This is like the Inception of blog posts.
No one’s ever been three levels deep before!
The gist of the last post was that civilizations have a narrow window in which they are capable of settling the entire galaxy and yet still backwards enough in their thinking to want to. My hypothesis is not only that this is true, but that the window for galactic domination is only open for a few centuries. By the time a civilization sets out to take over the galaxy, filling every available niche, they will have progressed ethically enough to choose not to.
Daniel Knight commented and wanted to know why I think we will ever see the filling of available niches as evil. And it’s a great question, one I couldn’t attempt to answer in the space of a comment, which is why we find ourselves three levels deep (you know, at that snow fortress level, where shit really stops making sense).
One of Daniel’s points is that we will eventually have the means to live forever, and we will keep having offspring, and all those bodies have to go somewhere, which will mean taking over the galaxy. If you continue his reasoning, we will then have to take over the universe. And if you continue this reasoning further, even that won’t be enough.
I might end my response right there and point out that any race capable of seeding the galaxy will be able to extrapolate these base impulses and realize that there’s no end to such ambitions, that space will eventually run out, and so the move is not only pointless — is not only delaying the inevitable —but only stands a chance of causing harm in the process, both by increasing the frustration of our species, now swelling at the universes’ limits, and also by reducing the universe’s potential for diversity.
That’s the simple answer: We won’t seed the galaxy, because how is that any better than the idea that we’ve run out of room on Earth? And how is the expiration of our sun any different than the heat death or collapse of the universe? Once our capabilities have expanded enough to seriously contemplate seeding the galaxy, our minds will have expanded enough to take in the bigger picture: And that is that the galaxy suddenly isn’t so big, certainly not big enough for exponential and unlimited ambitions. At that point in our ethical progress, we will realize that what we have is quite enough.
If that sounds impossible, consider the many ways that we are now defying our biological imperatives. People still live in terror of runaway population expansion, but we’ve already hit the deflection point on that growth curve. The world population is set to max out around 2050 – 2100 and then begin to decline. Despite the incredible base impulse to reproduce — an urge as strong as any (right up there with eating) — more and more people are choosing to have fewer and fewer children. Some countries are now offering couples money to have more kids (Iran and China both have or have had programs like this), and people are turning them down.
Similarly, the question: “Why don’t we expand and fill every available niche?” sounds to me like the question: “Why don’t I eat all doughnuts?” It is the extrapolation of a primitive urge that is overcome once we realize how unhealthy it is. Our drive to seek new frontiers served us evolutionarily, but it does not hold up as we progress morally. Already, there are islands and deep jungle tribes that we are aware of and choose to largely leave alone. We choose not to interfere. Sure, it took longer to reach this moral framework than it took to practically cover the planet, but the vacuum of space is proving to be the physical barrier we needed to allow our ethics to finally catch up.
And that brings us to the crux. It brings us to a very important point. There is a bit of flawed reasoning here that we all fall prey to, myself included, and it leads to really poor predictions about the future:
We keep assuming that technology will race forward and forward, but that we’ll be the same people when we get there.
That is, we place ourselves into that future. But it won’t be us there, it will be future generations, and they won’t think like we do. Millennials do not think like Baby Boomers. And Baby Boomers did not think like Victorians.
It is hubris and ego that cause us to do this. We like to think of our current generation as morally perfect. Our brains do this to protect us from our biases. Entire generations convinced themselves that slavery was perfectly reasonable. Current generations (myself included) contort our brains until we’re convinced that eating animals makes sense. What is accepted today will be abhorred in the future. We are barbarians. In a very near future, professional football will no longer be played, and boxing will be outlawed, thanks to the progress of science and (lagging behind science) ethics.
Guffaw now all you like. Previous generations likely thought the same thing about public executions, the sport of nailing cats to trees and setting them on fire, or — sticking with cruelty to cats — one Native American tribe’s habit of burying cats up to their necks, riding past on horseback, and ripping their heads off.
That revulsion you feel? That’s what future generations will think of us.
There are signs that it’s already happening. It’s hard to spot these trends, just as it would’ve been difficult to foresee the emancipation movement hundreds of years before Lincoln, but they are there.
We see a growing rejection of consumerism, even as things are more plentiful and cheaper. It might be a minority, but the small-home practitioners (of which I am one), and those who get rid of as much of their stuff as possible and find increased happiness as a result (ditto) are in clear violation of accepted cultural norms, but might perhaps be a sign of things to come. Just as lower reproduction rates fly in the face of biology and millions of years of evolution, and yet seems to be a growing and near-global trend.
In my last post, I suggested that science progresses and then moral progress comes after. The idea in this post is the consequence of that. We make a horrible mistake when we project our cultural mores into the strange and wonderful world around the corner, because that won’t be us there. It’ll be our grandchildren. There will be fewer of them than there are of us, but they’ll be much wiser and better behaved than we were.