Priorities and Prospects
A few years ago, one of the great figures of contemporary biology, Ernst Mayr, published
some reflections on the likelihood of success in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
He considered the prospects very low. His reasoning had to do with the adaptive value of what we call “higher intelligence,” meaning the particular human formof intellectual organization. Mayr estimated thenumber of species since the origin of lifeat about fifty billion, only one of which “achieved the kind of intelligence needed toestablish a civilization.” It did so very recently, perhaps 100,000 years ago. It is generallyassumed that only one small breeding group surv
ived, of which we are all descendants.
Mayr speculated that the human form of intellectual organization may not be favored by
selection. The history of life on Earth, he wrote, refutes the claim that “it is better to be
smart than to be stupid,” at least judging by biological success: beetles and bacteria, for
example, are vastly more successful than humans in terms of survival. He also made the
rather somber observation that “the average life expectancy of aspecies is about 100,000
We are entering a period of human history that may provide an answer to the question of
whether it is better to be smart than stupid. The most hopeful prospect is that the question
will not be answered: if it receives a definite answer, that answer can only be that humans
were a kind of “biological error,” using their allotted 100,000 years to destroy themselves
and, in the process, much else. The species has surely developed the capacity to do just
that, and a hypothetical extraterrestrial observer might well conclude that humans have
demonstrated that capacity throughout their history, dramatically in the past few hundred
years, with an assault on the environment that sustains life, on the diversity of more
complex organisms, and with cold and calculated savagery, on each other as well.
The year 2003 opened with many indications that concerns about human survival are all
too realistic. To mention just a few examples, in the early fall of 2002 it was learned that
a possibly terminal nuclear war was barely avoided forty years earlier. Immediately after
this startling discovery, the Bush administration blocked UN efforts to ban the
militarization of space, a serious threat to survival. The administration also terminated
international negotiations to prevent biological warfare and moved to ensure the inevitability of an attack on Iraq, despite popular opposition that was without historical precedent.
Aid organizations with extensive experience in Iraq and studies by respected medical organizations warned that the planned invasion might precipitate a humanitarian
catastrophe. The warnings were ignored by Washington and evoked little media interest.
A high-level US task force concluded that attacks with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) within the United States are “likely,” and would become more so in the event of
war with Iraq. Numerous specialists and intelligence agencies issued similar warnings,
adding that Washington’s belligerence, not only with regard to Iraq, was increasing the
long-term threat of international terrorism and proliferation of WMD. These warnings too
In September 2002 the Bush administration announced its National Security Strategy,
which declared the right to resort to force to eliminate any perceived challenge to US global hegemony, which is to be permanent. The new grand strategy aroused deep concern worldwide, even within the foreign policy elite at home. Also in September, a propaganda campaign was launched to depict Saddam Hussein as an imminent threat to the United States and to insinuate that he was responsible for the 9-11 atrocities and was planning others. The campaign, timed to the on set of the midterm congressional elections, was highly successful in shifting attitudes. It
soon drove American public opinion off the global spectrum and helped the administration
achieve electoral aims and establish Iraq as a proper test case for the newly announced doctrine of resort to force at will.
President Bush and his associates also persisted in undermining international efforts to reduce threats to the environment that are recognized to be severe, with pretexts that barely concealed their devotion to narrow sectors of private power. The administration’s Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), wrote Science magazine editor Donald Kennedy, is a travesty that “included no recommendations for emission limitation or other forms of mitigation,” contenting itself with “voluntary reduction targets, which, even if met, would allow US emission rates to continue to grow at around 14% per decade.” The CCSP did not even consider the likelihood, suggested by “a growing body of evidence,” that the short-term warming changes it ignores “will trigger an abrupt nonlinear process,” producing dramatic temperature changes that could carry extreme
risks for the United States, Europe, and other temperate zones. The Bush administration’s
“contemptuous pass on multilateral engagement with the global warming problem,”
Kennedy continued, is the “stance that began the long continuing process of eroding its
friendships in Europe,” leading to “smoldering resentment.”
2 By October 2002 it was becoming hard to ignore the fact that the world was “more concerned about the unbridled use of American power than . . . about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein,” and “as intent on limiting the giant’s power as … in taking away the despot’s weapons.”
3 World concerns mounted in the months that followed, as the giant made clear its intent to attack Iraq even if the UN inspections it reluctantly tolerated failed to unearth weapons that would provide a pretext. By December, support for Washington’s war plans scarcely reached 10
percent almost anywhere outside the US, according to international polls. Two months later, after enormous worldwide protests, the press reported that “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion” (“the United States” here
meaning state power, not the public or even elite opinion).
4 By early 2003, studies revealed that fear of the United States had reached remarkable heights throughout the world, along with distrust of the political leadership. Dismissal of elementary human rights and needs was matched by a display of contempt for democracy …