Friday, December 23, 2011

A New Solution to the Fermi Paradox: Masturbation

Yes, basically. UNM evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller worries that our ability to stimulate ourselves with junk food, video games and porn (maybe we should throw cheap credit in there?) will lead to our demise, and whether this hasn't led to similar ends for intelligence elsewhere in the universe. This concern tracks eerily close to a line I extracted from an Vanity Fair article in a post at The Late Enlightenment: "A color-coded map of American personal indebtedness could be laid on top of the Centers for Disease Control's color-coded map that illustrates the fantastic rise in rates of obesity across the United States since 1985 without disturbing the general pattern."

The more general argument that Miller is making is that intelligence is a dead end. Indeed, why do so many seemingly adopt teleological thinking and assume that intelligence is the automatic endpoint of evolution, or at least the best way for replicators to make an impact on the universe? It's kind of strange that seekers of alien life consistently look for intelligence or even "civilization", which may not have any meaning beyond humans. Intelligence is just the most "extreme" form of behavior - and here the term behavior is used in its clearest maning, as biological motors (muscles) moving in response to nervous systems - which in turn are just networks of cells that integrate inputs from pressure, light, and chemical changes external to themselves. Nervous systems respond much more quickly than genes to changes in the environment, because they rely on millisecond-scale changes in ion currents. Of course those networks of ion currents are not perfect modelers of future states, they have weak spots or poor plasticity. They even have analogs of halting states. Therefore, because they change so much more quickly than the genes underlying them, problems in the system can be hugely damaging to those genes, to the point where they all disappear. Organisms profoundly changing their environment in ways that end up killing them is of course the core concern of sustainability advocates and it's happened before, right here on Earth, to the cyanobacteria - even before there was such a thing as behavior.

The Fermi paradox is an ongoing topic here, and other questions include: for Singulatarians, couldn't this be the instrument of the Great Filter, and/or shouldn't we be able to see alien singularities, whether as wave fronts of computronium (or at least von Neumann probes) or at least very strange looking decompiled star systems? Can we in principle even know what to look for? Miller's entry is that the Great Filter need not consist of an intelligence explosion, but rather an intelligence introversion: once a nervous system can game the system - game itself - it's not going to last much longer.

No comments: