Monday, October 23, 2006

The Human Virus

I read an article late called, “Imagine Earth without People” in "New Scientist" that discussed how long it would take, if all humans were to suddenly disappear, for the last signs of our existence to vanish. The article suggested 200,000 to 400,000 years; though it admitted that the signals we broadcast into space would continue indefinitely. (They did not mention the fate of satellites and lunar probes - many of which would also continue until something crashed into them.)

One feature that I noticed in this article is that the author seemed to have bought into the idea that the human race is a disease - some type of infestation from which the earth needs to 'recover'. The movie, "Matrix" presented this idea to a mass audience - the idea that humanity is a virus.

The author wrote:

Imagine that all the people on Earth - all 6.5 billion of us and counting - could be spirited away tomorrow, transported to a re-education camp in a far-off galaxy. (Let's not invoke the mother of all plagues to wipe us out, if only to avoid complications from all the corpses).

To be honest, my inclination has always been to dismiss such talk as hyperbole born of frustration. However, there are people who take this idea seriously. I have encountered them, for example, when I discuss the colonization of space. Their views range from, "Humans have done enough damage to this planet; we should at least have the decency to leave the rest of the universe alone," to such things as the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. That is to say, they vote in favor of a human quarantine, where humans are confined to the third rock from the Sun, for the sake of everything else that exists.

So, let me take the idea seriously for a moment.

'Illness' as a Value Laden Concept

I'm going to start with some words about the nature of an 'illness'.

'Illness' is a value-laden concept. Anybody who calls something an illness is saying that it is bad. In fact, 'badness' is written into the meaning of 'illness' in the same way that 'unmarried' is written into the definition of a bachelor. It is not the full definition, but it is an essential part of that definition.

This means that a person cannot have a theory of 'illness' unless he has a theory of 'value'. Before he can say that something is an illness, he has to be able to say that it is bad.

I have a theory of value.

That theory holds that 'badness' concerns reasons for action. To say that something is bad is to say that there are 'reasons for action' for avoiding a state of affairs in which that 'something' exists. To classify cancer as an illness is to say that there are 'reasons for action' for avoiding cancer. Classifying humans as a disease means that there are 'reasons for action' for ridding the universe of all humans.

Desires are the only reasons for action that exist. A claim that there are 'reasons for action' for avoiding a particular state either needs to reference some set of desires, or it is false.

What 'reasons for action' exist for ridding the universe of all humans (or, at least, quarantining humanity someplace where we cannot infest others - the way that small pox is kept locked up in a laboratory)?

Reasons to Eliminate the Human Race


Plants have no reason to eliminate the human race. Plants have no intentional states - which means they have no desires. Therefore, they have no desires that can be thwarted by the existence of humans.

When humans lament the destruction of a forest or even the death of a single tree, the value comes from the human's desire that the forest (or the tree) continue to exist in a particular state. The forest (or the tree) does not care.

As a human desire, we then have reason to ask if there are reasons to promote and strengthen such a desire, or reasons to inhibit such a desire. Actually, I do not need to answer that question. It is sufficient to note how we would answer that question - by looking at whether such a desire tends to fulfill or thwart other desires that exist. Since forests (and trees) have no desires, it has no say in the value of the desire to preserve a forest (or a tree).


Animals have desires. Animals can suffer. Animals have aversions to pain, desires to eat, desires to have sex, (for some) desires for the company of others of their kind and for states in which their offspring are well fed and protected from harm. This is not to say that the parent animal has a desire that their offspring is well fed and safe from harm. Rather, it is a desire for a state which happens to be one in which their offspring is well fed and protected from harm.

A creature cannot desire what it cannot comprehend. No antelope has a desire to fly a P-38 Lightning. No nonhuman animal has an aversion to death, or a desire for the preservation of its species. The last survivor of a species may experience the thwarting of some desire to find a mate, but not a desire to make sure the species continues. Instead, the continuation of the species is an unintended side-effect of animals pursuing what they want - such as eating, drinking, and sex.

The author of this article said that the rest of the animal kingdom would clearly vote us off the planet if they could. I am not so certain about this. Yes, there are some actions that humans perform to animals that animals have reason to avoid. However, there are actions that animals take that other animals have reason to avoid as well. For example, the antelope has reason to avoid the actions of the lion and the alligator. The seal has reason to avoid the actions of the killer whale, and the fish has reason to avoid the actions of the eagle. Life in a state of nature is not all blissful pleasantness up to the point that humans came along.

On the other hand, domesticated animals typically enjoy the benefits of veterinary care, readily available food (so as to keep from starving), protection from diseases and predators, and a quick and painless death.

I am not saying that humans never do evil. There is a lot of unnecessary cruelty. We read in the paper each day of the cruelty that humans are willing to inflict on each other. It is not difficult to imagine the cruelty that they can inflict on animals.

At the same time, there is also unnecessary kindness.

Human Desires

Last, but not least, there are human desires. We also have to ask whether a desire for a future state where no humans exist is a state that is such as to fulfill other human desires generally.

There are clearly a few people who desire a future state without humans. So, a future state without humans will undoubtedly fulfill some desires. However, we still need to ask whether people generally have reason to promote this aversion to the continued survival of the human race.

I am willing to bet that the aversion to human survival is ultimately a desire-thwarting desire. Most of us have desires that require the survival of the human race - at least for a while. We want our children (or the children of our friends and family members) to have a long and happy life. We expect that they will desire the same for their children.

These with a desire that humans cease to exist would act to thwart all of these desires. Therefore, people generally have reason to inhibit the formation of this desire that humans cease to exist. It is, in fact, a despicable position to take.

Fortunately (for now) those who have this disposition tend to be powerless to act on it.

Future generations will likely have reason to wish that we took care of the planet better than we did. Future generations will have to work extra hard to pay off the debt that we passed on to them. They will have less land to work on as coastal areas sink under an ocean rise that we passed onto them as our inheritance. Unless current trends are reversed, they will live in a future world where people are much more inclined to torture others and commit other injustices, because the current generation had such little interest in promoting an aversion to torture and other forms of injustice.

However, it is extremely unlikely that they are going to wish that the human race had wiped itself out in an earlier generation. In fact, I see no more reason to suspect that they will protest the fact that the human race still exists than we are to protest the fact that our ancestors did not destroy the human race. They are likely to be grateful that we did not - as we are grateful that our ancestors did not - bring an end to humanity.


As I said, I would much prefer to ignore this attitude as if it had no significance. However, I have found it common enough to suggest that it actually does hinder projects that aim to preserve and promote human existence. We already have the ‘rapture’ crowd voting for the end of the world. When we add their votes to the ‘humans are a virus’ who should not be contaminating the rest of the universe – or even Earth – without our existence’ crowd, we get an area where the far right (religious fundamentalists) and the far left (environmental purists) can actually agree on a policy.

However, it is a policy that sane people should be ready to condemn, on both fronts.


Anonymous said...

Consider if you will, that humans are a virus. We are all humans and as viruses would, we should continue to infest and consume. Here comes the human part. The human virus should conserve earth's energy until we can consume other planets so man can live forever. Ever evolving. Religious, Environmentalists, Athiests, all can agree. But as a virus will, we will even consume ourselves.

Unknown said...

We are but a virus, using the host until it is no more.

SpiritOfABillionCorpses said...

Comparing the food chain involving non-human animals to the methods of mass farming and slaughter employed by humans is absurd.

In one hour humanity inflicts more suffering on animals than animals have done to each other for 100 years. And at least they let their prey live a life of freedom before chowing down. One suburb of humans is responsible for more animal slaughter than the rest of the animal kingdom combined.

Perhaps the author is unaware of the scale of animal slaughter that the human virus requires to function.

Humans will not change their ways, the only way to reduce suffering is to restrict the expansion of the human virus. I have no problem with vegetarians breeding though. I see even the most evil vegetarian(you know who I'm talking about) as morally superior to any so called 'good' meat eating human(though there's no such thing as a 'good' meat eating human, they are a part of the wicked virus regardless of how they conduct the rest of their lives).

I am speaking from the perspective of a nonhuman animal.

Anonymous said...

You claim that, "To classify cancer as an illness is to say that there are 'reasons for action' for avoiding cancer", but when it comes to humans you alter the metric completely and claim that, "there are 'reasons for action' for ridding the universe of all humans", which is not the logical consequence of the premise. There might be reasons for action for avoiding humans, but that isn't the same as seeking their destruction. I have reasons for action for avoiding tigers, but I don't want to see them destroyed or become extinct.

I also reject your premise that illness is a value laden concept. Modern vacination techniques were developed from a process of inoculation that required a person to be made ill in order to be prevented from being more seriously ill. Specifically, people were infected with cowpox in order that they might be able to resist infection with smallpox. We are also able independently to develop immunity from viruses we come into contact with on an everyday basis which gives us protection from them in the future, so the idea that "illness" is necessarily "bad" is more than a little naive.

Anonymous said...

I partly agree that "humanity is a virus". It's just not humanity directly being the virus, but it's the side effects of it's existence. The "unsought about stuff" is what caused that is and was causing a lot of problems on this planet. A nother big "problem causer" is peoples selfishness, people think mostly about them selves and thous close to them but not the planet they are living on. A long long time ago people lived in peace with the Earth, they lived by the law of "how mush we take is how mush we give back", but we live by the law "we take what we need and give barely something back". And as far as I know that's something like "the law of a virus".
That means we need to change our life-style, and 6,5 - 7 billion people on Earth dose not make it easy.

At least that's what I think.

Anonymous said...

People need to stop adding the "suffering" and "evil" factor to the idea, get rid of the human conventions and think objectively for a second. We are in fact very much like a virus. A virus consumes, reproduces, and lives off a host until the host dies. Humans consume, reproduce, and live off the earth, and at the current growth rate of population, will continue to do so until we extinguish life from earth. It's nature people. Nothing evil or good about it. Just the way things work. But who cares?

Anonymous said...

In terms of a virus, an animal or plant is no different to a human. If a planet or animal had no limits to its growth such as predators to thin down its numbers, it would increase its population exponentionally until it used up all the available resources. This is the problem we are facing right now. We don't have any natural predators that pose any threat to us. Also, due to the advanced level or our minds, we have developed technology which not only allows humans to live longer, but prevents far more of them from dying.
Really the only humane way to prevent the population from increasing to such an extent where we exhaust the resources of this planet and cause our own extinction is family planning and contraception.
I know that there are those who are abjectly opposed to all forms of contraception, but apart from abstinence there is no other solution.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe virus is the correct term. i believe us to be more of a plague on earth.

NPO said...

The notion that our planet needs to "cleanse" itself is nonsense. Planet earth is not "alive" and therefore doesn't care if the atmosphere is oxygen, methane gas, or carbon dioxide.

I have no problem with humanity behaving like a virus - that's what helps us survive and maintain such a high population. I just hope that we are able to populate other planets before we (inevitably) destroy this one.

Anonymous said...

If there is any reason humans should be taken out of the universe is that we are a one-sided race, capable only of what we learn, and unable to think beyond ourselves as individuals when in fact we as a SPECIES are an individual.

Anonymous said...

We destroy practically everything we touch. We kill thousands of animals a day, destroy ecosystems and hurt ourselves each day. Removing humanity from the face of the earth would be a good thing for the rest of the living things on earth. However not all of humanity is wicked, destructive, or selfish. There is always that one person willing to step up, make a change, or sacrifice in a group of people. If one wishes to destroy all of humanity at least spare those few who actually cares about world.

mermaid michele said...

At anonymous poster june 11th,.. you are full of declarative sweeping indictments ,but absolutely nothing whatsoever to justify or supplant that condemnation with solutions, much less explain WHY we exist. This is a false dichotomy in my opinion. You seem to swallowed the new world orders / agenda 21 eugenics wholly without even considering WHO makes that determination that as you say, would cull the bad humans (wasters of air?) And choose who gets "saved"? Jeeze maneeze that sounds like a true Judgement! I cant abide this as rational,sane,reasonable nor Human. Its true that we have focussed throughout our history, in direction of conquest if not complete control of all life and resources on this earth. We have become essentially alienated and in many cases, completely removed from the earths every aspect. These are ALL as a result of a Few, seeking to control the many, if not the world. We need to remember what we seemingly forget willingly. I suspect that humanity can and will be the ONLY tool of nature to remedy the balance of life on earth. But who would we entrust with that so called ...culling?

Anonymous said...

NPO said he/she has no problem about humans being a virus............As long as we go into outer space before we destroy this planet.......Well I figure we have 100 years tops to get into outer space before this planets enviornment collapses and can't support humans anymore....You think we will be able to build star ships in 100 years....Keep dreaming.........