Stephen Hawking is an astrophysicist; I feel the need to say this explicitly because based on some of the media coverage he’s received over the past year, you might forgive people for mistaking him for a doomsday prophet. After being questionably accused of suggesting that artificial intelligence will conquer us or that a giant supercollider will flush out the Higgs field and destroy the universe, he has turned his attention more recently on a threat that he considers very real, and a threat that may in fact destroy us: the human capacity for aggression.
The idea that human aggression is an existential threat is not a particularly new one. The corresponding idea that “we must love one another or die” is familiar to any fan of W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” or to anyone who heard the infamous 1964 U.S. presidential campaign ad that appropriated the famous last line of its penultimate stanza. Nuclear, chemical, and biological agents, scarcity, environmental damage, and our unprecedented capacity for large-scale bloodshed all present scenarios where the aggression of a relatively small number of people can wipe us all out, as a species.
As usual, Hawking’s concerns are being misrepresented by the media—with multiple headlines quoting him as saying that aggression “will” destroy humanity, a claim that bears little resemblance to what he actually said. The Washington Post’s Morning Mix is one of the few media outlets that characterizes his concerns more-or-less accurately:
Hawking was asked last week what he believed was humanity’s greatest shortcoming. He said that human beings continue to be stupidly aggressive — long after the evolutionary benefit of that kind of behavior has gone away.
“The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression,” said Hawking, according to CNET. “It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory or partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all.”
Specifically — and Hawking probably isn’t wrong about this — aggression combined with nuclear capabilities could spell “the end of civilization, and maybe the end of the human race.”
Where most media coverage fails here, once again, is in mistaking Hawking’s warning of potential danger for a prediction that an apocalyptic scenario will actually come to pass. At no point does Hawking say that aggression will destroy humanity; only that it is presently our greatest self-imposed existential threat. Similarly, he does not predict that AI will conquer us (only that it could, if implemented recklessly) and does not predict that a planet-sized supercollider will destroy the universe (only that the terrestrial supercolliders we’re building now are much too small and weak to even hypothetically disrupt the Higgs field). It’s almost as if reporters have developed the habit of asking Hawking ominous questions, then stringing together terrifying answers by reorganizing his nouns.
But never mind all that; are we actually becoming more aggressive, or less so? Steven Pinker made the latter argument in his controversial 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, and he has a reasonable answer for those of us who identify the potential for large-scale nuclear violence as an existential threat:
There is no answer to the question of how to compare the decline in actual deaths from dozens of high-probability categories (homicide, war, domestic abuse, and so on) with the increase in hypothetical deaths from one low-probability category – it is, as they say, a philosophical question. But it’s far from certain that nuclear weapons will ever be used again. The 67-year history of nonuse suggests that, contrary to predictions that blundering politicians and trigger-happy generals have always been on the verge of unleashing nuclear weapons, the likelihood of their being used is probably very small. Of course, even an event with an extremely low odds, when the probability is exponentiated over enough years, becomes extremely probable, but that curve has to be set off against the one representing the probability that the Global Zero project will succeed and that nuclear weapons will go the way of chemical weapons, human sacrifice, and slave auctions – also a low-probability event, but one which has a nonzero chance of happening in this century.
The problem I see with Pinker’s logic is that he’s thinking like an economist. It’s questionable to look back on seven decades of nuclear restraint as if these years represent a sample group, reflecting a consistent state of low risk, when the number of countries possessing nuclear warheads has increased by 800% in the interim. And even if we concede his point on nuclear weapons (something Hawking does not seem to be entirely ready to do), there’s still the problem of novel biological agents.
So while I think Pinker may be broadly correct that we’re becoming less violent as a species, I’m sympathetic to the view once held by Auden and LBJ, and perhaps now held by Hawking, that aggression still poses our gravest existential threat—that we must, indeed, love one another or die.