Today we have a guest post from Lisa Vox, author of Existential Threats: American Apocalyptic Beliefs in the Technological Era. Seeking to address American's longstanding fascination with visions of the apocalypse, Vox's book assembles a wide range of media—science fiction movies, biblical tractates, rapture fiction—to develop a critical history of the apocalyptic imagination from the late 1800s to the present. Apocalypticism was once solely a religious ideology, Vox contends, which has secularized in response to increasing technological and political threats to American safety. In today's post, she draws upon her research and writing to present a concise, compelling history of the relationship between secular and scientific apocalypticism and its implications for American society and culture today.
When I began writing Existential Threats: American Apocalyptic Beliefs in the Technological Age, one of the questions that drove my research was: when did Westerners conclude that the world could end without any help from God? Naturalistic explanations of origins of life and the operations of the universe may date as far back as the ancient Greeks. However, Western works that explicitly entertained a naturalistic end didn’t appear until the nineteenth century from England. Secular, atheistic visions of the End appeared early in that century, but after Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, scientific ideas about the destiny of humanity dominated secular apocalypticism, especially in the United States.
The first known manifestations of “scientific” thinking in the West appeared among the ancient Greeks, but they were much more concerned with the nature of reality than with predicting the future. Greek thinkers rejected myth in favor of philosophy in the sixth century BCE; prosperity and a new social order that rejected the arbitrary prerogatives of birth may have prompted Greek philosophers to view the cosmos as reasonable and balanced as the society in which they lived. Merchants and legislators who were influential in the reformed Greek polis led the development of philosophical expression; eschewing poetry, the language of myth, philosophers began expressing themselves in prose, the language of legislators.
Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, such as Thales, wondered about the fundamental composition of all creation. This query led to speculation about the origins of the universe and of life itself. While most of the pre-Socratics delving into these questions avoided the mythological, scholars are divided over the degree to which pre-Socratic philosophers fully developed a naturalistic view of the world. In the area of human evolution, some scholars have argued that the ancient Greeks had a rudimentary notion of evolution. Greek cosmology envisioned a cyclical universe, where destruction would be followed by rebirth in an endless pattern. This view of the universe as regular and eternal meant that philosophers did not need to explain how or why time might end.
The advent of Christianity led to a slow transformation of how Westerners viewed time and their relationship to it. Early Christians, like Augustine, believed that time only existed within humans; God was timeless. Medievals rejected that view, arguing that time had an independent existence outside of human perspective. Christian apocalypticism, as expressed by Joachim de Fiore, an Italian monk, began to assume its modern form by the twelfth century CE with an acceptance that God existed within time but controlled it; according to this new reading of Revelation, a cosmic battle between good and evil loomed, but good was destined to win.
During the Enlightenment, some Europeans rejected the Christian ideas that life had a discernible purpose, humans should behave in a particular and universal way, or events unfolded according to a certain design. Philosophers sought to describe the workings of events and actions without assuming an overarching plan, and the description of physical processes replaced assertions of God’s purpose in explanations of nature. There were some efforts to describe how life came about without God, but up until the late nineteenth century, atheists and deists tended to believe that the universe was eternal. Victorians who resisted accepting the theory of entropy worried that it dethroned a naturalistic view of the universe as eternal, promoting a Christian view of creation and destruction.
Literary historians and political scientists have pointed to various historical points in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when the secular apocalyptic may have emerged. According to Warren Wagar’s Terminal Visions, the “last man” genre, as exemplified by Lord Byron’s 1816 poem “Darkness” and Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), marked the introduction of the secular apocalypse in early nineteenth century Britain. Shelley’s novel and the Lord Bryon poem that inspired it were cold, atheistic visions of a world without God. The last men are hopeless creatures, looking for help that never arrives. Predating Darwinism and thermodynamics, Byron’s and Shelley’s apocalypses were philosophical and contained within the human psyche. Though British and European literature influenced Americans, there was no American “last man” genre. American Romantics who played with similar themes, such as Edgar Allan Poe in “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” (1839), didn’t get rid of God or other supernatural elements.
The first inklings of a scientific apocalypse as opposed to a philosophical come in writings on the effects of technology and the implications of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871) and Pierton W. Dooner’s The Last Days of the Republic (1880) depicted an existential threat to humanity and the end of civilization, respectively. Englishman Bulwer-Lytton’s novel may have been satire, but his plot involved the displacement of humanity by another species, a fear that came to pervade twentieth century apocalypticism. Dooner, an Arizona newspaper editor, saw his racist fears of Chinese immigration reflected in Darwinism; he wrote of the Chinese spreading over the face of the earth and eradicating the United States.
Western fears of racial and species displacement—related during this period because of the conflation of the concepts of race and species—accompanied anxiety over technology, immigration, and industrialization in the late nineteenth century. As humans grappled with new scientific understandings that diminished humanity’s place in the cosmos, it was easy to read Darwinism as a prophecy of Homo sapiens’s impending obsolescence. The origins of the scientific apocalypse were in this realization.
The scientific apocalyptic has accompanied major developments in technology and science ever since. Nuclear power may have heralded a golden age of cheap energy when it first appeared, but it also immediately brought to mind images of vast destruction. Post-1945 consumerism caused one economist to announce the “age of affluence” in the late 1950s, but it also prompted reflection on what humans were doing to the environment. Even religious apocalypticists have found it difficult to imagine the End without invoking the scientific understandings and new technologies that beckon and threaten our future at the same time. Existential Threats explains how our apocalyptic inheritance from Christianity and our scientific worldview have formed a pervasive apocalyptic culture in the contemporary United States.