Science Heresy - April 2011

Intelligence and Extinction

by Richard McCure

Now that we (humanity) have developed weapons powerful enough to destroy our civilization, or even exterminate us utterly, the question arises “why hasn’t it happened yet”? We have been on the brink of nuclear war a number of times since the end of WW2, but each time we have drawn back. Unfortunately we can’t rationally point to a supernatural being as our saviour, or an all powerful and wise world government. It is more like dumb luck. This luck has held out so far, and it might hold out for another 12 months or even another 12 years. It might even hold out for another 12 centuries. The problem is that we might avoid the conflagration 1000 times, but we can only fail to avoid it once! The odds are overwhelmingly against our survival.

The process of natural selection is well known and accepted. It is also accepted that the most successful creature on the planet is the human being. And our success is due to one thing – intelligence – the ability to outsmart our rivals. So there it is, intelligence, our greatest asset and our nemesis.

It is odd that more creatures have not stumbled upon this magic evolutionary bullet and challenged us. The Neanderthals did and we dispatched them. It is likely that the spread of humanity was so rapid that no other sentient being got a chance to get going properly. Other survival characteristics have led to the evolution of remarkably similar but unrelated creatures (parallel evolution} The diagram below illustrates some northern hemisphere creatures and their antipodian analogues.

But why, on this reasoning, didn’t some slithery thing in Australia develop that best of all survival tools – a giant brain? The answer, as is often the case is Timing.

The great extinction that spelt the end of the dinosaurs happened 65 million years ago. Hominids started to appear about 15 million years ago. We tamed fire about 0.5 million years ago. Writing appeared about .006 million years ago. It is clear that the odds of two life forms developing intelligence at the same time are vanishingly small. And in the case of intelligence it is a case of winner takes all.

Another interesting thing to ponder is the kind of fossil record we humans might leave. If a post-human geologist were to look at a deposit giving an unbroken record back to the last extinction, 65 million years ago, and this deposit were 65 meters thick, what kind of record would modern man leave? The simple answer 0.006 meters – 6mm.

Of course the records we have of the writings of the Sumerians are much more substantial than this, as they have not been compressed into rock yet. As for the industrial revolution, well, that was a mere 0.0005 million years ago.

If my thesis that intelligence must spell doom is true, this would explain the strange fact that there has been no evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence found. It is simply too brief an occurrence to cause a blip on the screen.

So the climax of life, by one measure, in the tertiary period after the cataclysmic extinction at the end of the Cretaceous (the K-T event 65 million years ago) has been we humans.

But why would it be that what has been demonstrated to be the most desirable and devastating of all survival traits never appeared in any of the 5 earlier eras (all terminated by mass extinctions). Why didn’t dinosaurs develop an intellect?

I claim that the development of intelligence among living creatures is statistically inevitable, and its consequences are disastrous and very rapid This thesis solves the mystery of the mass extinctions, and fits well with the way the extinctions seem to correspond to the development of higher life forms. Our own experience shows that the explosion of ideas is too brief to leave a fossil record.

I hope my argument has a fatal flaw.

April 2011