Research Article

The Risk that Humans Will Soon Be Extinct

John Lesliea1 c1

a1 University of Victoria


If it survives for a little longer, the human race will probably start to spread across its galaxy. Germ warfare, though, or environmental collapse or many another factor might shortly drive humans to extinction. Are they likely to avoid it? Well, suppose they spread across the galaxy. Of all humans who would ever have been born, maybe only one in a hundred thousand would have lived as early as you. If, in contrast, humans soon became extinct then because of the population explosion you would have been ‘fairly ordinary’. Roughly ten per cent of all humans would have been your contemporaries. Now (as the cosmologist Brandon Carter saw to his dismay) a scientific principle tells us not to treat observations as highly extraordinary when they could easily be fairly ordinary. How to apply the principle is controversial, yet it seems we can safely conclude that humanity's chances of galactic colonization cannot be high. Still, we should work to make them as high as possible, resisting those philosophers who argue that human extinction would be no tragedy.



John Leslie is University Professor Emeritus, University of Guelph, Adjunct Professor, University of Victoria, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is at work on edited readings about why there is Something and not Nothing.