Our Planet

What would happen if humans became extinct?


In the last few thousand years, humans have had a powerful impact on Earth. Within a geological blink of an eye, we exploded out of Africa to colonize virtually every inhabitable space on the planet. We dammed the rivers, we domesticated animals, deforested many areas, changed the chemistry of atmosphere and he seas… list goes on. But, what would happen if humans suddenly become extinct in the future?

One may think “humans are so intelligent, so it’s very unlikely that entire human race will be gone”. But, in fact, there is a strong chance that it will happen, and probably not in the long run!

According to the the Global Catastrophic Risks Survey published by Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University, placed human’s risk of extinction before the year 2100 at 19%! (see the video below published by Michael Stevens - the YouTuber known as Vsauce). If it seems unlikely and pessimistic to you, please read on (or watch the video).

Pripyat amusement park
What would happen if humans became extinct? This photo gives some hints: the abandoned Pripyat amusement park, in Pripyat, Ukraine. It was to be opened for the first time on May 1, 1986, in time for the May Day celebrations, but these plans were scuttled on April 26, when the Chernobyl disaster occurred a few kilometers away.

The Doomsday Argument

Imagine a giant urn that contains either 10 balls (numbered 1 to 10), or a million balls (numbered 1 to 1,000,000). You don’t know which is the case. And you are allowed to pull out one ball.

You pull out the ball and it is the bull having number 4 on it. Which one is more likely, there are 10 balls, or a million balls in the urn?

The answer is obvious. It is very, very likely that there are 10 balls in the urn.

The Doomsday Argument
The probability of pulling out a ball that having number 4 on it from a set of 1 to 10 is 1/10. That chance is much smaller if we pull out from a million different numbers: 1/1,000,000.

By analogy, think yourself as a numbered ball. You are a human who knows approximately what your birth number is - and it’s probably somewhere around 100 billion. That’s how many other humans were most likely born before you were. And you didn’t decide to get that number, it is “random” in nature. So, just like the number for a ball, you are a random sample from the set of all humans who will ever live.

The “doomsday argument” points out that from 200 billion people, there’s 50% chance that a randomly chosen person like you will be born in the first one hundred billion.

If there will be, let’s say, 10 trillion humans, that probability would be only 1% (the chance of any given human, like you, would happen to be born within the first one hundred billion).

Doomsday argument, humans
You were born in one of these green areas - in the first 100 billion or so humans. According to the Doomsday Argument, it is very unlikely that there will be 10 trillion humans in total.

So, either you are very special to be born so improbably early in the story of humanity, or your birth number is to be expected, because there won’t be tens of trillions of humans. Human extinction will be sooner rather than later.

Please keep in mind that there are many counter-arguments against the doomsday argument, which was developed by the Canadian philosopher John Andrew Leslie (born August 2, 1940). THe argument was also independently discovered by John Richard Gott III (born February 8, 1947 in Louisville, Kentucky), a professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University and Holger Bech Nielsen (born 25 August 1941) is a Danish theoretical physicist, Professor emeritus at the Niels Bohr Institute, at the University of Copenhagen. To read about these arguments, see “Counter-arguments against the doomsday argument” section.

Anyway… Let’s return to the subject. What would happen if humans became extinct? The video below, published by AsapScience channel answers that very question.

Why would humans go extinct? This isn’t the subject of this article, but you can see the video below where Nick Bostrom from the Oxford University Future of Humanity Institute talks about the threats that our species face, and what we can do about them.

Counter-arguments against the doomsday argument

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