The avenger of hubris. Every time we aspire to pry into the cell nucleus and pry out immortality, beauty, genius, perfection, cancer, the fear, the suspicion, the specter, the threat of it, bars our way. Like Lucifer serving God, cancer, that twisted gargoyle double arising out of self, steps into the path and says, Not so fast, Louie. It ain’t that simple.
The schadenfreude of being sure (I’d bet my nonexistent billions on it) that the tech billionaires working so feverishly on the research to immortalize themselves (and apotheosize their offspring) are going to die despite their best efforts is worth the price of having to die oneself.
I have a split reaction to the rapid spread of Zika virus.
On the one hand, it’s terrifying, especially for the young and fertile. (I don’t have grown children hoping to reproduce, but I do have many nieces and nephews in that demographic.) Our natural self-interest as living organisms and members of a beleaguered species makes it imperative that we understand and control this threat: through immunization, genetic mosquito control, whatever it takes.
On the other hand, through a cold eye, such outbreaks, as well as the cancer plague that now afflicts about one in three Americans during their lifetimes, look like Earth’s immune system trying to control the cancer that is us — sometimes with whatever blunt instrument comes to hand, sometimes with an uncanny laser-guided focus: Zika targets the brain, which is, after all, the source of the trouble. It also appears to be transmitted by sex, the other source of the trouble (being, as it is, what makes more of us).
This leaves me, as a childless human who’s had my three score and ten — so anything more is gravy — feeling that if one of those natural killers came for me, I could have no hard feelings. Why me? Why not? From the host organism’s point of view, I’m one more cancer cell, or locust, or virus. Nature doesn’t care whether you hold environmentally correct views (which would make a difference only if they actually became widespread enough to re-subordinate our collective behavior to the health of the whole and rein in the metastatic human impact). It doesn’t discriminate one human from another. To the ecosystem equivalent of a natural killer cell, it’s not who you are, it’s what you are.
I fear for the young, for whom the stakes are so much higher. Owing their existence to our explosive success as a species, they are also slated to pay its price. They place their hope and faith in the continuing acceleration of our success — specifically, in science’s ability to shield us from Earth’s immune system long enough for us to proliferate and innovate towards some kind of breakthrough. Can we ever be as smart as cancer, which does such a brilliant job of outwitting OUR immune system? Can we be even smarter — figure out how to be fruitful and multiply and still keep our host alive?
We can now say that we HAVE scratched the surface. That is something. But that’s about it.
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.
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.
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.
To understand life, and to destroy it. Which will prevail?
Well, to destroy life isn’t entirely a drive. It’s a side effect, a byproduct of our drive to expand our own life, to aggrandize ourselves, to make more of us, to get bigger, stronger, live longer. As the Olympics have it, Citius, Altius, Fortius. This is the drive that powers all life. It’s very strong, and very wily, but not very bright. That is, it’s instrumental; it lights up a tunnel of vision to immediate advantage, and that with hyperreal clarity, but to everything outside that laser beam the life force is myopic and blinkered. The long term, the feedback loop, the butterfly effect, all are far outside its ken. The law of unintended consequences is the consequence.
So we destroy life, amazing life, in our greed to feed and gratify and multiply our life, which in the last analysis is rather dull and one-note: we want sex, and status, and possessions, to reproduce ourselves, and not to die. There’s nothing terribly unique about this: any life form can do it, and does. Life forms are generally constrained only by the limits of the carrying capacity of their environment (the food supply) and the checks of predation and parasitism, and by the ritualized limits that have evolved to paradoxically protect life forms from the excesses of their own life force by constraining them, from gene silencing and apoptosis to estrus to social hierarchy.
If we are uniquely destructive it’s because, collectively and individually, we’ve conquered or rejected so many of those imposed constraints. And because we have the devil’s gift, imagination, which empowers us to outwit environmental limitations (at least for a while, a long while) and also adds half-conscious envy and spite to our more innocent forms of self-interest. We don’t only kill to eat, or to protect ourselves, or to enlarge our territory; we kill to appropriate the magnificence of life forms we envy — to adorn our females with egret feathers, to ingest the power and male potency of the tiger. These may be degraded forms of what once passed for worship when we were the minority animal and humbly thanked our beautiful, powerful big siblings for magnanimously sharing their surplus meat, might, and magic with us.
The awareness that we are going to die often only spurs these pursuits on and makes them more frantic: only in the throes of acquisition or orgasm or intoxication can we forget death, an escape that has to be endlessly repeated; or else we believe deep down that the next billion or the next scientific discovery is the one that’s going to make us immortal. But the awareness of death is also a pivot. It can become a turning point. If we realize that however much we may reduce disease, prolong life, and ameliorate suffering, we are not ever going to (and shouldn’t) defeat death, then the blind striving we share with all the rest of life becomes, for us, just a little bit pointless. Then what is the point?
* * *
I started to write this because, as usual, I was copyediting science. I happened, in particular, to be reading about the zeal with which archaeologists pore over bone fragments and debate just when and why the first hominids became bipedal. What does it matter? And I became fascinated, not for the first time, by this hunger to know, because it’s excessive, obsessive. It cannot be entirely instrumental. Sure, archaeologists care about their reputations, and very young scientists set their sights on the Nobel. And of course much, maybe most, science (and certainly most science funding) is driven by instrumentality — by goals ranging from survival (defeating disease and hunger) to domination (what we call “defense”) to the profit motive, or some mixture of all three. But to know, to find out, to understand — what we are, what life is, what kind of astounding cosmos kindled it — still seems like a burning drive all its own. It’s a startling diversion of life force ninety degrees away from “more of the same,” off the grid, out of this world, out of the “Will to Power” world in which our power will always be either pitifully limited or annihilating, into the world of thought which (thanks to the material mastery of science) can see to the beginning of the universe.
We will always have mixed motives, and that’s as it should be: the drive to live powers the drive to know. But the latter seems like the only larger purpose for “a human incarnation,” as the Buddhists put it, the best reason to live longer, and the only real consolation for death.