A radical explanation for a conundrum about extra-terrestrial life, and what it means for the future of humanity
The story goes like this: Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was talking about the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligence with some other physicists. They were impressed that life had evolved quickly and progressively on Earth. They figured our galaxy holds about 100 billion stars, and that an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing species could colonize the galaxy in just a few million years. They reasoned that extra-terrestrial intelligence should be common by now. Fermi listened patiently, then asked, simply, "So, where is everybody?" That is, if extra-terrestrial intelligence is common, why haven't we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi's Paradox.
Since then, the paradox has become ever more baffling. Paleontology has shown that organic life evolved quickly after the Earth's surface cooled and became life-hospitable. Given simple life forms, evolution shows progressive trends toward larger bodies, brains and social complexity. Evolutionary psychology has revealed several credible paths from simpler social minds to human-level creative intelligence. So evolving intelligence seems likely, given a propitious habitat—and astronomers think such habitats are common. Moreover, at least 150 extrasolar planets have been identified in the last few years, suggesting that life-hospitable planets orbit most stars. Yet 40 years of intensive searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence have yielded nothing: no radio signals, no credible spacecraft sightings, no close encounters of any kind.
It looks, then, as if we can answer Fermi in two ways. Perhaps our current science over-estimates the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligence evolving. Or, perhaps evolved technical intelligence has some deep tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating. After Hiroshima, some suggested that any aliens bright enough to make colonizing space ships would be bright enough to make thermonuclear bombs, and would use them on each other sooner or later. Maybe extra-terrestrial intelligence always blows itself up. Indeed, Fermi's Paradox became, for a while, a cautionary tale about Cold War geopolitics.
I suggest a different, even darker solution to the Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don't blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they're too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don't need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. Once they turn inwards to chase their shiny pennies of pleasure, they lose the cosmic plot. They become like a self-stimulating rat, pressing a bar to deliver electricity to its brain's ventral tegmental area, which stimulates its nucleus accumbens to release dopamine, which feels…ever so good.
The fundamental problem is that an evolved mind must pay attention to indirect cues of biologicalfitness, rather than tracking fitness itself. This was a key insight of evolutionary psychology in the early 1990s; although evolution favors brains that tend to maximize fitness (as measured by numbers of great-grandkids), no brain has capacity enough to do so under every possible circumstance. Evolution simply could never have anticipated the novel environments, such as modern society, that our social primate would come to inhabit. That would be a computationally intractable problem, even for the new IBM Blue Gene/L supercomputer that runs 280 trillion operations per second. Even long-term weather prediction is easy when compared to fitness prediction. As a result, brains must evolve short-cuts: fitness-promoting tricks, cons, recipes and heuristics that work, on average, under ancestrally normal conditions.