Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Triumph of Intelligence

A friend posted on Facebook recently an article about how Habitable exoplanets are bad news for humanity. The general argument is that, if we don’t find life on rocky planets in the habitable zone around stars capable of supporting life, the lack of it implies the existence of something called the “Great Filter.” This filter, supposedly, is a crisis stage in the development of any intelligent species which creates a barrier to continued existence: nuclear war, unsustainable growth rate, biotechnological experimentation—take your pick.

The article states, “For 200,000 years humanity has survived supervolcanoes, asteroid impacts, and naturally occurring pandemics. But our track record of survival is limited to just a few decades in the presence of nuclear weaponry. And we have no track record at all of surviving many of the radically novel technologies that are likely to arrive this century.”

As I pointed out in a recent posting, Where Are They? from July 6 of this year, we ourselves may have been around for about 200,000 years, but only during the last hundred years or so have we had the means of communicating by radio waves or traveling above our own atmosphere. And any broadcast radio signals we have sent—as opposed to beamcast, which is hardier—would be subject to the inverse-square law anyway, which means they diminish to a mere whisper at a distance of a few lightyears.1 The universe is quiet because the rise from replicating molecules to space-traveling organisms is difficult and takes a long time—four billion years in our case. So please give humanity a break!

I really hate this implied argument that intelligence is somehow deadly and that intelligent societies are bound to destroy themselves through nuclear war or biotechnology or some other supposedly forbidden technology. The fact that we've had nuclear weapons combined with global tensions for seventy years,2 that we only used these weapons once in anger—and that was right at the start, with two of the first such bombs ever made—and that we have since developed agreements and protocols about their use in the face of worldwide proliferation, has to indicate some sort of triumph for intelligence.

The argument about the “Great Filter” is anti-humanist and feeds into the notion that humanity is some kind of pest or virus on our planet. According to the people who hold this view, our species is an unnatural and uncontrolled expression of life which is inimical to all other life on Earth and should therefore be contained, controlled, or preferably eliminated.

In this view, the more technologically oriented humankind becomes, the more dangerous we become. We might have been all right as bands of hunter-gatherers, who made their living by picking berries, knocking over rabbits with small stones, and sucking the marrow out of antelope bones—and only after those delicate creatures had already been killed by more efficient hunters such as wolves. But let humans develop spear points, throwing sticks, bows and arrows, or drums and fire to stampede the prey into our traps, and we become a blight on the landscape.

This is luddite thinking that clings to the past. Humans in the natural state—naked and alone against the elements—are supposedly good. Humans with their inventive intelligence and its natural byproducts—meaning our weapons, our machines, our busy cities, and our noisy toys—are bad. Cloth made on a hand loom in cottage industry is good. Cloth made on a steam loom in a factory, bad. Riding in a carriage pulled by a horse at eight to ten miles per hour, good. Riding in an air-conditioned automobile with crumple zones and airbags at sixty miles per hour, bad. And so on.

This is worse than luddite. It’s a thinly veiled resurrection of the biblical concept of original sin. With the technologies resulting from human intelligence, our species has eaten the apples of the tree of good and evil. We now know and can do great harm, perhaps even eliminate ourselves and the other creatures on the planet. It then becomes imperative, in the primitive justice system of the 12th century BC, that humans do not also eat of the tree of life through biotechnology and so live forever, becoming as gods. Our imminent destruction through nuclear holocaust or biotechnical plague would appear to be the antidote in this case. This is an embarrassingly primitive position for supposedly advanced thinkers who pride themselves on having given up their religion.

Are there dangers in technology? Of course. Madmen, anarchists, and perpetrators on the political fringe have used dynamite—and now plastique—to blow up cityscapes and their infrastructure since Alfred Nobel invented the stuff. Technology creates perils and wastes as well as benefits and riches. It will take time and practice to apply the principles of engineering efficiency, least cost, lowest energy, and best use to its products and processes. And finally, all war is a terrible thing, whether pursued with nuclear or conventional weapons.3 But the world is full of dangers and has been since the first naked humans stepped out on the savannah and encountered lions and tigers, poison oak and prairie fires—along with those supervolcanoes and asteroids the article mentions.

In my book, the only solution to the perils of technology is more thinking, discussion, negotiation and, usually, a better, more refined technology. Trying to uninvent any technology—whether nuclear bombs or dynamite or the repeating rifle—for the safety of future generations is a hopeless fantasy. What has existed once will be discovered again, or superseded by an even more clever invention. Intelligence is tricky that way. Like life itself, which is the reversal of entropy implied by the information stored in the DNA/RNA/protein domain, human-scale intelligence and its byproducts build on the past, evolve their uses and designs, and develop ever more subtle, sophisticated, perfected forms.

To wish the creative power of human intelligence back into the box, like Pandora, is a romantic and fruitless emotional exercise. To hope, or fear, that it will remove itself from the universe is a denial of everything that makes us human.

1. The inverse-square law states that the flux emanating radially from a point source—like a light bulb or a broadcast radio or television signal—loses intensity in inverse proportion to the square of the distance from the source. For example, if you’re standing one mile away from a lighthouse, you see the light at intensity x. If you move two miles away, the apparent intensity is not 1/2x but 1/4x, as four is the square of the distance two miles. At three miles, the intensity is 1/9x, as nine is the square of three.

2. The article’s point about our only having survived a few decades with nuclear weapons is ingenuous. Of course we’ve only survived a few decades, because that’s our entire history with such weapons. The argument would suggest that nuclear holocaust is some kind of probabilistic event. That is, if we don’t blow ourselves up this year, then it becomes even more probable that we’ll do it next year, or the year after, or a decade from now. Such thinking totally ignores the fact that intelligence possesses the capacity for learning and growing. If we survived the first decades with nuclear weapons held on both sides of a conflict—as they were in the 1950s and ’60s—and if we grant that humans generally see nuclear holocaust as a bad thing, then with each year that passes we learn more about the weapons and their destructive power, become better at negotiating with people who have them, and improve our chances for survival. This is the intelligent course.

3. The only good thing to be said for war is its finality. When two societies, or nations, or hegemonies are in irreconcilable conflict, the only resolution may be through total commitment of one or the other’s people in sacrificing their blood and treasure. For years, science fiction writers have imagined polite replacements for brutal, bloody war: chess games, coin tosses, computer simulations, and so on. But the question still remains: when your life, your society, your future, your freedom, your honor, or whatever else you hold dear is at stake in a chess game or a coin toss—and you lose—what then? Do you submit tamely to domination, enslavement, second-class status, tribute paying, or whatever else the winner will impose? Or do you pick up a weapon, join the militia, and fight to the death, or to the point at which your courage or your nerve break and you raise your hands in final surrender? War is not the best way to resolve a conflict, but it’s the last way and the only one that really counts.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Knowing and Believing

As noted elsewhere, I am an atheist, not a believer in any god. This is not because I’m too smart to be taken in by organized religion, but because I lack some mental apparatus, maybe genetically related, that would allow me to see or hear beyond the limits of human senses. When I’m very quiet and trying to listen, I simply don’t perceive any presence that might reflect a superior being that exists outside my own imagination.

And I do have an imagination, as well as a sense of proportion. The god as advertised in most religions is a mass of superlatives: omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, standing outside of space and time. None is bigger, smarter, and stronger than he/she/it. I try to imagine a presence with a recognizable intelligence and a personality—that is, a set of traits, preferences, affections, and skills, as well as all their negative aspects of dislikes, disaffections, and failings—on such an immeasurable scale … and I come up empty. Any discrete being so vast and complicated would not be recognizable as a fellow intelligence. It would be more like a galaxy-sized black hole with a maelstrom of an accretion disk that devours suns and expels jets of white-hot plasma that span lightyears. I can’t imagine such an intelligence taking much interest in the workings of a single planet, let alone the daily business, affections, and destiny of a single human on that planet, such as I am.1

In the same way, I try to fathom an eternity of the sort promised in most religions … and I draw a blank. I can imagine living a few hundred more years, being allowed to continue my journey, to grow and learn, but I know that human life and its attention span are shaped by death. It is the prospect of an end that gives intensity and urgency to life in the present. In a universe that humankind’s most subtle probings now suggest is physically and temporarily bounded, that thirteen billion years ago endured a phase transition which was very like a beginning and will one day endure another transition which will seem very like an ending, I find it vastly improbable that any inhabitant of this universe can confidently expect to endure for the stated eternity.

That genetic defect—plus the fault of having had a mechanical engineer for a father and a landscape architect for a mother, both of them grounded in practical science—makes me approach questions of omnipotence and infinity in a cold, rational, measuring way. I tend to favor postulates over beliefs, proof over hope, and questions over answers.

I do love science, although I’m not qualified to practice it professionally, having been trained in literature as a writer, a creature of imagination, and a dreamer of things as yet unseen. But with that genetic and parental background, my imagination and my dreams run toward structure, mechanics, and the ordering of the universe. My fantasies are made up of artificial intelligences and working engineers, rather than wood sprites and wizards. I do not hold with any kind of abracadabra magic, although I believe with Arthur C. Clarke that any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic in the eyes of a human being from the here and now.

But science as the province of observing, testing, recording, and knowing does not preclude the need for faith. To be sure, science is a promising enterprise. In the past two thousand years—and even more so in the past two hundred—science has vastly increased our understanding of nature and the universe. But so many questions and mysteries which we don't understand (e.g., the fundamental workings of gravity, space, and time2) still remain that the dimension allotted in human endeavors to faith—the expectation that answers will be found and that meaning exists where none can be proved—must also be great.

I believe that science will eventually tell us all about the nature of the universe as far as detection allows.3 Science will eventually describe and enable us to control all of the chemistries and their reactions that create and define this improbable reversal of entropy that we call life. Science will even probe the nature of our own brains and the minds which arise from their chemical and electrical interplay. But it has become clear that the more we know, the farther the edge of knowledge recedes before us.

To take a simple example, consider the sequencing of the human genome. When this task was started in the mid-1990s and its end state was only imagined, researchers believed that all of the DNA in a cell was used to produce the proteins required by the living organism. That was part of the “central dogma” of molecular biology: DNA transcribes to RNA, which translates to proteins. So any DNA that didn’t directly code for an active protein was just old junk, carried over from our evolutionary past, and slowly becoming mutated into nonsense, like a shipwreck sinking into a sea of chaos. But after the entire genome was sequenced, the protein-coding genes were found to be only about ten percent of the genome’s three billion base pairs.

Scientists at the time4 were skeptical that the cell would contain, replicate through each division, and carry forward so much junk. But then, in the last ten years or so, we have opened up new fields of study into microRNAs, RNA interference, epigenetics, and proteomics.5 The chemistry of life and cellular development and differentiation is now much more complex than we imagined just twenty years ago, when the central dogma was considered basic science.

But as fast as the enterprise of science proceeds in staking out the map of human knowledge and pushing back the frontiers marking the as yet unknown, some things will remain beyond its reach. Science can tell us how life came about, how we exist as organized beings, and even how our minds work. But it cannot tell us why we exist. Science cannot give us a purpose.

If I have a faith, as an atheist, it is that there is nothing that is unknowable, indescribable, or unintelligible. Yes, I understand that the universe is not all Newtonian clockwork, that some of its functions and results must be described only by probabilities rather than by exact measurement. That is one of the discoveries of the last hundred years or so. But I don’t believe in any forbidden and hidden mysteries.

And still the question of why, of the purpose behind the universe and the human experience, remains. One of the most damning notions to arise in the last hundred years is that science, in undermining and abolishing religion, has removed the purpose of human life. The idea that life is absurd and without meaning has greatly damaged—if not destroyed—intellectual discourse in our time. It gives rise to the untested hypothesis that humans are simply blind animals, creatures of chance, foolish and doomed, more akin to microbes and worms than to angels and gods—those powerful beings which are imaginary anyway and don’t really exist.

In my scientific fantasy, humans create their own purpose and meaning. With our huge brains, our subtle understanding and complex reactions, and with the tool of communication—not just from mind to mind through articulate speech, but from group to group and generation to generation through the mechanics of writing and mathematics—we are able to choose, to seek, to determine, to decide, to build, and to admire.

If humans don’t create meaning and purpose in their lives and for the world, then no one else will do it for them.

1. And then, I can sense all too clearly the origins of the human yearning for a loving, benevolent, and caring god. As mammals—especially as the helpless, big-brained offspring of narrow-hipped primates—we depend on our parents for our very lives during early development. And later, when we discover in adolescence that mother and father are just human beings and fallible after all, we still yearn for that sense of a protective parent. And so we come to believe in a sky father and an earth mother to watch over us and guide our actions. I sometimes imagine that sea turtles, who break out of their shells and race across the sand toward the water, never having any sense of a guarding and guiding parent, might choose to worship as a god. Perhaps they would venerate a luminous presence in the sky, like the full moon that pulls the tide close to the nest and guides them to the sea. See One True Religion from April 15, 2011.

2. See Three Things We Don’t Know About Physics (I) and (II) from December 30, 2012, and January 6, 2013.

3. Up to the limits of quantum mechanics, where probabilities and statistics take over from direct, impactful observation.

4. This was when I worked at Applied Biosystems as a technical writer. The company made the genetic analyzers used in the Human Genome Project and other applications, and I was in daily contact with scientists and engineers working on these issues.

5. Essentially, that other ninety percent of human DNA is involved with the timing and cuing of cellular development and the differentiation of cell and tissue types. Think of the protein-coding genes as the body’s parts list, and the rest of the genome as the assembly manual. When we have finally mapped out all these relationships, I believe we will be looking at the most elegant piece of natural art in the universe.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Self-Defense and the Rape Culture

When I was growing up, my parents never gave me a lot of support when I didn’t like the way the world worked. In fact, they were pretty scornful. “Get used to it,” my mother would say. And “Those who feel sorry for themselves, should,” was one of my father’s favored sayings. Now, they were good parents, supporting me and my brother both physically and emotionally, patient to teach, and eager to see us learn and grow. But they simply had no time for whiners and children who wished for a different world.1 Later, when I was in high school and college in the ’60s, that hard-headed teaching set me apart from my own generation, where everyone’s personal mantra and the dream of personal fulfillment became to “change the world.”2

Recently, a member of a beauty pageant who also held a black belt in the martial arts publicly advocated self-defense for women. This remark drew a torrent of scorn on the grounds that a woman should not have to defend herself against stronger, rapacious, power-seeking males. Remaining free of attack was not a woman’s responsibility. Instead—presumably—society should change so that men did not, or would not, or could not attack women, or even wish to attack them. In the same vein, a woman should not be responsible for drawing an attack or even attention because of the way she dressed or acted. In such a world, a woman should be free to wear anything—or nothing—and still walk down the street without fear.

I agree. A woman should not have to put up with attempted rape, no matter how she dresses or acts.3 But that “should” belongs to the 99 percent of space and time over which the individual has no control. It would be better if society and human sexuality were structured differently, but they’re not. So, in this situation, that “should” is a fantasy on the order of “How I wish things were arranged” and feeds into the “change the world” meme. But since the world has not yet changed and perhaps never will, the individual must control what she can, which is her own behavior and her response to her physical surroundings.

Let’s be brutally honest here. Some clothing and most makeup styles, as well as some modes of behavior, are designed to draw attention by emphasizing some physical or emotional features, revealing others directly, and so create a state of desire in the male. This is part of how the species propagates. In the human species and in the society that has developed its mating rituals out of those ingrained sexual cues, it is not the female who initiates sexual contact. The male makes the approach to the female and does the asking. The female then takes control of the situation by making her breeding decision and either accepting or rejecting his approach. But that would leave most plain-featured females unattended as virtual wallflowers, while the majority of males flocked to those few women with obvious natural attractions. This would skew the distribution of genes disastrously and create great unhappiness on both sides of the sexual selection. So, over time, women as a culture have adopted bits of dress, coloring, scent, and modes of behavior intended to arouse the male into making that approach.4

Unfortunately, such arousal signals are not targeted to the intended object of affection, like a laser beam or poisoned dart. Instead, they broadcast to all males within range, like tear gas. Unwanted and unacceptable males are also aroused, and therein lies the problem. With the human male’s superior weight and strength, rejecting his unwanted advances is not always a matter of speaking skillfully, forcefully, or scornfully—regardless of what a young girl’s mother or an aunt may have told her.

Similarly, people tend to drink in any social setting in order to loosen the bonds of inhibition and make the joining of prickly, conflicted, self-conscious individuals more likely. This is another way in which the species propagates. Since drinking lowers a woman’s self-awareness and determination, it becomes important for her to choose her friends and the situation carefully, avoid drinking too much in public or among strangers, such as at a large party, and watch her glass and its contents to avoid ingesting a stealthily placed drug. To do otherwise is to engage in foolish and reckless behavior.

As it is a fantasy to wish that society or its impulses toward propagation operated differently, so it is a fantasy to wish that foolish behavior did not sometimes occasion bad results. This, too, is among the sphere of things the individual cannot control. All she can control is her own behavior, her actions, and her expectations.

A woman might wish that the sexual machinery were structured differently. She might wish that the society in which it operates and the human nature which it has created were structured differently.5 Women may even work together to structure their society differently for their own protection and advantage without any dependence on the male response. I’m not sure about the long-term functioning of such a society, nor about its short-term prospects during the transition period. But again, all of this is in the realm of things beyond the individual’s control.

Most questions in the debate about self-defense for women seem to revolve around issues of means and weapons. Which is handier, more effective, or more certain—a gun, knife, or knee to the groin? But that is like debating which of the five forks to the left of the dinner plate should be used for spearing the asparagus. The first principle at dinner generally is, “Do we eat?” So the first principle of self-defense is, “Do we protect?” The “why” comes first; the “how” comes later.

Self-defense actually goes beyond issues of women and rape. It goes beyond the physical method, whether gun, knife, or knee. It goes beyond the immediate point of conflict and resolution. It goes beyond a moment’s mental application to a specific situation or threat. Self-defense is a total mindset. It should be taught to both boys and girls. It should be part of any mother’s, father’s, teacher’s, or family friend’s training of the young.

That mindset says: “I am a whole person, with rights and obligations, with boundaries, and with a life purpose. I am not to be victimized, subjugated, abused, toyed with, taken advantage of, conned, cheated, or cast aside. I know the difference between right and wrong, between fairness and unfairness, between life and death. I stand here, and this is my ground. The air in my lungs and the space around me are mine. Anyone who would harm me must step back now.

That mindset applies to every relationship, every commercial transaction, every job interview, every expectation of service for fee, and every acceptance of fee for service. It requires the individual to examine his or her actions and choices, approach the world with heightened awareness, and evaluate every situation for potential danger and traps. It requires the individual to decide for her- or himself the limits of personal power, the dimensions of personal vulnerability, and the scope of her or his own personhood. It impresses upon the mind the existence of margins and probabilities, advantage and disadvantage, friends and foes.

Is this a paranoid view of the world? Is it oppressively pessimistic? Is it too bleak to be considered? Very possibly. But every thinking, trained, self-aware individual knows or has been taught that the universe offers about a thousand and one ways to trap you and kill you—but only about six or seven acceptable ways to stay alive. This is not the world as you would wish it, but rather the world as it presents itself to you.

So yes, I agree: No woman should be required to mind how she dresses and acts, or be required to take responsibility for defending herself and her honor, against the aggressiveness of uncouth, untrained, unpredictable males with no code of honor they can call their own. But that “should” is still in the realm of space and time beyond individual control, of wishing for things to be as they might, rather than the way they are.

1. They would have thoroughly appreciated the “Serenity Prayer” as adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

2. Curiously, at this time of militant peace and mellow yellowness, I also became interested in Buddhism and Zen as part of my karate studies. I never was much for practicing meditation, and I never learned to appreciate the thematic complexity of the sutras, but I did pick up a few of the concepts. Among them was the notion that the only thing a person can control is him- or herself. In a world that makes you angry or sad, crushes your expectations, or tries to kill you, the only defense you actually have is to adjust your attitude, change your expectations, and increase your watchfulness.

3. I will go farther. I believe the penalty for attempted rape, as for attempted murder, should be death. But not after months of evidence taking, plea bargaining, jury selection, and trial, followed by years or even decades of judicial appeal. The issue should be decided at the point of contest by the intended victim. Snap! Bang! Finito!

4. By contrast, in other species the roles are reversed. The male bird evolves colorful plumage in order to attract the female, making her receptive to his intended approach. If nothing else, evolution shows the thousand wondrous ways of getting the job done.
       The human sexual dance comprises more steps than those of birds. Actually, three steps: First, the woman signals wordlessly, “I’m attractive and available, if you want me.” Second, the man senses her receptivity, feels desire, and signals directly—usually in so many words—“I want you. Will you accept me?” Third, she makes her actual decision and signals, wordlessly or otherwise, her consent or rejection. In creatures with so many layers of thinking and interpretation to their highly evolved brains, and so many taboos and social consequences to their sexuality, it would be surprising if the matter were made any less complex. I believe that social engineers will interfere with the steps of this dance at their peril.

5. And in fact, male codes of honor and chivalry are part of a societal response designed to protect women from the male’s superior strength and weight.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Where Are They?

That’s the question everyone seems to be asking about the extraterrestrials that supposedly flourish throughout the galaxy. Why aren’t they dropping by Earth all the time, like the alien travelers in the Men in Black series? To this I have a counter question: Well, where are we?

Human beings are pretty smart—not exactly worms, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson seems to think, waiting for some smarter species to come along and study us.1 In fact, we’re the smartest creatures on this planet, probably in this solar system, and maybe for a couple of parsecs in any direction around here. So why aren’t we out there, going on a worm hunt?

Consider: On a planet that is now four billion years old, our own Earth, it is only in the last:

• Million years that any animal has possessed both the brainpower and the physical numbers to form any kind of civilization.

• Ten thousand years that human beings have had the technology—herding skills and agriculture—to settle down in river valleys and build that civilization.

• Five thousand years that we’ve had writing systems to carry our words and ideas beyond the next generation.

• Hundred years since we started using radio waves to carry those words and ideas. Every means of communication that came before radio remained dark to anyone above our atmosphere.

• Sixty-odd years since we had rockets to reach above our own atmosphere.

• Forty-odd years since we put a human footprint on another world, our own Moon.

• Year or so that the Voyager probes broke away from the Sun’s immediate environment.

Aside from a few camping trips on the edge of space, we haven’t gone back to the Moon or established any serious physical presence above our atmosphere. We’ve sent a number of robot probes to examine the other planets in our system and explore its environs. But we haven’t gone in person and it may be years before we go out again.

We’re the hot stuff of this solar neighborhood, and yet we aren’t out there looking for worms, or for our equals, or even our superiors.

I believe the universe teems with life. Any planet that can harbor some form of this entropy-reversing energy flux will probably do so. And yet I think most habitable planets probably resemble ours of the past four billion years: quietly cooking up life in all its variations and slowly developing its potential, but still dark to anyone who happens to pass through this solar system and take a brief look or a scan while on their way to some other star that seems more promising.

Life is abundant. But the kind of life that has the brains, the organization, the technology, and not least the time and money to go out among the stars and look for more life—that is probably pretty rare.

And while it may be nice to think that we’re just worms—or an abhorrent species of primitive, violent, dangerous creatures, like a monkey troop afflicted with scabies—and that a greater, wiser, more peaceful, benevolent, and powerful civilization is waiting out there, ready to become humanity’s foster parent, teacher, and guide to a better state of grace … I’m not holding my breath. The human yearning for a parent figure lasts far into adulthood. The notion that we can relax our grip, step back into the crèche of childhood, and let some godlike creatures plan and define our next steps … is a fantasy.

For one thing, there may be a limit to the intelligence of any single creature or even a hive mind. Our brains have on average 100 billion neurons, each with multiple synapses making connection to other neurons. That’s a far more powerful and versatile computer than any engineer has been able to build by cramming transistors on a chip, although computers will probably overtake us meats soon enough. There may be a limit to how much raw computing power our kind of life chemistry can coordinate. I’m not saying there is a limit, just that there may be one.

If you believe that evolution is a reliable principle and that it probably operates on other planets as well as ours, the nature of evolution may define such a limit. Humans are very smart. We are much smarter than the animals we hunt or herd for food, such as deer, cows, and goats, and smarter even than the animals that would hunt us, such as lions and bears. We may be an order of magnitude too smart for the hunter-gatherer existence that we left behind when we settled on the banks of the Indus, the Euphrates, and the Nile rivers. But while that excess intelligence has brought us a long way, the process of building societies, governments, industries, and marketplaces has sopped up much of that excess intelligence and then created new, even more complex challenges.

But evolution suggests that we probably won’t develop more intelligence and problem-solving capability than we need on average. Yes, here and there we produce a Goethe or an Einstein. But most of us are just smart enough to get along and pay our taxes. So the bet is that, unless there’s a planet out there with conditions so bizarre or a society so complex that children are required to invent their own form of calculus right out of the cradle just in order to survive, there’s probably an upward limit to the brain power that any extraterrestrial species will develop, too.

We still might meet our masters out among the stars. But I would bet on that differential intelligence being on a recognizable scale. They probably won’t be gods, and we probably won’t be worms on their sidewalk.

All by ourselves, we humans had to stand up to the other primates, learn to dig the soil to manage the useful plants, learn to tame and care for the useful animals and build fences against the rest, make meaning out of scratches in clay, build interfamilial trust, organize societies that stretched from one end of the river to the other, and create a destiny for ourselves. No gods from beyond the stars were needed for that. We’re smart enough, now, to figure out the rest on our own.

1. See There’s a worm in the street …. I find this an incredibly demeaning view of humanity and its achievements. We are not worms! Not even close!