Implications to Technological Society
May 8, 2010 Leave a comment
Intelligence is a useful attribute in the development of any higher species. In our case, we inherited several advantages from our reasonably smart ancestors of a few million years ago: A pollution-free environment, a sophisticated society, a good family life, a robust physique, and a taste for steak. Intelligence led to a whole new way of life—a rather comfortable state of affairs.But, now, modern men and women are threatened with numerous global crises. The number of humans on Earth is increasing rapidly, and neither food nor energy can be distributed well enough to keep everyone content on a daily basis. As if these problems weren’t enough, we also face the possibility of human-made disaster brought on by weapons of mass destruction. Other planet-wide problems loom on the horizon as well, threatening our civilization with several potentially global problems, the likes and scope of which Earth societies have never before experienced.
We then ask: How did intelligent life change from the rather pleasant daily routine left to us by our ancestors to the current predicaments we now face? In other words, How did we mess it up so badly? The answer, apparently, dates back ~10,000 years—to the time when our recent ancestors invented agriculture, cities, states, empires. Above all, they created a technological civilization—which in and of itself is a good thing, for it’s the rise of precisely our technological civilization that has given us the tools to unlock secrets of the Universe, as well as to search for extraterrestrial life. But technology also has its drawbacks, the chief one being that technology is a major source of many of our current global problems.
To evaluate the sixth factor of our equation, we seek to estimate the probability that intelligent life eventually develops technological competence. Should the rise of technology be inevitable, given long enough durations of time, this factor is close to 1. If so, then at least one species on all life-bearing planets eventually develops a technological society. By contrast, if it’s not inevitable—if intelligent life can somehow avoid developing technology—then this term could be much less than 1. This latter view envisions a Universe teeming with intelligent life, yet very few among them ever becoming technologically competent. Perhaps only one managed it—us.
It’s nearly impossible to distinguish between these two extreme views. We don’t even know how many prehistoric Earth cultures failed to develop technology. We do know that the roots of our present civilization arose independently in several different places on Earth. These include Mesopotamia, India, China, Egypt, Mexico, and Peru. Since so many of these ancient cultures originated at about the same time, we might judge the chances to be good that some sort of culture will inevitably develop, given some basic intelligence and enough time.
But literary culture is one thing and technological culture quite another. Archaeologists argue that some of these ancient peoples never did develop technology. The Mayan civilization of Interamerica, for example, had sophisticated social and political organizations. They built primitive observatories, enabling them to study the motions of stars and planets with their naked eyes. In fact, the Mayan calendar was more accurate than that of the Spaniards who conquered them several centuries ago. Despite these accomplishments, however, archaeological records show that the Mayans used neither wheels nor metal. They built small toys with wheels, but not large carts or wheelbarrows useful in farming or herding. And they apparently had no use for metal other than in jewelry or ornaments. Either they never thought to use these as technological aids, or they realized them and rejected them.
Regardless of how many ancient earthlings accepted or rejected technology, only humans developed it and now use it. This is a sticky point for some researchers. If technology is an inevitable development, they ask, why haven’t other forms of Earth life also found it useful? The probable reason is that a given niche is usually filled by only one species. And the niche labeled “technological intelligence” is currently filled by Homo sapiens.
In an evolving society, we should expect only one species per biological (or cultural) niche. As an example, recall that the recent fossil record implies the coexistence of several hominids angling for the same niche several million years ago. The apparent result was competition and the demise of all but one type of those ancestral hominids. Competition between the various australopithecines likely provided a great impetus in the survivor’s drive toward superior intelligence.
So the fact that only one technological society now exists on Earth doesn’t imply that the sixth factor in the Drake equation must be very much less than 1. On the contrary, it’s precisely because some species will probably always fill the niche of technological intelligence that this term is likely close to 1.
One further point is worth noting. This sixth factor could be decreased somewhat if most planets are completely covered by water. Technological intelligence is likely to develop only on the solid parts of a planet. Aquatic life may be intelligent, but it’s hard to imagine how it could ever become technically sophisticated. To discover the laws of applied physics, something resembling hands must be able to manipulate gears, pulleys, inclined planes, and the other rudiments of elementary technology. This isn’t a criticism of the dolphins, about whose intelligence there is no question. They probably admire the stars while flipping their heads above water, perhaps even wondering if dolphins reside on other worlds. But unless they leave the water, they can never become technologically competent. Will they leave the water (again) to try to develop that technology? Probably not now, because we fill the niche of land-based technological intelligence. If they tried to evolve onto the land, they would soon enter into direct competition with us and we would surely dominate them.