultimate extinction of this sapient species, whose career is described as only a ‘minute’ in the history of the universe. ‘After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die,’ Nietzsche writes.
Nietzsche’s grift soon becomes transparent, of course: We are the ‘clever beasts’ in the story, and the point of the parable is to force the reader to imagine our species from a God’s-eye view, to expose ‘how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature.’ The parable concludes on a nakedly nihilistic note: ‘When it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened,’ Nietzsche observes. ‘For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life.’
Understandably, most readers focus on the wildly pessimistic penultimate sentence, where Nietzsche announces humanity’s cosmic insignificance. However, it is the last sentence, which expressly explains why nothing will have happened, that holds the key to the parable’s meaning. For Nietzsche, the extinction of the ‘clever beasts’ is meaningless not because their existence is intrinsically worthless, but because they fail to pursue any ‘mission’ that would give their collective existence purpose. They do not set themselves a goal as a species.
Writing in 1873, Nietzsche’s insistence that humanity will only achieve cosmic significance if it transcends itself—if it evolves to something greater and grander—was both scandalizing and revolutionary. But today, such views are commonplace. Their most extreme form, so-called transhumanism—with its fixation on existential risk, digital minds, and genetic engineering—is the reigning ideology of some of the world’s most powerful individuals and institutions. Yet, Nietzsche’s parable is not only remarkable in its anticipation of contemporary transhumanism as a philosophy centered on the belief that it is humanity’s destiny to bend the limits of mind and matter to our evolutionary advantage. His work also anticipates transhumanism as a politics. The anti-democratic philosopher par excellence, Nietzsche believed that humanity can only take the next evolutionary leap if a strong leader—the so-called übermensch, or ‘overman’—exerts his will over the rudderless masses.
In his Future Tense Fiction story ‘No Regrets,’ Carter Scholz cheekily resurrects the iconic James Bond antagonist Dr. No, who is satirized as an Elon Musk-ish tech tycoon/Nietzschean übermensch. In today’s world, a rehabilitated Dr. No—with a penchant for New Age therapy, A.I., asteroid plundering, and desire to control humanity’s fate—finds that the types of schemes that once made him a global supervillain now make him an internet celebrity and the subject of fawning media coverage.
When a journalist interviews Dr. No on his private island, she pushes this improbable tech bro on the issue of democracy, asking why he should have the authority to undertake planetary-scale projects, like asteroid mining or solar geoengineering, without the consent of the planet’s inhabitants. ‘Isn’t it problematic to do this on your own?’ she asks. ‘Isn’t it more problematic not to?’ Dr. No parries, in a manner reminiscent of some of our real-life tech billionaires.
In these moments, the story begins to feel familiar. We know the evil genius will gamble; we know that humanity will likely lose. Yet, Scholz has a twist for us. When an asteroid that Dr. No hoped to mine as a part of a complex geoengineering scheme comes hurtling toward Earth, he asks his legions of social media followers what course of action he should take: Should he try to pull the asteroid close enough to mine, or play it safe and divert it from Earth? ‘Let’s crowdsource this,’ he tells his A.I. assistant. ‘Ask the people what they want to do with the asteroid.’
The votes come in, as they must, with a plurality of respondents desiring an extinction event and suggesting targets for the world-ending asteroid strike ranging from Moscow to Mar-a-Lago. Like Nietzsche’s parable, it is here that the author’s sleight of hand becomes apparent: At last, we recognize that it is the human species that is the true antagonist in this story, not the meddling mad scientist.
To be sure, we are not meant to sympathize with ‘the Doctor.’ He is megalomaniacal, indifferent to democracy, and presumes to take the fate of the world in his hands. But the question Scholz’s story encourages us to ask is not why one man can exert such control over the destiny of the planet and those who occupy it. No, the real question is Why is there such a leadership vacuum in the first place? Why have we become so comfortable outsourcing the world’s most pressing problems—the very future of humanity itself—to eccentric billionaires who could have been cast as classic Bond villains dreaming of world domination?
The story’s conclusion suggests an answer to these questions: because our culture no longer holds humanity in high esteem. As an expert on the history of Western thinking about human extinction, I have long been worried about the ever-ballooning sphere of technophile elites—including megalomaniacs like Musk and Peter Thiel, cultic con artists like Sam Bankman-Fried, and influential ‘existential risk’ researchers and ‘longtermist’ philosophers—who believe that decisions about how to keep humanity safe from extinction are best made by themselves and their entourages. Still, what keeps me up at night is neither the myriad extinction scenarios that threaten our species nor the mad scientists and billionaires who aspire to solve them. What keeps me up at night is our collective indifference to both. Except sundry rich guys and academics, nobody seems to really care about human extinction. Some even welcome it.
Our political landscape and culture, at least in the U.S., seem woefully unprepared to meaningfully confront threats to our species. On the right, we have troglodytes who have retreated to their caves of denial as climate change scorches the planet. On the left, we have become distracted by narrow identitarian questions that reflect the Balkanization of our politics into a zero-sum game of competition between interest groups. Questions about humanity and its collective destiny seem quaint at best, irrelevant at worst.
Instead, what I have called ‘the New Misanthropy‘ reigns: We increasingly view Western civilization as hopelessly racist (on the left) and decadent (on the right). Many of those who do care about pressing existential risks like climate change see humanity as irredeemably corrupt, incapable of good environmental stewardship, and probably not worth saving. We are pessimistic. Our politics are anemic. And the young offer little reason for optimism: Rather than stage sit-ins or chain themselves to trees or riot in the streets, Gen Z has largely accepted their canceled future with little fanfare. The so-called Sunrise Movement lacks the teeth of the student radicalism of yesteryear. The kids I teach ask my permission before going to protests.
Given all this, is it any surprise that we have sat back and let the billionaires fight over our planet, our species, the future of both? ‘No Regrets’ is not an indictment of ‘the Doctor,’ the thinly veiled Musk sendup. It is an indictment of us. Our lazy misanthropy and half-ironic apocalypticism. Our weak optimism that Big Tech will figure something out. Our myopic focus on a politics of the self at a moment when our species is imperiled.
Like any great short story, Scholz’s shows us the truth: Half-assed overmen rule the clever beasts. Our ‘mission’ is insipid, cribbed from bad sci-fi. The final horror is not the end of the world, but our indifference to it. As the not-so-good doctor says: ‘The people have spoken.’
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