Sunday, 19 August 2007
Posted by Dave
There's a question which I've spent more time thinking about that any other in the last few years. That is, what do we need to do to ensure a continuation of the human species?
Some of you will be sitting back already wondering what he's on about. Here'sa quick backgrounder devoid of much detail:
Human beings are irrational creatures, by and large. Even those who excel at the application of reasoning and logic only do so because they're able to momentarily overcome their base nature. This nature essentially boils down to the fact that our brains aren't computers (sound familiar? I've spoken about this before), they are elaborate pattern matching problem solvers. Powerful learning machines no mistake, but ultimately this is done by taking the most direct of shortcuts.
A tinsy bit of elaboration may be needed here. There's an experiment where researchers taught a lowly pigeon to recognise patterns of light and to peck at the right things in order to trigger a treat. It was pretty good at this, so far so good. Then they switched off the association and basically just had the treat trigger at random intervals. They observed a strange thing. When the food arrived, the pigeon happened to be looking over it's right shoulder. The next time the food triggered, it was also looking over it's right shoulder. Thereafter the pigeon madly looked over it's right shoulder to trigger food.
Stupid pigeon you say. In fact we're little better. I've had 36 years on this planet so far to observe this same basic behavior in human beings. In essence: Thing A happened when Thing B happened. Therefore Thing B caused Thing A. It's often wrong but it doesn't stop people from these incredibly leaps of faith and gives mankind an ability to believe the most astounding things and to be quite difficult to talk around. A fairly good example of the modern age would be an Islamic Terrorist. Let's hold onto that example for a moment.
Let's get off the human condition, hoping that you'll generally see what I'm talking about and agree, and move onto my primary question: what can we do to survive? Right now, there's a lot of people that wish various other people harm for a whole number of reasons. If there's something that marks out the current age it will be our hand wringer over trying to identify with people doing bad things, to find out why they do them. We ask every question appart from asking why people do these things when they know, no matter what has happened, it cannot be justified morally or intellectually.
In a nutshell: Some people want to do do bad irrational things and they're not going to be dissuaded and sometimes they get away with doing the very worst and most irrational things of all.
All that remains is to look to the future knowing what we know about human nature. Technology is improving, medicine is improving, globalisation and the irreversable dropping of information barriers so that increasingly anyone, anywhere, can be exposed to any idea or piece of information. This is about as far away from the environment in which we primarily evolved as it's possible to get.
Eventually in the future there must come a point where it becomes possible for anyone to gain access to the technological means to do almost anything they set their mind to. That sounds really great, we'll all be whizzing around in jet cars wearing flickering animated clothes with our heads permanently jacked into the Web-verse. However it's reasonable to assume that somewhere, somehow, someone is going to want to do really bad things. Here's a list of some bad things which someone could concievably get up to in order of how far away this kind of thing might be away from 'the many'; synthesizing a deadly virus for which no human has immunity, building a nuclear weapon, creating a self-replicating nano machine 'eater'.
All of this things could, and eventually I would put it to you dear reader, probably will ultimately result in the extinction of the human race. It sounds like Sci-Fi but I'd call it a reasonably likely prediction of what is to come. The hall marks are here right now in circumstances we face. Islamic Terrorists would like to blow us up, meanwhile an Islamic rogue state is developing nuclear weapons and said Islamic state has shown no qualms about armingfreedom fighters in a border country under Western occupation. We're at the point right now where we can see a cause and effect and probably do something about it.
However as time marches on, these things get harder to deal with. It's one thing knowing what questionable people are building nuclear weapons (needing to set up tens of thousands of gas centrofuges tends to make it something you can find out about) but what about bio technology? There's nothing. Let's interject a bit of real sci-fi to make the point; what if everyone had a replicator in their kitchen like Star-Trek and let's whack in a house AI from Eureka too. Good morning Sarah, I would like a cup of coffee, a plate of eggs and bacon and an old Vectrex console from the 80s. Certainly, Lurks, that'll be with you in a few minutes. Is there anythign else I can help you with? Oh yes, could I also have a W88 nuclear warhead too please? I'm on it, have a nice day!
I'm being silly here but the point is as time goes on, access to the knowledge and the means to do potentially great harm to a large number of people (or the planet as a whole) becomes easier. Yet the one thing that's not improving, the one thing that remains the same, is human nature. We haven't addressed that core ability to believe in absurd things and of course that core ability to wish eachother harm.
Dr_Dave recently said he thought Dawkins was motivated in tackling religion by this sort of realisation. I think Dawkins would understand the idea well enough but probably also realises it's futile to try talk an entire species around to virtues of everlasting logic and reason. But he's having a go, good on him.
I think at some point we'll actually start to realise the scale of the problem. We'll spend years yet, decades maybe, leaping from problem to problem, wringing hands as to why people would want to do various ghastly things, before we realise the central problem. I'm a fish keeper right. One of the things known to aquarists is that there's some species that need a large amount of space, not because they grow large but because they just plain aren't nice. They might dig up all the plants, attack the rest of the inhabitants or basically secrete so much waste that they end up drowning in it, sound familiar? So we pick species which are suitable. Happy species, non-aggressive species that will not be a danger to themselves and everyone else just because of their bare nature.
The way I see it there's two basic solutions to problem at hand. One is to in essence return to a type of environment in which we can flourish. I'd say village-sized populations for one where social interaction rights all of the kinds of strange things that happens. The second is to modify ourselves. I don't mean talking sense into eachother, I mean some basic reinvention, some bio-engineering. Some getting right into the brain, working out how it works and getting rid of a bunch of the nasty stuff (and maybe boosting the good stuff).
Right now it's hard to see how the second option will be considered. In the age, right now, there's this prevailing view that natural is good. We shouldn't meddle. GM is bad. You shouldn't even screen your children for undesirable traits and we most definately shouldn't expeiment on embryon and so on and so forth. I think that'll change. I think this will be viewed in the future as a kind of illogical superstition of our age. I guess I have to believe it will change.
What of the first option though? It's a small planet now and we are many billion and the planet aint getting bigger and we aint getting fewer. Either we'll end up destroying a very large percentage of our population through one, more or perhaps other unnamed human follies, or perhaps we'll end up finally looking at the stars. I've been thinking about the colonisation of space for a long time and most of that time, I just generally thought we'd do it because it seemed like a good idea and, you know, maybe we could use additional resources or something.
In more recent years I came to understand how expensive it would be. The effort of boosting the weight of any kind of actual percentage of the human race into orbit would be beyond anything we've even considered. There'd have to be a pretty good reason. Not just because you think it's a good idea, and not because you're a bit short of selenium for mobile phones or thorium for your reactors. No, you'd do it if you thought you were going to die otherwise.
So kind of puting these two threads of thought together for the first time, I came to realise that the real reason for colonising the planets - assuming option two never gets on the cards - for spreading the wings of humanity and setting sale for the stars, would not be for any other reason than to... get away from the rest of humanity.
And that's it in a nutshell. I think for us to have a future, we either have to work out a way of modifying the human race to get used to cramp conditions and play nice and wish nothing but the best for our neighbours, not just our family. Or we're going to basically destroy ourselves and maybe, just maybe, we can reach some sort of equilibrium in the post-apocalyptic scenario.
So, will we realise before or after the apocalypse? I think global warming is an interesting thing to watch. If the planet can deal with this, maybe we can deal with ourselves later on. If we can't, then I'd say we've a very rocky ride ahead. Maybe the coachroaches will be all that's left after all.