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From global pandemics to prophecies of evil AI superintelligences to the impending perils of genome editing, our species is increasingly concerned with the prospects of its own extinction. With humanity’s future on this planet seeming more insecure by the day, the twenty-first century has seen ‘existential risk’ become the object of a growing field of serious scientific inquiry.

But this preoccupation is not exclusive to the post-atomic age of global warming and synthetic biology. Our growing concern with human extinction itself has a history—one that is important for our understanding of what it means to be human in the first place.

Retracing this untold story, X-Risk revisits the pioneers who first contemplated the possibility of human extinction, and stages the historical drama of this momentous discovery.

Thomas Moynihan shows how, far from being a secular reprise of religious prophecies of apocalypse, existential risk is a thoroughly modern idea, made possible by the burgeoning sciences and philosophical tumult of the Enlightenment era.

In recollecting how we first came to care for our extinction, X-Risk reveals how today’s attempts to measure and mitigate existential threats are the continuation of a project initiated over two centuries ago, and which concerns the very vocation of the human as a rational, responsible, and future-oriented being.

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