Sunday, November 25, 2007

Priorities and Prospects

Noam Chomsky

Excerpted from Hegemony or Survival, Metropolitan Books, 2003

A few years ago, one of the great figures of contemporary biology, Ernst Mayr, published some reflections on the likelihood for success in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Mayr took exception to the conclusions of astrophysicists who confidently expected to find higher intelligence throughout the universe. He considered the prospects of success very low. His reasoning had to do with the adaptive value of what we call “higher intelligence,” meaning the particular human form of intellectual organization. Mayr estimated the number of species since the origin of life at about 50 billion, only one of which “achieved the kind of intelligence needed to establish a civilization.” It did so very recently, perhaps a hundred thousand years ago. It is generally assumed that only one small breeding group survived, of which we are all descendants, apparently with very little genetic variation. What we call “civilizations” developed near the end of this brief moment of evolutionary time, and are “inevitably are short-lived.”

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