Geoffrey Miller on Fermi

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Tue May 02 2006 - 16:43:24 MDT

[not SL4 really, but Geoffrey Miller is liked by some here]

Source: Seed Magazine - Montreal, Quebec, Canada


May 1, 2006

Why We Haven't Met Any Aliens

A radical explanation for a conundrum about extra-terrestrial
life, and what it means for the future of humanity

by Geoffrey Miller

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=97and
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=85ever 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.

The result is that we don't seek reproductive success directly;
we seek tasty foods that have tended to promote survival, and
luscious mates who have tended to produce bright, healthy
babies. The modern result? Fast food and pornography. Technology
is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote real
biological fitness, but it's even better at delivering fake
fitness=97subjective cues of survival and reproduction without the
real-world effects. Having real friends is so much more effort
than watching Friends. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be
so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star
Wars or Serenity. The business of humanity has become
entertainment, and entertainment is the business of feeding fake
fitness cues to our brains.

Fitness-faking technology tends to evolve much faster than our
psychological resistance to it. With the invention of the
printing press, people read more and have fewer kids. (Only a
few curmudgeons lament this.) With the invention of Xbox 360,
people would rather play a high-resolution virtual ape in Peter
Jackson's King Kong than be a perfect-resolution real human.
Teens today must find their way through a carnival of
addictively fitness-faking entertainment products: iPods, DVDs,
TiVo, Sirius Satellite Radio, Motorola cellphones, the Spice
channel, EverQuest, instant messaging, MDMA, BC bud. The
traditional staples of physical, mental and social
development=97athletics, homework, dating=97are neglected. The few
young people with the self-control to pursue the meritocratic
path often get distracted at the last minute. Take, for example,
the MIT graduates who apply to do computer game design for
Electronics Arts, rather than rocket science for NASA.

Around 1900, most inventions concerned physical reality: cars,
airplanes, Zeppelins, electric lights, vacuum cleaners, air
conditioners, bras, zippers. In 2005, most inventions concern
virtual entertainment=97the top 10 patent-recipients were IBM,
Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Matsushita, Samsung, Micron Technology,
Intel, Hitachi, Toshiba and Fujitsu=97not Boeing, Toyota or
Victoria's Secret. We have already shifted from a reality
economy to a virtual economy, from physics to psychology as the
value-driver and resource-allocator. We are already disappearing
up our own brainstems. Our neurons over-stimulate each other,
promiscuously, as our sperm and eggs decay, unused. Freud's
pleasure principle triumphs over the reality principle. Today we
narrow-cast human-interest stories to each other, rather than
broadcasting messages of universal peace and progress to other
star systems.

Maybe the bright aliens did the same. I suspect that a certain
period of fitness-faking narcissism is inevitable after any
intelligent life evolves. This is the Great Temptation for any
technological species=97to shape their subjective reality to
provide the cues of survival and reproductive success without
the substance. Most bright alien species probably go extinct
gradually, allocating more time and resources to their
pleasures, and less to their children. They eventually die out
when the game behind all games=97the Game of Life=97says "Game Over;
you are out of lives and you forgot to reproduce."

Heritable variation in personality might allow some lineages to
resist the Great Temptation and last longer. Some individuals
and families may start with an "irrational" Luddite abhorrence
of entertainment technology, and they may evolve ever more self-
control, conscientiousness and pragmatism. They will evolve a
horror of virtual entertainment, psychoactive drugs and
contraception. They will stress the values of hard work, delayed
gratifica tion, child-rearing and environmental stewardship.
They will combine the family values of the religious right with
the sustainability values of the Greenpeace left. Their concerns
about the Game of Life will baffle the political pollsters who
only understand the rhetoric of status and power, individual and
society, rights and duties, good and evil, us and them.

This, too, may be happening already. Christian and Muslim
fundamentalists and anti-consumerism activists already
understand exactly what the Great Temptation is, and how to
avoid it. They insulate themselves from our creative-class
dreamworlds and our EverQuest economics. They wait patiently for
our fitness-faking narcissism to go extinct. Those practical-
minded breeders will inherit the Earth as like-minded aliens may
have inherited a few other planets. When they finally achieve
contact, it will not be a meeting of novel-readers and game-
players. It will be a meeting of dead-serious super-parents who
congratulate each other on surviving not just the Bomb, but the

Geoffrey Miller is an assistant professor in the department of
psychology at University of New Mexico and author of The Mating
Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature.

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