Friday, July 25, 2014

Skipping the Big Kablooie

The image trembles, distorts, then fades into crackling static. A figure appears on the screen. On all the screens. He speaks.


Um, that's what I'm supposed to say, right?

This how it's done in your movies, anyway. The aliens interrupt TV broadcasts all around the world. People in bars stop talking and stare at the screen...Hey! You're really doing it! Cool! Hi!

First of all, I'm not actually George Takei. This is just an avatar. Takei is the man, but he can't make himself appear on every TV screen in the world at the same time. But I am an alien! I'm actually something called DQLF...a Distributed Quantum Life Form. I don't have a body, exactly. I'm sort of spread out across the whole universe. Imagine if the internet were conscious, but instead of existing across millions of computers, it existed across billions of galaxies. That's me--a sort of distributed consciousness, held together across spacetime by a quantum process your scientists don't yet understand.

I can't explain exactly how it works. First, your minds only work in three dimensions, not eleven, and second, I'm afraid you might use the equations it to blow up your whole damn planet.

That's what I'm here to talk to you about, actually. You see, I've been around. I'm pretty old, by your standards. I had my last birthday around the time your ancestors were coming down from the trees. I turned nine! Nine billion, I mean. Man, what a party...I'm still a little hungover. Anyway, I've been around a while. I've seen how things tend to go down in this universe (and several others) and to be honest, I've started to get a little depressed.

When you've watched intelligent life evolve on a few million planets, you discover it's pretty predictable. It seems so promising at first. You watch some clever creature develop a real culture. They make tools and start using complex languages. Fascinating mythologies begin to unfold. Art and music appear in some form, as well as philosophy and literature. A rudimentary technology develops. They figure out their planet isn't flat, and the next thing you know, they're mapping out the periodic table, scratching their heads over quantum mechanics, and realizing just what an astounding universe they've found themselves in. You think, "Hey, they're about to really figure some stuff out!"

And right about then...KABLOOIE! They blow themselves to smithereens.

They don't always take the whole planet with them. The smaller cataclysms are just another mass extinction, like an asteroid impact or mega-volcano. Every living planet goes through a few of those, and life usually bounces back in a few million years. Sometimes, though, there's not even a planet left. Some of these creatures go out with a bang like you wouldn't believe. One species over in the Virgo Cluster actually imploded themselves. Nothing there but a black hole now. It's a sort of cosmic superfund site now.

It's a pity, really, because intelligent life is rare in the universe. It happens, but not as much as you might think. Most planets are gorgeous to look at, but they're stone cold dead.

This isn't surprising, if you think about it. Consider the statistics. Spiral galaxies like yours contain a few hundred billion stars, and most of them have a handful of planets along for the ride. That adds up to trillions of planets per galaxy, but most of them are totally uninhabitable. They're too cold, too hot, too radioactive... too deadly, in one way or another. Only a few billion in each galaxy are reasonably hospitable--at least to things that evolve there and adapt to their conditions.

But on most of them, nothing will. Even on those habitable planets, the origin of life is a million-to-one chance. It's less likely than a royal flush in a game of Texas Hold'em. But that means it still happens several thousand times in a galaxy the size of the Milky Way.

Still, most living planets are pretty boring. They're basically giant petri dishes with nothing more complex than a slime mold. That's how Earth was for a couple billion years, and believe me, I didn't hang around to watch.

But then...every once in a get two royal flushes in the same game! You'll find a planet with some truly complex, interesting life. That's when things get fun to watch! Just look at life on this planet; at all the diversity you have here. I mean, you've got fish with both eyes on the same side of their heads! You there in Baltimore--you're eating one right now. Did you ever stop to think what an amazing creature that flounder was? You guys are so fascinated by aliens, but your own planet is full of life that's totally alien to most of you--photosynthetic sea slugs, trees with exploding fruit, bacteria that live on chemicals at the bottom of the ocean. And then there's all those freaky hairless apes with bulbous craniums--even I've never seen anything quite like that. And this is just one little planet, and not one that's going to win best in show.

What I'm saying is, when complex ecosystems appear on a planet,'s just glorious. I can watch those for eons. Of course, it's hardly ever a peaceful process. I've found that evolution works more or less the same way across the universe. Resources are always limited, so there's competition. Living things evolve by doing whatever it takes to survive and reproduce. That means they fight and eat each other a lot. Even the ones that can make their own food out of air and starlight (like the plants here on earth) fight for it. They struggle to grow taller, poison each other, strangle each other--some forests are like slow motion bar fights. And so it goes, on up through the food chain. It's not that nature is immoral. It's just amoral. Nature just does whatever works.

And here's what a lot of people don't get about evolution. You often hear people say animals act for the "good of the species." Wrong. That's not how evolution works. There's just about as much strife within species as between them. Sometimes more. You might get some cooperation among individuals if they're related, or if they can't survive any other way. Or occasionally, you get cooperation among very intelligent creatures.

But that's rare. The emergence of truly intelligent life with a complex culture is like three royal flushes in the same card game. The odds against it are astronomical. But you know what else is astronomical? The universe! I mean, that's where the word comes from, right? So, your average big galaxy will generally have a handful of complex cultures developing at any given time. Just a few of them, scattered among a hundred billion stars.

And you know what that means? It means you humans are, in fact, pretty special. You're not the only brainy species that's ever evolved, and you're damn sure not the most sophisticated, but like every other one in the universe, you're unique.

Unique, but predictable. Like most similar species, you're quarrelsome. You're tribal, in the negative sense of the term. Small-minded, and yet...astoundingly egotistical! As soon as you got the least bit of self-awareness, you decided the universe revolves around you. Remember that Fishbone album, Give a Monkey a Brain and He'll Swear He's the Center of the Universe? You don't listen to Fishbone? OK, never mind. What I'm saying is, you humans get the idea that whole damn universe is about you--maybe even about your own little ethnic sub-group. Most of you actually still believe this! Do you realize how BIG it is out there? It would be totally hilarious--even endearing, like a toddler who says he's the president--if the results weren't usually tragic. But they are. Because you're not toddlers, and those aren't popguns you're playing with.

I've seen it a million times. A single species will develop hundreds of different cultures and languages. It's a new kind of evolution--faster and more subtle than biological evolution. The variety is amazing and beautiful, but for some reason, the species it happens to have trouble handling it. All too often, it makes them think of members of the other cultures as lesser beings. As outsiders. Enemies. You know how so many tribes here on earth have a name for themselves that means something like The Real Humans? It's the same story across the whole universe. It's amazing, really. Every little tribe of Zorks calls themselves "The Real Zorks" in a thousand different Zork languages. Same with the Blapfooms, the !Squamboozicks, the Yuck'Stapyws, you name it. You're all just alike that way!

Like I said, it would be funny if it weren't so tragic. You get different cultures pouring most of their new-found intellect into finding new ways to kill each other. After a few thousand generations of this, when you finally learn to write and start compiling your histories, what do you write about? Wars! Art, literature, philosophy, science--all those things are infinitely more noble than war, but you give them so much less attention. What's up with that?

What I'm saying is, all though the universe, rare and clever species like you develop your weapons faster than your wisdom. You focus on competition more than cooperation, and hate more than love. You do get sages who tell you to love thy neighbor and follow the Golden Rule. You get people like Gandhi, who say extremely sensible things like, "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." You hang pictures of those people on your walls, but all too few of you really follow them.

Sadly, science is what gets you in the end. You could have used it to expand your horizons and understand your place in the universe. And some of you do. But others don't want understanding. They don't want to expand their minds. They just want to expand their arsenals and help their own little nation, or more often, themselves. Why do you keep making those types your leaders? Can't you see what this sort of thing leads to? Each little tribe or nation keeps thinking it's God's favorite, while their weapons keep getting more deadly. Eventually, they'll learn to make nuclear missiles, or synthetic viruses, or nanobot assassins, or some other such horror. That's when the countdown begins, usually. I've started turning my head and plugging my ears (well, metaphorically speaking) as soon as the first mega-weapon is invented.

But you know what? Every once in a while, something wonderful happens. I'll cringe and brace myself, but the big kablooie never comes. Every once in a while, an intelligent, culturally-sophisticated species will squeak past that dangerous period when their weapons are bigger than their minds. They'll realize what a tiny planet they live on, and that everything on it is basically in the same boat--not just every tribe and nation, but every species. They learn to cooperate...not perfectly, of course, but well enough not to destroy each other or the planet they live on. That may not sound like a big achievement, but it is. Just look at you. You've figured out how to land space probes on planets millions of miles away, but you haven't figured out how to stop going to war. You wouldn't think not doing something would be the harder of those two things, but apparently it is.

But still, what I'm saying is, there's hope. I mean, your situation is totally dangerous, but it's far from hopeless. Across the universe, intelligent species who make it past this gauntlet are uncommon, but not unheard of. It's not like drawing another royal flush. It's more like a full house. It doesn't happen in every hand, but it happens often enough, and in this game it's OK to stack the deck. Please--stack the deck!

It's worth a shot, folks. Once a civilization gets past that gauntlet, that's when things really start to get fun. Take it from me. I came from one of those civilizations. I remember the nasty little wars we fought way back in the day. I remember the species we drove to extinction. But somehow, we got past it. And you wouldn't believe what happened next. We went on to discover things, to see things, even to become things, that you literally can't imagine. At least, you can't imagine them yet.