The Hypothesis of Sentient Self-Destruction
by Francois Tremblay (e-mail: [April 7th, 2002]

As science gets  better and better at exploring  the material realm, we also turn to the stars with our understanding. Yet this is hindered by the compulsion of many people to believe that other forms of sentient life are somehow intricately involved with the human race. No evidence of this has been forthcoming. However it raises another interesting question : why haven't we been visited or at least detected sentient alien species ?

“As human being, we are little more than forest-dwelling, pack-following monkeys that got dropped in an urban environment in a blink of evolutionary time - as I like to say, our instincts are a harp out of tune.”

In Objectivism, we also know that people are mentally flawed. While reality to us seems blindingly obvious and not requiring a great intelligence to understand, most people don't seem to be able to. There seems to be an ingrained mental block in human nature to go against reality in anything beyond the mundane.

The irrational animal

A correct hypothesis which could conflate those two phenomenons would be, basically, a bridge between the human sciences and the natural sciences. It would help us gain an understanding of what it means to be sentient. I have made such a hypothesis, which I describe here : I do not claim that I know it to be true. It is falsifiable and based on established facts, and my only merit was to put those facts together in a comprehensive idea, which I hope is true (but on the other hand which I also do not hope is true, for reasons which will soon become apparent).

I suppose that I should start from the beginning of what we know as sentience : human evolution. Or to be more precise, primate evolution. It is a fairly uncontroversial fact that homo sapiens evolved from primate ancestors such as homo habilis, various types of australopithecus, and ape-like ancestors. Unlike our current status on the food chain, our ancestors were not the most dangerous predators, far from that : primates are not unusually strong or fast. What makes us dominant is our intelligence, not our constitution.

The biggest dinosaurs, on the other hand, were strong and fast. It is tempting to believe that dinosaurs could have achieved sentience and become superior social animals to us. But this flight of fancy is problematic : what evolutionary reason would there be for dinosaurs being social animals or gaining sentience ? On the other hand, primates are weak and cannot survive without the group. Because of this, they have developed instincts of conformism, altruism, obedience to authority and belief which survive in humans today.

And it is those social practices and weaknesses which have furnished the necessary evolutionary pressure to evolve sentience. The consequence of this is inevitable : it implies that sentience does not go together with individualism, that is, a strong will.

As human being, we are little more than forest-dwelling, pack-following monkeys that got dropped in an urban environment in a blink of evolutionary time - as I like to say, our instincts are a harp out of tune. Even the smallest adaptations take ten thousand years or more : there is simply not enough time between the advent of civilization and now for the millions of years necessary to make a new, civilized species.

There is little wonder, then, that people are usually stupid in most respects. People do pay lip service to such concepts as rationality, egoism, individualism and freedom, but the truth is that most people support all kinds of religious beliefs, get their sense of morality from authority or consensus, obey authority even in morally disadvantageous situations, and vote consistently for statism. This should not be surprising, given that our instincts constantly harp on obedience and sacrifice as the twin pillars of survival.

One may object that science is going extremely well, and therefore disproves the evolutionary evidence. It is true that natural science is usually excellent. In domains where philosophical concepts are involved, science does poorly (see my article The Malady of Scientism for a longer discussion on this point). As long as the science is based on direct observation, and is free of the obsession about authority that sometimes seems to permeate it (although not nearly as much as religion, for example), it can escape the basic human tendencies that I have described.

But to continue the argument, our conclusion must not stop to simple stupidity. The facts of evolution point to us that it is not stupidity as such which is relevant, but the discord between one's instincts and one's environment. As our environment, determined heavily by technology, becomes more and more "alien" from a forest-dwelling point of view, the more discord we expect. The way our ancestors lived was ideal for their survival, not ours.

This discord, let's call it displacement, is the key. The higher our level of technology gets, the more displacement there is. There is not as much difference between berry-gathering and farming, say, as there is between hunting and going to the office. Our reactions are geared for typical predators and natural food, not computers, cars, or fast food.

This displacement must eventually reach a critical level, to a point where humans simply cannot cope with the power at its disposal. The exponential growth of technology in the form of genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, space weaponry, nanotechnology, and other forms of power which are coming in the next decades will inevitably overwhelm us in some way or another. Be it by human error or by violence, much like an elastic, the pressure that our instincts put on our capacity to live in a modern world snaps, much like the front part of an elastic advancing while the back part stays behind.

One objection can be raised at this point. It can be argued that genetic engineering can change the inherent stupidity in human nature and turn the argument around. Unfortunately, this argument is flawed because the agents of change in this case are humans. And since humans would use them, they would use that as unwisely as they do anything else. It would only be another mode of technology adding to the problem, not to the solution.

Alien species and Chicken Little

The fact which I purport to explain in the second part is the non-detection of alien life. So far we have not been able to detect alien life (although our attempts have yielded interesting cosmological results), neither have we been contacted by alien life. But this is problematic because it is fairly obvious that our galaxy, let alone the universe, must be teeming with life. Given enough time, we should have contacted some sentient species by now. The Drake Equation gives us the following result for radio detection, but can also be applied to other domains :

N = R* × fp × ne × fl × fi × fc × L

which means...

Number of detectable civilizations = Rate of formation of suitable stars * Fraction of stars with planets * Number of "earths" per planetary system * Fraction of "earths" where life develops * Fraction of life sites where intelligence develops * Fraction of planets where technology develops * "Lifetime" of communications

We may subsume the problem like this : since we are unable to detect alien lifeforms, either the probability of intelligent alien species is low (R* × fp × ne × fl × fi × fc), the species in question do not survive long enough to be noticed (L), or both. It seems, from what we know so far, that the probability of intelligent alien species is not low enough to explain this phenomenon : however, part of my hypothesis is that the displacement I have described is an adequate explanation for the second factor.

Concretely, this means that most sentient species must basically self-destruct, or stagnate and regress (which is functionally equivalent here), after a certain level of technology - perhaps during its radio communications "lifetime". I suppose one may question the efficiency of our current attempts at detecting radio communications. It is certain that this limit, or filter if you will, arrives before or at the beginning of advanced space travel, since we know for a fact that there are no starships going around and no species landing on our planet. Of course, far-fetched scenarios may be elaborated to explain this, but I contend that my hypothesis is the best explanation for all the facts.

Since we are obviously able to send radio signals, our own existence may be seen as disproving my hypothesis. It is not necessarily so. I am not saying that all sentient species in the universe must self-destruct at the filter. However, the lack of evidence for sentient alien species is better explained by a low probability of their extended survival or progress.

Some transhumanists contend that we will soon - in twenty or thirty years - achieve a level of computer processing power (called the "singularity") so high that human intelligence will become irrelevant, and our society will achieve a formidable boom. If this is the case, then this would seem to indicate that the filter is much closer than one may hypothesize. A powerful noosphere would achieve advanced space travel much faster, and this transcendence also implies a sudden surge of power given to humans which may be fatal. No doubt it is possible to integrate the notion of transcendence with the notion of filter that I have described here.

I don't want to leave the wrong impression on what my idea is not. I definitively do not think that it is in our interest to give up, to regress to a state of nature, or to start killing each other. I do not mean either that this is some kind of doomsday catastrophe that is both short-term and inevitable. I do not think that the filter, if it exists, will be hit within our lifetime (unless transhumanist ideas are correct, and the "singularity" happens within the next twenty years), neither is it an inevitability.

I do not mean either that individuals themselves cannot be wise. Obviously I think it is even possible to have an entire society which is high in wisdom. Unfortunately, if the rest of mankind is wiped out, for example, such a society could do little in itself to become significant within a reasonable period of time. There are certainly interesting science-fiction stories to be explored in this vein, and I do not purport to know what would happen.

How is my hypothesis falsifiable or provable ? Obviously, if we do detect radio communications in the future, or are contacted by alien species, this may change our expectations, although not necessarily falsify my hypothesis. A better way to do this would be to explore numerous other systems. There are two main possibilities :

  1. A lifeless, barren galaxy. This would indicate to us that life is not as probable as it seems to us, and that therefore the solution is trivial (life simply does not emerge at all).
  2. A galaxy containing a certain proportion of ruins of ancient civilizations and non-intelligent life. This would be what we should expect if life can form within a significant probability, but self-destructs as it hits the filter.
Of course, this falsification itself is problematic, since it seems probable that the filter prohibits the kind of advanced space travel required to go see other systems ourselves. Therefore this brings the paradoxal idea that the hypothesis would prevent its own falsification. The best alternative would be to improve our knowledge of abiogenesis in order to be able to evaluate the possibilities of life in greater detail.

Resources and Avenues for Further Study

  • Objective Thought: The Malady of Scientism
  • Google Directory: Science: Biology: Sociobiology: Evolutionary Psychology

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