Monday, May 9, 2011

Intelligence As a Lethal Mutation

I’ll begin with an interesting debate that took place some years ago between Carl Sagan, the well-known astrophysicist, and Ernst Mayr, the grand old man of American biology. They were debating the possibility of finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. And Sagan, speaking from the point of view of an astrophysicist, pointed out that there are innumerable planets just like ours. There is no reason they shouldn’t have developed intelligent life.

Mayr, from the point of view of a biologist, argued that it’s very unlikely that we’ll find any. And his reason was, he said, we have exactly one example: Earth. So let’s take a look at Earth.

And what he basically argued is that intelligence is a kind of lethal mutation. And he had a good argument.

He pointed out that if you take a look at biological success, which is essentially measured by how many of us are there, the organisms that do quite well are those that mutate very quickly, like bacteria, or those that are stuck in a fixed ecological niche, like beetles. They do fine. And they may survive the environmental crisis. But as you go up the scale of what we call intelligence, they are less and less successful.

By the time you get to mammals, there are very few of them as compared with, say, insects. By the time you get to humans, the origin of humans may be 100,000 years ago, there is a very small group. We are kind of misled now because there are a lot of humans around, but that’s a matter of a few thousand years, which is meaningless from an evolutionary point of view.

His argument was, you’re just not going to find intelligent life elsewhere, and you probably won’t find it here for very long either because it’s just a lethal mutation. He also added, a little bit ominously, that the average life span of a species, of the billions that have existed, is about 100,000 years, which is roughly the length of time that modern humans have existed.

~ from a speech by Noam Chomsky featured at Ecosocialism Canada ~
I have quoted this long snippet because it seems to dovetail nicely with much of the thought of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. The Taoist sages tend to implore us to eschew knowledge -- which seems to fly in the face of reason -- so maybe they understood this notion that intelligence is a lethal mutation!

While human intellect has been responsible for taking us to dizzying heights, it may also pave the road to our own destruction. Via technology, we have set in motion a number of variables that spell doom for the continued existence of our species on this planet.

This happenstance begs many questions. Is religion worth fouled air? Is philosophy worth polluted water? Is art worth global warming? Is love worth fragmented and degraded ecosystems? Is human life worth the negligent or willful destruction of other species?

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