exoplanets, GMO, intelligence, space, transgenic organisms, Whither Homo sapiens?

Where Is Everybody?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb on the Fermi Paradox and the Hubris Hypothesis, which add up to the theory that the reason we haven’t met anyone from another planet is that advanced life forms, full of themselves and their new powers, tend to destroy themselves before they are advanced enough to launch forth—if they are anything like us, that is.

The Fermi Paradox and the Hubris Hypothesis.
The great Enrico Fermi proposed the following paradox. Given the size of the universe and evidence of intelligent life on Earth making it non-zero probability for intelligent life elsewhere, how come have we not been visited by alliens? “Where is everybody?”, he asked. No matter how minute the probability of such life, the size should bring the probability to 1. (In fact we should have been visited a high number of times: see the Kolmogorov and Borel zero-one laws.)
Plenty of reasons have been offered; a hypothesis is that:
+ With intelligence comes hubris in risk-taking hence intelligent life leads to extinction.
+ As technology increases, misunderstanding of ruin by a small segment of the population is sufficient to guarantee ruin.
Think how close humanity was to extinction in the 1960s with several near-misses of nuclear holocausts. Think of humans as intelligent enough to do genetic modifications of the environment with GMOs but not intelligent enough to realize that we do not understand complex causal links. Many like Steven Pinker are intelligent enough to write a grammatical sentence but not intelligent enough to distinguish between absence of evidence and evidence of absence. We are intelligent enough to conceive of political and legal systems but let lobbyists run them. Humans are like children intelligent enough to unscrew a computer but not enough to avoid damaging it. And we are intelligent enough to produce information but unable to use it and get chronically fooled by randomness in some domain (even when aware of it in other domains). +
Acknowledgments: I thank Alessandro Riolo.

A Facebook commenter adds:

  • Fredrik Sveen Maybe this could be simplified a bit. What if travelling at light speed or beyond is simply impossible? The closest galaxy is approx 26k light years away… it doesn’t matter how intelligent other life out there may be if they can’t get here.
    Nassim Nicholas Taleb One of the proposed explanations.
consciousness, evolutionary theory, intelligence, scientific arrogance, skepticism

The New Dark Ages

If you’re a regular scienceblog reader, you may think that by that title I mean something like Carl Sagan’s “demon-haunted world”: the return of superstition (if it ever went away) in the form of New Age spiritualism, with its wishful thinking and willful ignorance.

Actually, I mean a Dark Age of science.

Now that may drive you straight to the other extreme of dismissing me as a New Age crank. In fact I probably have almost as little patience with that worldview as you do. But I do think (and have said repeatedly here) that dogmatic materialism, which persists in biology even as physics has blown past it, will look as brute and dark as Ptolemaic cosmology when we look back from a vantage point to which science itself is taking us.

A friend, no conventional believer, who nonetheless wrecked his knees sitting zazen and is an admirer of Simone Weil — both examples of what used to be called “mortification of the flesh” in quest of the “spirit” — wrote that a Jesuit monk he visits “made the point that the Hebrew Bible turns the creation myths of the ancient near east on their collective head by presenting a creator God who requires the assistance of human beings to continue the process of creation. There is no expiration date on that role in the individual’s life.  That is, old people aren’t excused from being co-creators because they’re receiving social security payments.” This (slightly edited) was my response:

I desperately need to hear ideas like that about co-creation. The reductiveness of science — that every human motive is just glorified, self-deceiving biology — has burrowed deep into my mind like the parasite in Alien, from where it mocks me to prove it wrong. It was to avoid this that I rejected science for the arts and humanities in the first place. I’ve joked that my later-life immersion in science editing is “the revenge of H.L.” [early biophysicist boyfriend], but maybe it’s no joke. I found the scientific view of the world (which he exemplified) deadening then, and now it threatens to deaden me. The sorta-scienceblog I occasionally write in is all about just that — protesting the reductiveness of so much science and science-centered culture, and predicting that science itself, if it pursues the truth, is going to blow that view out of the water. The so-much-more-than-needed-to-get-the-job-done extravagance of creation — from the birds of paradise (Natural History is doing a special issue on Alfred Russel Wallace) to the human brain — suggests that creativity and even consciousness permeate nature [can we entertain this possibility without shutting down inquiry by defaulting to a god?] and that the random collision and mutation of molecules that accidentally confer a survival advantage is as inadequate to explain nonhuman phenomena as human ones. But it’s a Dark Ages in that regard right now.

intelligence, the brain

Notes for a Neurological Theory of Evil

Our symbolic capacity makes us dangerous in a way no other animal is. We do the most and the worst of our killing for ideas—ideas of “us” and “them,” of our god vs. their god, of purity, of beauty, potency, power, revenge, immortality. We value symbols more than realities—a discussion I had recently with a friend who’s trying to fund scientifically based nutritional approaches to cancer prevention and longevity (many of which wind up confirming in molecular terms the wisdom of traditional approaches). There’s no profit in it, and therefore little interest. Money is a symbol of immortality and people would rather have the symbol than the (modestly attainable) reality, maybe because the symbol imposes no such limits. The funders of research, who are as vulnerable and mortal as anyone else, act as if they personally would rather have money than health. They’d rather pursue an exciting, profitable drug that doesn’t work than a boring dietary modification that does. If you want to state it in scientific terms, the harnessing of the dopamine reward system to the symbolic capacity says a whole lot about the pros and cons of Homo so-called sapiens.

extinction, Whither Homo sapiens?

Apoptocalypse Now

Finally starting to read that Atlantic article on “What ISIS Really Wants.” The subhead says the group has “carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse.”

It strikes me that the resemblance between the words “apocalypse” and “apoptosis” is not coincidental. Life forms have an instinct to destroy themselves when they detect their own defectiveness. Thus it seems to be with the human species. The subjective aspect of this instinct is rage which, whatever its purported target, is actually provoked by the unbearable frustration and torment of being human.

quantum weirdness, the universe

Is “Materialism” a Misnomer?

Copyediting a forthcoming book on quantum physics (Spooky Action at a Distance by the excellent science writer George Musser, forthcoming from Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux), I understand for the first time that what critics of “scientism” decry as “materialism”—the belief that every real phenomenon in the universe has a material basis—is actually a belief in locality. Locality means that bodies or their intermediaries must come into contact—collide—to affect each other. Nonlocality allows for the possibility that nature includes fields and forces by which bodies can exert influence at a spatial distance, without smacking into each other. Such phenomena range from gravity and magnetism to quantum entanglement. Whether those seemingly different kinds of effects-at-a-distance are in fact different or have the same ultimate basis is (I think?) the question at the heart of the quest for a “theory of everything.”

An example from developmental biology: are differentiating embryos organized into their proper forms only by the orchestrated expression of growth factors and other such regulatory and signaling molecules that work their way physically from cell to cell? In other words, is form determined only by contact “on the ground,” by the timed release of molecules that lock onto receptors and trigger cascades and gradients of other molecules? Or is development guided by “morphogenetic fields,” in the term of the renegade biologist Rupert Sheldrake, which pattern and channel those movements of cells and molecules the way a magnetic field patterns iron filings?

Local vs. nonlocal is a huge and much truer difference than “material” vs. “immaterial” (especially now that we know matter and energy are interconvertible), because it does not imply a potential division or distinction between nature (material) and a supernatural (immaterial). It is a question about the nature of nature, about where information lives and what it consists of—a question that can be asked with equal pertinence about the form of organisms and the form of ideas. We accept that gravity and magnetism are facts of nature even though they don’t operate by direct contact or through an intermediary medium, and we can measure but not explain them; we really don’t know what they are. Musser points out that science was born in the seventeenth century of two parents, mechanics and magic, each of which admits something observable about nature and corrects the other’s inadequacies and flaws.

It turns out that a voluminous amount has been written about these evolving ideas of force and space at the intersection of physics, the history of science, and philosophy. Those quoted in this book include a brilliant theoretical physicist named Fotini Markopoulou (yes, she’s a girl) who suspects that space may not be real. I’m not going to understand any of this, yet anyone’s intuition can play with it, in ways that could equally well be outrageously wrong or uncannily on track. For example, I’ve been wondering whether quantum entanglement is anything like gravitational lensing—whether a pair of entangled photons are really two images of the same photon, which would indeed make them depend on the position of the observer. And this in turn somehow seems related to the question, which may be a serious question: Is the universe a hologram?

consciousness, cosmology, Quotes & Aphorisms


[I]f anything, science is moving toward a retrieval of older understandings of the sacramental nature of the Real. . . .

“There is entropy and chaos and then there is the Logos; there is noise and there is information and organization, which are deep linguistic structures, the codes at the heart of the universe. This is an idea that has been a part of modern and postmodern thinking at least since the time of Charles Peirce whose semiotics laid the foundations for Heisenberg and Bohr, Crick and Watson. Everything is code, signs working with other signs. Everything is Word. More on Charles Peirce’s semiotics in the future, but for now let’s hear what Toolan has to say:

We no longer need to carry the physicist’s energy and the humanist’s signs and symbols in separate accounts. One balance sheet will do. Information physics has given us back a semiotic universe, a nature that–like the medieval sacramental universe–gives signs. University divisions of the natural sciences and divisions of humanities while working at different parts of the spectrum, need not figure themselves as concerned with utterly disparate matters. The natural sciences, we may now say, deal with primitive sign systems and their protolanguages and protogrammars, whereas the humanities deal with the more developed sign systems and meanings of the animate star dust we call human cultures.

“There is a telos, an Omega point, toward which all creation groans, and this telos is the slow, eons-long process of a largely unconscious, inarticulate Natura becoming aware of itself. The human being is the ‘warp’ in the cosmic flow where this ‘becoming conscious’ occurs and through whom this awareness is given a voice.”

~ Jack Whelan, After the Future

cosmology, Movies, scientific arrogance, Whither Homo sapiens?

“She saved the world by using the information he sent her via the watch from the black hole with the help of a robot,” I said earnestly,

trying to explain the ending of Interstellar to my father, who had just sat through the movie with my mom and me, but couldn’t understand much of what Matthew McConaughey and his co-cast members mumbled. (Neither could I, so it wasn’t his almost-97-year-old hearing.) Then I heard myself. WHAT am I SAYING?? And I became helpless with laughter. The laughter was delicious. It was worth the three hours of confusion, incredulity, and sitting. We continued to laugh about and at the movie for the next couple of hours.

We need to see the elegant 2001 on Netflix to get the taste of this incoherent, overstuffed, unbelievable movie out of our mouths. They lost me before they even left Earth. First of all, if the ecosystem of the Earth had been destroyed, where were they getting their seemingly endless supplies of electricity and gasoline? It’s plausible that if hundreds of millions had died, there might be surpluses of fuel to tap, but then tell us so, for godsake. Also, as always in Hollywood movies, everyone looked way too healthy and well-groomed for their supposed desperate circumstances.

Then the real fun began. People were hurled through space storms and crushing gravity warps and bounced off the surfaces of hostile planets with their spaceships and bodies largely unaffected (well, OK, they did need Dramamine). Helmets off a lot of the time, no seat belts even, and facial expressions that barely rose to those of riders on a small-town roller coaster. Not to mention, where were they now getting their seemingly endless supplies of fuel and oxygen? As in the Sandra Bullock–George Clooney Gravity, it was impossible to suspend disbelief. Our bodies are almost certainly far too frail, short-lived, and dependent on a narrow range of conditions to survive long-range spaceflight—even if we ever figure out how to do it—much less space smash-ups and flying shards of space-suit–piercing debris. And sealing ourselves into Zip-Loc freezer bags full of amniotic antifreeze is a comically hasty, sloppy version of the suspended-animation trope. The sad truth is we’re not likely to get far off this planet, except robotically—and even if we could, we’d take with us the very squabbling selves that have despoiled Earth.

But what’s wrong with the fantasy of doing so? Isn’t this just the epic Enkidu or folkloric Brothers Grimm of our age?

Well, yes, that’s exactly what it is—digitally enabled primitive mythmaking. And I suppose European peasants didn’t think that witches and leprechauns were “fantasy” any more than we think interstellar travel or relativistic redemption is fantasy. My complaint is not with the yearning to search beyond our own planet—it’s the next extension of the hunger to explore that may be the best thing about us—or with the impulse to imagine beyond what we can actually do. My complaint is with the sheer badness of the movies, which believe they can be dramatically slipshod in every way as long as they blind us with CGI. (In any case, the actual images from the Hubble brutally beggar anything Hollywood can whip up.)

Worst of all: in this movie, we turn out to be our own gods. We have met the deity, and he is us. In nothing does swaggering scientism more resemble religion, and a narcissistic and solipsistic religion at that. Without positing a traditional God, there’s an awful lot out there to be in awe of, forces of a grandeur that we will never equal, master, merit, rival, or even fully comprehend. Yet the implication is that the most powerful thing out there is the next release of the human bean. In Interstellar, we’re not looking down a wormhole, we’re looking up our own a**hole.