Chapter 1 – The Origin and State of the First Intelligent Species
by Marshall Brain
The following statement is something we all understand, but it bears repeating because it is perhaps the coolest, most interesting scientific fact that we know about our universe and human existence:Hydrogen, given sufficient time, turns into people.
It is an amazing statement if you think about it. A collection of simple atoms swirling around in the early universe, combined with the ordinary laws of nature like gravity, created human beings living here on planet earth over the course of billions of years.
How does this happen? What path can hydrogen – the universe’s simplest element – follow to turn itself into something as amazingly complicated and fascinating as a human being? The process has been explained by many people in many different ways and is supported by vast amounts of scientific evidence. Here is a summary version….
In the beginning, approximately 13.75 billion years ago, our universe sprang into existence. After a period of rapid inflation and cooling, it came to a starting point where it consisted primarily of normal, empty space and normal matter in the form of hydrogen atoms. That was it – empty space and an immense number of very simple atoms swirling around.
So there was hydrogen – lots and lots of hydrogen – filling the space of a new universe.
Objects that have mass attract one another, and hydrogen atoms have mass. So the universe’s hydrogen atoms had a tendency to clump together.
If a large enough group of hydrogen atoms clump together, there is sufficient gravitational attraction amongst the atoms to create a fusion reactor – a star. It radiates massive quantities of heat and light into space. It also starts creating fusion products in its core. Hydrogen atoms fuse together to form helium atoms. Helium atoms fuse to form carbon and so on, forming all the elements up through iron.
Large stars then explode as supernovae. These explosions are gigantic and the blast pressure from the explosion creates all of the heavier natural elements up through Uranium. A cloud of dust and debris from the explosion, along with a great deal of as yet unused hydrogen, spreads out across space.
The dust from these supernova explosions collects into new solar systems, like ours. New stars form, with orbiting planets made from the fusion products of former stars. The process repeats.
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Let’s take a quick tangent here to look at the size of our universe. Stars live in groups that we call galaxies. How many galaxies are there? Current estimates run anywhere from 100 billion to 500 billion. How many is that? Let’s assume that a single grain of salt represents one galaxy. Take a one pound (0.45 kg) package of salt and pour it out onto your kitchen table. There are approximately 10 million grains of salt in a pound. That little pile of salt on your table contains about 10 million galaxies. So to get 200 billion grains of salt, we need about 20,000 pounds of salt. That’s a dump truck load of salt. There are a lot of galaxies in our universe.
But galaxies are not as big as a grain of salt. They are monstrous. The milky way galaxy – our galaxy – is 100,000 light years across. There are 200 to 400 billion stars in our one galaxy. Many of those stars have their own planets just like our sun does.
The point is that our universe is utterly enormous. Planet earth is a tiny speck that is part of a galaxy which, at the scale of the universe, is a tiny speck itself.
Nonetheless, this tiny speck of a planet is us. On this planet we have life. Millions of species form an intricate web of life on planet Earth today. Where did this life come from? Through the processes of abiogenesis and evolution, life arose, life evolved, and today here we are. People. Billions of people, and the number is rising inexorably.
Millions of interlocking pieces of scientific evidence from many scientific disciplines, revealed through several centuries of discovery, paint this amazing picture of our universe.
This is how Hydrogen turns into People. This is our creation story.
One problem is that this process is completely random, and the side effects of this randomness are all around us. The fact is that the natural world spawned through this natural process is simultaneously beautiful and appalling, majestic and horrifying.
Therefore, while planet earth can be beautiful, it can also be ugly. For every pretty sunset and rainbow we also have earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes, cyclones, floods, droughts, volcanoes, etc.
The same kind of ugliness is true on the biological side. Evolution is all about random mutations that fill ecological niches. You can understand this ugliness by looking at the world from the perspective of a cute bunny rabbit living its life in a forest’s meadow. The rabbit itself fills a niche – a rabbit eats grass to sustain itself. Male rabbits look for female rabbits with which to mate. A typical doe can produce 10 to 40 baby bunnies a year, which she will raise happily in her little nest that she’s built under a bush or underground. Rabbits would be perfectly happy to live out their days eating grass, mating and raising their young.
Unfortunately, many other species look upon rabbits as a source of food in their niches: wolves, coyotes, foxes, dogs, cats, bobcats, cougars, lynx, hawks, eagles, falcons, owls, snakes, humans, etc. all eat rabbits. So rabbits live in constant terror caused by hundreds of nearby predators. Not to mention the bacteria, viruses and parasites looking to infect rabbits to spread their DNA. Life as a rabbit is no picnic. If you are a rabbit, then at any given moment a predictor can kill and eat you, and if that does not happen you can look forward to the potential of sickness and disease. And if you happen to survive the predators and diseases, your body will degenerate on its own and you die of old age after about six years no matter what.
Nature really is appalling if you take the time to give it much thought. Just about every animal species lives this dual nature: it has to eat, and it is also food for something else. Then there are hundreds of different diseases brought on by bacteria, viruses, parasites, mineral deficiencies, etc. And even if you avoid starvation, dehydration, predation, disease, accident and natural disaster, your own body fails you and you die anyway. How much more appalling can it get?
From this same random process has evolved the first conscious, intelligent species: human beings. We sit at the very top of the food chain and have carved out a luxurious niche for ourselves, relatively speaking. We are largely immune to any natural predator, and we see every other species on earth as potential prey. If there is any economic advantage to be gained by killing and/or harvesting another species, humans will as a general rule kill it or harvest it without any remorse, all the way to extinction if given the chance. As a species we will often do this even if it is not in our own best interest as a group, a fact succinctly captured in the essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin in 1968, and first explored by William Forster Lloyd in 1833.
The natural system on earth can be appalling, and human beings as a product of this process can be shockingly appalling – the fact that we are sentient often makes us more appalling rather than less. This fact is made obvious if we imagine the arrival of a hypothetical extraterrestrial species to planet earth.
The Extraterrestrials Arrive
We know that hydrogen has turned itself, through a surprising and amazing process, into people. What if it has turned itself into other intelligent species as well, on other planets? The Drake equation (see Chapter 10) explores the probability of this happening.
As we have seen, there are untold quintillions of stars in the universe, and potentially quadrillions of planets orbiting them. Even if the odds are small, there are so many potential sites for life to form that it seems certain that life exists elsewhere in the universe. Drake’s equation suggests that there should be many other intelligent species in the universe. And some of them should be far more advanced than humans because they would have gotten started earlier.
So imagine the following scenario. The first extraterrestrial species arrives at planet earth. It truly arrives, and in the most impressive way possible. The alien’s ship is the size of a small continent and it parks in low earth orbit for all to see.
The ship is utterly amazing, and a super-intelligent alien species emerges – millions of aliens beam down to interview the human species. We each have an interview with one of the aliens – every single human being is interviewed. Think of all the people that the aliens would meet if they thoroughly interviewed every single human being on the planet. The aliens interview everyone:
- People who work in factories
- People who work at Wal-mart and Target
- Elderly and retired people, some independent, some in nursing homes
- Farmers and other people living in the country
- People living in cities
- People living in slums
- People who work in fast food restaurants and coffee shops
- Construction workers
- Truck drivers
- Computer programmers
- Web designers
- Clerks and assistants
- Janitors, maids and custodians
- Billions of Christians, Muslims and Hindus
- People struggling through cancer and other diseases
- Depressed people, suicidal people, insane people
- People living in squalor, with no hope
- Celebrities and billionaires living is stunning luxury
- People going to college with dreams for the future
- Students of every shape and size
- Drug addicts
- People who just don’t care
- Rhodes scholars
- High school dropouts
- People with no education at all
- Military personnel
- Members of Al Quieda, Hamas, ISIS, the Taliban
- White supremacists, neo-nazis, right wing extremists
- Priests, nuns, pastors, rabbis
- Drug lords
- War lords
- Prostitutes, both voluntary and not
The aliens would meet every single human being, from the most powerful to the least, from the happiest to the saddest, from the richest to the poorest, from the healthiest to the most crippled, from the kindest to the most malicious. Being highly advanced beings, they would be able to record every interview, compile amazing statistical trends, discern deep psychological patterns, etc. They would discover how much time we spend on Facebook and watching TV and viewing porn, how much emphasis we put on clothes, haircuts and makeup, how important things like status and power are. Not to mention emotions like anger, greed, lust, envy, jealousy and desire.
These extraterrestrials take the results of these interviews and they do an assessment of our species, and our planet. Yes, they would take note of our societies, our technology, our cities, our art, our science. But when compared to the aliens’ own advanced technology and civilization, humans would pale in comparison. What the aliens would definitely notice and pay attention to is the suffering we allow, and the depravity. What the aliens discover about the human species as a whole would shock them:
- 3 billion of the people on the planet – approximately half – are destitute. They live in shocking poverty.
- There are 10 million children dying of easily preventable causes every year – things like starvation, thirst, cholera.
- Billions of people lack any form of health care.
- Billions of people lack access to basics like clean water, adequate food and safe housing.
- Environmentally, we are raping the planet in hundreds of ways. A mass extinction event is looming on the horizon, yet we appear unmotivated to do anything at all to prevent it.
- Humans are constantly at war, constantly killing one another somewhere in the world.
- Crime seems rampant. In the United states, over two million citizens are incarcerated.
- We have thousands of nuclear warheads, enough to kill all of humanity many times over, all loaded into rockets that we can launch at a moment’s notice simply by pushing a few buttons.
- We have spent trillions of dollars building and stockpiling conventional weapons designed to kill fellow humans in a thousand different ways. We can shoot them, bomb them, grenade them, poison them, burn them, etc.
- Humans often seem intent on bringing misery to other humans: terrorism, dictatorships, warlords, slavery, torture, unjust imprisonment, sweatshops, corruption, murder, mayhem, crime, etc. can be found all over the planet.
- The concentration of wealth is extreme and seems unstoppable, so a very small percentage of the planet’s population owns half of the planet’s wealth, while billions of others have nothing.
- In many cases and at many different levels we seem unable to control ourselves or to stop ourselves even when we know we are wrong.
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A list like this can go on and on and on. There are gigantic slums lacking even the most basic sanitation services all over the planet. There are millions of people living in the United States – one of the richest countries on earth – who are denied access to basic health services, as are billions of other people. We are fishing the oceans so ferociously that stocks of many species are collapsing. Millions of sharks are caught, de-finned and then thrown back in the ocean to die each year. We are tearing down rain forests at breakneck pace. Rhinos, tigers and elephants are nearly extinct in the wild. Humans kill and eat 50 billion chickens per year. Humans pump gigatons of carbon from fossil fuels into the atmosphere each year knowing that it will cause a global catastrophe. Millions of humans are enslaved, and millions more are economically forced into the near-equivalent of slavery. Meanwhile, people in rich nations happily consume the products of these slaves without giving it a second thought.
The Aliens Debrief
As the aliens return to their ship they share their experiences. One says: “I talked to one human who said human life is sacred, yet 30,000 children died just today before we could interview them, and this happens every day, the children dying of easily preventable causes like hunger and cholera.” Another: “They claim that love and peace are their highest values, yet they spend hundreds of billions of their dollars per year on men and machines whose sole purpose is to wage war.” Another: “I talked to one who said liberty and freedom are the highest values, and yet the majority of people on this planet are trapped in such poverty that they are in essence enslaved by it.”
These aliens have arrived on planet earth as objective outside observers. And to objective outside observers, human beings appear to be insane as a species. We appear to have no common goals as a species, no sense of decency or fairness across the species, no respect for the planet where we live. The aliens would legitimately ask us: Instead of spending trillions on war, why haven’t you spent trillions curing every disease? Why haven’t you ended poverty worldwide? Why haven’t you ended the concentration of wealth? The idea that 1,000 people have billions of dollars while billions of people starve is lunacy – why haven’t you solved this problem?
The aliens would note that when human beings come together in groups with common goals and common purposes, we are often able to accomplish amazing things. Human beings are often able to rise, individually and in groups, to remarkable levels of love, goodness and generosity. But more often than not we fail to do that, and we are left with a planet, and a species, in the state observed above. The conditions endured by most humans during their short lives on this planet are appalling by any objective measure.
If you are able to step back and look at human beings as an outside observer would, as a whole, human beings can be quite horrible as a species. Just to take the planet’s nuclear arsenals as one simple example: We find ourselves in a situation where the United States has approximately 5,000 operational nuclear warheads. And Russia has about the same. Each warhead can destroy an entire city, killing millions of people. Why do we have all of these missiles, which pose an immediate existential threat to the entire ecosystem of the planet as well as our own species? We call it the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. “Mutually Assured Destruction” – MAD – even the name sounds like we are insane. Yet this is the best idea we have been able to come up with as a species for dealing with nuclear bombs. And many other countries have warheads as well that they could unleash at any moment for any insane reason. In addition, we worry that terrorists will get hold of a nuclear device and detonate it in a major city, killing millions.
For reasons that I will explain later in the book, I do not believe any alien intelligence will ever arrive on earth. The reason is the same for every intelligent species in the universe, and it will affect the human species as well. Human beings on planet earth are about to become irrelevant. The society we have created will be replaced. This process is unstoppable, and it is probably a good thing given how horrible we can be as a species toward one another. Once we become irrelevant, things will have a chance to get better.
Human beings will become irrelevant without question. Let’s look at how this transition to irrelevance will unfold…