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.”
Mayr speculates that higher intelligence may not be favored by selection. The history of life on Earth, he concluded, 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 far more successful than primates in these terms, and that is generally true of creatures that fill a specific niche or can undergo rapid genetic change. He also made the rather somber observation that “the average life expectancy of a species is about 100,000 years.”
We are entering a period of human life that may provide an answer to the question of whether it is better to be smart than stupid — whether there is intelligent life on earth, in some sense of “intelligence” that might be admired by a sensible extraterrestrial observer, could one exist. 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 our hypothetical extraterrestrial observer might conclude that they 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.
— Noam Chomsky, opening lines of Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance