Is Dystopia a natural state, and Utopia, well, just a dream?
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic — Arthur C. Clarke
St Croix. We are staying on the west side of the island and away from the reaches of civilization. It is a wonderful place. Sitting on the deck drinking my first cup of Earl Grey and taking in its aroma, while at a distance, I can view the turquoise ocean and undulating waves playing on its surface.
It feels like heaven. It is a place where I have either forgotten my limitations or I have suddenly learned to be content with them. In either case, for a few moments, I sit feeling lightened and enlightened.
The night comes and we are going through the phase of the new moon. The city lights do not encroach on the dark brilliance of the night sky, where a million twinkling stars are shining. Their number seems much more than back home. A faint river of the Milky Way stretches across the sky.
The Big Dipper. The North Star. They are all there, partying quietly.
Among this brilliance and the silence, the stillness is occasionally broken by a sound of a gecko dreaming about its next meal.
Sitting here, looking at all those twinkling stars, I start to wonder why we have not seen alien beings yet. After all, there are all these stars, billions of them just in our own galaxy. And then, there are billions of galaxies. The sky is filled with them in whichever direction we care to look.
However minute the chances for life to emerge may be, in the end, the staggering number of stars, those energy givers with thermonuclear fusion keeping their bellies warm, can easily overcome miniscule probabilities for the chance of developing self-replicating molecules to materialize.
After all, fed by the energy from the Sun, life emerged on the Earth. If it can happen here, under the right circumstances, it can happen elsewhere too. We are not a product of exceptionalism.
So why have we not been visited by aliens yet? Aliens who might have had a much longer time to evolve and had the time to figure out how to travel through vast distances within a manageable time.
Within the last 100 years, human discovery and technological capability has progressed at a stunning pace. With that in mind, imagine what a civilization with a head start of 100,000 years under its belt would be capable of.
In 100 years we have developed advanced technologies, have mapped the human genome, understood the basics of physical laws and the beginnings of the universe, built computers that can look into the future and tell us the weather five days from now (not to mention, Facebook, Instagram, Alexa, and TikTok!), so imagine what wonders 100,000 more years of technological development can bring.
Heck, I do not even remember what I used to do merely 35 years back when laptops and the internet were not around.
Maybe a simple reason for not meeting the aliens is that distances between islands of life scattered around stars and galaxies are just too vast for technologies or physical laws to overcome. The distances ensure that once an island we will always be an island.
Distances aside, there could be another possibility. One possibility, if considered, may be a more elegant and natural explanation to the riddle: a sufficiently advanced civilization, unless it overcomes the innate traits shaped by the nuances of evolution, is destined to self-destruct.
The trigger for self-destruction might be built into the basic constructs of evolution.
Life itself is a chemical process and the universe has plenty of them to offer for randomness to play the game of mix and match. And play it does. Chance happenings of favorable chemical bonds lead to more and more complex molecules.
One day, some of those molecules discover the magic of self-replication. Given a source of energy, and if there is no competition, the same molecules will replicate without bound to the extent that is limited by the energy source. It will be a monochromatic world.
Nature, however, is more colorful. The randomness that made those molecules possible also ensures that they will have adequate competition and the successful will have to constantly watch their backs.
Even if there is no competing family of molecules wanting to grab the same resources, the invisible power of randomness will create variations within, leading to various sub-classes. Some better and some worse.
The better ones will be more adept at replicating and consuming energy and begin to dominate. The less unfortunate will either perish or find a niche and withdraw into their own little part of the universe.
Dictated by randomness, the basic rules governing evolution emerge.
Given a mix of a source of energy ready to be consumed and a class of self-replicating molecules, randomness leading to chance mutations creates less or more efficient molecules, setting the stage for natural selection.
The consequence is the start of epic battles for consuming and garnering resources that have continued to date. Battles that were either played out among different species or among different sub-classes of the same species.
If you don’t believe it, just look around, or listen to 10-minutes of the evening news, or skim the headlines of the Washington Post. The underside of all stories considered newsworthy is a story of struggle between classes.
Starting from humble beginnings and shaped by evolution and underlying laws of natural selection, we have reached the present to be what we are now. Our genes, our biological and psychological thought processes are all shaped by the pressures, and opportunities, in the surrounding environment in which our ancestors lived. In a way, we are an integral of history, and if we survive. that integral is positive.
The innate traits developed along the way, which helped us survive and get progressively better, are still with us. The rush of adrenaline when we hear a creaking noise in the middle of night, the fear of snakes, the sweet tooth, our attraction to vistas so we can spot a cheetah from miles away.
The list of innate biological and psychological traits that we carry and are shaped by the environment is endless. A result of the sweeping arms of natural selection that has touched everything.
Somewhere along the way, however, we broke away from the pack. Within the last ten thousand years or so, (a tiny blip compared to cosmic and geological time scales on which the outcomes of natural selection are shaped) through technological advances that were initially slow, but always advancing at an exponential pace, we have attained an apparent capability to defy evolution.
With climate control offered by heating or cooling, we no longer have to worry about adapting to warm or cold weather. Before flying to Rovaniemi, Finland, a place inside the Arctic Circle, I did not give a second thought to how I am going to survive there in the middle of February. I no longer have to act like the squirrels running in my backyard, who during the Fall go through a frenzied activity of burying something.
Outward appearances of breaking free from the chains of natural selection, however, could be deceiving. The same ten thousand years that have endowed us with tremendous capabilities, both constructive and destructive, yet are not long enough for our innate traits of tribalism to adjust to the different environment, have given us a different paradigm in which we now exist.
We may no longer have to worry about tigers, snakes, famines, extreme cold, but we still carry the basic traits and reactions that were shaped by those environmental pressures. We may no longer have to compete for resources across species, but we now carry the battles within the subclasses of our own species.
Now the battles play out between rich and poor, between nations, between people of different colors, between individuals with different mindsets or religions or races or histories or sexual orientation.
The basic tenets of natural selection continue to thrive but now the ‘competition’ live next door.
Although the pace of technological advances has far outpaced that at which most biological and psychological traits evolve, we continue to be governed by the traits with which we evolved.
Genetics still haunts us. We may no longer be shackled by the subtle laws of natural selection, and may feel proud to have overcome nature, however, nature still rules. All we need to do is to look into our pantries or the maze of shelves of a grocery store and the food choices we make.
It is not an accident that we are hooked on sugar.
Holding on to the traits that gave us an edge during evolution is a dangerous mix when combined with technological capabilities we now have. The same psychological traits could become an impediment to our survival.
Armed with dangerous weapons while holding on to tribalism in an inevitable fight for decreasing natural resources is a dangerous mix.
Looking at the beautiful night sky, I start to wonder: Can a sufficiently advanced civilization evolve the wisdom to free itself from the traits that proved advantageous during evolution and adapt to a world that is no longer governed by the pressures of evolution?
How long will it take for our genes to evolve to the new paradigm of no longer being shaped by the guardrails imposed by needing to not load up on sugar?
But then again, are we actually in a new evolutionary paradigm in which the traditional rules of evolution do not apply? The feeling that we are free from the tenets of evolution is likely just a mirage. The guardrails of evolution are still there; it is just that the players in the fight for resources are different.
Evolution, ultimately, is a fight for limited resources. If the resources were unlimited, then maybe all can live happily ever after in harmony. The world, instead of feeling like it is always on the verge of dystopia, will be a utopian dream.
Previously the fight may have been between different species and that paradigm may no longer exist. It does not mean that the fight for resources is over. The fight for resources has now, shifted to within Homo Sapiens. (With little regard for the essential role of biodiversity in the natural world, I might add. But that’s a topic for a future discussion.)
The fight for resources is now between the nations, it is between rich and poor, it is between freedom and dictatorship, it is between democrats and republicans, it is between haves and have nots.
And within the fight for freedom, the conflict is between liberals and moderates. The fight for resources has a fractal quality to it; every segment looks like its larger version.
The fight is now between us when we rush through the door of the Walmart on Black Friday, and like hyenas, grab on the ends of a box of a 64” flat screen TV. We think that our survival depends on being victorious and bringing that TV home, mistakenly believing that it will nourish our souls.
In a world that is teeming with disparity, the fight for natural resources will always be inevitable. And with randomness governing personal destinies, uniformity as a natural state is a statistical impossibility. No matter how much time we give, uniformity is not going to happen.
These days the game of evolution plays out on the grander scale and is for different resources — oil, precious metals, the Arctic shipping routes in the world of decreasing sea ice, minerals at the bottom of the sea, who is going to claim the rights for the desolate piece of wasteland on the dark side of the moon.
Hanging on to the traits that made us successful, and the process of evolution that shaped the advent of intelligent beings, will ultimately be the demise of a sufficiently advanced civilization that has acquired means to build a Death Star to annihilate millions with the push of a button.
In the end, the slate will be wiped clean, and life will begin again with molecules elbowing each other for — you guessed it — resources.
That may be the reason why we have not been visited by aliens yet. A civilization that may be capable of warp travel, or can control wormholes, will not be able to grow out of its increasing need for resources. In the end, some faction will press the button, and the mushroom cloud will lead to destruction.
We can hang on the utopian dream that a council of wise people will rein in our base tendencies, and we can avoid extinction. We may think that Spock will be our savior, but we may not be able to shake the Klingon Bird-of-Prey.
Is dystopia a natural state, and utopia, well, a dream?
Or one day, we all will be inserted with a chip that will wipe out any thoughts of being different, and we will live in the world of the Matrix. But then, the fight may shift to between the Fugaku and Selene to find more human cells to power their hunger.
Whether we will become wise I do not know; we do not know. We can ask the aliens who never visited us. Or that we cannot ask them may be telling in that a sufficiently advanced civilization at some point wipes the slate clean and resets the process of evolution back to its humble beginnings.
I look again at the night sky and wonder if we will manage to really defy the laws that are shaped by our desire to corner a limited availability of resources. My time is limited, and I may never know the answer.
Or maybe, given the 13.8 billion years of history and looking back, we already have the answer to why aliens have not visited us.
Time is a great healer. It could also be a great destroyer. Time graciously lends us all the “time” we need to build the Death Star that one day will ensure our destruction.
It is a plausible scenario. But cheer up, it is extremely unlikely to happen today.