Which subjects should be preserved for the next species if humanity were to be annihilated?
Five panelists — one each from the departments of biological engineering, industrial labor relations, neuroscience, history and philosophy — grappled with this question as they attempted to convince the Klarman Hall audience that their respective fields of study mattered most and should be preserved.
Hosted by Logos, Cornell’s Undergraduate Club and Journal of Philosophy, the Tuesday afternoon debate featured five panelists — including Prof. Todd Walter ’90 M.Eng ’91, biological and environmental engineering, Prof. Sam Nelson, ILR, Prof. Timothy DeVoogd, psychology, Prof. Olga Litvak, history and Prof. Harold Hodes, philosophy.
The debate’s prompt zeroed in on the hypothetical: “Humanity has almost been completely annihilated; as the bombs detonate, meteors plummet, and the temperatures rise there exist a time capsule that can preserve in whole one entire discipline of human thought to be opened by the next generation of sentient life.”
The first to speak, Walter, offered a passionate defense as to why water — specifically hydrology — should be what humanity ultimately attempts to preserve.
“Water is everything and everything is water,” Walter said, citing the philosopher Thales. “[And] Aristotle, a couple hundred years later said, ‘Water is the essence of all things.’”
Following Walter, DeVoogd strongly advocated for neuroscience as the key discipline to preserve. “I would see it as being incredibly helpful to have this knowledge available to be used by the remnants of people who are there, or by the next group that comes along at whatever time to inform technology so it can be put back together again,” DeVoogd said.
Neuroscience, he continued, “can create a society that is social, and supportive not only of a local community but communities throughout the whole earth — neuroscience is truly the key to know yourself.”
Litvak, the historian, disagreed, instead taking the position that all the benefits explained by the previous two panelists should be attributed to history.
“Every time you use the past tense, you’re thinking historically,” said Litvak.
“How do you tell the difference between a [crackpot] theory about the brain and a good theory that works — you gotta be able to compare historical material; to know the difference between good information and bad information is the key to managing the world,” Litvak added.
Hodes, however, championed philosophy. “When a great scientist puts on his philosophy hat, sometimes they make the biggest advances,” he said. “For example, it was Einstein engaging in philosophical reflection that enabled him to come up with the special theory of relativity.”
Nelson, the ILR professor, responded skeptically, questioning the other panelist’s positions. Playing devil’s advocate, Nelson presented his voluntary human extinction theory — that by nature, humans are arrogant and everything they created should be annihilated along with them.
“Think of human beings as a disease like smallpox,” Nelson said.
Hodes, during his rebuttal, rested his case on one point: that philosophy majors often rank highest for standardized tests such as the LSAT.
“As we consider the brave New World after the Apocalypse when standardized testing is revived, there’ll be survivors who will crush the GRE,” Hodes said.
After an audience vote, he was later named the winner. Litvak was the runner-up.
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article stated the incorrect title for the industrial and labor relations field and the Prof. Walter’s field of study.