29 May 2023

Biological Imperative

My impression is that even many "futuristical" thinkers and science fiction writers have not yet fully absorbed what I believe is the emergent picture of where we, as an intelligent, inchoate technological species on a relatively isolated natural life-bearing world in a quiet spiral arm of a (relatively) quiet galaxy, find ourselves. 

Here's how I see it, as succinctly as I can manage. I'll put it in Powerpointese (aka bullet points). 
  • Whether through the Anthropic Principle or otherwise, the universe is much the same, at least in the filaments rather than the voids, everywhere: galaxies form stars, which are accompanied by planets. This process is stochastic, but it is possible for planets to be relatively stable for very long periods of time with conditions favorable for the origin and persistence of life. And, at least occasionally, life evolves self-awareness and intelligence, which in its broadest strokes means the ability to correctly perceive the actual nature of the cosmos, and use technology to expand life beyond the surface of the single planet of origin. 
  • Although this process is clearly possible, there are very good reasons to believe that it is somewhere between exceedingly and very rare. The origin of life may be (just barely) "downhill," meaning it is likely to happen given the initial conditions favorable for it, which clearly occurred on Earth fairly quickly after the surface cooled down and the early solar system era of heavy bombardment had come to an end. (In some systems this bombardment phase might never end, which would be one of the filters making life and advanced life respectively less common than they otherwise would be). 
  • On the other hand, there are clearly "choke points," developments in the history of life which are not likely to happen, and so typically only happen in the history of any given life bearing world after long periods of trial and error. And some may, occasionally, never happen in any given system. Examples are the origin of a reliable and accurate system of coding and transmitting genetic information; the origin of oxygen production through a particularly efficient form of photosynthesis (necessary ultimately for the survival of any but the most limited and basic chemoautotrophic life); the parallel and concomitant evolution of respiration, which makes life much more energy efficient; the origin of a eukaryote-like cellular structure (making sex possible and evolution more efficient, also making the emergence of macroscopic life possible); and the origin of human-level intelligence, which has the potential to speed up evolution enormously by introducing the ability of organisms to perceive their situation and respond to it rationally rather than purely through trial and error type biological evolution. If any of these kinds of transitions (there are several others) were to fail to happen, then life would be stuck, and would not evolve to a "higher phase." What the "higher phase" that results from the evolution of intelligence looks like we do not yet fully know or understand, but it appears that it is of at least equal importance in the evolution of life on, or from, this planet, as the evolution of photosynthesis. 
  • Stars, especially little red dwarfs (over 70% of all stars), and planets (nearly all stars have planets)... are, on the other hand, very common. So there is plenty of undeveloped but developable real estate. A big catch is that stars, vis a vis other stars, are very, very far apart. This may be a feature, not a bug. If stars are too close together, as they are near galactic centers, encounters and such things as proximal supernovae, are probably common enough to disrupt most planetary systems before life really has a chance to evolve to higher levels there. But distance makes interstellar exploitation of resources very difficult. We have to solve some truly humongous engineering problems to be able to make use of "the stars," literally. But in the meantime our "solar nursery" is actually quite large and resource-rich. Once our civilization has achieved sustainable advanced technology on our planet, we can become a "system" civilization, with orbital habitats, asteroid mining, and even some utilization of the planets and moons of the Solar System.
  • From the foregoing facts it becomes inescapable to conclude that a sort of universal biological imperative exists: to go forth into wider space, and spread life as far and as wide as possible. To seek out and colonize habitats; make use of matter and energy available literally everywhere to expand the sphere of life to encompass the entire universe. While not embracing a religious or teleological perspective, this seems to be pretty clearly the "purpose" of intelligence: to figure this out and accomplish it. I don't doubt that somewhere out in the vast cosmos others are dealing with these same issues, or have long since passed the initial phases and are well along on such a program. But here and now, in this little corner of the cosmos, we are it, and this is our history, our task, and our fate. 

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