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Human Extinction
Main Articles - General Doomsday
February 08, 2008
Human extinction would be the extinction of the human species, Homo sapiens.

Attitudes to human extinction

Attitudes to human extinction vary widely depending on beliefs concerning spiritual survival (souls, heaven, reincarnation, and so forth), the value of the human race, whether the human race evolves individually or collectively, and many other factors. Many religions prophesy an "end times" to the universe. Human extinction is therefore a part of the faith of many humans to the extent that the end time means the absolute end of their physical humanity but perhaps not an internal soul.

However not all faiths connect human extinction to the end times, since some believe in cyclical regeneration, or that end times actually means the beginning of a new kind of existence (see eschatology and utopianism).

Perception of human extinction risk

The general level of fear about human extinction, in the near term, is very low, despite the pronouncements of some fringe groups. It is not an outcome considered by many as a credible risk. Suggested reasons for human extinction's low public visibility:

  1. There have been countless prophesies of extinction throughout history; in all cases the predicted date of doom has passed without much notice, making future warnings less frightening. However, a survivor bias would undercut the credibility of accurate extinction warnings. John von Neumann was probably wrong in having “a certainty” that nuclear war would occur; but our survival is not proof that the chance of a fatal nuclear exchange was low.
  2. Extinction scenarios (see below) are speculative, and hard to quantify. A frequentist approach to probability cannot be used to assess the danger of an event that has never been observed by humans.
  3. Nick Bostrom, head of the James Martin 21st Century School Future of Humanity Institute, has suggested that extinction risk-analysis may be an overlooked field because it is both too psychologically troublesome a subject area to be attractive to potential researchers and because the lack of previous human species extinction events leads a depressed view of the likelihood of it happening under changing future circumstances (an 'inverse survivorship bias').
  4. There are thousands of public safety jobs dedicated to analyzing and reducing the risks of individual death. There are no full-time existential safety commissioners partly because there is no way to tell if they are doing a good job, and no way to punish them for failure. The inability to judge performance might also explain the comparative governmental apathy on preventing human extinction (as compared to panda extinction, say).
  5. Some anthropologists believe that risk perception is biased by social structure; in the "Cultural Theory of risk" typography "individualist" societies predispose members to the belief that nature operates as a self-correcting system, which will return to its stable state after a disturbance. People in such cultures feel comfortable with a "trial-and-error" approach to risk, even to unsuitably rare dangers (such as extinction events).
  6. It is possible to do something about dietary or motor-vehicle health threats. Since it is much harder to know how existential threats should be minimized, they tend to be ignored. High technology societies tend to become "hierarchist" or "fatalist" in their attitudes to the ever-multiplying risks threatening them. In either case, the average member of society adopts a passive attitude to risk minimization, culturally, and psychologically.
  7. The bias in popular culture is to relate extinction scenario stories with non-extinction outcomes. (None of the 16 'most notable' WW3 scenarios in film are resolved by human extinction, for example.)
  8. The threat of nuclear annihilation actually was a daily concern in the lives of many people in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then the principal fear has been of localized terrorist attack, rather than a global war of extinction; contemplating human extinction may be out of fashion.
  9. Some people have philosophical reasons for doubting the possibility of human extinction, for instance the final anthropic principle, plenitude principle or intrinsic finality.
  10. Tversky and Kahneman have produced evidence that humans suffer cognitive biases which would tend to minimize the perception of this unprecedented event:
    1. Denial is a negative "availability heuristic" shown to occur when an outcome is so upsetting that the very act of thinking about it leads to an increased refusal to believe it might occur. In this case, imagining human extinction probably makes it seem less likely.
    2. In cultures where human extinction is not expected the proposition must overcome the "disconfirmation bias" against heterodox theories.
    3. Another reliable psychological effect relevant here is the "positive outcome bias".
    4. Behavioural finance has strong evidence that recent evidence is given undue significance in risk analysis. Roughly speaking, "100 year storms" tend to occur every twenty years in the stock market as traders become convinced that the current good times will last forever. Doomsayers who hypothesize rare crisis-scenarios are dismissed even when they have statistical evidence behind them. An extreme form of this bias can diminish the subjective probability of the unprecedented.

In general, humanity's sense of self preservation, and intelligence are considered to offer safe-guards against extinction. It is felt that people will find creative ways to overcome potential threats, and will take care of the precautionary principle in attempting dangerous innovations. The arguments against this are; firstly, that the management of destructive technology is becoming difficult, and secondly, that the precautionary principle is often abandoned whenever the reward appears to outweigh the risk. At least one instance where the principle may have been overruled was when prior to the Trinity nuclear test, one of the project's scientists (Teller) speculated that the fission explosion might destroy New Mexico and possibly the world, by causing a reaction in the nitrogen of the atmosphere. A calculation by Hans Bethe proved such a possibility theoretically impossible, but the fear of the possibility remained among some until the test took place. (See Ignition of the atmosphere with nuclear bombs, LA-602, online and Manhattan Project).

Observations about human extinction

The fact the majority of species that have existed on Earth have become extinct, has led to the suggestion that all species have a finite lifespan and thus human extinction would be inevitable. Dave Raup and Jack Sepkoski found for example a twenty six million year periodicity in elevated extinction rates, caused by factors unknown (See David M. Raup. "Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck" (1992, Norton). Based upon evidence of past extinction rates Raup and others have suggested that the average longevity of an invertebrate species is between 4-6 million years, while that of vertebrates seems to be 2-4 million years. The shorter period of survival for mammals lies in their position further up the food chain than many invertebrates, and therefore an increased liability to suffer the effects of environmental change. A counter-argument to this is that humans are unique in their adaptive and technological capabilities, so it is not possible to draw reliable inferences about the probability of human extinction based on the past extinctions of other species. Certainly, the evidence collected by Raup and others suggested that generalist, geographically dispersed species, like humans, generally have a lower rate of extinction than those species that require a particular habitat. In addition, the human species is probably the only species with a conscious prior knowledge of their own demise, and therefore would be likely to take steps to avoid it.

Another characteristic of the human animal that may be unique is its religious belief, which in most situations encourages respect for life. On the other hand, it may also create conditions for warfare and genocide. As a result, such thinkers as Albert Einstein believed that "We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive."

Humans are very similar to other primates in their genetic propensity towards intra-species violence; Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee (ISBN 0-09-980180-9) estimates that 64% of hunter-gather societies engage in warfare every two years. Although it has been argued (e.g. in the UNESCO Seville Statement) that warfare is a cultural artifact, many anthropologists[citation needed] dispute this, noting that small human tribes exhibit similar patterns of violence to chimpanzee groups, the most murderous of the primates, and our nearest living genetic relatives. The 'higher' functions of reason and speech may be more evolved in the brain of Homo sapiens faculties have expanded, so has the than its cousins, but the relative size of the limbic system is a constant in apes, monkeys and humans; as human rationalwetware of emotion. The combination of inventiveness and urge to violence in the human animal has been cited as evidence against its long term survival.

Human extinction scenarios

Various scenarios for the extinction of the human species have originated from science, popular culture, science fiction, and religion (see apocalypse and eschatology). The expression existential risk has been coined to refer to risks of total and irreversible destruction of human life, or of some lesser, but universal and permanent detriment to it.

The following are among the extinction scenarios that have been envisaged by various authors:

  • Severe forms of known or recorded disasters
    • Warfare, whether nuclear or biological; see World War III.
    • Universal pandemic involving a genetic disease, virus, prion, or antibiotic-resistant bacterium.
    • Famine resulting from overpopulation (see Malthusian catastrophe)
  • Environmental collapses
    • Catastrophic climate change as a result of global warming or the effects of extensive deforestation and pollution. (E.g. the warnings of James Lovelock#Mass human extinction)
    • Loss of a breathable atmosphere, for example due to an anoxic event, or destruction of the ozone layer.
    • Occurrence of a supervolcano.
    • Extreme ice age leading to Snowball Earth
  • Long term habitat threats
    • In 1.4 million years Gliese 710 will be only 1.1 Light years from Earth, and might catastrophically perturb the Oort cloud
    • In about 3 billion years, our Milky Way galaxy is expected to pass through the Andromeda galaxy, which may or may not result in a collision
    • In 5 billion years hence the Sun's stellar evolution will reach the red giant stage, in which it will expand but mathematically it cannot engulf earth, it will only change the climate. Before this date, its radiated spectrum may alter in ways Earth-bound humans could not survive.
    • In the far future the main risks to human survival could be heat death and cooling with the expansion of the universe.
  • Evolution of humanity into a posthuman life-form or existence by means of technology, leaving no trace of original humans
    • Commentators such as Hans Moravec argue that humanity will eventually be supplanted and replaced by artificial intelligence or other forms of artificial life; others such as Kevin Warwick point to the possibility of humans evolving by linking with technology[2]; while others have argued that humanity will inevitably experience a technological singularity, and furthermore that this outcome is desirable (see singularitarianism).
    • Transhumanist genetic engineering could lead to a species unable to inter-procreate, accidentally resulting in actual (rather than pseudo) extinction.
    • Humans will continue to evolve via traditional natural selection over a period of millions of years, and homo sapiens will gradually transition into one or more new species.
    • Isaac Asimov's 'The Last Question' provides a diversion on this theme and is considered one of the greatest science fiction short stories ever written.
  • Evolution of humanity into another hominid species. Modern humans evolved from previous creatures, and as humans continue to evolve, there is no rational reason to think that homo sapiens is the last in the homo lineage.
  • Extinction in a whimper
    • Preference for fewer children; if developed world demographics are extrapolated they mathematically lead to 'soft' extinction before 3000 AD. (John Leslie estimates that if the reproduction rate drops to the German level the extinction date will be 2400).
    • Political intervention in reproduction has failed to raise the birth rate above the replacement level in the rich world, but has dramatically succeeded in lowering it below the replacement level in China(see One child policy). A World government with a eugenic or small population policy could send humanity into 'voluntary' extinction.
    • Infertility: Caused by hormonal disruption from the chemical/pharmaceutical industries, or biological changes, such as the (controversial) findings of falling sperm cell count in human males.
    • A disruption, chemical, biological, or otherwise, in humans' ability to reproduce properly or at all
    • Disease: The 'weak-gened' and birth-defected are kept alive by medicines. This is the opposite of nature, where the weak are less likely to survive and successfully reproduce, leaving the species genetically 'strong'. Eventually everyone has weak/flawed genes, and these defects become increasingly severe, until the human body is unable to fight diseases, even with the help of advanced medicine. In the end, disease ends the human species. Arguably however if this point was reached natural selection would again become a factor, potentially reversing this 'decline'.
    • Voluntary extinction
  • Scientific accidents
    • In his book Our Final Hour, Sir Martin Rees claims that without the appropriate regulation, scientific advancement increases the risk of human extinction as a result of the effects or use of new technology. Some examples are provided below.
      • Uncontrolled nanotechnology (grey goo) incidents resulting in the destruction of the Earth's ecosystem (ecophagy).
      • Creation of a naked singularity (such as a "micro black hole") on Earth during the course of a scientific experiment, or other foreseeable scientific accidents in high-energy physics research, such as vacuum phase transition or stranglet incidents. There are worrys concerning the LHC at CERN as it is feared that collision of protons at a speed near the speed of light will result in the creation of a black hole.
    • Biotech disaster (E.g. the warnings of Jeremy Rifkin)
  • Scenarios of extra-terrestrial origin
    • Major impact events.
    • Gamma-ray burst in our part of the Milky Way (Bursts observable in other galaxies are calculated to act as a "sterilizer", and have been used by some astronomers to explain the Fermi paradox). The lack of fossil record interruptions, and relative distance of the nearest Hypernova candidate make this a long term (rather than imminent) threat.
    • A black hole may destroy the Earth.
    • Invasion by militarily superior aliens (see alien invasion) — often considered to be a scenario purely from the realms of science fiction, professional SETI researchers have given serious consideration to this possibility, but conclude that it is unlikely. 
    • Gerard O'Neill has cautioned that first contact with alien intelligence may follow the precedent set by historical examples of contact between human civilizations, where the less technologically-advanced civilization has inevitably succumbed to the other civilization, regardless of its intentions.
    • Solar flares may suddenly heat the earth, or the light from the sun may be blocked by dust, slowly freezing it (eg. the dust and vapour may come from a Kuiper belt disturbance).
    • It is possible that the space of our universe, the Big Bang, and all its consequences are events taking place within a computer or other device on another cosmological plane, if this process were to end then everything within the universe would summarily vanish (see Simulated Reality).
  • Philosophical scenarios
    • See End of the world (philosophy)


Omnicide is human extinction as a result of human action. Most commonly it refers to extinction through nuclear warfare,[but it can also apply to extinction through means such as global anthropogenic ecological catastrophe.

Omnicide can be considered a subcategory of genocide. Using the concept in this way, one can argue that, for example

the arms race is genocidal in intent given the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union are knowingly preparing to destroy each other as viable national and political groups.

As this claim illustrates, the concept of omnicide raises issues of human agency and, hence, of moral responsibility in discussions about large-scale social processes like the nuclear arms race or ecologically destructive industrial production. That is, part of the point of describing a human extinction scenario as 'omnicidal' is to note that, if it were to happen, it would result not just from natural, uncontrollable evolutionary forces, or from some random catastrophe like an asteroid impact, but from deliberate choices made by human beings. This implies that such scenarios are preventable, and that the people whose choices make them more likely to happen should be held morally accountable for such choices. In this context, the label 'omnicide' also works to de-normalize the course of action it is applied to.

Scenarios of the world without humans

The book The World Without Us by Alan Weisman deals with a thought experiment on what would happen to the planet and especially man-made infrastructures if humans suddenly disappeared. Alan said that apes, with the highest IQ amongst animals other than humans, may be the species that succeeds humanity. The Discovery Channel film The Future is Wild show the possible future of evolution on Earth without humans. The History Channel 2-hour special Life After People examines the possible future of life on Earth without humans.

  • Cawthorne, N. (2004). Doomsday. Arcturus Publishing Limited. ISBN 1-84193-238-8
  • Leslie, J. (1999). Risking Human Extinction
  • Leslie, J. (1996). The End of the World: The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-18447-9

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