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When Darwinism becomes a fashionable doomsday cult…

Like all cults, it can make otherwise intelligent people begin to sound rather strange, even precarious

At MIT Press Reader, Peter Watts, a somewhat contrarian Canadian hard science fiction author, has written up a long-running dialogue with University of Toronto evolutionary biologist Dan Brooks on a topic of mutual interest (passion?) for over 40 years: the coming collapse of everything.

Watts is author, most recently, of The Freeze-Frame Revolution (Tachyon 2018). Brooks, along with environmentalist Salvatore J. Agosta, is author of The Darwinian Survival Guide (MIT Press 2024).

We are warned of a coming collapse, but there is hope for a few

The dialogue is illuminating but in part for reasons that might not be obvious to the participants. Both are entirely convinced that, after many thousands of years of both rise and ruin, humanity is now heading off a steep cliff:

… And we’re expecting the exhaustion of all arable land around 2050, which is actually kind of moot because studies from institutions as variable as MIT and the University of Melbourne suggest that global civilizational collapse is going to happen starting around 2040 or 2050 … We’re headed for the cliff, and not only have we not hit the brakes yet, we still have our foot on the gas.

Peter Watts, “The Collapse Is Coming. Will Humanity Adapt?,” MIT Press Reader, May 13, 2024

Hence the offer by Brooks and Agosta of a Darwinian survival guide:

Brooks: … Darwin told us in 1859 that what we had been doing for the last 10,000 or so years was not going to work. But people didn’t want to hear that message. So along came a sociologist who said, “It’s OK; I can fix Darwinism.” This guy’s name was Herbert Spencer, and he said, “I can fix Darwinism. We’ll just call it natural selection, but instead of survival of what’s-good-enough-to-survive-in-the-future, we’re going to call it survival of the fittest, and it’s whatever is best now.” Herbert Spencer was instrumental in convincing most biologists to change their perspective from “evolution is long-term survival” to “evolution is short-term adaptation.” And that was consistent with the notion of maximizing short term profits economically, maximizing your chances of being reelected, maximizing the collection plate every Sunday in the churches, and people were quite happy with this.

Watts, “The Collapse Is Coming.”

This interpretation of Charles Darwin (1809–1882) and British philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) is new to me and offered without notes.

Brooks’ background observation is that technological fixes won’t work; we must change our behavior: “What Sal and I suggest is that if we go back to Darwin’s original message, we not only find an explanation for why we’re in this problem, but, interestingly enough, it also gives us some insights into the kinds of behavioral changes we might want to undertake if we want to survive.”

Wait. If humans are merely the products of Darwinian evolution, how can we be free to change our behavior, any more than a squirrel or a starling can?

How the evolutionarily chosen few will survive

Never mind, it turns out that Brooks thinks that the few will soon pass through a bottleneck in which most technologically dependent people won’t survive:

Brooks: What can we begin doing now to try to shorten the period of time after the collapse, before we “recover”? In other words — and this is in analogy with Asimov’s Foundation trilogy — if we do nothing, there’s going to be a collapse and it’ll take 30,000 years for the galaxy to recover. But if we start doing things now, then it maybe only takes 1,000 years to recover. So using that analogy, what can some human beings start to do now that would shorten the period of time necessary to recover? Could we, in fact, recover within a generation? Could we be without a global internet for 20 years, but within 20 years, could we have a global internet back again?

Watts, “The Collapse Is Coming.”

He likes Watt’s suggested comparison of these survivors to the Norwegian Seed Bank — the “seeds” of anew humanity. A similar concept plays out in Interstellar (2014) where humanity is to be restarted from frozen embryos on a new planet.

But that’s science fiction. What Watts and Brooks are talking about sounds more like a cult. You know the scenario: Only a small brave band of those willing to accept the demands of the cult will survive the catastrophe and populate the new order.

The new way of thinking

As the interview progresses, we learn that the strictly science-based doomsday cult has perceived a message during the modern era, one that sets its adherents apart:

Brooks: There seems to be a mismatch within our brain — this is an ongoing sort of sloppy evolutionary phenomenon. So that’s why we spend so much time in the first half of the book talking about human evolution, and that’s why we adopt a nonjudgmental approach to understanding how human beings have gotten themselves into this situation. Because everything that human beings have done for 3 million years has seemed like a good idea at the time, but it’s only been in the last 100 or 150 years that human beings have begun to develop ways of thinking that allow us to try to project future consequences and to think about unanticipated consequences, long-term consequences of what we do now. So this is very new for humanity, and as a consequence, it’s ridiculous to place blame on our ancestors for the situation we’re in now.

Watts, “The Collapse Is Coming”

How did the doomsayers happen to escape the evolutionary brain mismatch from which everyone else has, we are told, always suffered?

And the persecution

Brooks, like most people with such messages, expects persecution:

Watts: … So what you are essentially saying here is that anyone trying to adopt the Darwinian principles that you and Sal are advocating is going to be going up against established societal structures, which makes you, by definition, an enemy of the state.

Brooks: Yes.

Watts, “The Collapse Is Coming.”

Watts then asks, “So, how are we not looking at a violent revolution here?”

Brooks concedes that that’s a good point and doesn’t directly answer. After much rambling conversation we learn that Peter Watts is “increasingly sympathetic” to the Human Extinction Movement whose motto is “May we live ong and die out.”

One thing that the dialogue makes quite clear is that Darwinism can be the basis of a classic fashionable cult that does not reflect well on the intelligence of its adherents.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Immortal Mind: A Neurosurgeon’s Case for the Existence of the Soul (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

When Darwinism becomes a fashionable doomsday cult…