AS BACKGROUND TO THESE DEVELOPMENTS, the temporality of the Anthropocene has brought with it a return to more interconnected models of understanding the world that have much in common with premodern frameworks: the ecological thinking that arises out of Earth systems science, the related notion of the world as Gaia promoted by Bruno Latour and Isabel Stengers, the idea of species companionship proposed by Donna Haraway, or the entangled human–nonhuman ontologies of Karen Barad and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. Indeed, Tsing highlights that “interspecies entanglements that once seemed the stuff of fables are now materials for serious discussion among biologists and ecologists, who show how life requires the interplay of many kinds of beings.” In a seeming rebuke to the teleological and progressivist narrative of Man’s cognitive ascent, she also points out that “women and men from around the world have clamored to be included in the status once given to Man. Our riotous presence undermines the moral intentionality of Man’s Christian masculinity, which separated Man from Nature.” This new post-Enlightenment mode of thinking that demotes the White Christian Man from his position as the subject of reason and the telos of our planet entails a promise of decolonizing our established frameworks of thought. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, it also becomes a horizon against which actions aimed at returning to Man’s singular ontology and elevated stature are currently being performed.
Unfolding against this entangled human–nonhuman horizon, Project Man 2.0 entails a secular mobilization of the religious imaginary with singular Man now rebranded as Homo deus, or the God Species. The latter term has been used by journalist Mark Lynas in his popular science book of the same title, which outlines what I earlier described as a “solutionist” approach to climate change. Lynas’s volume belongs to the genre of conversion narratives. A lapsed environmentalist who spent years destroying genetically modified crops in order to protect “nature,” Lynas eventually saw the light. He describes how he gradually realized not only that the green movement was not a solution to planetary problems but also that it often exacerbated those problems—by facilitating the construction of coal plants in places where nuclear plants had been canceled, for example. For the newly enlightened Lynas, any solutions to the planet’s problems have to lie in conscious planetary management on the part of humans, who must embrace science-backed solutions while giving up on any fantasies of uncontaminated nature. So far, so blandly unproblematic.
Yet, The God Species has a weird parochialism to it. This manifests in the proposal to abandon any such unpleasantries as calls for limiting human economic growth and productivity or, God forbid, “capitalism, the profit principle, or the market.” Lynas suggests we focus instead on identifying “a safe space in the planetary system within which humans can operate and flourish indefinitely in whatever way they choose.” The tone for this argument is already set in the book’s hubristic opening: an account of entrepreneur J. Craig Venter’s experiment with synthesizing life, retold as a neo-Biblical story. The book starts: “Then Man said: ‘Let there be life.’ And there was life.” What is meant by the latter is that the synthetic genome Venter had developed in his lab in 2010 started reproducing—except this is not the full story. Venter’s team had to insert the computer-manufactured genome into an already existing nonsynthetic wet bacterial cell, from which the genome’s native DNA had been extracted, thus merely enacting some lifelike processes in a medium that already supported what biology conventionally recognizes as life instead of creating any such life from scratch. This small ontological distinction notwithstanding, Lynas positions Venter as a kind of mischievous hacker of not just life as we know it but also of the Book of Genesis, with “God’s power . . . now increasingly being exercised by us.” This is the story of creation as rewritten by venture capitalists, asserting “unchallenged dominion over all living things.” Yet Lynas seems oblivious to the political consequences of this shift. Indeed, his description of it by means of theological metaphors obscures the unequal distribution of the consequences of human-induced planetary intervention and instead positions the Anthropocene in terms of a supposedly eternal struggle of Man vs. Nature.
Our recently acquired godlike status still needs some tweaking, though. Lynas admits that all is not yet quite well in the Anthropocene paradise. “As if God were blind, deaf, and dumb, we blunder on without any apparent understanding of either our power or our potential.” But it is just a matter of time, and more important, technological innovation and economic investment, before things get sorted out. We thus need not worry: our “rebel nature” is a guarantee of success. In fact, Lynas admits to being tired of “the idea of perennial human victimhood” and thus offers to reboot the human as a god species whose only trajectory is upward—as long as we do not get bogged down by the melancholy narratives of the antiprogress brigade. His is therefore a version of what Erle Ellis, another ecoentrepreneur, has called a “good Anthropocene”: one in which humans can be proud of their achievements rather than lose too much sleep over their side effects. This approach is premised on “loving and embracing our human nature.” But the “Good Anthropocene” is really a new version of the Good Man, a prelapsarian Adam that can go back to and commune with God while also knowing that God is nothing else but a mirror image of his own self. At the end of the day there is just Adam: a white Christian Adam, playing with himself. There’s no God, no serpent—and, perhaps most significantly of all, no Eve. Indeed, no Eve gets a say in Lynas’s New Jerusalem, as it has been designed as a safe space in which the White Man can safely rejoice in his own ingeniousness. There is also no dissensus, no conflict, and no inherent contradiction in the wishes and desires of the inhabitants of this safe space—because they are all just (imaginary) clones of our Man 2.0. It is perhaps understandable that Lynas should therefore joyfully declare: “This is no time for pessimism.” However, when listening to his story about planetary catastrophes and ways of overcoming them, we should be mindful of Keller’s reflection that an apocalyptic narrative is “absolutely optimistic for its own believers, though radically pessimistic as to human historical aspirations.” In the world of Lynas and his postnature ecomates, it is Eve and other earthly creatures that have become extinct.
These historical aspirations on the part of the human may soon be superseded anyway because their holder will himself undergo a planetary transformation. The apocalyptic-sounding “end of man” will therefore be an upgrade instead: an evolution of the fleshy model that is becoming obsolete in the face of the current planetary challenges. And if the planet is proving to be more and more uninhabitable, the next logical step for the redeemers of today is to reach for what Lynas calls, without irony, a “technofix.” This perhaps explains the renewed interest on the part of Silicon Valley visionaries in 1980s cyborg discourses, which are now returning in the guise of human-enhancement research, gerontology and, mutatis mutandis, AI. It is significant that the Anthropocene should usher in not just apocalyptic narratives about the disappearance of Man as a species but also redemptive discourses about the human’s upgrade—that is, about the remodeling of the old design for the post–global warming era—coupled with research into longevity and “disrupting death.” Man 2.0 as Homo deus seems to be a fulfillment of a prophecy issued by entrepreneur Stuart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame: “We are as gods and have to get good at it.”
The notion of Homo deus has recently made a literal appearance in an eponymous volume penned by another visionary of the whole world: Yuval Noah Harari. After Sapiens, his commercially successful cosmic history of the human set in “deep time,” Harari has now turned his attention to the currently popular genre of secular prophecy, which nevertheless remains steeped in religious overtones. Given that famines, plagues, and wars have been (supposedly) conquered, or at least reined in as far as the prosperous regions of the world are concerned, with sugar now being “more dangerous than gunpowder,” the only barrier left is fleshiness itself, he claims. Yet just as climate change is seen by the proponents of the good Anthropocene as requiring a technical fix, the anthropos himself is seen as fully fixable, to the extent that death becomes rebranded as a “technical glitch.” Citing research and investments into “solving death” by inventor Ray Kurzweil, Google Ventures investment-fund manager Bill Marris, and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, Harari concludes: “The writing is on the wall: equality is out—immortality is in.” The fantasy of immaculate conception will thus be realized—seemingly by 2200, with others offering 2050 as the deadline—by installing Silicon Valley venture capitalists as fathers of immortality, (re)generating life one cell at a time.
Harari seems neutrally diagnostic most of the time, although occasionally his impassive narrative borders on the ironic or the critical—for example, when looking at the ideology of Dataism, which rebrands humans as data-processing units and then sets off to reap the benefits of this rebranding. Yet Homo Deus actually preserves a rather conservative version of Man as a future-proofed survivor with his organs regenerated and tissue replenished for generations to come—or replaced by more durable nonorganic parts. Such developments occur against the Uncanny Valley of Silicon Capital, with its geoeconomic fault lines obscured by the Nasdaq indices. Even though Harari mischievously recognizes that any effort to predict what the world will look like in a hundred or two hundred years is “a waste of time,” as “any worthwhile prediction must take into account the ability to re-engineer human minds, and this is impossible,” his present account of the developmental direction is still focused on the human as a stand-alone, discrete entity. Harari’s chapter on the Anthropocene thus ends with an unacknowledged humanist triumphalism, whereby the ostensible critique of the humanist model, propped up by notions such as the soul, language, or individuality, ends up celebrating human ingenuity. This is the ingenuity of the human subject who will eventually upgrade himself into a god thanks to his evolved ability to cooperate with others, but also that of the male human author narrating this story of the secular human’s return to the biblical tree of knowledge via physics, chemistry, and biology. What is missing from Harari’s account is an awareness and acknowledgment of the very gesture on the part of this human author to carve out the Homo sapiens as a discrete entity, to extricate him from his various material and political entanglements and dependencies, and to speculate about his developmental trajectory into the future, his radical evolution of the mind, his “merging with robots and computers.” Harari does recognize that the human is just another kind of animal, and he actually makes numerous pitches for veganism as the only ethically defensible stance with regard to coexisting with other species. Yet the epistemological orientation of his time travel remains firmly in place: Harari’s arrow of time still flies alongside the history of Man as we know him, only slightly more reengineered. The problem, therefore, lies not with the cognitive restrictions that the future imposes on us. Rather, it lies with the cognitive blind spot Harari himself brings to his own understanding of the human as a discrete subject of history: a diminished yet ultimately solipsistic Robocop who may just succeed in getting away with the whole Anthropocene unpleasantness because he is better than other species at teaming up with other Robocops and at inventing and transmitting stories to his genetic kin. (Rats, cockroaches, and microbes, no obvious storytellers as far as we can tell, will most likely prove him wrong.)