There’s another thing about this intelligence perspective I want to bring up: its relevance to us, on this planet right now, and why we may not see those aliens that could exist. Since there is a trend towards complexity in evolution, it’s good to ask whether that complexity aids in the survival of the species. It aids in developing specialization, with the consequence of lots of life forms using different environmental niches. However, those niches very often are dead ends because the circumstances of that niche change, and the species can no longer control that specific environment and go extinct. Think of all the various dinosaurs, wooly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, and other extinct animals you read about as a child—and all the ones you have become aware of as an adult. There’s a lot!
And why did they go extinct? Well, some had problems with crashing asteroids or other such out-of-nowhere problems. But nearly every other extinction was simply a matter of finding out that your development of complexity and attendant specialization boxed you in because you could no longer control the essential requirements of life—your environments had changed too rapidly for you to evolutionarily change. You couldn’t adapt.
Then, along with complexity, came intelligence. A more complex nervous system, and eventually a brain, added an extra dimension: the ability to learn and not have to rely on genetically based stimulus/response. It was now possible to make decisions, and eventually, this led to a greater capability of decision-making in mammals. Now, for humans especially, the focus of this learning capability was the development of culture: learning transmitted from generation to generation, which we loosely call intelligence.
So, here we are—intelligent humans. Good thing? Bad thing? Or just, meh? Given the history of humankind, as Wright and others have described, I’d say all the above. In humans, cultural complexity and intelligence are stressed (consciously or not) as our way to escape the problems of adaptation and extinction that other species have faced. Just think about it: The area of our greatest ability to change is in the cultural realm, what we produce and the activity we do.
Yet, there is one aspect of this focus on development through cultural changes that is quite serious. If increasing complexity, particularly in intelligence, is our nearly exclusive method for controlling what we need to in order to survive as individuals and a species, aren’t we putting all our eggs in one basket and hoping for the best? Is our evolutionary specialization on intelligence any better than those specializations that now-extinct species used? They all found a successful environmental niche until their physical and living environments changed too rapidly. That’s how extinction works. Why would it be any different for humans?
One could make the argument that cultural intelligence allows rapid adaptation for control situations. That’s quite true—no argument there. However, as suggested previously, history documents that the potential for success varies: sometimes because of cultural and social conflict, other times just running out of needed resources. But two big causes have been disease from viruses and bacteria and climate change (which explains the ice age cycles and responses by animals and plants, such as tropical climate fossils found in current arctic and antarctic locations).
So, what do we have confronting us now that we as a species are facing, and doing a poor job of it? Disease and climate change. How is our intelligence dealing with that, I ask you? I think we all know the answer to that (considering just political power and governance alone). Then, we need more intelligence? Yeah, but the right kind that is based on cooperation and principles of ecological science. We have to keep ahead of the extinction game to prove that our species is an exception to all the extinction scenarios that fill the fossil record of Earth—a daunting task, to put it mildly.
However, there is some hope. After all, those birds flying in the sky are feathered dinosaur descendants who figured out that the specialty niche of the air was vacant and a good place to escape those guys on the ground who wanted to eat them. Whales and other cetaceans are mammals who returned to the sea when their reptile counterparts died off from over-specialization. The point here is that our primary hope of survival is to change with our environments, and the best way to do that (since our soft bodies are rather vulnerable) is to use our best adaptive quality: our brains and cultural intelligence.
There isn’t much time to waste in dealing with pandemics, as we have discovered, not only in developing vaccines and protective behaviors but also to stop encroaching on the environments of plants and animals that harbor viruses and bacteria to which they have developed immunity but we have none. We need a whole ton of needed changes in environmental policy to be made in this regard.
We also don’t have much time to waste in dealing with climate change—which our unguided and unregulated intelligence has brought upon us. This is the truly big one since climate change is the core of Earth’s history, brought by a multitude of cosmic and earthly process origins. However, this particular one is on us; we’ve triggered planetary processes that are going to be far beyond what we envision.
Now, we can use our intelligence to perhaps control to some small degree the causes of those process changes, but our best bet is to use that intelligence to control our responses to the threat of those changes so we can keep up with the needed adaptations to avoid complete extinction (just think of rising sea level alone). It’s a tough thing to do, but otherwise, we’ll be like the birds and have our unique variety of niche-specific hominid species running, swimming, or flying around, if even that.
And the potential for contacting other intelligent life out there in space somewhere? How does that fit in? Well, it occurs to me that, given the scenario for intelligent life on this planet and the potential for humans to essentially self-destruct because of mismanaged intelligence, they are probably in the same situation we are in. Over time, they too have run up against the wall of the universal fundamentals of control that all living beings have, and therefore have the same problems of evolutionary complexity and cultural intelligence results that we face, and can’t seem to avoid. Consequently, they and we will continue to live in the Universe, brothers and sisters of Life, but unable to encounter each other because of . . . our intelligence.
(to be concluded next week)