Would Human Extinction Be a Tragedy?


Our species possesses inherent value, but we are devastating the earth and causing unimaginable animal suffering.

An overgrown lot along Highway 13 near the town of Haleyville, Ala.CreditWilliam Widmer for The New York Times.
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An overgrown lot along Highway 13 near the town of Haleyville, Ala.CreditCreditWilliam Widmer for The New York Times

There are stirrings of discussion these days in philosophical circles about the prospect of human extinction. This should not be surprising, given the increasingly threatening predations of climate change. In reflecting on this question, I want to suggest an answer to a single question, one that hardly covers the whole philosophical territory but is an important aspect of it. Would human extinction be a tragedy?

To get a bead on this question, let me distinguish it from a couple of other related questions. I’m not asking whether the experience of humans coming to an end would be a bad thing. (In these pages, Samuel Scheffler has given us an important reason to think that it would be.) I am also not asking whether human beings as a species deserve to die out. That is an important question, but would involve different considerations. Those questions, and others like them, need to be addressed if we are to come to a full moral assessment of the prospect of our demise. Yet what I am asking here is simply whether it would be a tragedy if the planet no longer contained human beings. And the answer I am going to give might seem puzzling at first. I want to suggest, at least tentatively, both that it would be a tragedy and that it might just be a good thing.

To make that claim less puzzling, let me say a word about tragedy. In theater, the tragic character is often someone who commits a wrong, usually a significant one, but with whom we feel sympathy in their descent. Here Sophocles’s Oedipus, Shakespeare’s Lear, and Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman might stand as examples. In this case, the tragic character is humanity. It is humanity that is committing a wrong, a wrong whose elimination would likely require the elimination of the species, but with whom we might be sympathetic nonetheless for reasons I discuss in a moment.

To make that case, let me start with a claim that I think will be at once depressing and, upon reflection, uncontroversial. Human beings are destroying large parts of the inhabitable earth and causing unimaginable suffering to many of the animals that inhabit it. This is happening through at least three means. First, human contribution to climate change is devastating ecosystems, as the recent article on Yellowstone Park in The Times exemplifies. Second, increasing human population is encroaching on ecosystems that would otherwise be intact. Third, factory farming fosters the creation of millions upon millions of animals for whom it offers nothing but suffering and misery before slaughtering them in often barbaric ways. There is no reason to think that those practices are going to diminish any time soon. Quite the opposite.

Humanity, then, is the source of devastation of the lives of conscious animals on a scale that is difficult to comprehend.

To be sure, nature itself is hardly a Valhalla of peace and harmony. Animals kill other animals regularly, often in ways that we (although not they) would consider cruel. But there is no other creature in nature whose predatory behavior is remotely as deep or as widespread as the behavior we display toward what the philosopher Christine Korsgaard aptly calls “our fellow creatures” in a sensitive book of the same name.

If this were all to the story there would be no tragedy. The elimination of the human species would be a good thing, full stop. But there is more to the story. Human beings bring things to the planet that other animals cannot. For example, we bring an advanced level of reason that can experience wonder at the world in a way that is foreign to most if not all other animals. We create art of various kinds: literature, music and painting among them. We engage in sciences that seek to understand the universe and our place in it. Were our species to go extinct, all of that would be lost.

Now there might be those on the more jaded side who would argue that if we went extinct there would be no loss, because there would be no one for whom it would be a loss not to have access to those things. I think this objection misunderstands our relation to these practices. We appreciate and often participate in such practices because we believe they are good to be involved in, because we find them to be worthwhile. It is the goodness of the practices and the experiences that draw us. Therefore, it would be a loss to the world if those practices and experiences ceased to exist.

One could press the objection here by saying that it would only be a loss from a human viewpoint, and that that viewpoint would no longer exist if we went extinct. This is true. But this entire set of reflections is taking place from a human viewpoint. We cannot ask the questions we are asking here without situating them within the human practice of philosophy. Even to ask the question of whether it would be a tragedy if humans were to disappear from the face of the planet requires a normative framework that is restricted to human beings.

Let’s turn, then, and take the question from the other side, the side of those who think that human extinction would be both a tragedy and overall a bad thing. Doesn’t the existence of those practices outweigh the harm we bring to the environment and the animals within it? Don’t they justify the continued existence of our species, even granting the suffering we bring to so many nonhuman lives?

To address that question, let us ask another one. How many human lives would it be worth sacrificing to preserve the existence of Shakespeare’s works? If we were required to engage in human sacrifice in order to save his works from eradication, how many humans would be too many? For my own part, I think the answer is one. One human life would be too many (or, to prevent quibbling, one innocent human life), at least to my mind. Whatever the number, though, it is going to be quite low.

Or suppose a terrorist planted a bomb in the Louvre and the first responders had to choose between saving several people in the museum and saving the art. How many of us would seriously consider saving the art?

So, then, how much suffering and death of nonhuman life would we be willing to countenance to save Shakespeare, our sciences and so forth? Unless we believe there is such a profound moral gap between the status of human and nonhuman animals, whatever reasonable answer we come up with will be well surpassed by the harm and suffering we inflict upon animals. There is just too much torment wreaked upon too many animals and too certain a prospect that this is going to continue and probably increase; it would overwhelm anything we might place on the other side of the ledger. Moreover, those among us who believe that there is such a gap should perhaps become more familiar with the richness of lives of many of our conscious fellow creatures. Our own science is revealing that richness to us, ironically giving us a reason to eliminate it along with our own continued existence.

One might ask here whether, given this view, it would also be a good thing for those of us who are currently here to end our lives in order to prevent further animal suffering. Although I do not have a final answer to this question, we should recognize that the case of future humans is very different from the case of currently existing humans. To demand of currently existing humans that they should end their lives would introduce significant suffering among those who have much to lose by dying. In contrast, preventing future humans from existing does not introduce such suffering, since those human beings will not exist and therefore not have lives to sacrifice. The two situations, then, are not analogous.

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.

There is one more tragic aspect to all of this. In many dramatic tragedies, the suffering of the protagonist is brought about through his or her own actions. It is Oedipus’s killing of his father that starts the train of events that leads to his tragic realization; and it is Lear’s highhandedness toward his daughter Cordelia that leads to his demise. It may also turn out that it is through our own actions that we human beings bring about our extinction, or at least something near it, contributing through our practices to our own tragic end.

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Afraid of Falling? For Older Adults, the Dutch Have a Cure


A course teaching older people how to fall, and not to fall, in Leusden, the Netherlands. 

 The shouts of schoolchildren playing outside echoed through the gymnasium where an obstacle course was being set up.

There was the “Belgian sidewalk,” a wooden contraption designed to simulate loose tiles; a “sloping slope,” ramps angled at an ankle-unfriendly 45 degrees; and others like “the slalom” and “the pirouette.”

They were not for the children, though, but for a class where the students ranged in age from 65 to 94. The obstacle course was clinically devised to teach them how to navigate treacherous ground without having to worry about falling, and how to fall if they did.

“It’s not a bad thing to be afraid of falling, but it puts you at higher risk of falling,” said Diedeke van Wijk, a physiotherapist who runs WIJKfysio and teaches the course three times a year in Leusden, a bedroom community just outside Amersfoort, in the center of the country.

The Dutch, like many elsewhere, are living longer than in previous generations, often alone. As they do, courses that teach them not only how to avoid falling, but how to fall correctly, are gaining popularity.

From left, Riet van Velzen, 79, Ria Kocks, 78, Nanda Silkens, 79, Loes Bloemdal, 80, and Hans Kuhn, 85, learning a better way to stand up and sit down.

Ben Koops, 82, navigating an obstacle called the “tilting shelf.”

This one, called Vallen Verleden Tijd course, roughly translates as “Falling is in the past.” Hundreds of similar courses are taught by registered by physio- and occupational therapists across the Netherlands.

Yet falling courses — especially clinically tested ones — are a fairly recent phenomenon, according to Richard de Ruiter, of the Sint Maartenskliniek in Nijmegen, the foundation hospital that developed this particular course.

Virtually unheard-of just a decade ago, the courses are now common enough that the government rates them. Certain forms of Dutch health insurance even cover part of the costs.

While the students are older, not all of them seemed particularly frail. Herman van Lovink, 88, arrived on his bike. So did Annie Houtveen, 75. But some arrived with walkers and canes, and others were carefully guided by relatives.

Ms. Kuhn walking in the gym’s schoolyard. Credit Jasper Juinen for The New York Times

Falling can be a serious thing for older adults. Aging causes the bones to become brittle, and broken ones do not heal as readily.

Today, 18.5 percent of the Dutch population — roughly 3.2 million people — is 65 or older, according to official statistics. In 1950, about the time some of the younger course participants were born, people 65 or older made up just 7.7 percent of the population.

Across the Netherlands, 3,884 people 65 or older died as result of a fall in 2016, a 38 percent increase from two years earlier.

Experts say the rise in fatalities reflects the overall aging of the population, and also factors such as the growing use of certain medications or general inactivity.

“It’s same as with young children: More and more old people have an inactive lifestyle,” said Saskia Kloet, a program manager at VeiligheidNL, an institution that offers similar courses.

Even inactivity in one’s 30s or 40s could lead to problems later in life, she noted.

Like many people her age, Hans Kuhn, 85, worried that her daily routine — and the ability to live alone — would end if she ever lost her balance and fell.

She has lived in her house for decades, and alone since her partner died years ago. Its steeply winding staircase is equipped with a motorized chair on a rail to help reach upper floors. “I only use it when I have to bring lots of heavy things upstairs,” said Ms. Kuhn, herself a retired physiotherapist

Ms. Kuhn’s entire house is a study in efficiency and simple modifications that can make all the difference for an older person. Hand grips are installed in just the right places, as well as ramps to accommodate her two walkers.

There is a stationary exercise bike to keep her moving, and a weight machine made from a big can of beans and string to maintain her upper body strength.

Even as she feels herself grow frailer and less flexible, she knows how to stay fit. “My main problem is I’m very afraid of falling,” she said.

Ms. Kuhn’s bedroom, right, and home trainer. The house is a study in simple modifications that can make all the difference for an older person.

Ms. Kuhn exercising at home with a self-made weight system made out of a rope and a can of beans. Credit Jasper Juinen for The New York Times

So she joined the course, which meets twice a week. On Tuesdays, the students build confidence by walking and re-walking the obstacle course. Thursdays are reserved for the actual falls.

In order to learn, the students start by approaching the mats slowly, lowering themselves down at first. Over the weeks, they learn to fall

“Naturally, they are not interested in courses on falling at first, but once they see that they can do it, then it’s fun,” Ms. Kloet said. “But there is also a very important social aspect.”

Indeed, seeing one another helplessly sprawled across the gym mats gave way to giggling and plenty of dry comments, knowing jokes, general ribbing and hilarity.

“Stop your chattering,” Ms. van Wijk warned a group of well-dressed women who were supposed to be concentrating on the correct way to let themselves fall onto the foot-thick blue mat.

“I would,” said Loes Bloemdal, 80, laughing. “But I have no one to talk with all day.”

Ms. Silkens, right, and Frans Poss, 94, left, training on how to fall and get up.

The students start by lowering themselves down onto the mats slowly. Over the weeks, they learn to fall. Credit Jasper Juinen for The New York Times

In preparing their bodies for a possibly apocalyptic event, the students appeared to forget about their age.

Mr. van Lovink, the cyclist, asked if they would learn standing on one leg. “Why would you want to do that?” replied Ms. van Wijk.

“To be able to put on my pants,” Mr. van Lovink said seriously, but to the amusement of his classmates.

Ms. van Wijk advised them all to always sit when putting on their pants.

“That’s the power of physiotherapy with geriatrics,” she said. “You practice the things you know you can do, and not the things you can’t.”

Millions of Smartphones Could Be Vulnerable to Hacking via Sound Waves


Scientists have found a new vulnerability in a common tech component, uncovering a security flaw that could expose potentially millions of smartphones, fitness wearables, and even cars to hacking.

By using sound waves, researchers have figured out how to trick accelerometers – the tiny sensors in gadgets that detect movement – into registering a fake motion signal, which hackers could exploit to take control of our devices.

 

“It’s like the opera singer who hits the note to break a wine glass, only in our case, we can spell out words,” computer scientist Kevin Fu from the University of Michigan told The New York Times.

“You can think of it as a musical virus.”

The sensors that Fu’s team investigated are called capacitive MEMS accelerometers, which register the rate of change in an object’s speed in three dimensions.

It’s these sensors that can tell which way you’re holding or tilting your smartphone or tablet, and count the steps you take using an activity tracker.

But they’re not just used in consumer gadgets – they’re also embedded in the circuits of things like medical devices, vehicles, and even satellites – and we’re becoming more reliant on them all the time.

“Thousands of everyday devices already contain tiny MEMS accelerometers,” Fu explains in a press release.

“Tomorrow’s devices will aggressively rely on sensors to make automated decisions with kinetic consequences.”

But accelerometers have an Achilles heel: sound. By precisely tuning acoustic tones to the right frequency, Fu’s team was able to deceive 15 out of 20 different models of accelerometers from five different manufacturers, and control output from the devices in 65 percent of cases.

Accelerometers may enable some high-tech functionalities, but the principle is fundamentally simple – using a mass suspended on springs to detect changes in speed or direction. But those measurements can effectively be forged if you use the right sonic frequency to fool the tech.

“The fundamental physics of the hardware allowed us to trick sensors into delivering a false reality to the microprocessor,” Fu explains.

Once they figured out what the frequencies were to manipulate the sensors, they were able to trick a Fitbit into counting thousands of steps that were never taken; pilot a toy car by taking control of a smartphone app; and even use a music file to make a Samsung Galaxy S5 crudely write out a word (“Walnut”) in a graph of its accelerometer readings.

The tech used to hijack these devices wasn’t high-end audio gear either. In one case, the researchers used a US$5 external speaker; in another, a smartphone played a sound file on its own internal speaker and effectively hacked itself.

While all these proofs-of-concept were fairly harmless demonstrations of the technique, the researchers warn that it could easily be used for malicious and potentially very dangerous purposes.

“If a phone app used the accelerometer to start your car when you physically shake your phone, then you could intentionally spoof the accelerometer’s output data to make the phone app think the phone is being shaken,” one of the team, Timothy Trippel, told Gizmodo.

“The phone app would then send the car a signal to start.”

The research is due to be presented at the IEEE European Symposium on Security and Privacy in Paris in April, and while the study hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed, the findings are being treated seriously.

As John Markoff at The New York Times reports, the US Department of Homeland Security is expected to issue a security alert in relation to the specific sensors documented in the paper.

The manufacturers involved were separately forewarned of the vulnerability before the researchers went public with their findings this week.

Now that we know about the security flaw, hopefully researchers and technology companies will be able to work together and find a means of patching up the weak spot.

As technological devices get ever more powerful and independent, it’s crucial that they can’t be puppeteered by something as rudimentary as sound waves overriding their fundamental components.

“Humans have sensors, like eyes, ears, and a nose,” says Trippel.

“We trust our senses and we use them to make decisions. If autonomous systems can’t trust their senses, then the security and reliability of those systems will fail.”

Watch the video discussion.URL:https://youtu.be/Dfc3jZkcnLU

Source: http://www.sciencealert.com