clifford_pickover's picture
Author, The Math Book, The Physics Book, and The Medical Book trilogy
The Immortalization of Humanity

The most unreported story deals with evolution of human lifespans and intelligence. Although we hear news reports about how humans will live longer in the future, we rarely hear reports that our children or grandchildren will be immortal by the end of the next century. Given the tremendous advances in molecular biochemistry that will take place by 2100, we will certainly uncover the molecular and cellular mysteries of aging, and therefore many humans will live forever, assuming they don't suffer a fatal accident. I am amazed that this obvious concept is not discussed more often or taken more seriously. Of course, the ecological, economic, political, social, and religious implications will be extreme. Imagine an immortal Pope discussing the afterlife with his followers — or the growth of two social classes, those that can afford immortality and those too poor to gain access to the required anti-aging "treatment."

Similarly, most scientists and lay people seem to think that there is intelligent, space-faring life elsewhere in the universe. A related unreported story is just how special human intelligence is. Despite what we see in Star Wars and Star Trek, I don't expect intelligence to be an inevitable result of evolution on other worlds. Since the beginning of life on Earth, as many as 50 billion species have arisen, and only one of them has acquired technology. If intelligence has such has high survival value, why are so few creatures intelligent? Mammals are not the most successful or plentiful of animals. Ninety-five percent of all animal species are invertebrates. Most of the worm species on our planet have not even been discovered yet, and there are a billion insects wandering the Earth.

If humankind were destroyed in some great cataclysm, in my opinion there is very little possibility that our level of intelligence would ever be achieved on Earth again. If human intelligence is an evolutionary accident, and mathematical, linguistic, artistic, and technological abilities a very improbable bonus, then there is little reason to expect that life on other worlds will ever develop intelligence that allows them to explore the stars. Both intelligence and mechanical dexterity appear to be necessary to make radio transmitting devices for communication between the stars. How likely is it that we will find a race having both traits? Very few Earth organisms have much of either. As evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond has suggested, those that have acquired a little of one (smart dolphins, dexterous spiders) have acquired none of the other, and the only species to acquire a little of both (chimpanzees) has been rather unsuccessful. The most successful creatures on Earth are the dumb and clumsy rats and beetles, which both found better routes to their current dominance. If we do receive a message from the stars, it will undermine much of our current thinking about evolutionary mechanisms.

Despite the improbabilities, we must continue to scan the stars for signs of intelligence. I agree with the ancient Persian proverb, "The seeker is a finder," which suggests we must always search in order to understand our place in our universe.