Thursday, March 11, 2010

Aliens and Alienation

I was listening to a discussion on a radio talk show about the possibility of life on other planets, and more specifically about the possibility of intelligent life.  It became clear from the listeners' comments that the possession of sophisticated industrial technology is an essential requirement for an alien race to be considered intelligent.  It seems never to occur to folks that humans existed for tens of thousands of years without industrial technology.  And further, that there has been no discernible increase in human brain power during that time—our biologically-supported intelligence today is pretty much what it has been for countless millennia.  Industrial civilization, an extremely recent event in terms of the emergence of our species, is more likely to be a quirk of historical caprice than an inevitable consequence of our cerebral wiring.

According to something called the Fermi paradox, the probability is extremely high that there should be intelligent life elsewhere in our galaxy, which means that by now alien civilizations should have spread all over the galaxy; yet there is no sign of them (ignoring the delusions of the crop circle crowd and their ilk).  This apparent paradox, however, is not very strong evidence against the existence of alien intelligence.  If anything, it is evidence of a failure to comprehend the nature and relative time frame of technological civilization (and perhaps the nature of intelligence itself).  In relative terms, industrial civilization represents only the last few nanoseconds of life on this planet.  Further, because our technologically advanced civilization is completely unsustainable (i.e., founded on exploitation and the unidirectional extraction and concentration of resources, as is all civilization as a matter of definition) it is, at best, only a short-lived blip in our species’ tenure on this planet, the last visible spark of a brief smoldering flame.  It may be that that is the nature of all high-tech civilization—you don’t get “technological advancement” of the kind that leads to space exploration without the industrial revolution.  And you don’t get the industrial revolution without a society that includes exploitation, alienation, and the division of labor, all byproducts of the agricultural revolution.  Far from being a principal indication of our species' intelligence, modern civilization represents a pretty unintelligent and impoverished mode of living.  And more relevant to the Fermi paradox, all other so-called intelligent species in the galaxy that became technologically advanced have very likely already been and gone because of the extremely transient and volatile nature of civilization itself.  Because civilization represents such a short-lived period of an intelligent species’ existence, the odds that we would find other civilizations in existence during the brief window just prior to our own civilization’s evaporation become exceedingly small even if technologically advanced civilizations are fairly common occurrences throughout the universe. 

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