Biodiversity Loss Does Not Justify Human Extinction
I’ve seen too many articles lately advocating for human extinction, which seems to be an increasingly popular take even amongst people with the best of intentions. The primary cited reasons are humans’ negative effects on biodiversity and equilibria in Earth’s biosphere.
I think this is an extremely deleterious, and at the very least, incorrect position to hold: the sum intrinsic and instrumental expected utility of humans likely far outweighs that of all other life combined.
I know of no plausible moral framework where biodiversity in itself is intrinsically valuable. What is biodiversity after all? I’d say a fitting definition is some combination of unique, workable blueprints for life as well as the actual manifestations of said life.
The blueprints are some Platonic ‘map’—DNA and the emerging arrangement of fundamental physics particles within the bounds of a creature—for life forms which are capable of surviving and reproducing frequently enough to sustain their numbers in recent history’s particular evolutionary environment. These blueprints do not seem to possibly be intrinsically valuable. Real life, physical things can be valuable, but abstract ideas, like numbers or theoretical genomes, which will never interact with the physical world, are not.
So what about the actual instantiations of different self-replicating systems (life)? What plausibly makes them actually valuable? It seems unlikely that the universe automatically awards ethical points because ‘some unique possible self-replicating system has been instantiated’. Rather, if there is any value at all in a creature, it is to be found somehow within the physical boundaries of it. And rather than be a binary “valuable or not” phenomena, the value is likely to be continuous or highly discretized, based off what is physically happening. Given the nature of our conscious experience and its extremely high correlation with physical phenomena occurring within our nervous systems, I think our best guess for any potential value of other life forms is that it comes from their nervous systems and their likely conscious experience.h2>Human versus Animal Value
Since we are weighing human life against these other life forms, the reasonable assumption, if one is asserting that human extinction is net positive, must be that biological life experiences and could likely cause the experience of a combination of desirable and undesirable conscious states that outweighs the total expected desirability of conscious experience that humans could likely experience and cause to happen.
Wild animals, given their assortment of naturally occurring hardships—from predators, starvation, disease, etc.—and the way evolution has plausibly selected for their nervous systems, quite plausibly suffer on net more than they delight from existence. This is truly difficult to currently know for sure, but given the assortment of natural threats, it seems entirely possible that life for most wild animals is characterized overall by pain, discomfort, and fear, and the well-being that’s along for the ride doesn’t make up for it. This may be less obvious with mammals similar to us where most offspring survive (k-selected species), especially apex predators, but think of all the trillions of new creatures from parents of r-selected species who have many offspring that don’t make it? The average generational replacement rate, given that populations do not continuously explode in numbers, must be 2. Thus, the overwhelming majority of creatures that ever exist, assuming r-selected life outnumbers k-selected life as much as I think, die while they are quite young, probably in painful ways.
Now, let’s look at the potential value of humans. Not only do we know with more confidence that our lives are probably marked by net well-being, we have absolutely tremendous potential to instrumentally do good. No other life forms can find hard-to-vary explanations for anything like the scope of phenomena that we can, nor can they intentionally influence the state of the world anything like we can. Humans are literally on track, as far as we know, to understand everything that can be understood, and crack not only the fundamental physical and mathematical laws of the universe, but maybe ethics/consciousness too.
We are more on track than any other species to minimize naturally occurring suffering, maximize the welfare of existing and future conscious creatures, and maybe even colonize the universe in an extremely Optimal way.
If we go extinct, the next best arrangement that I think could possibly happen is that some other life form evolves to be as intelligent and aware of ethics as us, which is not at all guaranteed or even likely to be the case.
I’ll be fair—humans might be on track to produce net-suffering in the universe, so it could possibly be the case that it’s ideal for the world for us to go extinct. But we don’t at all know this, and quite possibly won’t know this for hundreds of years. Further, there’s a substantial chance—I think greater than now—that we’ll actually be able to safely, ethically carry out the decision then. But that’s a concern for probably hundreds of years from now, after we have MUCH more evidence and knowledge about the fundamental nature of consciousness.
In the meantime, given how much good humans alone can probably do for the world (including mitigating suffering), I believe we have an overwhelming obligation to preserve our species, along with our best value systems and instrumental capabilities.
Now I think it’s very plausible that on the margin, we should work harder to preserve biodiversity and the current equilibria in our ecosystems until we know better. While we are eliminating some species that probably have net-negative lives, we surely are also causing extra, avoidable suffering in others that would be cost-effective to reduce (e.g. via a carbon tax). This is especially and clearly the case in our factory farms, where hundreds of billions of complex animals live cramped, controlled, highly unnatural lives optimized precisely not for their welfare. But again, regarding the wild animals we steward, there may also be some very happy creatures out there that we’ll eventually confidently know are quite net happy and worth increasing the numbers of. At the very least, by preserving biodiversity, we’ll increase our odds of finding creatures especially valuable to science & pharmaceutical development.
Us not doing a great job managing the ecosystem is not a valid reason to call for our extinction.