Homey don’t play that

As a species, we like to occasionally speculate on extra-terrestrial life – what it would be like, how prevalent it is, what we could learn from it, and so on. More than speculate, really, because we’re actively looking for it (or at least some of us are,) and have done some interesting theoretical science along those lines. I’ve written a few posts about it myself (first of a three-part series here, a further examination here,) though I hasten to add that the relationship between my stuff and theoretical science is distant at best, just barely on the same continent – maybe an outlying territory. And yet, I also want to point out that the topic remains theoretical, for everyone, because that’s all we can possibly engage in right now; we’d need a lot more information than we currently possess to accomplish anything more than speculation. We’re groping in the dark.

A post over at the National Center for Science Education blog sparked this extended thought process. The basic premise therein is that, between the discovery of atomic fission and the drastic changes we’re making to our environment and climate, we may not be terribly long-lived as species go; if we are at all representative of intelligent life, then it’s possible that intelligent life lasts only so long in the universe. So in cosmic terms, in order for us to encounter any, they would have to be almost exactly aligned with us in a developmental timeline. If they developed earlier, their signals fell upon deaf ears (like of the sauropods) and stopped before we could hear them, and if they develop much later, our own signals will have stopped.

Now, I’m going to ignore countless other factors within this whole topic to concentrate on one small aspect, but it’s an interesting one (it is – don’t argue.) And it’s something that underlies a lot of my posts here, so if I have a personal philosophical message – aside from trashing philosophy, I mean, – it’s along these lines.

Let’s start with the nuclear annihilation angle. While I am largely of the opinion that this is a passing phase of our development and a threat that will vanish soon, there are still some convincing arguments that we stood a little too close to decimating a large percentage of our world population, as well as provoking a drastic effect on our environment, with the discovery of nuclear weapons. It’s not like these hazards were at any time unknown, either – we were aware right from the start that they were intensely powerful. And we also knew, right from the start, that human behavior is a bit too unstable and outright petulant to possess such power. The attitude that surrounded them seems to be, “We, the responsible ones, better have enough bombs on hand to stop those irresponsible other guys.” Not only is there the idea that we had weapons more dangerous than humans could be trusted with as a whole, but that “we” were smarter and more trustworthy than “they,” this peculiar egotistic division that our species loves to engage in. Though the weapons have remained unused since the two initial events seventy years ago, we’re not really confident some one of us won’t be stupid enough to use them, quite possibly through that same tribalism that creates the “we” and “they.”

Chances are, no matter what, we wouldn’t wipe our species out in this manner, but it is possible that we’d wreck our economic system enough that space exploration, radio astronomy, and such pursuits take a distant back seat for a while. But consider if we, as a species, were just a smidgen more hotheaded, tribalistic, defiant, and egotistical – how easily could it have happened then? The balance between the rational consideration of consequences, and the emotional reaction to (even perceived) provocation seems to be surprisingly narrow now – it doesn’t seem like a slight change in our mental makeup, some aspect of evolutionary development long ago, couldn’t have made things turn out drastically different.

Now let’s consider climate change. There are several key aspects of the entire debate, having little to do with whether it’s actually taking place, believe it or not. Most of the debate was over whether humans were significantly, noticeably contributing to it, the “anthropogenic” part. And most of the debate over that was fostered, funded, and provoked by those who had the most to lose over the findings, the ones that would suffer serious hits to their gross profit structure if they had to curb the production of greenhouse gases, and a hell of a lot of money was poured into this fight. Almost entirely ignored within this all was that it didn’t matter how much the human contribution is (a measurably significant amount of it, by the way) – continued production of vast quantities of greenhouse gases was only going to add to the problem. Firefighters do not need to know if the house fire was started by a gas leak to turn the fucking gas off anyway as soon as they arrive.

But the overriding aspect that rears its ugly head in this situation is the short-term versus the long-term effects. By protecting profit structures, by denying and ignoring the impacts (predicted for decades, by the way,) by fighting to maintain the status quo against all indications that it would have to change, those in active denial were placing immediate gratifications over long-term hazards in level of importance. Future issues are “somebody else’s problem” – one of the failings of term limits in politics, and visible throughout many policies, including the one towards nuclear waste. Even on a personal level, we can foster a market that favors huge, overpowered trucks and muscle cars through some misplaced and pointless association with machismo, and consider the negative effects (and even the ongoing cost of gas) as somehow irrelevant, or out of our control. But, we can see a photo of a fast-food worker spitting in someone’s food and get incensed over it – feel free to weigh the relative impacts of each action.

[I want to be careful about playing the blame game here – there are numerous ways in which our environmental impact takes place, and a lot of them either honestly out of our control or outside of a viable opportunity, such as purchasing a hybrid vehicle or making our homes more efficient, often at a prohibitive cost. At the same time, the market will support these better as the demand increases. Something to consider.]

Tracing it all back, we find that most of the stumbling blocks in the path of long-term benefits come from simple traits: ego, status, greed, even convenience and indulgence. Overall, very basic emotions largely revolving around reproductive rights, but also around our status within the community (which is not exactly clear is even a separate thing from reproduction – is our fancy car showing off more to the neighbors or to potential mates?) And a lot of this is pursued way out of proportion to any benefit, mostly because we never think about it. So, we have a house twice as big as we need, are well past reproductive age, are competing with no one for any kind of needs whatsoever – what the fuck are we pursuing now?

That the question can even be asked is a rather telling evaluation of our species. The brains that give us the power of the atom, that tell us the long-term consequences of our actions, are too often incapable of directing us towards a productive, rational course of action. You would think that even a comfortable retirement, much less a luxurious one, would fall behind the continued thriving of our entire species – yet most times it doesn’t. The evolved drives that we have involve only the immediate future – which means we do not possess any instincts for lasting survival. That has to come from our brains actively considering them. Not very hard to do, really, but we have to make the effort.

We come back to that balance point. We received fancy brains largely because they were more efficient than evolving an automatic reaction to every environmental demand that we might face, but we still have the automatic reactions too, and they actually compete for attention. Our continued survival very likely depends on the brain winning the competition more often, and right now it’s not too clear if this is possible. As mentioned above, had we developed with a slightly stronger aggressive/protective instinct, the nuclear stalemate might have come out quite differently, and I’d have to be chipping this whole post into stone tablets or something. But are the drives that push us towards short-term benefits, status and ego and all that, actually too strong to allow the brain to guide our species towards long-term survival? It’s not a matter of what any individual may feel, or how easy it is to say, once the subject comes up in discussion, that the long-term is much more important. It’s a matter of how many actions our species as a whole may take under the goading of these base instincts.

These instincts were almost certainly necessary for us to survive this long, and variations of them exist in most species that engage in sexual reproduction – it seems highly likely that such traits (or close analogs thereof) are necessary for survival. But species also go extinct, failing to develop traits that will allow them to handle the new environmental demands. It’s not a matter of a ‘bad evolutionary selection,’ but the semi-random elements of both environmental variation and genetic mutation failing to achieve compatibility; sometimes this occurs very quickly and a species dies off with a short existence on this planet, and sometimes it doesn’t occur for a long time, like the proliferation of the trilobites that lasted 270 million years, through two major extinction events before disappearing in a third. Humans can’t make any claims to success or longevity; every species on the planet right now is a successful descendent of the beginning of life billions of years ago. The question is, which ones will continue far past this point?

Here’s another perspective to temper the idea that selection is ultimately successful. The various cancers, which many species can claim susceptibility to, have evolved right along with us; most of them can’t spread between individuals, and if they’re successful enough, their environment – the host – dies. They inhabit a niche of self-limitation, but as long as they usually spring up well past reproductive age, the tendency for them to exist still gets past the selection process. In essence, they’re a detriment that exploits a loophole in natural selection, yet do not possess any ability to expand beyond a given point.

And now, another factor, one which I’ve touched on before. We are a curious, exploratory species, always interested in what lies over the horizon. And when you think about it, we’re incredibly optimistic about it, unrealistically so to be honest – any newly discovered area stands an equal chance of being worse than where we are now, but this doesn’t temper our anticipation that it will be better. And these odds go crashing down dramatically when it comes to space exploration, since we evolved for conditions only on this planet – what exists in space is ridiculously inhospitable to us, and the same may be said for the vast majority of planets we could find. Very frequently, we will hear that our future is in space, and that man’s destiny is to expand and colonize, spread out through the stars – but why would we even think that? The efforts involved would be phenomenal, the expense of energy and resources to create even a moon colony so prohibitive that we have no feasible plan to implement it. Not to mention how bleak a moon colony would be.

If you ask anyone why we would have to colonize other planets than our own, the answer invariably is, because of our burgeoning population and dwindling resources here on Earth – the one planet in known existence where we can actually live. It’s like we throw up our hands over the prospect of even limiting ourselves, of being smart enough to live within our means – somehow, this is much harder than terraforming some other planet, or building a self-sustaining colony someplace. We’ve passed beyond irony and entered idiotic now – please do not make eye-contact with the natives. And it’s not like any of this is hard to puzzle out – we just don’t, under our inherent drives to explore and expand and spread out, like bacteria.

Even worse, some of our desire to expand into space may be the same status thing mentioned earlier – we want to own and control even more than the entire planet. Historically, expansion has been driven at least as much (probably far more) by power and megalomania as by the necessity of new resources or a more hospitable place to live. And it seems likely that we recognize this trait when we are concerned about who has nuclear weapons.

But when we imagine contacting extra-terrestrial life, we somehow believe they will have almost the exact same outlooks – or at least, those are the ones we hope to find, anyway, somehow thinking this is a good thing. It may be that we haven’t heard from any such species because they possess slightly more useful instincts than we do – perhaps no drive to explore at all, and instead one to make their conditions as ideally suited to their survival as possible, so their home planet is fully sustainable; they pick up their toys, too. The mark of an advanced race may be conservatism, that they won’t expand. By the same token, they might look at us askance, stunned by the behaviors we exhibit, the conflicts that hamper our development and put us at constant risk. Perhaps they might hope that we, like cancer, cannot extend beyond the host.

Which also means that encountering extra-terrestrial species that are similar to humans in any significant way might be a very bad thing; we may not like the mirror that is held up to us. Especially if they have the resources to extend contact across such vast distances in the first place. If they offer any blankets in trade, it’d be best to pass on them.

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