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.
No reason was given for going to war that could not be refuted by a literate teenager in about two minutes.
More generally, people have little specific knowledge of what is happening around them. An academic study that appeared right before the presidential election reports that less than 30 percent of the population was aware of the positions of the candidates on major issues, though 86 percent knew the name of George Bush’s dog
Ridiculing the tea party shenanigans is a serious error… People want some answers. They are hearing answers from only one place: Fox, talk radio, and Sarah Palin
It’s done differently in El Salvador. There they send in the death squads. Here what they do is try to hook you on sitcoms. It’s true that both are techniques of control, but they are rather different techniques.
Corporate managers have a duty. They have to focus on profit making and seeking to convert as much of life as possible into commodities. It’s not because they’re bad people; it’s their task. Under Anglo-American law, it’s their legal obligation as well. There’s a lot to say about this topic, but one element of it concerns the universities and much else. One particular consequence is the focus on what’s called efficiency. It’s an interesting concept. It’s not strictly an economic concept. It has crucial ideological dimensions. If a business reduces personnel, it might become more efficient by standard measures with lower costs. Typically, that shifts the burden to the public, a very familiar phenomenon we see all the time. Costs to the public are not counted, and they’re colossal. That’s a choice that’s not based on economic theory. That’s based on an ideological decision
Since the drug war started, there’s been a very sharp increase in incarceration rates; the U.S.’s incarceration rate is way beyond maybe five, ten times as high as comparable countries, and its target is primarily black males, Hispanic males, some women, some whites—very disproportionately to the population. After all, think of the history of this country. After the Emancipation Proclamation, there were about 10 years in which blacks were formally sort of free, and then slavery was reintroduced by incarceration. By the 1870s the states had passed laws, and federal government approved them, in which essentially black life was criminalized. If a black man was found standing on a street corner, he could be arrested for vagrancy. If somebody claimed he looked the wrong way at a white woman, he’d be incarcerated for attempted rape. Pretty soon, you had the black male population mostly in jail, and they were a slave labor force. A lot of the American industrial revolution was based on slave labor from leased prisoners in U.S. steel, the mines.
This went on until the Second World War, when there was a need for labor. There was a post-war boom, and during that period black men could begin to integrate into the work force and get a job in an auto plant—a fairly decent job with wages—buy a house, send their kids to school, and so on. Well, by the ‘70s it was over. The economy was being financialized, production was being exported, there was a rust belt developing where the manufacturing jobs were essentially no longer available. So what do you do with the black population? Well, the answer was throw them back in jail under the pretext of the drug war. That’s the consequence, and it’s pretty well understood.