I MUST HAVE BEEN 11 or 12 when I first encountered the work of Dougal Dixon, a Scottish paleontologist turned speculative fabulist. At the time, Dixon’s After Man (1998) had inspired a touring exhibit of his models of animal life on Earth thousands and millions of years in the future. Life-sized dioramas had been installed in the Hands-On Museum in Ann Arbor, which my class visited on a field trip. The dioramas depicted animals set free to evolve in an environment after humanity’s extinction, returned to a state where natural selection could reassert itself against the domestication efforts and environmental tinkering that has driven many species extinct. Dixon depicted a future that was simultaneously impossible to imagine (for me) and rendered in the flesh. For Dixon, however, the future cleared of human interference is easy to plot out—evolution, for him, is a game of imagining how species will respond to emergent environmental conditions, and having the time without human interference to allow nature to take its course. Step by step, animals that were once domesticated or pushed to the brink of extinction claw their way back to assert themselves in the postapocalyptic world they have inherited. But Dixon manages to tame mutation; he makes it so domestic and denuded. Mutation is so much more surprising when it actually happens because it defies easy prediction and thwarts theory.
It took me years to rediscover Dixon. I didn’t purchase a copy of After Man at the time—I don’t even know if I knew that it existed. Nor did I buy Man after Man (Dixon 1990) when it was published. Only through the internet and a string of now-forgotten search terms did I finally turn Dixon up, as well as his work. If After Man was a speculative fantasy of life on Earth’s resurgence after the Anthropocene, Man after Man is humanity’s ultimate humiliation in the face of the world they had created. Reading it now, it’s hard to disassociate Dixon’s work from recent discussions of the Anthropocene because he shares a nihilism of deep time, a sense that, deep enough in the future, it doesn’t really matter what happens to humans. That may be true, but it disables work in the present. And what’s particularly destabilizing is Dixon’s recourse to an understanding of human biology, of innate drives, being the motor in our debasement—a view that Elizabeth Kolbert echoes in her Pulitzer Prize–winning The Sixth Extinction (2014).
Quoting evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo, Kolbert writes,
[Homo erectus] never came to Madagascar, never to Australia. Neither did Neanderthals. It’s only fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land. Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think or say, some madness there. You know? How many people must have sailed out and vanished on the Pacific before you found Easter Island? I mean, it’s ridiculous. And why do you do that? Is it for the glory? For immortality? For curiosity? And now we go to Mars. We never stop. (Kolbert 2014, 251)
Pääbo is invested in unraveling the “madness gene” by comparing Homo sapiens DNA with our ancestors and cohabitants—is there something uniquely human, something in our very genes, that drives humans to strike out into the open sea not knowing whether there is land to be found? The same “madness gene” might be at the heart of all human technological—and social—development: where Neanderthals were seemingly content with a simple set of technologies that they used for what seems to be centuries (Wynn and Coolidge 2012), Homo sapiens constantly pushed the technological edge, developing stone blades, ceramics, then bronze working, and eventually iron working (Basalla 1989). Stone axes gave way to bronze spears, which gave way to iron swords. Rafts gave way to kayaks and canoes, which gave way to ships. Like Vonnegut’s view of the human drive to tinker in Player Piano, Pääbo sees something intrinsic to human nature that pushes us toward “madness,” toward possible self-destruction in the face of exploration and technological development. The archaeological record of the Neanderthal is still developing, so conceptions of their technological and social developments will likely change over time, but so too should our understandings of what drives humans to make the decisions they do. Was the madness of exploration spurred by sheer, genetic curiosity, or was it spurred by a lack of food and resources? The difference is meaningful for how we interpret the variations between Homo sapiens and their predecessors and cohabitants but also for how we think about ways out of our current situation. Is catastrophe inevitable, is it bred into us, or is it something that we choose? If catastrophe is inevitable, then nihilism is the corollary; if catastrophe is a choice, then we can choose otherwise.
Recounting a trip into the Grotte des Combarelles, in which she has to crawl, carrying artificial light so as to be able to see the paintings on the cavern’s walls, Kolbert reflects on what the experience must have been like historically for our ancestors. She writes, “[The] ceiling was so low that the only way to move through the cave would have been to crawl, and the only way to see in the absolute blackness would have been to carry fire. Something—perhaps creativity, perhaps spirituality, perhaps ‘madness’—drove people along nonetheless” (Kolbert 2014, 257). For Kolbert, there’s something particularly human about the combination of “creativity,” “spirituality,” and “madness.” The impulse for some prehistoric person to foray into a dark cave, paints and fire in hand, is indissociable from the drives that humans have toward the kinds of technological developments that have made the Anthropocene so devastating for life on Earth. Another dominant species—say the seemingly placid and technologically incurious Neanderthals—would have led to a different era, a different world order that might be more inclined toward environmental stewardship rather than extractive, capitalist resource monopolies and entrenched social inequalities (see Sawyer 2002). But, alas, in these biologically reductive theories of human nature, that is not the species we are—or, at least, conceptualizing humans as inherently driven toward particular kinds of self-destructive acts enables a form of deep-time nihilism, historically, presently, and in the future. Self-destruction is the price we pay for all of the great things we enjoy, from art and cultural expressions, to science and technology, to the social forms we are invested in, from the family to governments. Self-destruction is inevitable, and if there is any hope for humanity to survive, it can only be in a significantly altered form.
Enter Dixon and the speculative fabulation of Man after Man. Writing in 1990, Dixon sees the end of humanity approaching and, like Kolbert, sees it as an effect of the Anthropocene. Whether through climate change or nuclear holocaust, humanity will irrevocably alter our environment to the point where we will no longer be adapted to it. For Dixon, the primary motor in human development, both biologically and socially, is natural selection. Over the millennia that first led to the development of life on Earth and then the speciation that led to modern humans, humans developed to exquisitely fit our environments, from the air we breathe to the foods we eat. The irony of the Anthropocene is that the environment will no longer support us due to the creeping mismatch between what humans have evolved to do and the world that we have created as a by-product of our drive to madness. Given the dangers of the Anthropocene, and the compressed time scale on which we have to operate in the effort to develop a solution, if not for ourselves, then for life on Earth more generally, the answer that Dixon strikes on is to engineer our successors. First come the vacuum-friendly Homo caelestis, engineered to aid in the launching of generation ships for selected modern humans to escape into the depths of space in search of other homes. With that task done, the sterile Vacuumorphs are left to die out. Meanwhile, on Earth, bioengineering leads to a variety of experiments: water-borne Homo aquaticus, forest-dwelling Homo silvis, the plains-dwelling Homo campis, woodland-dwelling Homo virgultis, and the tundra-dwelling Homo glacis. The humans that are left pursue two routes, with some, after civilization’s total collapse, adopting a new pastoralism and living off the land in a sustainable way until their eventual extinction. The lack of technology leaves them unable to deal with epidemic disease, further environmental change, and, eventually, the shift in the magnetic poles, which removes the electromagnetic protection from solar rays and leads to widespread cancers and birth defects. The other humans left adopt a cybernetic lifestyle, grafting themselves into prosthetic machines that support them, regardless of changes in environment; synthetic organs sustain life regardless of foodstuff or atmospheric conditions. But the mechanical humans obscure natural selection with their reliance on prosthetics, and, over time, they breed themselves into decrepitude and infertility. They, too, are left to their engineered extinction. The fabricated species who have been made, however, are left to adapt to the changing environment, having been given the capacities needed for the new world they live in—a world in which the Anthropocene has ended, nature is reasserting itself, and there is time enough for natural selection to take control once more.
Man after Man is a narrative encyclopedia. Broken up by time period—200 hundred years hence, then 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000, 50,000, 500,000, then 1, 2, 3, 5 million years into the future—Dixon doesn’t follow characters, but species. He is interested in what happens to these human-like species, given time. But first he needs to allow the humans who are left to die off, and a recurrent behavior among the technologically dependent and pastoral humans is a resigned suicide. Greerath, a young prosthetically supported worker, provides a view of this impulse toward death in recounting the retirements of two friends:
No matter how degenerate a human body became there were always the technological systems to keep it alive.
The result was certainly a triumph over the raw wildness of nature, but there must be a better way. Machines keep breaking down and the food and drug supplies are constantly disrupted. Synthetic organs must hold the key.
If they improve, muses Greerath, that would put her and many like her out of work. . . . That might not be a bad thing. She would like to devote more of her time to listening to music, looking at art, and wallowing in the newly-developing medium of hypnotic-involvement drama.
Then, with a start, she remembers two friends who recently retired from work to do just that—and both of them switched off their life-supporters after a few days. Probably their stimulant-mix was wrong. (Dixon 1990, 34–35)
At once, Greerath is alien and familiar. Her life, like that of her reader, is sustained by deliberate mastery of the natural world, albeit in her case it is taken to the point of grotesque parody, her body suspended in a metal carriage that holds her external organs, each made to facilitate her ability to live in the ever-changing world. Greerath and her kin are our cybernetic present extrapolated to their flesh-horror ends: where we depend on vehicles for mobility, industrially produced food, municipally filtered water, pharmaceuticals for fighting disease, televisions and computers for entertainment and communication, Greerath and her fellow machinadiumentum have miniaturized these technologies and grafted them into themselves; they have become their machines. Our machinic successors pump chemicals directly into their biological systems, maintaining their mood pharmaceutically; they eat vat-grown foodstuff. But, like us, they work and seem to find social meaning in that labor; they too can’t seem to imagine what life would be like without the disciplinary regimentation of the workplace, and, when left to admire art, listen to music, and enjoy “hypnotic-involvement drama,” they seem to recognize the futility of a life lived without work. The anticapitalist revolution seems to have been delayed in the face of environmental degradation and the effects of climate change. Years later, when the magnetic poles shift, the prescient Durian Skeel understands the danger he and the other posthumans face. Rather than face the changes afoot, Skeel “is not waiting. Purposefully and methodically he disconnects each of his life-support devices and lapses into peaceful oblivion” (Dixon 1990, 54). Skeel, like Greerath’s disillusioned, apathetic retiree friends, offer one choice: self-annihilation. That, it seems, is a reasonable decision to make, facing a future in which one’s species faces little to no prospects of continuance—at least not in their current form. What underlies such an act is not just a will to negation, but a species resignation, as if the future has no value if one’s species isn’t there to dominate it. The Anthropocene may be a travesty, but for Kolbert, Päärt, and Dixon it’s our travesty—it is an outgrowth of human will to dominate the natural environment, of our “madness gene.”
That will to self-annihilation stands in juxtaposition to a transspecies empathy that Dixon’s creatures exhibit periodically. As if their shared ancestral stock has bred into them a sense of common humanity across their physiological and behavioral differences, these successors sometimes see past their immediate needs—eating, mating, protecting themselves and kin—to a shared project, even if it is one that exceeds them as individuals. While hunting, Rumm, a forest-dweller some thousands of years hence, stumbles on a pack of roving tundra-dwellers. Seeing the opportunity to feed himself and his family, he decides to prey upon the strange creatures, despite the features they share with him.
Silently he pounces upon [a young tundra-dweller’s] back and the youngster stiffens beneath him and gives out a single, high-pitched plaintive yell, like one of his own babies crying.
That yell almost stops the attack, so human is it; but he presses home his advantage. Throwing his hand over the creature’s broad nose and mouth, stifling the unnerving noise, he wrenches its head backwards, into the folds of its neck. A cracking noise tells Rumm that the move has been satisfactorily fatal, and the body goes limp. (Dixon 1990, 56)
Dixon suggests that humanity is more than skin-deep, and that lesson motivates the humans who engineer their successors in the first place: if they can’t inhabit the Earth, then some humans will, even if they are barely recognizable as such. The project of making this varied pack of posthumans is to extend the Anthropocene—albeit in different terms. Rumm and his fellows live in harmony with nature. They are driven by the pure, self- and community-directed compulsion to meet basic needs of food and biological reproduction; anything more than that, they seem to instinctively know, would only lead them down the path to destruction again. Yet, those drives are species-centric, and despite Rumm’s inkling that there is something shared between him and his prey, that is insufficient to stop him from his violence. Shared humanity loses to species-needs. Or, maybe, it would be better to think of these needs as racial, as justified by an assumption of insurmountable difference between Rumm and his prey.
Dixon also imagines something akin to the “madness gene” motivating human action and underlying the Anthropocene. Our engineered successors seem to be burdened by the same biological compulsion, yet their drives to self-sustenance and species continuance short circuits the tinkering impulse that might lead to more technological solutions to the challenges they face. As a water-borne aquaticus reflects, something must hold back the impulse to innovate for fear that the old Anthropocene will reassert itself, dooming his world of posthumans to their own self-made apocalypse, one that they similarly won’t have the time to adapt to:
Ghloob peers through the watery film and the gelatinous envelope over his eyes. . . . but the days of easy and pleasant life disappeared long before his birth. It is said that once the sea, their home, supplied all their needs, but then their numbers became too many, and all the food was gone. Famine raged. Whole populations perished and sank into the dark deeps. Sometimes after famine, the fish, krill and plankton would return, but this food source was never enough. As soon as it came back it was exploited and destroyed once more. Nothing can be done about it: if they want to survive, they have to eat; if they eat they lose what they have and die. . . . Is there nothing they can do to feed their people without making things worse and worse and worse, and destroying all that they have? (Dixon 1990, 90, 93)
Poor Ghloob watches one of his friends get brutally murdered while they venture on land in search of food—the aquatics have become prey for their cousins, the woodland-dwellers, who lie in wait above the vegetation line, and move much faster than their water-based relatives. And they seem to feel no compunction about murdering their cousins, so far are they both removed from a common humanity. On one hand, Ghloob sees the dangers that he and his community face as they live hand-to-mouth: they’re driven to exploit natural resources as they are provided them, sure to spend all their gained boon on reproduction, leading to an inevitable crash in resources, famine, and, potentially, the end of the species. But on the other hand, individuals and, sometimes, whole groups are lost to the dangers they face on land as they forage for food. They have been engineered to favor their species continuance over their individual needs; the “madness gene” seems to have been suppressed, and in so doing individuals willingly put themselves at risk. The will to self-annihilation is contained in support of species continuance.
Dixon posits that “loss” is what operates to inhibit the “madness gene.” Among his many posthuman creatures there arise those he refers to as “memory people,” individuals who are able to tap into inherited memories that stretch back generations in their origins (see Sheldrake 2009). These memory people are able to find resources—water, food—that are otherwise unapparent to their kin thanks to a preternatural knowledge that has been genetically handed down to them. Whether this is engineered into them or a result of natural selection is unclear, but it is based in their biology—there is no transmitted “culture” or knowledge that they are able to access. These memories motivate action and they help individuals keep themselves and their species alive through the procurement of resources, but they also seem to ensure that the “madness gene” is held in check. Among the otherwise complacent posthumans arise a group of “boatbuilders,” individuals who begin to experiment with ironworking and shipbuilding after generations of these technologies being unexplored:
They know, deep inside them, that the knowledge their ancestors gained, generation by generation, eventually destroyed them. They know that their ancestors made things, that they took power from the sun and the sea, from the ancient concentrated remains of life, from the breakdown of the very forces that held matter together . . . Eventually the Earth became too crowded and burdened to carry them, and they perished under the weight of their own technical cleverness. All this they remembered, although they hardly understood it; but the inherited memory of the loss of everything that their ancestors had achieved was enough to forbid the use of inherited memory and the means of achieving it. (Dixon 1990, 86)
The boatbuilders are driven from their community. Fanatics who see their tinkering ways as endangering the species force them to flee from the island upon which they live. Their pursuers are not so orthodox that they won’t use the tools left behind by the boatbuilders to hunt and exterminate them, so strong is the feeling of loss that motivates the suppression of the “madness gene.” But loss is not enough, and when loss proves insufficient, murder ensures that the species will continue past the tinkering of a select few innovators.
Elsewhere, Dixon describes “strength” as the means through which these inherited memories and the will to tinker are held in check. Due to the dearth of natural resources, over time the plains-dwelling herbivores that have been engineered begin to develop a rudimentary society akin to insect hives. One female is chosen to breed to ensure that the population remains low enough to be supported by the available resources, and the rest of the community is organized to support her and the children that she bears in their communal hive. Males are sent off as hunters and food gatherers, and females are left in the hive to support the mother and her children. In considering how society might be innovated, Dixon narrates the value of this “strength”:
It is a sign of their strength that they know how to make their life easier, but ignore the knowledge. Any one of them has enough inherited knowledge to dig the burning stones or the naturally-distilled organic fluid from the ground . . . and use their heat to melt down metal minerals. They could all break down the substances from the rocks and use them for many varied purposes. They know it is possible to fly to the moon and stars, and they know how to do it; but they will not. They will not call down the destruction once more. (Dixon 1990, 94)
“Strength,” transspecies empathy, “loss,” boatbuilding and the will to tinker, species continuance, reproduction, and subsistence. These seem to be the drivers in human existence so far as Dixon is concerned. He imagines our successors as our betters, more able to suppress the “madness gene” in favor of species continuance. This comes into relief 5 million years in the future, when humans have come to resemble anteaters, sabertooth tigers, and enormous sloths. They live, Dixon tells us, in balance with nature, all hereditary memories long since lost, all desires to tinker also weeded out through natural selection. There will never be another Anthropocene, at least not at the hands of these posthumans. But then those humans who left 5 million years in the past to seed other planets return, and they come back as aliens, adapted to environments they found to be their new homes. They seem not to have learned the lesson of the Anthropocene and return to Earth to mine it of its resources, living and not. Over time, these little alien Homo alter and corrupt the environment, initiating humanity’s final humiliation: all of those strange, engineered posthumans are treated as nothing more than food and pack animals for the aliens, and when their utility comes to an end, so does the alien colonization of Earth. They move on, unromantically, to the next planet to harvest, to another Anthropocene to be set into motion, remorselessly, to support the species through its next colonization effort.
The nihilism of deep time—whether it comes in the form of thinking that humans have some kind of “madness gene” or that regardless of what we do to learn from our mistakes, we are doomed to repeat them—supports a damned-if-we-do, damned-if-we-don’t approach to the Anthropocene and catastrophes in general. If the apocalypse is written into our very genetic code, if it is what makes us distinctly human—both in relation to our predecessors but also our imaginary successors—then the best we can do is make the most of an inevitable situation. There are two things that I find disagreeable with such a position: that humans are determined first and foremost by our biologies, and that time can only be conceived as a linear, progressive force. In terms of the former, centuries of philosophical and social scientific research has attempted to differentiate humans from our animal kingdom relatives, to find something truly distinctive about us that would explain our uniqueness—why there can be the Anthropocene but hasn’t been an Insectocene or Beavercene. The reasoning of biological reductionists—which Dixon and Pääbo seem to be—is that human distinctiveness must be evident in our bodies, in our biologies, and that whatever worldly products humans might make that stand apart from what termites or beavers might produce are merely outgrowths of our biological programming, our will to tinker. In such a conception, what they miss is that influence is the process of slow accrual. The Anthropocene wasn’t made in a day but was assembled through a diversity of forces, many of which were compelled by capitalist greed that found building momentum in the industrialization of labor. What seems like biological desire or species inevitability has been built over time through a variety of forces that have made us the modern subjects that we are; if we are invested in the Anthropocene as our humiliation, it is because of the subjects that we have been made to be. But it could be otherwise. Progressive time is a story that those in power employ to render their position inevitable: the way that things are is the inevitable effect of a set of processes that has produced this hegemony of the North Atlantic, of white people, of the elite. It couldn’t be otherwise, so the thinking goes. But that’s not true either. History is suffused with contingency, and history lingers. For progressivists, time passes, but counterontologies posit that time works differently, that it is recursive and haunting. And in that recursivity, there might be another way forward, another way to think about inevitability and what can be done with the influences and forces that have brought us to this pre-apocalyptic moment.