In 1844, the Russian prince Vladimir Odoevsky wrote a short story in which a future humanity, stricken with overpopulation and resource-depletion, welcomes a ‘Last Messiah’ who instructs a jaded mankind to commit omnicide by blowing up the planet. Earlier, in 1836, the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi proclaimed that, if the human species were to be extinguished, ‘the Earth’ wouldn’t ‘feel that there is anything missing’. Three decades prior, the Marquis de Sade characteristically decreed that ‘nothing would be more desirable than the total extinction of humankind’. Earlier still, in 1756, the influential French naturalist Comte de Buffon envisioned another lifeform inheriting our crown as apex cogitator should ‘the human species be annihilated’.
As ideas go, human extinction is a comparatively new one. It emerged first during the 18th and 19th centuries. Though understudied, the idea has an important history because it teaches us lessons on what it means to be human in the first place, in the sense of what is demanded of us by such a calling. For to be a rational actor is to be a responsible actor, which involves acknowledging the risks one faces, and this allows us to see today’s growing responsiveness to existential risks as being of a piece with an ongoing and as-yet-unfinished project that we first began to set for ourselves during the Enlightenment. Recollecting the story of how we came to care about our own extinction helps to establish precisely why we must continue to care; and care now, as never before, insofar as the oncoming century is to be the riskiest thus far.