Now, to tie this all up in a neat little conclusion that makes everything very simple and positive. Well, sorry about that. But at least it gets more personal. So, how does the individual—you and me—fit into this vast scenario of the Universe? There are three points to make.
First, often in discussing the problems noted previously, people phrase it in terms of saving the human species, but actually, do we as individuals truly care? Are you ready to take all the needed action to drastically lower your carbon pollution footprint, even though it might be mostly coincidental rather than intentional, or forego most forms of social contact you’ve always had in order to fend off an onslaught of new diseases?
Framed in the most drastic situation and terms, are you ready to sacrifice your life for your species? Put that way, I seriously doubt it. I know I’m definitely not. That’s a rather vague thing to stake your life on—species, a grouping concept used as a convenient way of naming all life forms that act and look alike, so to speak. However, if we’re talking about keeping my existing family, close friends, and even other more distant humans safe and basically comfortable, then, yeah, I’m willing to sacrifice and make some major adaptations so we can all keep kicking. But for the human species? Not a chance.
And why not? Because the living individual is what is important, not a grouping concept of those in the past and future. The species idea does nothing for me, unlike family, friends, nation, and some other groups of humans now alive that would be important enough for an individual to make enormous sacrifices for. And that’s how it works for all mammals where social and familial groupings are important, such as wolves and elephants. Those individual mammals care nothing about the survival of their species—and neither do we about ours.
Our focus in meeting the challenges of survival from disease and climate change is on the individual: trying to figure out how to care for ourselves, others close to us, and the particular natural environment we like. That’s what matters, and that’s what is the essence of using our intelligence to successfully adapt to the changes we face: finding or making environmental niches for our survival, along with other humans, plants, and animals we care about. When we try to convince members of our groups—family, friends, fellow citizens—of necessary adaptations, we need to address the effort in terms of what it means to them personally and those they care about. The species is irrelevant from that standpoint.
Second, if we were to consider a successful species as being one that has been around a long time, which is the goal of survival, we would find that less complex species are the most successful. Bacteria, fungi, and other simple animal and plant life have been on Earth the longest and are the most widespread. They have been successful in finding a vast range of ecological niches to which they are well-adapted.
As we go up the classification lineage of life forms, we find that more complex animals and plants increasingly have a wider range of niches and adaptations used, but they are also increasingly limited in their time-span of existence before extinction. Increased complexity seems to be a handicap for the continuation of a species. Yes, the species can vary somewhat as they try to meet new environmental control requirements, but anything that gets beyond a certain level of complexity appears to be an invitation to extinction.
Viewed from this perspective, if humans can’t use their intelligence to adapt to the consequences of their destructive actions—which are based on intelligence—then our species can rapidly face extinction. But as individuals, we don’t actually care about that. We care only about how the lack of using our intelligence to make necessary changes affects our lives, now and in the immediate future—and that includes others we care about since they are part of our lives. That’s why it’s so important to make clear to others how these threats to existence are personal because what those individuals do, or don’t, affects us too—and we care a lot about that. It’s one endless circle of cause and effect.
Third, tying the discussion back to intelligent life elsewhere, there are some interesting additional reasons for not finding any. One is that some planets may not have intelligent life, and therefore can’t communicate or be noticed, not because they died off due to species complexity but because the planet’s environment simply wasn’t conducive to the development of complexity, for example, limited nutrients, toxic gases, and too much or too little water or land. Maybe plant life benefited most from these conditions and became the dominant life form, with the result that individuals were limited in movement, communication only by chemical means, and other such features of plants, at least like the ones we have on Earth. Consequently, there would be no means of communication or visiting spaceships we might encounter, for example.
Another reason might be that asexual rather than sexual reproduction of individual animals and plants happened to become the most successful means of replication on a planet and consequently limited the speed of evolutionary development and potential for physiological complexity. Making new individuals by simple cell division, fragmentation, budding, spores, etc. is primarily a matter of making exact copies of the parent. But, this process gives less opportunity for genetic variations to occur, whereas sexual reproduction provides a much greater chance for variations because it combines genetic material from two different parents to make an individual. Hence, more potential for variation means more opportunity for complexity to occur through evolution.
So, either plant-life or asexual dominance could cause a lack of intelligent life forms that might be able to communicate or even travel in space, and we wouldn’t be able to notice them. Perhaps, this situation could also spring from that planet’s life forms having reached a complex level and then became extinct, followed by plant or asexual life forms achieving dominion through millions of years.
The possibilities are almost endless, it would seem, since there are so many variations in planetary environments, even on each planet itself, as our planet Earth demonstrates. However, as set forth previously in discussion #1, the basics of required environmental control by individuals would still be crucially determining factors in what one might find for intelligent life in the universe—should one still be inclined to look after these discussions. And of course, we will all look, being clever enough to think up the adage but not smart enough to avoid it: “Curiosity killed the cat.”