Last Born



          Two hundred years after his death, Jeremy Bentham became the most influential philosopher in history.  He became, in fact, the philosopher who ended history. 

        Of course, no one noticed at the time, which was between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on November 11, 2009.  That was as precisely as James Ong would ever state the moment of his epiphany, but he knew that it was close to 10:30 for it was about mid-way though Professor LeClerc’s lecture in a compulsory Introduction to Philosophy course at M.I.T.

        The subject:  Utilitarianism.  The key phrase:  “The greatest good for the greatest number.”  The epiphany:  that we are not a privileged species, that moral judgments should be made not on the basis of what seems to be good for the greatest number of human beings, but in the interests of the greatest number of all life forms, the good of all species.  And at that moment James Ong knew.

        Professor LeClerc rattled on with his pet theory that we are not homo sapiens--’wise’ or ‘knowing’ man in Latin as we have presumptuously named ourselves; but homo insipiens:  ‘unknowing’ man.  But James hardly heard a word.

        When the lecture ended, he left the hall and the building in a daze, from which he recovered some minutes later to find himself sitting on one of the many benches beside the Charles River.  Before him two men in single shells were skimming across gray-green water on what was probably their last row of the season.

        James felt both exhausted and exhilarated.   His system had experienced a great shook.  When the problem was stated clearly, the solution was obvious.

        Thirteen years later he had it. 

        In the intervening time he had completed his Ph.D. in virology and worked briefly for a large pharmaceutical company before becoming a member of The Friends of All, a non-violent animal rights group. 

        James was not a joiner, but he needed funding.  After a period of observation, he cautiously began to present his plan to a few others.

        The founder of The Friends of All was Ali Braddock, younger sister of Al Braddock, the agent of many Hollywood and music celebrities.  For good publicity and, for some, honest concern, It became fashionable for stars to donate their earnings from one film or one album to the cause of animal rights and environmental protection.  Soon The Friends of All had millions, many of which were quietly diverted to James Ong’s research.

        James left the pharmaceutical company, moved in with Ali, rented space in a new biotech research building in Cambridge, and brought in some of the people he had known in grad school.

        The completion of the project was not an “Eureka”  moment.  The Zero Virus had been perfected three years earlier.  The end was simply a computer screen filled with numbers that verified wind vectors.  But James knew that there was nothing more to do before actually executing the plan they had been talking about and working toward for a decade. 

        He saved the numbers to a folder labeled Distribution, then pushed back from his desk and walked to the window.  He often woke early and did his best work before anyone else was in the lab.  The first light of dawn was touching red brick buildings to the east.  Although he knew that even after they began, there would be a few years before the process was irreversible, he experienced a rare moment of doubt. 

        It passed.

        Distribution was methodical, objective, and far detached from its intended result.  Had anyone observed from an Olympian perspective, it would have seemed no more than just another group of scientists performing just another experiment.

        The Zero Virus had been designed to be hardy, light, highly contagious, transmittable by both air and water, and long-lived.

        In various guises it was shipped from the Cambridge laboratory in small quantities to many countries on all continents, with the exception of Antarctica.  No one remained permanently in Antarctica and those there would be exposed to the virus when they returned north.

        Only the Cambridge core knew the true nature of the plan.  There were eleven of them, and the next two years found them almost continuously on the move, flying from country to country, introducing the virus into the atmosphere and water supply at precisely calculated points. 

        At intervals measurements were taken.  In the third year it was determined that saturation had been achieved.

        No announcement was made.  No proclamation.  No manifesto.  The virus had only one effect, and that would soon become apparent.  James Ong did not want the world to know until it was too late.  Ego played no part of this--well, as he sometimes admitted, perhaps just a little.  It was the right thing to do.  The greatest good for the greatest number.   Undoubtedly one species had gotten out of control, had in little more than a century quadrupled, had become a cancer that was destroying the planet for all others as well as itself.  Conditions had only become worse as India’s and China’s and Brazil's economies grew, and Western politicians did nothing more than make token gestures and self-serving noises.

        Phase two--the elimination/contamination of sperm banks worldwide--took another year.  The major research centers and private companies had already been infiltrated or existing employees had been converted to the cause without knowledge of phase one.  The motivation of these people varied.  Some were opposed to the ‘unnatural’ creation of life; some merely wanted to slow the birth rate.

        The big banks were dealt with last.

        Small widely scattered facilities had to be handled on an individual basis before a pattern could be detected that would tighten security.  Electricity outages; generator failures; thermostats tampered with; an occasional fire.

        Too many unpredictable variables made this the period of greatest anxiety for James Ong and his inner circle.  They were not concerned about getting caught, only about failure.

        When all the smaller banks had been eliminated, the major facilities were hit almost simultaneously.

        This, of course, aroused attention.  But as the world was about to discover, it was too late.

        Absolute certainty was not possible.  But the Zero Virus was ubiquitous, undetected, effective; and each passing day, then week, then month increased the probability that no one no matter how isolated had not been exposed; and for a human male to be exposed was to be rendered sterile.

        One evening after three martinis in the bar across from his office, Dwight Fredericks, Northeast Region Sales Manager for NC4X Systems, decided it was time to go home and face his wife.  The vodka haze inside his head was intensified by heavy rain outside, and, after entering the Mass Turnpike via an exit ramp, he briefly found himself driving east in a westbound lane.  Two startled drivers avoided him before he collided head-on with the third, which was being driven by James Ong.  Both men were thirty-eight years old and had lived long enough to see the birth rate drop to zero.


        There is no equation to calculate pain and suffering precisely. 

        The Inner Circle of The Friends of All had known that their action would cause anguish for those who would not be able to have children, but this would be limited essentially to only two generations:  those who were presently children themselves; and those at the age when most people become parents for the first time.  Those over forty would be denied only grandchildren and a sense of familial continuation.

        None of the Inner Circle had children of their own.

        They knew, too, that there would inevitably be suffering toward the end, when the population aged without younger generations to maintain essential services.  This would, they thought, be in part alleviated by a rapidly diminishing population that would steadily require less of the existing infrastructure.

        They were men and women of principle.  They wished to increase happiness and harmony.  They believed that their action would not cause much human physical pain, and that it did cause some psychological pain to a few generations of homo sapiens, they reasoned, was more than offset by the salvation of the planet, which was clearly under threat, and the improved quality of life for other species.

        As James Ong often told them:  It would all be over in one hundred years.

        The effect of the Zero Virus went unnoticed for the first of those one hundred years.   Pregnancies already begun came to their natural conclusions, and because exposure to the virus was incremental, some new pregnancies occurred.  Only scattered couples trying to get pregnant wondered at the difficulty they had doing so.

        But after that first year signs began to appear. Obstetricians were puzzled that their appointment books had openings.  Hospital maternity wards had open beds.   Sales of pre and post natal goods, from clothes to cribs to diapers to baby food declined.  In-house meetings were held at many corporate headquarters, followed by tentative phone calls to competitors.  Obstetricians emailed colleagues.  Items appeared on the Internet in blogs and forums.  “Pregnancy” , “infertility”, and similar words found unaccustomed places at the top of search engine lists.  And suddenly the news was world-wide:  The human birthrate was in free fall and no one knew why.

        Attempts to compare the ensuing panic to previous outbreaks of mass hysteria fail.  There had never been anything like it before; and, of course, there never will be again.

        Stock markets collapsed.  Crowds filled streets from Aberdeen to Vanuatu, from Archangel to Zanzibar, demanding...demanding...demanding, well, action.  What action no one knew.  The idea that we would become extinct was unthinkable. 

        Predictable suspects were paraded.  God’s judgement on man’s evil ways and aliens were most popular.  But hysteria is too exhausting to be sustained, and soon a kind of normalcy returned. 


        It would be pretty to believe that in the face of extinction, we all banded together, but that didn’t happen.  Despite a token effort made under the United Nations, most political leaders confined most of their efforts to within their own borders, which did not preclude the sharing of research results throughout the scientific community.

        Governmental response was two-fold:  massive funding to discover the cause of the birth-rate decline, and then the cure; and new agencies to plan for the consequences of population decline.

        The Zero Virus was isolated rather quickly and within a few years conclusively established as the culprit.  That many virus have proven to be able to mutate faster than we can contain them and are thus at least our evolutionary equals was irrelevant.  Every male from four years old--there were then none younger--to centenarian was already sterile.

        Research then turned to C and C:  cure and cloning.  For a few decades experiments became ever more radical.  True monsters were created.  Fortunately none survived.  Dr. Knut Klausen at the University of Copenhagen came closest to success, but the ‘boy’ he created turned out, even without exposure to the Zero Virus, to be sterile.


        James Ong was wrong when he said it would all be over in one hundred years.  Really it was over in less than half that.  By 2075, when the youngest human on the planet was in her or his early fifties, the population of the world had declined by more than 80% from its peak of 7 billion in 2023, and was estimated at only 1.3 billion.  Curiously this is almost exactly what it was when Jeremy Betham died in 1832. 

        A few years earlier an anonymous member of James Ong’s Inner Circle, facing his or her own death, had posted documents that provided full details of what had happened and why.  This satisfied curiosity, but nothing else.  The unthinkable had not only become thinkable, but accepted as inevitable.  The  wave of humanity that had engulfed the planet was receding like an outgoing tide.  To the surprise of some, there was no apocalypse.  The universe continued silently to expand.

        With a few dramatic exceptions, people behaved better than might have been expected.  Although entire industries and professions continuously disappeared, from school teachers to estate planners, most carried on as best they could.

        The reluctant acceptance that research had failed was followed by a period of centralism.  Resources were nationalized; supplies of food stockpiled while there were still enough farmers young enough to work the land; power plants automated to go offline as population dwindled in what became known as The Winding Down.

        Ethical and moral questions were rethought, at least by some.  The public’s attitude toward Exiting, as euthanasia and suicide became euphemistically known, changed with the prospect of the last generation becoming infirm with no one younger to care for them.


        I opened the last bottle of Laphroaig this evening:  the future looks bleak.  As Felicia used to say, “That’s a joke, son.”  She died ten years ago.  Burial wasn’t so difficult then and I placed her in Calvary Cemetery, which I can see from the south and west windows.

        I’m ninety-two now and the last one in what was a condominium when ownership mattered.

        I live in the south half of the third of four floors, overlooking Lake Michigan.  With oversize windows and glass doors, I get lots of sunlight and tend to follow it from room to room during the day, though I return to the living room facing the lake after dark.

        I’m the only one left in this part of Evanston.  Perhaps all of Evanston.  I haven’t seen anyone for a while.  It has become very quiet.  I used to ride my bicycle down to Chicago, until my knee began giving me trouble.  There are probably some people left down there, but the last time I went up to the roof deck at night, I didn’t see any lights.

        The planners and technicians did a good job automating the power grid and parts of the internet, both of which lasted until a few years ago.  The problem is that when something breaks it can’t be repaired.  True of people, too. 

        A wind generator and solar panels on the roof provide enough electricity for my needs most of the time, and I filled the other unit on this floor with fire wood while the elevator was still working and I had fuel for the chain saw.

        Most people left for more temperate climates.

        Felicia and I did too.  We drove to California and stayed a few months, but we both missed the seasons, even winter, and came back.  I miss sitting with her in front of the fireplace, watching snow fall onto the lake.  I miss her.

        I was never a gregarious man, and I don’t know if we would have had children even if we could.   Like most old people I live in the past, and I don’t know that my old age is much different than it would have been if the species had a future.  I have been fortunate in my health.

        I read.  I listen to music.  I write--it doesn’t matter than no one will ever read my words.  In another time I might have been a writer or perhaps an academic.  I was in Northwestern’s last graduating class, although they did remain open for another decade.  I walk through the small parks beside the lake.  My knee is giving me trouble on the stairs and I get a little short of breath.  I may have to move lower, but I like it here level with the tree-tops. 

        For a while there was a fad of burying time capsules, similar to the building of monuments to the dead of what was once thought to be The Great War.  But then it was pointed out that we as a species have been around for 200,000 years, and the genus for several million, and we’ve displaced all those intervening species; so it will be a long time before something like us--or hopefully better--evolves again. 

        I enjoyed Professor LeClerc’s observations about ‘sapiens’.

        I doubt that anyone is still systematically collecting information, but we were told decades ago that the world is recovering.  Fish in the sea.  Birds in the sky.  Rain forests. Certainly there are more birds in the trees here than there used to be.  And squirrels.  Though both are reduced by feral cats.

        Amazing really that it all happened so quickly.  In one lifetime.

        My memory is