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When the Bugs Look Back

A Digression on the Existential Legitimacy of the Modern Age

Raving politics, never at rest—as this poor earth’s pale history runs,—
What is it all but a trouble of ants in the gleam of a million million of suns? What the philosophies, all the sciences, poesy, varying voices of prayer?
All that is noblest, all that is basest, all that is filthy with all that is fair?
What is it all, if we all of us end but in being our own corpse-coffins at last,
Swallow’d in Vastness, lost in Silence, drown’d in the deeps of a meaningless Past? What but a murmur of gnats in the gloom, or a moment’s anger of bees in their hive?

Alfred Tennyson[1]


Different animals have always played different philosophical roles. Philosophers have always had a thing for invertebrates, though the spineless sect has been typecast in somewhat negative roles. The oyster has often been associated with the lowly, for example: such as when Plato said that the life of the intoxicated hedonist, living entirely for the present moment, is like “the life of an oyster”.[2] Or, when Hume, centuries later, professed, whilst writing on suicide, that

the life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.[3]

Which was strangely alike to these words from Marquis de Sade:

The life of the most sublime of men is to nature not of greater importance than that of an oyster.[4]

Of course, this reflects badly on humanity only if you hold oysters in low regard; if you assume that a scale of beings indwells nature, rather than each lifeway having its own, incommensurable grandeur.

Given that familiarity recapitulates phylogeny, and we split from our invertebrate cousins sometime between 500 and 600 million years ago, the oyster has also been conscripted to express dramatically alien umwelts (long before echolocators played the role). In the 1880s, Karl von Prel fused Kantianism with evolutionism, exploring how the universes of other animals would differ from our own. As sensory and mental faculties fuse to actively forge a world, different minds—enjoying different organs of sense—will manufacture different worlds. Following this, du Prel wrote:

But since the world, as represented by us, is a product of our sensibility, every exaltation of sense, every development of a new sense, must change the world-picture. The oyster represents the world differently from man, and from the oyster up to man a continual multiplication and exaltation of sense-faculties has taken place.

“Like a red thread,” he continued, “there goes through the biological process a continuous displacement of the boundary line between the actual and transcendental world.”[5] This is evocative, but it still assumes unilinear hierarchy, it still stereotypes the oyster as lowly. Evolutionists have since continued to use sessile invertebrates to stage thought experiments exploring the different “possible worlds” of biology, and how far, and how deep, this space of possibilities might reach. Namely, they have used the oyster to postulate that, as most of us assume our world is richer than that of a mollusk, there might be other possible worlds vastly richer than our own.

If such worlds already surround us, how would we know? The game of asking is old. In the 1730s, entomologist René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur was using the same conceit. But he was using it to edify god’s omnipotent will rather than nature’s morphospace of minds. This time, though, he was much more magnanimous towards the mollusks, allowing that they might—for all we know—possess quiet wisdoms:

But if somebody should hold that God could endow insects with an intelligence equal or even superior to our own, without enabling us to know that He had thus endowed them; and if this somebody should hold that an oyster, vile as it is in our sight, attached to a rock and condemned to a mode of life which seems to us very gloomy, may nevertheless enjoy a very delightful existence, being constantly engaged in lofty speculations, it would be impossible to deny that the Supreme Power could go so far or even farther, He can create and place intelligences wherever He desires.[6]

Looking back to Plato’s judgement against the squidgy bliss of the oyster, the philosophical uses come full circle in J. M. E. McTaggart’s 1927 thought experiment in The Nature of Existence regarding the strange arithmetic and confounding conclusions of hedonic calculus. McTaggart compared an “oyster-like” existence, endowed with “very little consciousness” and “very little excess of pleasure over pain”, with the average human life: presumably filled with all kinds of intensities and excellences. McTaggart ventured that a sufficiently long oyster life—near hedonic zero, but not below—would always come to outweigh the human biography in goodness. Even if you extend the human life, or fill it with yet more joy and meaning, there is a conceivable oyster-life that is long enough to outweigh the sapient one. Despite accepting this argument, McTaggart called his acceptance “repugnant”.[7]

Here’s another philosophical conscription, now of a clam, from the astronomer Harlow Shapley, writing in 1959:

How might man’s career on this planet be terminated, and the biology of the earth returned to the durable clams, kelp, and cockroaches which dominated the lands and seas for hundreds of millions of years before the human experiment got under way?[8]


People have always wondered what posterity will make of them. The Victorians were particularly good at it, unsurprisingly imbuing it with all their colonial angst, imagining how non-Europeans might one day, in the distant future, ponder the forgotten ruins of Europe’s cities.[9] But the highly Victorian preoccupation with the apparent rising and falling of empires, and the apparent circulation of the world’s navel, is, of course, but a continuation of human history.

Depicting continuation is easy. To ponder ruins, all one needs is a ponderer intact. Depicting human history’s outright terminus, in the form of extinction, however, requires more: it demands narrating beyond the end of all narration. In this instance, something other than human helps to be conscripted as our posthumous witness, providing the focalization that can be projected forward so we can look back upon our own species, post festum.

Shapley conscripts the clam and cockroach above. It turns out that, as the 1900s dawned, and fears of universal extinction outpaced more parochial angsts, untethered from provincial horizons, the act of conscripting the spineless sect, to look back upon our graves, became commonplace. One of the more poetic examples comes from a humble book on moths, published in 1903:

When the moon shall have faded out from the sky, and the sun shall shine at noonday a dull cherry-red, and the seas shall be frozen over, and the ice-cap shall have crept downward to the equator from either pole, and no keels shall cut the waters, nor wheels turn in mills, when all cities shall have long been dead and crumbled into dust, and all life shall be on the very last verge of extinction on this globe; then, on a bit of lichen, growing on the bald rocks beside the eternal snows of Panama, shall be seated a tiny insect, preening its antenna in the glow of the worn-out sun, representing the sole survival of animal life on this our earth—a melancholy “bug”.[10]


The context was the then recent discovery of the sheer antiquity, conservatism and evolutionary staying power of insects. “Before even the great reptiles, down among the trilobites and the early fishes, we find our cockroach,” writers of the late 1800s enjoyed remarking.[11] One 1898 children’s book put the words straight into a blattid’s mouth: “We are also very ancient,” our roach explains, “but it is quite impossible for me to tell you how many generations have preceded me.”[12]

Having thus proven themselves resilient over a timespan magnitudes longer than the entire existence of the hominin, the hardy bugs seemed to many a safer bet for maintaining themselves into the further future than us simians, who, comparatively. might seem untested, inexperienced, upstart newcomers. Following such reasoning, one zoologist, as early as 1897, was venturing that “the humble ants have a glorious future before them after man has ceased to exist upon this earth”.[13] Another commentator echoed the sentiment in 1899: “And it may be that man, a late arrival, is destined to a far shorter use of the earth than the cockroach or the lobster.”[14]

One science fiction book, written a few decades later, chronicled the biosphere’s deep future. Humanity goes eventually extinct, leaving behind the hardy social insects, which “inherit the earth” and rule it for billions of years. There is a war between termites and giant ants, with the latter winning, thereafter filling the world with their gigantic skyscraping structures.[15]

There was an aspect of the carnivalesque to this, of course. Suddenly the scales had shifted: viewed from the cold tribunal of brute evolutionary longevity, the invertebrate turns out to be the “aristocrat”, as many humorously remarked at the time, and the human the parvenu.


Moreover, it was soon revealed that the social insects, like ants and wasps, had probably been “civilised” since the end of the Cretaceous. Based on this track record, many began remarking that their society was perhaps a safer bet than what Shapley referred to as the “human experiment”, in its contrast to the “durable clam”.

Given newfound fascination with the societies of insects, it was common, during the first decades of the 1900s, to use the ant-heap as a motif, allowing comparison with the human megapolis, and enabling perspective switches, between the microscopic and telescopic—the entomological and anthropological—so as to feign a god’s eye view. The idea was to stage a clinical, objective, detached gaze on humanity’s hustling and bustling. But now the bug was also being used as a way of looking back, from the end, to retrospect our own extinction.

Some of this was whimsical, mostly playful. One such beetle came from the quill of the American journalist Don Marquis (who, incidentally, once wrote a funny little novel called The Revolt of the Oysters). Marquis’s preferred mouthpiece was Archy, a cockroach, who would regularly pour scorn upon humankind in ragged blank verse. The conceit was that Archy would take over Marquis’s typewriter after dark and pen his poems; because of his cockroach-stature, he couldn’t operate multiple keys at once, so his writings lack capitalisations and grammar. Here’s a sample:

if all the bugs
in all the worlds
twixt earth and betelgoose
should sharpen up
their little strings
and turn their feelings loose
they soon would show
all human beans
in saturn
or mars
their relative significance
among the spinning stars
man is so proud
the haughty simp
so hard for to approach
and he looks down
with such an air
on spider
or roach
the supercilious silliness
of this poor wingless bird
is cosmically comical
and stellarly absurd
his scutellated occiput
has holes somewhere inside
and there no doubt
two pints or so
of scrambled brains reside
if all the bugs
of all the stars
should sting him on the dome
they might pierce through
that osseous rind
and find the brains at home
and in the convolutions lay
an egg with fancies fraught
germinating rapidly
might turn into a thought
might turn into the thought
that men
and insects are the same
both transient flecks
of starry dust
that out of nothing came
the planets are
what atoms are
and neither more nor less
man s feet have grown
so big that he
forgets his littleness
the things he thinks
are only things
that insects always knew
the things he does
are stunts that we
don t have to think to do
he spent a score
of centuries
in getting feeble wings
which we instinctively
with other trivial things
the day is coming
very soon
when man and all his race
must cast their silly
pride aside
and take the second place[16]

The joke, of course, is that Archy is, behind the insectoid exterior, just another human passing their very human opinion upon humanity. Archy promises all the revelatory pathos of the cosmic view—the grand perspicacity that can mensurate at a scale comparable to the volume separating Earth and Betelgeuse—but instead all he provides is the charming bathos of its inevitable collapse. In his pusillanimity, and policing of the presumed ladder of life, Archy lifts a mirror to our own defects.

It’s part of a rich tradition, going back a long way. So wrote John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, in the 1600s:

Were I (who to my cost already am
One of those strange, prodigious creatures, man)
A spirit free to choose for my own shar,
What case of flesh and blood I please to wear,
I’d be a dog, a monkey, or a bear,
Or anything but that vain animal
Who is so proud of being rational.[17]

The point here is that only a human would, and could, utter such a subjunctive. Wanting to be something else, to have been born as another, is probably a uniquely human trait. The tradition is sometimes called theriophily or animalitarianism, the aim being to elevate the atavistic above the humanistic: since the beasts are peaceful in their ignorance and secure in their innocence, stable in their behaviours, not liable to err nor doubt. Archy The Cockroach’s poetry often called on such themes, and wasn’t always all joke; there was often a deeply, deadly serious message amongst the mirth. For example, from “what the ants are saying”:

dear boss i was talking with an ant
the other day
and he handed me a lot of
gossip which ants the world around
are chewing over among themselves
i pass it onto you
it wont be long now it wont be long
man is making deserts of the earth
it wont be long now
before man will have used it up
so that nothing but ants
and centipedes and scorpions
can find a living on it
what man calls civilization
always results in deserts
man is never on the square
he uses up the fat and greenery of the earth
each generation wastes a little more
of the future with greed and lust for riches
it wont be long now it wont be long
till earth is barren as the moon
and sapless as a mumbled bone
dear boss I relay this information
without any fear that humanity
will take warning and reform[18]

Again, the bugs are looking back. In our age of climate calamity, Archy’s message has aged well. Indeed, when the tradition of theriophilia came into contact with the 20th century, it was used to voice a newfound fear. This was the fear that it might be precisely humanity’s need to invent in order to survive which explains much of the rapid success of our species, but may also contribute to its instability, rapacity and ultimate failure. Other creatures rely on tried-and-tested instincts, honed over evolution’s long haul, secure and reliable albeit rigid and inflexible. Humanity, contrarily, is, as the geologist Kirtley F. Mather once put it, “a specialist in adaptability rather than in adaptation”. Lacking rigid remit, it has to invent as much as inherit. Humanity seems far less stable, liable to err, without a predefined place.


This was precisely Shapley’s point, remarking on man’s “short and brilliant career” from “ape-like ancestry” to skyscrapers in but a brief period of time, geologically speaking. The cockroach, he wrote, “has a straight-line ancestry of two hundred million years or more”:

His is a stock sufficiently strong to carry him through numerous terrestrial upheavals, through desiccations and glaciations—and the cockroach today is just as good as he ever was. He and many other types of paleozoic [sic] animals so successfully adjusted themselves to the bitter universe that they have attained an enviable persistence. They had lived for ages before the sun passed the Orion nebula. They were well attuned with the physical law and environment’s seeming caprice.

“Still more instructive,” Shapley continued, “in our problem of perspective, are social insects.” In “reasonable harmony with the physical restrictions and with the biotic world are these persistent societies of ants,” such that we must agree that “their descendants can carry on as of old with the assurance of an ample future”.

Theirs is, I claim, a splendid social development—the work is all done by the females! The males, when they are permitted to exist at all, are mainly decorative. The governmental details are in the hands and antennae of widows and spinsters.

He then attempts to view nature’s verdict, should humanity not also achieve its own version of harmony and balance:

In a million years or so, by the light of those undisturbed stars that heed life not at all, some conservative cockroach, crawling over the fossilized skull of an extinct primate, may be able to observe: “A relic here of another highly specialized organism which failed to recognize the laws of the universe, which preferred the current minor whims to the search for survival, and which missed its great opportunity to inherit the planet, perishing an early victim of the world’s subtle chemistries.”[19]

Shapley is using the cockroach to attempt his own version of the cosmic view. It’s something that Bertrand Russell also memorably reached for when he rhapsodized that “all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system” and that the whole temple of accumulated achievement “must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins”.[20] Wyrd bið ful aræd, as one forgotten Anglo-Saxon poet—addressing essentially the same theme—wrote around a millennium ago.[21]

Bernard Williams once rightfully noted that Russell’s tone here, in hoisting himself to the cosmic view, is at once “self-pitying” and “self-glorifying”.[22] There’s certainly something true about the self-pity, since one could only find nature’s uncaringness an enormity to the extent that felt, no matter how tacitly, that one had lost a legitimate inheritance owed. That feeling, tacit or not, is, of course, a question of historical baggage. Religion affects even the disbeliever, given that conceptual positions, questions and metaphors are inherited across generations. The loss of the promise of everything still imposes, even if one has become convinced it was a sham all along.

Indeed, one of the things that’s going on here is the historical inertia of the desire for an outside view, the cosmic perspective, the transcendent judgement and ultimate tribunal. As Franke Kermode had it, it proffers a “sense of an ending”.

We project ourselves—a small humble elect, perhaps, past the End, so as to see the structure whole, a thing we cannot do from our spot of time in the middle.[23]

In a secular age, the bug and oyster, the cockroach and the kelp, replace the elect and the angels.


It’s good to be wary of postured attempts at ventriloquising or anticipating nature’s verdict, of course. Sublime though it is, and often nothing more than a humorous corrective to human hubris, thinking that nature’s tribunal, past and future, has any kind of moral content and that anyone has pellucid access to it, as Stephen Jay Gould brilliantly documented, is part of the philosophic root of evils like eugenics and social Darwinism.[24] It would no more be a “verdict” against intelligence, of our sapient sort, should we go extinct tomorrow than it would be a “verdict” against it if it had never evolved in the first place—say, if Chixculub had never happened. Neither are convincing. Many of nature’s exuberant possibilities will never be realised, and most that have been realised never will be again; the deep mark of history on that process, in its essence as contingency, is testimonial enough against self-serving—or, indeed, self-pitying—adjudications. Most importantly of all, nature’s blind tribunal carries no moral authority at all.

As Stanislaw Lem mused in his 1983 Das Katastrophenprinzip:

The balance sheet looks like this. Man could not emerge from the differentiated biological legacy of the Mesozoic […] the limb of the evolutionary that created the mammals would not have branched and would not have given them primacy among the animals had there not been, sixty-five million years ago, between the Cretaceous and Tertiary, a catastrophe in the form of an enormous, 3.5-to-4-trillion-ton meteorite.

We are the heirs of the “statistical fury of the stars”, he continued, “one of the rare winners in this lottery”—the “survivor of hecatombs” played out on the “roulette wheels that are galaxies”.[25] As we look down on oysters, many of life’s forms—remaining forever unrealized for whatever reason—might well have looked down upon us in the same way.


There’s been another prominent way of using bugs to imagine the end of humanity. During an epoch which saw the rise of authoritarianism, some voices, less whimsical, feared for various reasons that human society was tending in the direction of the insect, as a form of living death. The entomologist Alfred E. Emerson wrote, in a 1947 piece called “Why Termites?”:

Biology has been used to rationalize political bias, as I suspect was the case when Churchill suggested the study of termites to Stalin.

It became fashionable for political factions of all persuasions—“autocracy, fascism, communism, or democracy”, Emerson wrote—to see in their opponents echoes of the obligate eusociality, and lack of liberty, of the social insect.[26]

There were some wild theorisations: such as, for example, the speculations of the esotericist writer P. D. Ouspensky.[27] Writing around 1929, Ouspensky speculated that social insects represent the remains of a prior sapient civilization which came to lose its rationality through disuse. Claiming that nonhuman cosmopolises and monuments could have existed in the deeper paleontological past, with no traces remaining into our Cenozoic era, he thus wrote that “we have no grounds” for considering humanity nature’s first “experiment” with sapience.[28] His reasoning further rested on disbelief that the intricate “organisation of the ‘beehive’ and the ‘ant-hill’”, as it exists today, could be an architecture achieved by blind instinct. It would have, originally at least, required insight and “logical intelligence”, Ouspensky was convinced. However, this formerly sapient species, having thereafter pursued a “very narrow and rigidly utilitarian” order of things, in course of time, lost their “thinking capacities”: which—“absolutely unnecessary in a well-organised ant-hill or beehive”—slowly became “atrophied, automatic habits”. Eventually, the sapient ants “became ‘insects’ as we know them”. Ouspensky imagined that they had achieved a perfect “socialistic order” at the price of their sapient spark.

Flirting with entomological euhemerism, the esotericist continued to conjecture that cross-cultural human myths of “strange non-human beings”, and the ruins of their works, might be explained as vestiges of this pre-human civilization. “Of course, it will be difficult at first to imagine Lucifer as a bee, or the Titans as ants”, Ouspensky continued, but “if we renounce for the moment the idea of the necessity of the human form”, then it might become just about believable. Given Ouspensky’s own “bias” was mysticism, he warned that contemporary humanity—in neglecting the spiritual side of things—was headed on a similar track.

Ouspensky’s speculation is certainly the most bizarre and bold, but he wasn’t the only one. The historian Arnold Toynbee claimed that the human desire for “utopia” was damaging because its manifestation would be something similar to the instinctual “perfection” of “social insects”. He wrote:

If we enter into the comparison, we shall discern in an ant-heap and in a bee-hive, as well as in Plato’s Republic or in Mr. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World [the same] fatally perfect adaptation of the society to its particular environment.

For Toynbee, utopianism amounts to the desire for “an invincibly stable equilibrium” in which “the supreme social aim to which all other social values are subordinated and, if need be, sacrificed”:

The human cells of Leviathan are to be subordinated […] to the social pseudo-organism as the protoplasmic cells of a human body are subordinated in fact to the genuine organism in which they cohere.[29]

One particularly fascinating 1923 novel, by Gaston de Pawlowski and titled Journey to the Land of the Fourth Dimension, imagined this happening by accident, as civilization essentially pieces together an emergent “Leviathan”, or superorganism, from the flows of global trade and technologization, which—though essentially unconscious, insensate, unawake, unalive and inorganic—still comes to usurp human liberty and autonomy, taking humanity’s place in the driving seat of history. It sounds like something Marx could have written in his more gothic moments:

Only the formidable Leviathan benefited from these specialized activities. A monstrous and unconscious Hydroid, it replaced with its material universality the intellectual universality that had once been the prerogative of the human being. […] It was by muted movements and inexplicable communal ideas that the existence of the new being was initially revealed. When, little by little, all men came to understand that it was not for themselves and for their own wellbeing that they were working, but for some dark and mysterious Unknown, and when the distinction became ever-more-obvious between their own wellbeing and the social wellbeing in which they were collaborating, there were a few muffled individual rebel lions, as a frightful despair took possession of humankind entire but by that time, the scientific organism and specialization had already done their work.[30]

One thinks here of Mayr’s “major evolutionary transitions”, wherein once autonomous lower-level units become subordinated to higher-level organisations, losing their autonomy in the process. In Pawlowski’s novel, human individuals become nested to the point that they their autonomy in the process to an emergent higher level of organisation, which—though now the protagonist of world-evolution—turns out also to be unconscious and unthinking. Again, it is alike to Marx’s characterisation of “dead labour”.

It’s no coincidence, either, that when, mid-century, Kojéve theorised the end of history, as he inherited it from Hegel, he also hailed the insect. Kojéve claimed that if history is ever completed, and perfected, then humans survive as a natural species, but it would herald the “definitive annihilation of Man properly so-called”. Homo sapiens would persist as a biotic entity—however, with history completed and perfected, there would be no room for erring, thus no room for liberty or learning. For Kojéve, this would be to merge with nature, becoming animal again. “Art, love, play, etc.” would continue, but they “must also become purely ‘natural’ again”.

“Hence,” he continued, “it would have to be admitted that after the end of History, men would construct their edifices and works of art as […] spiders spin their webs.” Music would become like the songs of “cicadas”. Most importantly, language as the medium of thought would disappear:

Animals of the species Homo sapiens would react by conditioned reflexes to vocal signals or sign “language”, and thus their so-called “discourses” would be like what is supposed to be the “language” of bees. What would disappear, then, is not only Philosophy or the search for discursive wisdom, but also that wisdom itself. For in these post-historical animals there would no longer be any [discursive] understanding of the World or self.[31]

A strangely similar scenario is imagined in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1985 sardonic novel Galápagos. It follows the surviving human population of a global collapse relegated to island refugia: over countless generations, evolution parsimoniously sacrifices the big brains of the survivors so that they become streamlined semi-aquatic mammals with shrunken skulls—happy and post-postlapsarian, no longer worrying about air-raid sirens or financial crashes.

These visions stage the loss of the humanising disequilibrium, between is and ought, that motivates invention as much as causes us to err. Something would survive, but it certainly wouldn’t be a human, in the Kantian sense of a rational and autonomous agent.


Again, one detects here the desire for a sense of an ending, some post-mortem point to feign looking back from, in order to cast the final judgement on the human. But now it isn’t god’s eye view, but those of the surviving, formerly sapient animals.

Here, however, the idea is that somehow the perfection of the human is necessarily also its disappearance. It is a prevalent suggestion. Perhaps its inherited from a quirk of the Greek language, wherein perfection was expressed as “τέλειος/teleios”, which is very closely related to the word “τέλος/telos”—which, of course, means “end”. (The related word “τελευτή/teleute”, moreover, means to “finish” or “die”.) In his Physics, Aristotle makes the tightness of semantic bundle clear:

Nothing is perfect [teleion] which has no end [telos]; and the end is a finality [πέρας/peras].[32]

Transposed into medieval Christianity, and filtered through Pelagian controversies, this is intensified with the idea that perfection, in work or deed, cannot be achieved in this world, and can only be granted beyond it. When drawn into more irreligious and modern contexts, the subsequent recession of any accessible eternity “beyond” time leads to the formulation of humanity as an essentially historical creature—deriving its sanctions from its own history and traditions rather than any place beyond. Assuming this, whilst continuing to presume that history is necessarily going somewhere—towards some consummatory and exhaustive end—leads, in turn, to the idea that perfection would be a living death or deadly stasis.

Hence, Kojéve’s “language of the bees”. The insect is still being used as a cipher for human extinction, it’s just that we become the insect in this post-historical, rather than post-mortem, instance. It is a death by perfection.


The idea that history has some final point, towards which everything tends, apparently captured in modern ideas of “progress”, came under criticism, not long after Kojéve’s writing, by authors like Karl Löwith. In his 1949 Meaning in History, Löwith argued that modernity’s idea of progress is essentially a “secularisation” of Christian eschatology. In this way, he argued for the illegitimacy of the modern age: that its core dynamo is not even its own, but an expropriation of an essentially religious conception. It would be fatal for modernity—as the age that claims to stand apart, as an act of self-assertion, in an epochal break with the dogmas of tradition—to not be legitimate on its own terms, to be driven by an unavowable expropriation and dishonest transposition.[33] Eric Voegelin attempted a similar prosecution when he argued, variously, that science and progress are modern offshoots of Gnosticism, which, in attempting to immanentize the eschaton, do violence to religious concepts they expropriate.[34]

In response, in 1964, the German intellectual Hans Blumenberg rallied a defence of modernity, complaining that Löwith’s delegitimizing secularization argument had become almost common sense amongst intellectuals. He argued that “progress” isn’t simply an immanentization of eschaton, and thus a violent and unavowable transposition—nor, thus, an original sin for modernity—but is in fact the reoccupation of a conceptual role that had been absented by the failure of religious eschatology to deliver its own promises. It’s not that progress is secularised eschatology, it’s that the promised eschaton itself failed to manifest, thus strengthening a secular existence that could assert itself, on its own terms, as worldly history dragged on and the end never came. If, in the process, the concept of progress was overstretched to fill the conceptual role left unoccupied by religion, this is not modernity’s fault but religion’s own “failure and self-denial”. He wrote:

A province of secularity or, more accurately, one beyond the remit of theology, was delimited and stabilized only in the course of the all-encompassing process in which an unworldly, eschatological anticipation was disappointed and banished to speculative indeterminacy. Man now found himself, alone and left to his own devices, with the burden of newly arisen big questions, the inscrutability of a history of which he had only just became aware as such. Worldliness—secularity—could not exist until there was unworldliness: that which claimed to be not of this world called this world into question, while at the same time logically opening up the possibility to it to prove itself qua world, as permanent and reliable, and for its continued existence to be desired—for example, worthy of being prayed for. In this case, secularisation is anything but expropriation as a unilateral, unlawful act, but instead the constitution of a previously unknown worldliness from its religious disavowal and unrealisation.

That some roles that the new idea of worldly progress immediately was conscripted to fill, in absence of the old transcendent orchestration of time by divinity, were irrational is mostly the fault of the overpromises of the parent rather than the irrationality of heir. Blumenberg explained:

What is true, however, is that the idea of progress was forced to extend the scope of its claims, which were originally circumscribed and specific to certain objects, thereby “overstretching” them to the generality of a philosophy of history. It had to do so to answer a question that, as it were, remained at large, abandoned, and unsaturated, after theology made it virulent. As one possible answer to the question concerning history in its entirety, it was enlisted for an explanatory performance that overtaxed its rationality. An originally theological imaginative content was not subjected to a violent transposition, but rather, what was in itself already a secular, not secularized, notion was reinterpreted and over-interpreted, burdening it with, if you will permit the phrase, the responsibility for theology’s [own] failure and self-denial.

Intellectual history, like evolutionary history, is conservative, and once a need has been made manifest, it won’t disappear upon its first frustration, but can only fade gradually. In Blumenberg’s eyes, monotheism had “played the eminent part” in shaping intellectual traditions and it had done so by “creating such positions that could no longer be undone or, within the theoretical economy, remain unoccupied”. The primordial dishonesty thus lies more with religion than progress:

To theology, no question need remain unanswerable, and thereupon is founded the ease with which it inserts titles into the economy of human needs for knowledge.

It is thus not primarily the fault of philosophies of history that they were “taken up with the effort to live up to” theology’s prior overconfidence, “and with the disappointments that were inevitable in the process”.[35]


However, although the modern age may well be legitimate on its own terms, the question of legitimacy has seeped out of its conceptual foundations and into those that are existential. Its conceptual foundations may be secure, but mere survival is no longer guaranteed. This is essentially what the invertebrates are conscripted for, when we look back on humanity through their eyes: it is a way of projecting out past the end, gaining and feigning a position from which to question the existential legitimacy of the modern age as that age which—though embarked upon in naïf hope—has lately culminated in global civilization gaining the power to destroy itself irreversibly and entirely.

Though Archy was invented in the 1920s, and Don Marquis died in 1937, he was resurrected on the eve of America’s atomic testing at the Bikini Islands in 1946. E. B. White—who himself would go on to become author of Charlotte’s Web—was reflecting, in The New Yorker, on the plans to place livestock in boats near the test, in order to ascertain the effects of radioactivity on animal bodies. He wrote:

There is one more passenger that ought to be aboard a Navy ship on the great day, alongside the goats, the pigs, the sheep, the rats, and us. We think archy ought to be aboard, archy’s lineage is truly ancient; he goes back one hundred million years [and] is probably good for another hundred million years.[36]

Citing a recent article which identified the cockroach as an “indestructible superbug”, White remarked that “the cockroach is the creature most likely to survive the atomic age”. Thus, there is a direct line from Archy to the Cold War motif of imagining that the only winners of World War 3 will be the roaches, and Jonathan Schell’s claim that, after a nuclear exchange, the “United States would be a republic of insects and grass”.[37]


Projecting onto the animals—be they post-mortem or post-historical—is a way of feigning a sense of an ending in this secular age; of attempting—even though it should always be self-conscious of its own inherent failure—to derive some verdict from the ending of sense. This is the reoccupation of a role absented by religion.

What of the vexed question of progress and perfection? The idea that there is a telic end, a possible perfection, to history, is clearly—as Blumenberg diagnosed—an overstretching of the rationality of the philosophy of history. But this doesn’t mean that modern hopes of a better future are at all illegitimate because of this: the conceptual need for a culminating or consummatory finality is an inheritance of religion, and not inherent to secular philosophy of history as such.

History does not have a destination, or a possible perfection, or Omega Point. It is, and will remain, a cascade of the unforeseen and contingent. However, though it may not have a global destination, it can have sustained direction insofar as knowledge, insight and wisdom is accumulated and conserved over the generations. In this sense, the existential legitimacy of the modern age will always remain an open question: history either keeps going or it does not; it’s that simple. The usefulness of ventriloquizing our invertebrate successors lies in the capacity to open an imaginative, hypothetical space within which we can proffer our visions—playfully, prosaically or with profundity—of just how much of a tragedy this might be and, also, what would have been lost.


There is certainly a wisdom in Toynbee’s warning that utopia would be a “deadly perfection”. There are and will be no final stasis or one perfect or optimal solution. History will keep going, keep changing us, such that our questions and answers will change anew. There will not be any final values, but we should pursue—tooth and nail—the mere possibility of cultivating many and multiple and more. Isaiah Berlin, in his 1988 “The Pursuit of the Ideal”, realized this clearly. Tellingly one finds the following lines near the beginning:

When our descendants, in two or three centuries’ time (if mankind survives until then), come to look at our age …

In it, Berlin argues for value pluralism: humans can have contradicting and conflicting ends even within a single life, so why should we never think that there will be one perfect solution to the life of the species. He wrote:

The notion of a perfect whole, the ultimate solution, in which all good things exist, seems to me not merely unattainable—that is a truism—but conceptually incoherent; I do not know what is meant by a harmony of this kind. Some among the Great Goods cannot live together. That is a conceptual truth. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.

Berlin also adroitly adds that, when the pursuit of future perfection or utopia becomes considered mandated or obligatory, then this can bend people’s integrity and create great evils. “A certain humility in matters is very necessary,” Berlin contends, arguing for value pluralism. We needn’t dramatize dissensus because of this, and there are “if not universal values, at any rate a minimum without which societies could scarcely survive”.[38] Perhaps these are the ones we should be focusing on fortifying today; though the more ambitious ends and vision must also remain, as motivating goals for securing survival and equality today.

Indeed, that the existential legitimacy of the modern age is now an open question does not put the conceptual and moral legitimacy of its project in question. If the cockroaches crawl over simian skulls in some distant—or near—future, this will not have been any kind of verdict against the upstart species that embarked upon the Promethean project of reinvention and diaspora from nature’s blind tyrannies. The existential uncertainty, however, feeds into despondence and even self-hatred—a feeling of deep illegitimacy due to existential instability—to the point that many imaginaries of better worlds are accused of being “secularised religion”. An irony of the history of heresiology, that the modern heresy is to purportedly be religious. Prometheanism is the new Pelagian heresy. But is not being heresiophobic, and rendering orthodoxy in this way, just as much of a “religious” impulse as is the principle of radical hope? Perhaps more so, because doxastic coercivity is a root of dogmatism, is it not?


There’s beauty to the fact that, unlike the insects, humans can cooperate across generations as well as within them. But cooperation is the opposite of coercion, and preserves, forever, the capacity to disagree, which is the seed of self-correction over history thus far. What is worth conserving, then, for the modern project isn’t some future that any one person or group thinks they know anything about now; neither is it at all attempting to secure today’s utopias with today’s faulty values; neither should it ever be sacrifice or coercion or neglect of present injustice. What is worth conserving is the option and ability for the denizens of the future to disagree with us, to see further and brighter than we can right now, should they wish. They will likely know more than us, so it is simply up to us to work on giving them the chance to figure it out, and, in the process, rectify our error and ignorance.

Childhood’s end is perhaps a perpetual task, not a state of perfection to be wrested upon the world. So, there’s some room for utopia—and Bloch’s principle of hope—in this world, but only in its original sense as a nowhere place, always beyond the horizon, an empty regulative ideal, which spurs positive and explorative thought, rather than demands manifestation such that it obliges or suborns us now.


To some, the perceived social life of the ant looks like utopia, to many others it is dystopian; they are obligate in their eusociality, doomed to sacrifice all for the hive. This lifeway may well have proved its longevity and stability, upon evolution’s cold tribunal, but it’s a model that autonomous sapient agents must not emulate, even if it would guarantee survival. That would be to sacrifice one type of legitimacy for the existential sort.

Nonetheless, the invertebrates are owed our respect. They have served to make us upstart humans humbler over the course of philosophical history, and I’d wager that’s a role they will continue to play, in all their squidgy mirth. Humility and magnanimity are important virtues. To close, first, a few lines from a 1947 short story “The Figure” by Edward Grendon. It tells the tale of a group of scientists who have constructed a type of time machine which can only retrieve objects from the future, at random, and bring them back to the present. They retrieve a metal plinth and statue:

The figure on top is standing up very straight and looking upwards. […] It looks intelligent and is obviously representing either aspiration or a religious theme, or maybe both. You can sense the dreams and ideals of the figure and the obvious sympathy and understanding of the artist with them. Lasker says he thinks the statue is an expression of religious feeling. Dettner and I both think it represents aspirations: Per adra ad astra or something of the sort. It’s a majestic figure and it’s easy to respond to it emphatically with a sort of “upward and onward” feeling. There is only one thing wrong. The figure is that of a beetle.[39]

Second, and finally, some lines from the 1963 poem “Timesweep” by Carl Sandburg, to contrast the despondence of Tennyson, which had opened this essay:

There is a vast Unknown and farther beyond the vaster Unknowable—and the Ignorance we share and share alike is immeasurable.

The one-eyed mollusk on the sea-bottom, feathered and luminous, is my equal in what he and I know of star clusters not yet found by the best of star-gazers.[40]

  • 1

    TENNYSON, Alfred, “Vastness”, in: Macmillan’s Magazine, November, 1885, pp. 1–4.

  • 2

    PLATO, Philebus, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993, pp. 21b–c.

  • 3

    HUME, David, Two Essays, London, 1777, p. 11.

  • 4

    SADE, Marquis de, Justine, v. 1, Holland, 1797, p. 215.

  • 5

    PREL, Karl von, The Philosophy of Mysticism, v. 1, London, 1889, p. 282.

  • 6

    RÉAUMUR, René-Antoine Ferchault de, The Natural History of Ants (trans. WHEELER, W. M.), London, 1926, p. 33.

  • 7

    MCTAGGART, J. M. E., The Nature of Existence, v. 2, 1927, p. 453.

  • 8

    SHAPLEY, Harlow, “Some Music of the Spheres”, in: American Scholar, 28(2), 199, pp. 218–221.

  • 9

    COLENSO, William, “A Few Remarks on the Hackneyed Quotation of ‘Macaulay’s New Zealander’”, in: Three Literary Papers, New Zealand, 1883.

  • 10

    HOLLAND, William Jacob, The Moth Book, New York, 1903, p. 455.

  • 11

    WRIGHT, Lewis, “The Wings of Insects”, in: The Leisure Hour, 43, 1893, p. 355.

  • 12

    SIMPSON, Edward, Insect Lives: As Told By Themselves, London, 1898, p. 48.

  • 13

    DENDY, Arthur, “The Chain of Life”, in: The Press, 54, 1897, p. 6.

  • 14

    NISBET, John Ferguson, The Human Machine, London, 1899, p. 295.

  • 15

    PAPP, Desiderius, Creation’s Doom, New York, 1934.

  • 16

    MARQUIS, Don, The Annotated Archy & Mehitabel, London: Penguin, 2006, pp. 192–194.

  • 17

    WILMOT, John, Complete Poems, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962, p. 94.

  • 18

    MARQUIS, The Best of Archy & Mehitabel, New York: Everyman, 2006, pp. 219–223.

  • 19

    SHAPLEY, Harlow, “Man and his Young World”, in: The Nation, 118, 1924, pp. 529–531.

  • 20

    RUSSELL, Bertrand, “Free Man’s Worship”, in: Mysticism & Logic, and Other Essays, London: Allen & Unwin, 1963, p. 41.

  • 21

    See “The Wanderer”, from the 10th-century Exeter Book.

  • 22

    WILLIAMS, Bernard, “The Human Prejudice”, in: Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006, p. 137.

  • 23

    KERMODE, Frank, The Sense of an Ending, Oxford: OUP, 2000, p. 8.

  • 24

    GOULD, Stephen Jay, Dinosaur in a Haystack, London: J. Cape, 1996; GOULD, Stephen Jay, The Mismeasure of Man, London: Penguin, 1997.

  • 25

    LEM, Stanislaw, One Human Minute (trans. LEACH, C. S.), New York: Harvest, 1986, p. 95.

  • 26

    EMERSON, Alfred E., “Why Termites?”, in: Scientific Monthly, 64, 1947, pp. 337–345.

  • 27

    OUSPENSKY, P. D., A New Model of the Universe: Principles of the Psychological Method in Its Application to Problems of Science, Religion, and Art, New York: Knopf, 1934, pp. 59–62.

  • 28

    This might seem preposterous, but contemporary geologists engage in thought experiments on the topic. See SCHMIDT, G. A. & FRANK, A., “The Silurian hypothesis: would it be possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record?”, in: International Journal of Astrobiology, 18(2), 2018, pp. 142–150.

  • 29

    TOYNBEE, Arnold, A Study of History, v. 3, Oxford: OUP, 1962, p. 95.

  • 30

    PAWLOWSKI, Gaston de, Journey to the Land of the Fourth Dimension, Encino: Black Coat Press, 2009, pp. 98–99.

  • 31

    KOJÉVE, Alexandre, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit (trans. NICHOLS, J. H.), Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969, pp. 158–160.

  • 32

    ARISTOTLE, Complete Works, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984, pp. 207a13–14.

  • 33

    LÖWITH, Karl, Meaning in History: The Theological Implications of the Philosophy of History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.

  • 34

    VOEGELIN, Eric, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism, Indiana: Gateway Editions, 1969.

  • 35

    BLUMENBERG, Hans, “Secularization”, in: History, Metaphors, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader, Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2020, pp. 53–82.

  • 36

    WHITE, E. B., “Talk of the Town”, in: The New Yorker, 09/03/1946, p. 17.

  • 37

    SCHELL, Jonathan, Fate of the Earth, New York: A. Knopf, 1982, p. 65.

  • 38

    BERLIN, Isaiah, The Pursuit of the Ideal”, in: The Proper Study of Mankind, London: Vintage, 2013, pp. 1–16.

  • 39

    GRENDON, Edward, “The Figure”, in: Astounding Science Fiction, July, 1947, pp. 46–83.

  • 40

    SANDBURG, Carl, Honey & Salt, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1963.

Thomas Moynihan

Thomas Moynihan is the author of X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction and a research fellow at Forethought Foundation and St Benet’s College, Oxford University. He tweets at @nemocentric and can be found at