Risk and Survival

Survival isn’t everything

The risk-based framework I’ve mentioned elsewhere might appear to leave some things out. Climate change (of a sort) happened once already, and our species did survive it. The end of the Ice Age and the arrival of the Holocene was something that Australian Indigenous peoples, for example, managed to overcome. It even afforded them opportunities to settle in previously uninhabitable areas once covered by ice.

The onset of the Holocene climatic optimum … coincides with rapid expansion, growth and establishment of regional populations across ~75% of Australia, including much of the arid zone.[1]

In a similar theme, birds are dinosaurs. Importantly, they’re not related to dinosaurs, but actual modern-day dinosaurs; the survivors of the mass-extinction event that was a terminal event for most of their kin.

That previous climate change event, and that mass extinction event, might both therefore be examples of endurable risks, using Bostrom’s terminology. The groups at risk (humans, and dinosaurs) were not entirely wiped out. However, in at least the case of dinosaurs, their time as the dominant lifeform on Earth was arguably over once we got a foothold.

Recall Bostrom’s definition of existential risk:

One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.

Existential risk doesn’t just require the annihilation of life. It’s enough that the potential for that life is ‘drastically curtailed’ for it to be considered an existential threat. This isn’t the case for Indigenous Australians, of course, who may have even thrived thanks to the effects of the last great changes in climate. For them, the greatest existential risk would sadly come later, in the form of European Colonization. For the dinosaurs though, their future potential was drastically curtailed. Despite this, some still live on as birds (endure, in Bostrom’s terms).

The case of the birds could seem to pose a problem for a framework like the one I’ve built from Bostrom’s ideas, or at least demonstrates that rigid categorization on paper won’t always translate perfectly to the real world. This is because it doesn’t seem to allow for there to be endurable risks that are also terminal, or at least requires some further thinking when we have a risk that can be either terminal or endurable depending on perspective (endurable for the birds, but not the dinosaurs?). Bostrom’s own table, interestingly, only includes examples of terminal risks that involve annihilation, and not “drastic curtailing of potential”. It’s a trickier idea to pin down. How hard is that line between them?

Adapted from Bostrom’s 2002 paper[2]

We can explore this idea further using the earlier example of transhumanism, which represents another “grey area”. What happens when our species (humans) no longer exists but is replaced by something that is still in some way “human”?

To the same extent that modern birds still “carry the torch” for the dinosaurs, what if some future version of us ends up doing the same for our species? What we define as “terminal” might actually vary according to personal beliefs and preferences, and that reveals the immensely sticky link between risks and threats, and people’s closely held beliefs, values, and norms.

For example, imagine we can upload our brains to machine bodies. This could present a vast new realm of possibilities for us in terms of sustainability. Why terraform Mars when we’ve already seen how well robots can do there?!

Self-portrait of Curiosity located at the foothill of Mount Sharp (October 6, 2015).

If robots can thrive there, maybe we should be more like them?

But then, to some people, the moment we do that, we lose something important about our humanity. The era of the human is effectively over, they say. The point is deeply debatable, and has been debated many times: If we replace enough of ourselves with machines, computers, and technology – to the point we are arguably no longer human – does that mean our species no longer exists? Is it a terminal or endurable event for the human species?

Timothy Morton’s ideas are relevant here too. If we are a kind of cyborg, as he says, then this question isn’t even a theoretical. The same applies to his claim that industrial capitalism is a primitive AI ruling us – a claim that in some senses is quite hard to refute. Are these terminal or endurable events?

A related thought, perhaps another way to think about this, is speciation. This is a term from biology referring to the formation of new and distinct species in the course of evolution. Speciation has happened with humans before; other species like Neanderthals all share a common ancestor with us – one that speciated at various points. Humans themselves have driven artificial speciation in other species, from dogs to domestic livestock to produce – and we’ve been doing it for tens of thousands of years. Technology has often played a key role too, in creating new species of flora and fauna (often to our own benefit). From this perspective, the idea of further technology-driven speciation of humans themselves may be possible, especially if it benefits us – or appears to.

From Corgis to Corn: A Brief Look at the Long History of GMO Technology[3] does a great job at providing some specific examples of speciation over time, stretching back millennia: 

Image from Harvard’s paper[4].

Bringing it all back to Bostrom’s framework, are outcomes where our humanity fades away a terminal event for our species? Or because something else persists, are they endurable in some way?

Transhumans are to humans what birds are to dinosaurs. They may carry the torch of the species forward, but they do leave many things behind in the process. The potential of a flesh-and-bone species to fully flourish may very well be curtailed in a future where we shed our biological limitations and transition to new forms. It might seem a distant possibility relegated to the realm of thought experiment, but it nonetheless presents moments for reflection when it comes to ideas of risk, and especially, the risk of species annihilation. This shows, hopefully, that annihilation can mean quite a few things, and not all are as bad as the word itself might imply.


[1] Williams, A. N., Ulm, S., Turney, C. S., Rohde, D., & White, G. (2015). Holocene Demographic Changes and the Emergence of Complex Societies in Prehistoric Australia. PLoS ONE, 10(6).

[2] Bostrom, N. (2002). Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 9(1).

[3] Gabriel Rangel, figures by Anna Maurer. (2015, August 9). From Corgis to Corn: A Brief Look at the Long History of GMO Technology. Harvard University Blog. Retrieved from: http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/from-corgis-to-corn-a-brief-look-at-the-long-history-of-gmo-technology/

[4] As above.