Wondering why humans aren't getting their shit together? Our biology is holding us back.
In small tribal groups, most destructive thinking and behaviours are controlled, contained and corrected to that which will sustain the tribe. That’s how we’re hardwired.
But on our globalised Earth, forms of meta-intelligence have emerged that overwhelm our individual and tribal intelligences. Organised religions, political ideologies and global corporations, each made up of myriads of functional humans, are working toward the unintended consequences of war, unstoppable climate crisis and mass species extinction.
How are the ‘advanced’ future humans and aliens in your science fiction able to function cooperatively and sustainably long enough to evolve beyond behaviours that once served them well but became self-destructive? Individual and collective intelligence aside, how do you design a conscious creature who can achieve what we’re failing at—long-term survival.
Here we have another problem. We don’t know what consciousness is or how it emerges—it’s still one of the great frontiers of science. When you drill down, even the term ‘consciousness’ becomes useless. Other than in the strict medical sense (the Glasgow Coma Scale), ‘consciousness’ isn’t even a thing. I, for example, don’t exist.
Who is writing this if it isn’t a conscious incredibly nerdy being?
If you now punch me on the arm, you may reasonably ask who is feeling the pain if it isn’t a conscious being—an ‘I’. But where are the words forming your question coming from? Is there a mini-you, sitting in your brain at a big meaty control station, working at lightning speed to collate thoughts, edit words and issue your response? Nope, it’s all just collectively emerging from specialised meat, linked by basic chemistry and physics.
As we talk, we have no awareness of what’s happening in our brains to enable us to do so. Physiology and scans don’t tell us how our sense of self can appear certain when all indicators are that it’s merely a recursive representation—an avatar to assist the global brain function at ‘higher’, differently effective, and affective, levels. A dog is perfectly intelligent in its own way. So is slime mould, so is a young child—and they all need to distinguish ‘self’ from ‘other’. But they are conscious in a different, less complex way to us. The thing we call ‘consciousness’ is an evolving, ever-changing spectrum, in multiple dimensions.
Worse, there’s a second way ‘you’ don’t exist.
The ‘you’ reading this now, isn’t the same ‘you’ playing sports, or fuming in a traffic gridlock, or drinking in a bar, or making love. In effect, you’re multiple-personalities in a single body. In all your different emotional states—from incoherent-with-anger to kindly-altruistic—‘you’ are a bunch of very different people.
Most of us are writing dystopian speculative fiction for good reasons, and lack of IQ in our leaders isn’t the issue. So, if you’ve designed your ‘superior’ homo or alien with a bigger brain, their ‘smarter’ intelligence isn’t a guarantee your new species will survive any longer than ours.
We’re social mammals evolved to engage constructively with others and we do it spectacularly well. True, we’re only evolved to cope with a maximum of around 150 others in a tribal group rather than the entire interweb, but we can still operate collectively to build civilisations, tech, philosophies, the Rule of Law, and political parties—all of which require incredible individual and communal skillsets.
We’re also already hugely empathic as individuals and compassionate as collectives. Our intensely emotional brains motivate us to reason and problem-solve on every scale from the individual to the global. Yet those capabilities are not enough to stop us from committing civilisational suicide.
It’s no longer enough to casually claim our fictional advanced creations are ‘wiser’ or ‘more empathic’ or ‘more compassionate’ or ‘more augmented’. We are already those things. So, when you create a new homo species, or our new alien overlords, what is the critical difference that has allowed them to transcend their biological evolution? How have they avoided collective suicide?
What, in other words, could we do to save the most complex object in the known universe from destroying itself?