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Human extinction! Don't panic; think about it like a philosopher.
Most people think human extinction would be bad. These people aren't philosophers.
- A new opinion piece in The New York Times argues that humanity is so horrible to other forms of life that our extinction wouldn't be all that bad, morally speaking.
- The author, Dr. Todd May, is a philosopher who is known for advising the writers of The Good Place.
- The idea of human extinction is a big one, with lots of disagreement on its moral value.
Humans could go extinct. The idea has been floating around science fiction since 1826, it dominated diplomatic thinking during the Cold War, and it fills the existentially inclined with dread. We've had some difficult times in the past, but today the only real threat to humanity is suicide.
While most people would think humans going extinct would be an obviously bad thing, these people aren't philosophers. This strange breed of human looks at the problem from many perspectives and often comes to conclusions that might shock you.
A tragedy, but not a bad thing.
Knowing how confusing that sentence was, he explains the idea by looking to tragic heroes in literature. Characters like Oedipus and King Lear do bad things yet invoke our sympathy. The idea is that humanity is doing bad things that could only be stopped with the extinction of humanity, but that we still have every reason to feel sympathetic for humanity despite this.
The "bad things" Dr. May refers to in this case are the suffering we cause to animals and the damage we cause to the environment. He makes specific reference to the vast numbers of animals we breed into existence, cram into factory farms to live unpleasant lives getting fat, then eat them, as one example. He mentions how human-caused climate change will alter Yellowstone National Park as another. Our often wanton destruction of the environment is unmatched by any other creature.
"It may well be, then, that the extinction of humanity would make the world better off and yet would be a tragedy. I don't want to say this for sure, since the issue is quite complex. But it certainly seems a live possibility, and that by itself disturbs me."
Is this opinion popular? Should I be concerned?
The idea that it would be for the best if humanity died off is held by more people than you might imagine. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (yes, it is real) encourages its supporters to not have children in hopes that humanity will peacefully die off.
The perpetually depressed Schopenhauer was an anti-natalist, one who thinks having children is morally wrong, because he thought most people would be doomed to live lives dominated by suffering. Several other thinkers, most notably David Benatar, agree with him. If these arguments were carried to their logical extreme, there wouldn't be any humans left after a few decades.
Others, including Benatar and the extinction movement people, agree with Dr. May that creating more humans causes more environmental trouble than is morally justifiable and that we should stop reproducing now.
Now, none of these groups or people advocate suicide or murder. They argue only that we shouldn't create more people. There is a, generally accepted, moral difference between people who are alive and people who could exist. While saying we shouldn't have more kids doesn't cause harm, since people who never existed can't be harmed, killing people currently alive does harm people. So you needn't worry about armies of philosophical Unabombers cropping up anytime soon.
What about the side for human life? Who is on that side?
Dr. May does refer to stances one could take that would cause you to disagree with them. One such position would be to assume there is a "profound moral gap" between animals and humans. If you did this, the suffering we cause animals to feel could be dismissed off hand because the animals have no moral standing.
Plenty of philosophers have argued for this exact thing. Most famous among them was Immanuel Kant, who argued that we should be kind to animals as practice for being nice to people but considered them things without moral rights. He would probably find the idea that we should drive ourselves to extinction for the sake of those animals to be absurd. Christine Korsgaard, a modern Kantian theorist, disagrees and argues that animals are worthy of some moral consideration while admitting that our capacity for reflective, normative thinking is a unique feature that may have moral weight.There is also a more moderate route other thinkers take. Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and noted autism spokesperson, argues that raising animals for the sole purpose of eating them is ethical but that we should assure them a decent life with a minimum of pain. Her stance would both allow humans to continue existing and using animals for our benefit while improving life for those animals; no extinctions required.
Even Peter Singer, a philosopher who has been known to stake out a controversial stance now and then, argues that we should give animals moral consideration but has yet to say that we ought to die off for their sake. Instead, he has argued that we ought to stop needlessly causing them harm and perhaps take up vegetarianism.
Would the world be better off without humanity?
It is also possible to take issue with the claim that the environment would be that much better off without humans or that the effect of humanity on the environment is so awful that we ought to die off. Nature can be sickeningly cruel without any human intervention. Animals can cause as much deforestation and environmental degradation as humanity does at the local scale. Plants, as well as humans, have caused climate catastrophes by changing the composition of the atmosphere.
There were two dozen mass extinction events before the evolution of modern humans. One of these, the Permian–Triassic extinction event, saw 96% of all marine and 70% of all land-dwelling vertebrate life die. The famous Cretaceous extinction event featured the death of the dinosaurs and almost every land animal that weighed more than 55 pounds as the result of a giant asteroid hitting the earth, as they often have done and will do again. Humans have yet to do anything with nearly the kind of impact on the environment as these random events had.
While our destroying the environment is not made acceptable by the fact a random occurrence might do the same thing, it does make the argument that humans should die off for the sake of the environment lose a bit of its punch. After all, if another mass extinction event is inevitable, which many people think is the case, then getting rid of humans doesn't actually accomplish much in the way of protecting the environment over the long run.
It would only serve to assure that, after that next cataclysm, both the environment and human-made wonders like the works of Shakespeare are obliterated. Since Dr. May does suggest that the works of art humanity creates have value and that there is something to be said for our being the only animal that can truly contemplate beauty, a world where we are gone and nature takes it course seems to be the worst one of all.
A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A machine learning system lets visitors at a Kandinsky exhibition hear the artwork.
Have you ever heard colors?
As part of a new exhibition, the worlds of culture and technology collide, bringing sound to the colors of abstract art pioneer Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky had synesthesia, where looking at colors and shapes causes some with the condition to hear associated sounds. With the help of machine learning, virtual visitors to the Sounds Like Kandinsky exhibition, a partnership project by Centre Pompidou in Paris and Google Arts & Culture, can have an aural experience of his art.
An eye for music
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his painting. Seeing yellow summoned up trumpets, evoking emotions like cheekiness; reds produced violins portraying restlessness; while organs representing heavenliness he associated with blues, according to the exhibition notes.
Virtual visitors are invited to take part in an experiment called Play a Kandinsky, which allows them to see and hear the world through the artist's eyes.
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his 1925 painting Yellow, Red, Blue.Image: Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia Commons
In 1925, the artist's masterpiece, "Yellow, Red, Blue", broke new ground in the world of abstract art, guiding the viewer from left to right with shifting shapes and shades. Almost a century after it was painted, Google's interactive tool lets visitors click different parts of the artwork to journey through the artist's description of the colors, associated sounds and moods that inspired the work.
But Google's new toy is not the only tool developed to enhance the artistic experience.
Artist Neil Harbisson has developed an artificial way to emulate Kandinsky by turning colors into sounds. He has a rare form of color blindness and sees the world in greyscale. But a smart antenna attached to his head translates dominant colors into musical notes, creating a real-world soundtrack of what's in front of him. The invention could open up a new world for people who are color blind.
A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.
- Private prisons in Mississippi tend to hold prisoners 90 days longer than public ones.
- The extra days eat up half of the expected cost savings of a private prison.
- The study leaves several open questions, such as what affect these extra days have on recidivism rates.
The United States of America, land of the free, is home to 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of its prisoners. The cost of having so many people in the penal system adds up to $80 billion per year, more than three times the budget for NASA. This massive system exploded in size relatively recently, with the prison population increasing by six-fold in the last four decades.
Ten percent of these prisoners are kept in private prisons, which are owned and operated for the sake of profit by contractors. In theory, these operations cost less than public prisons and jails, and states can save money by contracting them to incarcerate people. They have a long history in the United States and are used in many other countries as well.
However, despite the pervasiveness of private contractors in the American prison system, there is not much research into how well they live up to their promise to provide similar services at a lower cost to the state. The little research that is available often encounters difficulties in trying to compare the costs and benefits of facilities with vastly different operations and occasionally produces results suggesting there are few benefits to privatization.
A new study by Dr. Anita Mukherjee and published in the American Economic Journal: Economic Policy joins the debate with a robust consideration of the costs and benefits of private prisons. Its findings suggest that some private prisons keep people incarcerated longer and save less money than advertised.
The study focuses on prisons in Mississippi. Despite its comparatively high rate of incarceration, Mississippi's prison system is very similar to that of other states that also use private prisons. Demographically, its system is representative of the rest of the U.S. prison system, and its inmates are sentenced for similar amounts of time.
The state attempts to get the most out of its privatization efforts, as a 1994 law requires all contracts for private prisons in Mississippi to provide at least a 10 percent cost savings over public prisons while providing similar services. As a result, the state seeks to maximize its savings by sending prisoners to private institutions first if space if available.
While public and private prisons in Mississippi are quite similar, there are a few differences that allow for the possibility of cost savings by private operators — not the least of which is that the guards are paid 30 percent less and have fewer benefits than their publicly employed counterparts.
The results of privatization
The graph depicts the likelihood of release for public (dotted line) vs. private (solid line) prison inmates. At every level of time served, public prisoners were more likely to be released than private prisoners.Dr. Anita Mukherjee
The study relied on administrative records of the Mississippi prison system between 1996 and 2013. The data included information on prisoner demographics, the crimes committed, sentence lengths, time served, infractions while incarcerated, and prisoner relocation while in the system, including between public and private jails. For this study, the sample examined was limited to those serving between one and six years and those who served at least a quarter of their sentence. This created a primary sample of 26,563 bookings.
Analysis revealed that prisoners in private prisons were behind bars for four to seven percent longer than those in public prisons, which translates to roughly 85 to 90 extra days per prisoner. This is, in part, because those in private prison serve a greater portion of their sentences (73 percent) than those in public institutions (70 percent).
This in turn might be due to the much higher infraction rate in private prisons compared to public ones. While only 18 percent of prisoners in a public prison commit an infraction, such as disobeying a guard or possessing contraband, the number jumps to 46 percent in a private prison. Infractions can reduce the probability of early release or cause time to be added to a sentence.
It's unclear why there are so many more infractions in private prisons. Dr. Mukherjee suggests it could be the result of "harsher prison conditions in private prisons," better monitoring techniques, incentives to report more of them to the state before contract renewals, or even a lackadaisical attitude on the part of public prison employees.
What does all this cost Mississippi?
The extra time served eats 48 percent of the cost savings of keeping prisoners in a private facility. For example, it costs about $135,000 to house a prisoner in a private prison for three years and $150,000 in the public system. But longer stays in private prisons reduce the savings from $15,000 to only $7,800.
As Dr. Mukherjee remarks, this cost is also just the finance. Some things are a little harder to measure:
"There are, of course, other costs that are difficult to quantify — e.g., the cost of injustice to society (if private prison inmates systematically serve more time), the inmate's individual value of freedom, and impacts of the additional incarceration on future employment. Abrams and Rohlfs (2011) estimates a prisoner's value of freedom for 90 days at about $1,100 using experimental variation in bail setting. Mueller-Smith (2017) estimates that 90 days of marginal incarceration costs about $15,000 in reduced wages and increased reliance on welfare. If these social costs were to exceed $7,800 in the example stated, private prisons would no longer offer a bargain in terms of welfare-adjusted cost savings."
It is possible that the extra time in jail provides benefits that counter these costs, such as a reduced recidivism rate, but this proved difficult to determine. Though it was not statistically significant, there was some evidence that the added time actually increased the rate of recidivism. If that's true, then private prisons could be counterproductive.