Hey Dr. Tyson!
Your awesome talk at the Planetarium made tonight one of the coolest nights I’ve ever had. It was awesome!! You were funny, mind-bending, and entertaining!! I’ve been a fan of your books since five years ago when I discovered science and started hungrily reading everything I could get my hands on! I’m 27, and I’m a musician who lives in Brooklyn.
Anyway, I had a few adult beverages at the lecture tonight and thought about your final point all the way back to Brooklyn. I think I may be able to help you feel better about your dismal view of humanity’s place in the Universe:
Basically, you said (extremely entertainingly, mind you!) that you are profoundly disturbed about human stupidity and need to get it off your mind, because it troubles you. You made the point that we humans think we’re soooo smart, but really we’re insignificant stupid worms on the sidewalk of the universe. You assert that you wouldn’t be surprised if aliens choose not to contact to us because they don’t see any signs of intelligent life on Earth, or that the realm of their understanding is incomprehensible to us mere little humans.
You made these points: humans are ooonly 2% genetically different than chimps; chimps can do basically what human toddlers can do (stack boxes, use sign language, etc.), so imagine a new species that has toddlers that can do what human adults can do (solve algebra, derive quantum mechanics, write symphonies, etc.), and wouldn’t the adults in the species be sooo beyond what we can imagine; aliens probably would look us over like we look over a worm on the sidewalk….two beings incapable of interacting with each other in any meaningful way.
You make two assumptions… Firstly, you assume that genetic differences account for the differences in intelligence between a chimp and a man. I don’t think genetic evolution plays a significant role anymore in the evolution of intellect in the human species. If you compared a Neanderthal man with a chimp, I don’t think you would see many differences in intelligent behavior. Take a look at a tribe of humans wandering the savanna 100,000 years ago; they would be genetically almost identical to a modern human (heck, even if you gave the caveman a nice shave and a suit you wouldn’t be able to pick him out on the NY Subway….although, there are some weird looking people on the NY Subway, so maybe that’s unfair…). AND YET: A human 100,000 years ago was struggling to make a meal for himself…grunting….using crude language and tools….and today, that guy’s great-great-etc-grandson is peering into the deepest known places in the universe, manipulating ELECTRONS with his fat monkey fingers to do COMPUTATIONS, building a network of hyper-connected brains, visiting the depths of the ocean, creating causal and mathematical models of galaxies, molecules, radiation, DNA, neurons, supernovae, viruses, and the fabric of space-time itself.
Somewhere along our evolution, humans hit a tipping point in their ability to amass and apply knowledge. It’s easy to imagine how it works….for example, the invention of mathematics only leads to more questions about numbers….maths become higher and higher and although they get more complicated, we possess the awesome ability to conceptualize right along side them! The ability to think abstractly and symbolize concepts in a layered manner, plus the societal ability of passing down technology and knowledge through generations, has lead us to be the first species EVER to have a runaway AMASSING of intelligence! The future members of our species will be vastly more intelligent than we are, but genetically, virtually identical.
We have hit a tipping point in knowledge absorption. We ARE the aliens. Theoretically, we can even imagine humans in a few hundred years meshing with computers….we already are, sort of….iPhone, laptop…..we can imagine our own species, as evolved genetically as we are right now, building and meshing with hyper-intelligent AI of our own invention.
Secondly, you seemingly invoke mystical thinking when you imagine a super-intelligent alien species of life that has somehow popped into existence without evolving from simpler organisms and stupider organisms (like, presumably, ourselves). Even a hyper-intelligent alien species that looked on us as little worms would have had to evolve from molecular, and then evolutionary, and then technological processes. It is certainly possible that we wouldn’t be able to comprehend their art and understanding of the universe, but it is mandated by the rules of the Universe that THEY THEMSELVES came from humble beginnings just like we did (unless the rules of nature need to be re-written).
This brings me to a thought I’ve been having lately. The more complicated something gets, the less predictable it gets. You can’t predict a traffic jam from studying a car, as the saying goes.
Here’s a thought experiment: If you were around 12 billion years ago, looking around at molecules of hydrogen and helium, you would probably think “HA! These stupid molecules! They don’t even understand their own existence, and they never will! There’s no intrinsic property that will ever allow them to organize themselves into anything interesting or intelligent!” But you would have been, amazingly and beyond all logic, dead wrong. As things get more complicated, they begin to do very weird things. Atoms made suns. Suns made heavy elements. Heavy elements made solar systems. Solar systems made life. Life made intelligence. Intelligence made technology. But at the end of the day, technology is still a just a bunch of hydrogen atoms.
Now I don’t know what my point was.
But anyway, I’m almost certain I am saying stupid things, as I am a mere mortal and you are a super-intelligent astrophysics star.
Or, maybe I’ll help you sleep a little better!!
– Chris Merritt (rock musician, and your dedicated science groupie)