international futurism: evolution and civilizations

While utopians dream of tomorrow's world, they often forget that we can't take anything for granted when it comes to humanity's future.
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Aliens and artificial intelligence, or looking for traces of alien artificial intelligence as SETI is considering, is not a topic exclusive to American and Western European nations’ popular science blogs and news. A little bit farther east, Russian newspapers are just as interested in publicly exploring some advanced futuristic ideas, including astrobiology and transhumanism. One column in particular, written by physicist Alexei Timoshenko for his science section of GZT.ru, and borrowing an image from this blog with full credit to set the tone, asks a very familiar question to all those of us who’ve been following high tech futurism while discussing Shostak’s suggestion of looking for alien machinery around young stars and black holes.

If stars, planets, galaxies, and other intimate objects observed by scietnists evolve on timescales of millions of years, alien life should evolve rather quickly and change much more radically. It took humans 5,000 years to go from the first cities to the first circumnavigation of the world, while less than 500 years passed between discovering America, to the first lunar landing. What will happen over the next 500 years? Or what about the next five billion?

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an English version available, so my apologies to readers who want to review the column for themselves but don’t speak Russian. However, you may note that right above this quote is the exponential evolution chart created by Ray Kurzweil and taken to task on this blog a number of times. A blurb next to it says that the explosive nature of human evolution makes it difficult to predict when or if an alien intelligence evolves. So before we go any further with the question above, let’s make an important note. When talking about human evolution, we’re really talking about rather humdrum stuff. True, we are evolving and with our populations nearly reaching their theoretical peaks, the process is happening faster than ever before. But our evolutionary changes over the last 10,000 years include such thrilling and spectacular adaptations as being able to handle more diets, greater resistance to more bacteria which are traveling the world with us like never before, and various adaptations for living at very high altitudes. Hardly riveting stuff for non-biologists.

One of the most profound ways in which far too many people tend to look at human evolution involves the odd idea that biology strives towards something, and to evolve means to improve rather than to change. After too many years of bad science writing, sci-fi movies that equate more evolution with bigger brains and telekinetic powers, and New Age concepts taken from Theosophy and Rosicrucianiansm, it’s an idea that stuck firmly in our minds, but it’s absolutely wrong. There’s no evidence of an evolutionary leap between the first sailors who traveled around the world and the builders of the first city. Likewise, there’s been no actual change in mental capacity between Enlightenment thinkers and the engineers who build spacecraft and robots to explore other worlds. The only change has been a steady accumulation of knowledge gathered by trial and error. The rapid acceleration of our abilities and technology is a cultural process driven by key inventions and discoveries that allow us to explore brand new areas of the universe around us, not by biological progression.

So with that in mind, let’s answer Timoshenko’s question. What will happen in the next five centuries is totally up to us. We could remain politically inept about science and education, or we could realize that science is the key to a better future and commit serious resources to exploration and discovery. We could fall into dark ages during which religious fundamentalism and political sloth take over our lives, as has happened quite a few times during our supposedly illustrious history, or we could privatize space travel and enjoy vacations on the settled, industrialized Moon. But the key thing here is that it’s our choice. Evolution won’t build us a brand new interstellar probe. We have to build up on the thousands of years of learning that are fueling today’s new ideas, roll up our sleeves, and get to work. If it took us just five hundred years to go from completing the rough maps of our planet to walking on another world, let’s see how little it takes us to accomplish something even more impressive. A lot of things are within our reach. We just need to want to reach them badly enough.

[ illustration by Pavel Dedik ]

# tech // biology / evolution / futurism / scientific inquiry


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