Last night, I was listening to a TED talk and the speaker pointed out that the total amount of human knowledge is now doubling every 18 months. This is a staggering fact that has implications beyond imagination. Since I love a challenge, I will imagine anyway.
It seems to me that the biggest challenge humans face is that biological evolution is slow. Our basic nature is still stuck in a time when avoiding being consumed by a lion was one of our primary concerns. Not starving to death was also high on the list. These basic needs to survive and propagate our genes motivated our behavior.
Today, basic survival is almost assured. With the technology available to us, every human on the planet could live in relative comfort, prosperity and peace. While some of us might be able to overcome our evolutionary heritage to enjoy these circumstances, there are many who need to exercise their prehistoric drive to “survive.”
The prehistoric drive to survive is an aggressive affair that usually involves winners and losers. This was tolerable when the loser got the tip of a spear or the blunt end of a club. However, when the weapon of choice is a nuclear device or an autonomous killing machine, technology tips the balance of our underlying nature into something intolerable.
The question that has been on my mind lately is: can we overcome our prehistoric nature? As technology progresses, the power individuals will have at their disposal for destruction will be so great that we can no longer count on the fact that there are only a few people who need to be closely watched with that sort of power.
How can we manage if the average person can gain the ability to destroy an entire city? Or, country? Michio Kaku, the great physicist and philosopher has pointed out that one reliable way to measure the advancement of a civilization is to calculate the amount of energy the average individual controls. The implication here is that as time goes on, individuals will have increasing power at their disposal. Their instincts could drive them to use that power to remove obstacles to their “survival.” How we define survival as individuals and societies needs to change.
This is not a small thing. It is fundamental. It is difficult. It is critical to our survival as a species. In reading philosophical works, one theme seems to return on a regular basis; altruism is an advanced sociological trait. At our current evolutionary state, altruism tends to be genetically based. We would sacrifice ourselves for our offspring. We might endure extended hardship for our immediate family members. We might even put ourselves out for our community (however that gets defined). Humanity? Not so much. All life on Earth -- forget about it.
We’re currently in the midst of a mass extinction. This is not conjecture. This is a fact. What is also a fact is that humankind is the cause of this mass extinction. I slept well last night. Did you? I have heard stories of dolphins rescuing fishermen who have fallen overboard even as they were being hunted. If this is true, that is an exhibition of interspecies altruism. To be sure, there are humans who have put their lives on the line to protect other species. Unfortunately, this behavior is spotty at best.
When humans achieve the proper level of altruism, the effects will be obvious. We will readily compromise our own standard of living to ensure that others are not suffering. We will be so sickened by the suffering of others that we will be immediately (almost involuntarily) moved to action. We will not accept conditions that allow others to be controlled for the enrichment of their controllers.
We are at a critical juncture in history. If we don’t go to work soon to make a concerted effort to change our underlying nature, our technological advancements will outstrip our ability to to manage them. We can’t expect individuals on a mass scale to instigate the social changes necessary to avert this looming disaster. It will require extraordinary leadership -- something we have seen little of lately (see my article about Meritocracy).
In the movie Starman, the alien character played by Jeff Bridges, having observed humans for a few days commented, “You humans are beautiful. You are at your very best when things are at their worst.” Things could get very bad very quickly. I hope Jeff was right because we’re going to need to do some major adapting.