Monday, June 21

Night Thoughts on Dumbing Down and Shutting Up

skepticI am subject to occasional periods of insomnia, when I wake up at around 2 a.m., bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and cannot get back to sleep no matter how much I toss and turn. I can be subject to strange, brooding thoughts during such staring-at-the-ceiling marathons. About a week-plus ago as this is written (1 May), I went through a few days of such insomnia. (One too many Starbucks "flat whites," I think.) My nocturnal ruminations turned to the subject of Fermi’s Paradox. I have written of Fermi’s Paradox elsewhere, and still find it both intriguing and perplexing. The great pioneer of nuclear physics and energy, Enrico Fermi, once asked the following question: if there are, as is often argued, perhaps 100 billion stars in our Galaxy, and if even a small fraction of those stars support intelligent life, then … well … where is everybody? His question has gained an even sharper edge over succeeding decades as star systems, many with earth-like planets orbiting in the star’s “habitable zone,” have been discovered. Indeed, where is everybody?


Fermi’s question – in fact, the entire raison d’etre of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) – is implicitly premised on the idea that intelligence, the kind of intelligence necessary to build civilizations sophisticated enough to communicate (intentionally or accidentally) with other such communities in the Galaxy, is enough of an evolutionary advantage that intelligence enables such a civilization to live long enough to communicate with us. Such technological civilizations may not be strictly permanent in the literal sense, but – this is the assumption – at least long-lived enough to remain around for us to detect them. It is important to note that (a) the longevity of advanced civilizations is an assumption, not an empirical fact (if it were the latter, the task of SETI would be over and done!), and (b) the longevity assumption is an assumption of SETI, not of the Drake Equation itself. Prof. Drake’s famous equation says only:

N = N* fp ne fl fi fc fL

where N = the number of communicating civilizations in the Galaxy, N* = the number of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, fp = the number of stars with planets, ne = the number of planets around stars capable of sustaining life, fl = the fraction of planets where life evolves, fi = the fraction of planets with intelligent life, fc = the fraction of fi that can communicate, fL = the fraction of the planet’s life in which communication is possible (or, less diplomatically, the life-expectancy of the communicating civilization)

Gardens: stars

Recent developments in exoplanetary astronomy strongly suggest that there are other coefficients that are relevant beyond those in the above “classical” Drake Equation. But that is irrelevant for now. The point is that even the “classical” Drake Equation makes no assumptions about the longevity of communicating civilizations, as witness the last coefficient, fL, in the Equation. SETI researchers simply assume that fL is long enough that distant civilizations will not go extinct before we on Earth have had a chance to detect them. SETI also assumes that we Earthlings will likewise not go extinct before we have had a chance to do so. These are entirely reasonable assumptions, if for no other reason than that, if SETI researchers assumed otherwise, the SETI project itself would never – as it were – get off the ground. If extraterrestrial civilizations are too evanescent for us to detect, then why bother?

So I do not question that assumption, which is heuristically necessary. What is more open to question, because it is more deeply implicit, is the assumption that that intelligence is an evolutionary advantage to a civilization, in the sense that evolving intelligence necessarily maximizes the value of fL. To phrase it in the form of a question Does enhanced intelligence necessarily result in extending the longevity of the evolving species to the point that the lifetime of the species becomes long enough to develop technology and thus make it more likely to be detected? My answer:  not necessarily.

When I was a kid, my parents and I would go every summer to visit both sides of my family 'way back in the howling wilderness – that is not too strong a word – in rural northwest Arkansas. Fireworks were sold year round in the tiny villages there, and regulations on setting them off were almost non-existent. So my cousins and I would go to the local general store, which always stocked enough fireworks to start a minor war in the Third World, and stock up on … well ... you name it … My personal favorite was always the pinwheels or “Catherine wheels”. I would wait until deep dusk, get my maternal grand-dad’s hammer and a few nails, nail a Catherine wheel to a fencepost, and light the fuse. When the wheel took off, it would spin so fast that it would seem to consist of a continuous circle of brilliant sparks easily visible from dozens of yards away, and some Catherine wheels included a sound element that would cause the wheel to emit an ear-splitting shriek while it was spinning. Then the wheel itself would explode in a shower of multi-colored sparks. The whole process, from the lighting of the fuse to the final explosion took roughly 20 seconds. Maybe, on a galactic time-scale, intelligent species are like those Catherine wheels on my grandpa’s farm. Maybe evolution lights the fuse we call “intelligence,” the species burns brightly for a few thousand years – then promptly self-destructs … all before we ever see it. In the evolutionary long run, and for purposes of longevity, intelligence may be a mistake. Sharks and cockroaches may be much closer to the mark.

catherine wheel

There is some evidence that, on an individual level, intelligence can be maladaptive. People with high IQs are more likely to be socially maladjusted, more prone to depression, and more susceptible to asocial or even anti-social behavior – at least above a certain level of intelligence. For example, Prof. Lewis Terman’s classic study in the 1920s suggested that, while a “middling-high” IQ does conduce to emotional and physical well-being, IQ levels significantly above this “middling” level actually worked to the possessors’ disadvantage. Individuals like John Keats, Vincent Van Gogh, Thomas Chatterton, Mozart, et al., are Catherine wheels that burn brilliantly for a few brief years. There also seems to be an inverse relationship between fertility – understood as the choice to have children – and IQ: high-IQ individuals tend to have fewer children, overall. It is not clear whether or to what extent these results can be scaled up to serve as an index of the longevity and viability of entire civilizations. But at least it would seem reasonable to conclude, just based on human experience, that as technological sophistication increases, so does the power commanded by that technology, and that as that power increases – if Moore’s Law is any indication, the increase may be exponential – the associated ethical problems demand a corresponding ethical / moral sophistication. Otherwise, we end up with the classical conflict of much science-fiction literature: technological sophistication outstripping our ethical maturity, allowing what we can do to determine what we should do. We end up brain-rich but heart-poor … a "rough beast, its hour come round at last", slouching its way to Armageddon.

(On the other hand, we know precisely nothing about whatever dynamic may animate alien psychologies ... so ... everything I said above may be dead wrong.)


One specific way in which intelligence may be maladaptive was recently illustrated by the way popular culture contrasts with Prof. Stephen Hawking’s celebrated and eminently rational caution about Earthlings making themselves too conspicuous to whatever other intelligences may exist. Prof. Hawking's concern was twofold: (1) that even contact with a benevolent species might have the same effect on Earth culture that contact with European culture had on preliterate peoples: a kind of collective existential crisis and stagnation; (2) there is nothing that rules out the possibility that other civilizations may be actively hostile. So, concluded Dr. Hawking, we would be well advised to make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible, at least for now. (On the other hand and in all fairness, luminaries like Drs. Jill Tarter and Phil Plait thoughtfully rebutted Hawking's caution.) But in terms of popular culture, heart tends to always overrule head, so that extraterrestrial intelligences are romanticized into god-like beings of god-like benevolence. (Shall we not discuss Jahweh of the Hebrew Scriptures  right now? Thanks!) This incorrigible tendency toward damn-the-torpedoes belief in the reliably beneficent intentions of an extraterrestrial civilization is an aspect of religious SETI I referred to in the post about Fermi's Paradox I alluded to at the beginning. (Even people intimately familiar with the Christian Old Testament continue for the very same reason to believe in an "omni-benevolent" God.) Dreams of contacting our “star brothers / sisters” tend to overrule rational considerations – exactly as one would expect if our observational-astronomy technology ran ahead of our aptitude for rational moral calculus.

What does all this have to do with Fermi’s question? Everything. If there are sharks in the Galactic Ocean, we would be prudent to not swim too noisily like the young woman who takes a late-night dip at the beginning of Jaws. (Of course, it's too late now, given that our first TV and radio transmissions are now about 100-plus light-years from earth and still spreading.) Perhaps other civilizations have made what may well be a classic mistake – and in their naivete inadvertantly volunteered to be the sashimi course in the Grand Galactic Asian Buffet. Perhaps most civilizations learn too late not to do just that. (Greg Bear wrote a couple of excellent science-fiction novels that involve just this theme: The Forge of God and its sequel Anvil of Stars. Bear’s characters discover, to their enduring sorrow, that one of the traits of a really sophisticated civilization is that it has acquired the wisdom to shut the hell up and stop promiscuously yammering its existence to the Great Void.) Perhaps the silence SETI researchers have encountered in their search is the austere music of a salutary wisdom.

The Universe is a big, big, big place. We really have almost no idea what may be out there, and when we apply that principle to intelligence outside of Earth, we know literally nothing. I would like very much to believe that intelligence is an unqualified advantage, both evolutionarily and culturally, and would like even more to believe that advancing scientific and technological progress goes hand-in-hand with a corresponding moral refinement. Who knows?  Maybe it does. Homo sapiens sapiens may be the anomaly. But then I think that it was smart people that got us into Iraq, that almost tipped the world economy off a cliff in 2008, etc.  I also reflect that roughly half of Americans believe in angels, which is approximately the same percentage that reject evolution … so any enthusiasm I might entertain is chastened. And as for people with ostensible god-like knowledge being invariably benevolent, watching any televangelist on Sunday morning will cure one of that fond illusion. And all that is happening on Earth. Magnify such considerations up to the scale of the Galaxy, and you have one more reason why I remain … sincerely … your Faithful Skeptic in Residence ...

James R. Cowles



  • Well!, Mr JIM Cowles, you described, to my mind, the perfect metaphor – the Catherine’s Wheel – intelligence that spins itself out while making screeching sounds is not smart, much less long-lived, beautifully brilliant perhaps but ultimately not useful.

    Your statement “We end up brain-rich but heart-poor” is right on the mark. From my point of view Intelligence without compassion, is our problem.

    I do believe there is “intelligent life” in the universe and currently it’s not in over abundance on this planet we call earth.

    Grrrrrrrrrrrreat post.

    • This is an area where RELIGIOUS SETI can muddy the waters with SCIENTIFIC SETI in the sense that we get our purely earthbound & overly romanticized notions about benevolent space-aliens precedence over rationality. The plain fact is that we JUST DON’T KNOW. Maybe an ET civilization is benevolent. Maybe it isn’t. We just don’t know. Greg Bear’s 2 novels examine the darker possibility.

    • One further thought … Proponents of intelligent design would do well to draw a correlated conclusion: there is no necessary relationship between intelligence and morality. Auschwitz was also the product of intelligent design.

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