'Any form represented by few individuals,' Darwin wrote in The Origin of Species, 'will, during fluctuations in the seasons or in the number of its enemies, run a good chance of utter extinction.' That both these words need qualifying should give us pause. Darwin could see the appeal of extinction; or rather, something about extinction appealed to him. When he describes the all-consuming struggle of species to survive and reproduce there is occasionally, lurking in his sentences, something about the all too human option of giving up. We are, after all, the animals that are making the seasons fluctuate and the animals with a genius for creating enemies. All our self-destructive behaviour, whatever else we think it is, may be an attempt to put a stop to the struggle. And if we begin to hate our own struggle for survival, we may want to suppress it in others. Clearly, our capacity to destroy other species - not to mention others that belong to our own species - was the most staggering fact of the last century. It is not surprising that it occurred to some people that there might be a secret struggle not to survive, that utter extinction might be our best chance.
LRB 31 October 2002 | PDF Download