There is a great Twilight Zone episode, “A Small Talent for War:” An alien emissary appears in the United Nations to announce that humans on Earth have not progressed as fast as they had hoped. We have a small talent for war and have wasted our time bickering over borders with crude weapons, far short of the “better things” for which they bred us. Therefore, they have resolved to terminate the experiment on this planet. The American ambassador pleads the case for humanity. The emissary agrees to give the world 24 hours, though he doubts anything can be done in so short a time. When he returns, the General Assembly proudly presents the emissary with a world peace treaty. He leafs through it and then laughs, explaining that their objective was for us to develop weapons and warriors to fight across the galaxy, not to merely to achieve peace amongst ourselves. The episode ends with alien destroyers descending on Earth.
This essay is a discussion of existential matters: Something that, after adolescence, few people stop to consider in any broad context. Discussion following my post on falling fertility raised the Grand Question: What is our Purpose? In the context of that post a successful human life was one that created positive net production in our global marketplace. That’s a fine measure if our Purpose can be expressed as economic activity. But can it? Is our goal as a species to build the maximum economic power? I.e., to produce the greatest possible value of goods and services, where value is defined by the market of individual human wants and needs? By default, and in actuality, the answer is yes.
But we fancy ourselves an “intelligent” species, and so we should not simply accept the evolved answer to the Grand Question: I.e., to what end should our species devote its resources? If the answer is “to satisfy our instincts” then as a species we seem no more intelligent than any other life form.
Are we intelligent life?
We know the key characteristics of all successful life: survival and reproduction. We are currently an apex predator on our planet. As a species we are the apex predator, so we’ve got that to our credit. But we are surrounded by other species that are more survivable than our own: We know there are planetary catastrophes that would extinguish our species but spare “lower” life-forms that can survive more extreme conditions and extended deprivations. So in terms of survival our species is relatively unremarkable.
We console ourselves with the fact that we are “intelligent.” This does indeed seem to be a rare thing: In our own fertile sphere we are unique in our capacity to invent tools, and to create, store, and transmit information. Furthermore, we have achieved reasonable mastery of electromagnetics, to the point where we can send bursts of information into deep space and scan for other life doing the same. Yet our ability to create and harness energy and matter on a meaningful scale is abysmal. We can only transmute elements in the tiniest quantities, and the total energy our species can unleash, even in an uncontrolled fashion, would barely make the faintest ripple in our local space-time fabric. So by some measures we might be extraordinarily intelligent, while by others we may be pathetic.
The rest of our specie’s activities are no more notable than that of any other locally successful life form. In fact, we know that we are only one unlucky gamma-ray burst or other stellar event away from being wiped from the face of existence. Truly successful life would not be so vulnerable.
Intelligent or not, a successful life form would be one that could project itself across interstellar spaces, in some manner able to reproduce and survive on a vastly larger, less precarious scale. Could we achieve such a thing? Almost certainly not in our corporal forms, which have evolved only to survive and reproduce in the fragile fringe of our home planet. But in theory we could build interstellar seeders: self-replicating, self-healing machines that trawl outer space and seed our form of life anywhere it can take root. Our seed sphere would grow slowly, limited by the speed with which our machines can travel, but still exponentially as frontier seeders transform ambient matter and energy encountered en route to spawn more seeders. Perhaps it is possible to design seed rays: packets of energy that, when they encounter matter of suitable composition, transform it into seeders. Though that sounds vastly more difficult, it would allow our seed sphere to grow at light speed.
As intelligent life shouldn’t such large-scale survivability be one of our goals? One might argue that the absence of such a capability is evidence that we are not “intelligent life.” Intelligence may include the ability to create tools and transmit information, but life that cannot alter its evolved behavior and nature to better pursue its objectives does not sound intelligent. And since survival is the most elementary characteristic of life we, as a species, are clearly coming up short.
This brings us back to the Grand Question: What is our Purpose? Nature has given us an evolved, or “default” answer, and that’s mostly what we’ve accepted: Our default Purpose is to maximize Gross Production and Production Capacity – economic measures that we can sample with reasonable accuracy. These measures have steadily increased throughout history. But they reflect predominantly individual interests, not the reasoned, collective interest of our species. For example, included in Gross Human Production today are such things as:
• The construction and maintenance of coastal cities below sea level
• Gold-plated palaces and jumbo jets for sheikhs to fly their extended family around to the world’s finest resorts
• Manicured golf courses where the wealthy and non-producing (“retired”) try to hit balls with high precision
We have enormous production potential, but what are we producing? If one assembled any group of humans and asked them to vote on worthwhile projects for their – or any other human’s – spare time would any of the above examples be on their list? The sad fact is that we, as a species, have no intelligent Purpose.
Does it take a visit from a xenocidal alien emissary? When faced with a clear and present threat we unite in large groups and concentrate our excess capacity on survival and achievement. Think of the unified action witnessed during the World War II and the Cold War. But no leadership seems capable of marshaling such a response to anything less clear and present. For example, know the consequences and probabilities of a large asteroid impact, but haven’t waged any significant effort to protect ourselves from possible extinction from one. And the threat of a nearby gamma-ray burst is so abstract and challenging that almost nobody addresses it.
I wish we could unite behind one or more “Net Human Products:” Something that humans collectively produce that increases over years and generations, and that our species could hold up and say, “Here is something we did besides just surviving and pursuing our instincts.”
There are, of course, philosophic and religious answers to the Grand Question, but I don’t think they make good measures of Net Human Product. In the most general terms, most measure human success as something like maximizing the number of people who achieve peace with their creator, themselves, and/or their surroundings. But these are human-centric measures: In the end, some number of human beings have lived and died, and some proportion did so in accord with any particular philosophy. That tally may make adherents feel good, and some philosophies may be conducive to higher Net Human Products, but either way they are at best a means, not an end in this discussion.
What do humans produce that endures? Civilization has produced remarkable terrestrial monuments, although over eons our watery planet will eventually erode these all into oblivion. We have managed to sling a few small artifacts out of our heliosphere. Aside from those the substantive human products that have the potential to survive every natural catastrophe and all the assaults of time are our culture and our technology: Everything that can be transformed into data, which can be replicated and beamed to arbitrary recipients at nearly zero cost. We might measure our Net Human Product in terms of the quantity and quality of that data, and the means we have to protect its integrity and longevity.
Maybe if we reconsider our collective objectives we will refocus our resources. For example, instead of spending tens of billions of dollars each year on professional sports, the demand for entertainment and product placement will shift attention towards teams of developers and their efforts to raise our Net Human Product.
Can we spark a “Moon-Shot” program on a global scale to make our species truly “intelligent” by addressing the shortcomings I mentioned earlier? Can we motivate individual human beings to join an urgent struggle to develop fusion energy and interstellar seeders? Can children go to school aspiring to study the STEM subjects that will enable those technologies? Can we go to sleep each night as worried that a gamma ray burst will obliterate us before we succeed, as we did during the Cold War that a nuclear holocaust would destroy everything we know and love?