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I mentioned biologist Ernst Mayr in my last post and his views on man’s higher intelligence which, according to Mayr, is an extremely rare happenstance and not at all favored by natural selection; it is therefore a “lethal mutation”. It appears our “highly intelligent” species is bereft of the wisdom necessary to fully appreciate the consequences of our technological prowess, the ramification of which are truly global and are most certainly leading to our demise. Rather than fix the root causes of climate change, what do we do? We discuss building sea walls and bioengineering our way out of this mess. That’s insane linear thinking.

There was a debate in the mid 1990’s between Ernst Mayr and Carl Sagan concerning the probability of extraterrestrial life. In that exchange Mayr explains why the likelihood of higher intelligence is so rare.
Here is an excerpt:

…Adaptations that are favored by selection, such as eyes or bioluminescence, originate in evolution scores of times independently. High intelligence has originated only once, in human beings. I can think of only two possible reasons for this rarity. One is that high intelligence is not at all favored by natural selection, contrary to what we would expect. In fact, all the other kinds of living organisms, millions of species, get along fine without high intelligence. The other possible reason for the rarity of intelligence is that it is extraordinarily difficult to acquire. Some grade of intelligence is found only among warm-blooded animals (birds and mammals), not surprisingly so because brains have extremely high energy requirements. But it is still a very big step from “some intelligence” to “high intelligence.” The hominid lineage separated from the chimpanzee lineage about 5 million years ago, but the big brain of modern man was acquired less than 300,000 years ago. As one scientist has suggested (Stanley 1992), it required complete emancipation from arboreal life to make the arms of the mothers available to carry the helpless babies during the final stages of brain growth. Thus, a large brain, permitting high intelligence, developed in less than the last 6 percent of the life on the hominid line. It seems that it requires a complex combination of rare, favorable circumstances to produce high intelligence…

Our fossil fuel-driven technology coupled with an economic model of unlimited production has had unintended consequences, as pointed out by this blogger:

…Our needs went from necessity to contentment to luxury to superfluousness. For example, we needed efficient means of communication. We had the telephone. It improved and became more and more efficient in the form of better and better mobile phones. Today, we are wallowing in the quagmire of mobile phones discarded sooner than they are bought because our superfluousness makes our phones outdated too soon. The same is the case with a lot of other things like cars, TV, computer, and so on.

The impact of such discarded things or things sold secondhand on the environment is tremendous. Chomsky calls the impact an ‘externality.’ The impact is external and we are not aware of it directly. The impact caused by the ever-increasing number of vehicles on the environment is not known to us when we go to buy yet another new car for another member of the family. Even the transaction of a secondhand mobile phone has certain externalities. A lot of our activities today are marked by externalities.

The aggregate of such externalities will be the root cause of the extinction of mankind…

We will never solve the problem of our economy’s negative environmental externalities because accounting for such costs would destroy the system. However, the destructiveness of those very externalities will solve this problem for us by ending the existence of industrial civilization. To put it another way, the cost of giving up fossil fuels is exorbitant, but the cost of not doing so means the permanent end of mankind’s reign over the planet.

Without a doubt, we’ve become an arrogant species who thinks of itself as a force of nature to be reckoned with. Unfortunately for us, the real world of biophysical sciences says that we are not above the laws of the natural world and we’ll be dealt with accordingly. When organisms cannot adapt to their environments, they go extinct. When the activities of man alter the favorable atmospheric conditions for his existence, then he suffers the same fate of every life form that has disappeared from the face of the Earth. Intelligence served man well in his primitive state, offering flexibility against changing conditions, but on today’s technological scale that encompasses the entire planet, it’s cumulative effect has been to destroy.

According to Mayr, intelligence is a double-edged sword, serving as a tool for our survival or rapidly carrying out our own annihilation. Higher intelligence, As Mayr said, is a “lethal mutation”.