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Fiction Spotlight: Where Are They?

In this issue’s fiction spotlight, we’re checking back in with astrobiologist and meteorologist Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra for an excerpt of another sci-fi work of his: Planetary Messenger (CreateSpace, 2009), written during his time at Penn State.
In this passage we follow Shane, a freelance journalist during his last day of a conference on planet finding. The Planet Finder Mission has just launched and conference goers are sharing ideas about the potential discoveries of biosignatures in newly discovered planets. As the speaker from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute takes the stage, he posits the question: “Where are they?”

An Accident of Convenience

I spent the morning and the last session of the conference learning about current discoveries in the geology of Earth’s history; the rest of my week lacked in geology, so I thought it best to remedy the situation while time remained. I furiously took pages of notes, scribbling to replicate diagrams I thought I understood with captions even more incomprehensible. I had enough trouble with the geologic record, but it slowly became easier to at least try and think about what millions of years meant, though billions of years still remained baffling to conceptualize. The session concluded exactly on time as the crowd herded across the conference center to a hall set up for a lunch banquet. I looked around for Art to no avail, so I navigated toward a table with some of the younger scientists and other journalists. We made introductions as we dug into our meals but had hardly started talking when the program began. The speaker was introduced as Allen Bryan, SETI institute researcher and former professor of anthropology. Dr. Bryan used no electronic slides or projection system but simply stood behind the podium and delivered what was for me the most thought provoking lecture of the week.

“Where are they?” Dr. Bryan peered over his audience as if actually searching for someone to answer his question. “We’ve been searching the skies, listening and looking for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, but so far all we’ve received is silence. If they are out there, then why haven’t we seen them? A form of this question was posed by Enrico Fermi, and the resulting discussion became known as the Fermi Paradox: intelligent life appeared here on Earth after approximately four billion years of evolution, but once intelligence arose it did not take long for technology to develop. In a geologically short time our species has developed technology that, among other feats, allows us to explore our own Solar System. Fermi posited that given this exponential pace of development it would not require a significant technological leap for interstellar travel, perhaps no more than one to ten thousand years from now.

“Even if technology takes an average of four billion years to develop on a habitable planet, the galaxy itself is around nine billion years old, providing a window large enough for life and intelligence to develop around other stars. And if any theme can be singled out from this week, I think we would all agree that planetary systems are common in the galaxy and, as we are currently discovering, rocky terrestrial planets are also typical features of many stellar systems. If life, too, is common, then intelligent life should have formed elsewhere in the galaxy and continued the pace of technological development in order to visit and colonize planets orbiting other stars. Even conservative estimates of time to travel between stars indicate that an intelligent species could have colonized the ninety thousand light years across the galaxy many times over. Given this assumption about the development of intelligence and technology, where are they? Plenty of time has gone by, so why haven’t we been visited yet? Is this a sign that we are in fact alone?

“There is no shortage of answers to this question. Some solutions make assumptions about the nature of extraterrestrial intelligence: the zoo hypothesis, for example, postulates that extraterrestrials would recognize our planet as a world still in development and therefore designate our region of space as a wildlife preserve of sorts. Using their superior technology to observe us without detection, they will finally reveal themselves to us once we cross a certain technological threshold. Other resolutions to this question conclude rarity for the occurrence of life and intelligence; after all, we only have one example of life on one planet, and the appearance of this phenomenon could be so uncommon that it only occurs once or twice in an entire galaxy—or perhaps life is so rare that Earth is unique even in the entire universe! Life itself may be common but the same may not be true of intelligent life that develops space travel. Perhaps the silence in the skies is evidence for our solitude, yet the absence of evidence is insufficient in itself to conclude that we are alone.

“In this business of searching for the unknown we must always be mindful of our assumptions. Assuming too much may limit our vision to a narrow view that misses a grander picture, and assuming too little leaves us with nothing to focus on at all. In reality the best we can do is to remember the constraints we deal with and be mindful of questioning these assumptions to see

if they still work. That we have not been visited by extraterrestrial intelligence only indicates that the expanding technological society who colonizes all planets in the galaxy does not exist. Perhaps, though, we can investigate the reason for posing the question like this and purge our concept of intelligence from our assumptions about the behavior of intelligent species. This is best done, I think, by looking at our own species and tracing exactly how this technology of ours gave us such great capabilities in a small amount of time.

“Likely originating in sub-Saharan Africa, our species developed in tribal communities composed of around two hundred individuals that could be identified from other tribes by their unique cultural identities, including their own history, mythology, crafts, governance, and lifestyle. These tribes practiced varying degrees of foraging, hunting, and gardening for sustenance and occupied a diverse set of ecological niches: in the jungle, near the desert, on icy tundra, or on windy plains. Tribes of Homo sapiens lived like this for a hundred thousand years or longer—while the ancestors of the genus Homo are over a million years old—developing technology, art, and ideas and maintaining some communication and trade with neighboring human tribes. Of course, the particulars of a tribe’s isolation or integration and the degree to which they lived a sedentary life varied, but in any case, the human population was represented by a diverse collection of small tribes adapted to living in particular environments both biologically and culturally. The tribes in cold regions learned to deal with the unique features and dangers of their land and developed a shared knowledge that was passed through generations, while desert tribes did the same with their knowledge of how to survive in the heat. Technology developed at a steady pace, including pottery, tool design, and met-alworking, and was partially dependent on the particular resources available in a given region.

“Human ingenuity certainly drove creativity and discovery then just as now, yet the pace of development remained slow and steady compared to today. This is not because of the labor required for the hunting, foraging, and gardening lifestyle but rather a matter of numbers. In fact, modern tribal groups often spend only a few hours providing for their daily needs to find an abundance of leisure time the rest of the day; with a collective of just two hundred people, though, the rate of technological development will inevitably be slower. We often assume that our total reliance on agricultural practice was necessary to generate the food surpluses that permitted specialists to work on art, science, and technology. However, modern tribal communities produce knowledge at a slower rate not for lack of free time, but for lack of sheer numbers. A global network of billions generates knowledge and invention at an accelerated rate compared to a tribe of two hundred. At some point in our history something changed that caused our numbers to grow exponentially.

“Approximately ten thousand years ago at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum, the hunters, herders, and foragers of the Near East discovered the land had become unusually favorable and fruitful. The change in climate allowed certain cereal grains to thrive and, with the selection effect of human gathering, the grains developed into a useful and important source of nutrition. More importantly, though, these formerly nomadic tribes began a sedentary life to cultivate these grains; wheat and barley, among other crops, provided an important source of protein and calories. This region now known as the Fertile Crescent also housed a wide variety of domesticable animals—sheep, cattle, pigs, and goats—and work animals that became additional sources of food and energy. Other regions of the world had some of these resources available—yams in Africa, for example, or corn and llamas in the Americas—but no other region benefited from the luxury and abundance found in the Fertile Crescent. Indeed, this land almost literally flowing with milk and honey would have appeared as a blessing from above; there was no need to wander with such a rich and productive land.

“This accidental feast led to a drastic change in cultural practice among these people: the overabundance of food prompted unprecedented growth, and with population growth came a radical shift in agricultural practice. The Agricultural Revolution, as we call it today, did not occur overnight but developed over many generations. Let me also point out that agriculture itself was not uniquely invented ten thousand years ago in the Fertile Crescent, for ancient farming systems are found all over the world. Foraging, hunting, and gardening previously provided sufficient food to maintain tribes of around two hundred people without long term growth, but this new agricultural system generated food surpluses by using all available land for human food production. In addition to reducing biodiversity, this practice led to the ecological demise of the Fertile Crescent, evidenced by the barren wasteland that remains today.

“Nevertheless, these societies succeeded on a global scale and have propagated through history to the modern world. The explosion of human growth in the Near East spread across northern Africa, westward through Europe and eastward across Asia. An increase in food production generates a greater population, which in turn demands an increase in food production; here we have what is known as a positive feedback loop. An expanding population needs more food, which requires more land for farming and forces geographic expansion to satisfy this demand and intensify the cycle. Through this positive feedback mechanism the great cities of our civilization were born, powered by continual growth and the constant need to expand. The pattern of this expansion is markedly different than the former nomadic life of tribes, for now people were both settling and expanding; rather than a few hundred wanderers, the few became thousands, then millions and more as densely populated cities spread throughout the land.

“This expansion continued across the Atlantic to the Americas, where privileged Eurasian settlers exterminated or subjugated the native peoples who lacked the geographic luxuries of the Fertile Crescent. Even the cities of the Maya and Inca, which may have benefited from similar geographic advantages, were outmatched by the sheer abundance of resources in Eurasia; the smallpox and other diseases that destroyed these people also stemmed from the advantage of domesticable animals found in the Near East. Scatterings of indigenous people groups persist in the world today, but by population our particular culture that enjoyed accidental advantages ten thousand years ago has come to swell across the globe and occupy more space than practical.

“I mention all this to identify our underlying assumption that intelligence and expansion are somehow intrinsically linked. Indigenous groups that predate our curious exponential growth are composed of individuals certainly intelligent by any definition of the word, yet continual expansion is not an inherent trait of their lifestyle. Our particular expansion is not driven by some force of curiosity that advances the state of knowledge but by the practical realities of exponential growth. And as a result of this unsustainable growth, our particular culture has developed complex technology at a rate faster than any indigenous group of roughly constant population. I designate our form of growth as unsustainable because exponential expansion cannot continue without bounds. A sustainable system is one which can be maintained indefinitely if all other factors are held constant, and a positive feedback loop between population, consumption, and expansion cannot persist for any lengthy duration of time in a world of limited resources. I will not venture a guess as to when we will reach this limit, but any unsustainable system is inevitably short-lived on geologic and astronomic timescales. Ten thousand years of human civilization is a drop in the bucket of our own species’ million year history, notwithstanding the four billion years of life on this planet, nine billion year history of the galaxy, or the thirteen billion year age of the universe. We may manage another hundred years or another ten thousand, but ultimately a system reliant upon exponential growth or consumption will fail.

“Let’s think back now to the Fermi Paradox, which assumes that an extraterrestrial intelligence will use its technology to expand across the galaxy, forming colonies and an intergalactic civilization. Our inferences about the behavior of extraterrestrial intelligence are obviously based upon our own conceptions of intelligence, but in this case I think we are needlessly assuming expansion to be an inevitable consequence of intelligence. Suppose that an intelligent extraterrestrial life form is favored with the same advantages that led us to exponential growth and rapid technological development so that in a short time they develop interstellar travel. Driven by the need to expand and continue growth, this galactic civilization will successfully move from planet to planet, colonizing each world to discover new resources and feed a continually growing population. However, because this galactic civilization is based on exponential growth, their success will be short-lived. Expansion across the galaxy will be quick, astronomically speaking—about one to a hundred million years—but their growth will cease and collapse upon reaching one of two limits: they will either reach a technological limit where expansion is no longer possible, or they will reach a physical limit where all available resources have been extinguished. It is impossible to predict exactly how long this galactic civilization would persist, but the unsustainable nature of their expansion means such a society will necessarily have a short lifetime. Thus, the galactic civilization of the Fermi Paradox should not be observed, because if any such civilization existed it would not last long enough for us to notice.

“Looking around at the variety of human life in the past and today shows us that many intelligent human cultures have not followed this pattern of exponential growth but have survived with sustainable practices as long as their surroundings remain habitable. Our assumptions of what to look for when seeking intelligence among the stars is often colored by our particular pattern of rapid technological growth, yet no observable extraterrestrial intelligence will behave in a similar way. Any extraterrestrial intelligence we may observe, then, should follow sustainable practices simply because those that don’t will not persist for any length of time. We may be able to identify intelligent beings on other planets by drawing parallels to the conception of human intelligence, but we will not be able to do so by seeking out analogues to human expansion.

“This bleak picture of our civilization does not imply that technological extraterrestrial intelligence is nonexistent or that our own society is doomed to collapse. If we continue relying upon an unsustainable development then collapse may indeed occur, but it is certainly within our power to shift toward a way of life that maintains a population within our carrying capacity and does not depend on exponential resource consumption. Curiosity is also a human driver of exploration, and even though an intelligent species cannot expand through the cosmos without limitation, they can certainly explore distant worlds for the sake of knowledge—and perhaps the hope of finding other living creatures. Ultimately, though, we cannot say for certain what a sustainable technological society would do, because we have no examples as to how such a society operates. People groups living sustainably today have not yet generated the technology required for space exploration; our own civilization has this technology, but it

resulted from an unsustainable development and does not help us address the nature of sustainable extraterrestrial intelligence.

“The worst accident in history took place about ten thousand years ago when a particular society exploded in growth and carried the process to the ends of the earth. Promises of space exploration draw the curiosity of scientific minds, but the quest to inhabit other worlds will be driven by the need for land area and the continual search for resources. If any extraterrestrial intelligence has befallen our bad luck and succumbed to the temptation of overnight success, they will never be heard from. As we look to the stars for signs of intelligence like our own we must also look inward to the processes that drive our own civilization, for to continue along a path of limited duration is to resign ourselves to a forgotten place in cosmic history. I believe we possess the capacity to make this transition, and I am hopeful that we will succeed while we still have the chance.”

Art caught me as I headed out the door to hail a cab.

“I was afraid I’d miss you before the meeting let out. Did you enjoy yourself this week?”

“Without a doubt,” I said. “These last few days gave me more than enough to chew on for weeks. A little over my head at times, but I certainly have a better appreciation for the work you all do.”

“I have a plane to catch shortly,” said Art as he glanced at his watch, “but I wanted to make sure we talked before I left. I’ve thought a lot about that idea we discussed earlier this week.”

“Oh, really?” We talked so much this week that I had no clue what he meant.

“I’m going to do it,” he said. “I’m going to start my own non-profit research institute.”

I stared blankly for a few seconds before it hit me, “Good for you! I hope the freelance life works out.” I didn’t completely understand what he aimed to do, but he was clearly excited at this new prospect. Freelance must be more common in my circle than in his.

Art reached into his jacket and retrieved a business card. “We should stay in touch. I may need some advice to stay on my feet with this new venture.” He grinned as he handed me his card; I traded for one of mine, which I had designed myself.

“Glad to have met you. We’ll be sure to talk soon.” We shook hands and parted as a vacant cab pulled up in attempt to solicit my business. I climbed in the vehicle and looked at the cardstock before putting it away. Arthur Claymore, Research Associate, University of Colorado. At that point I realized I had never asked Art where he worked!

One twenty nine. Time to begin the journey home.

An accident of convenience, is that how all this got started? I stared out the terminal window at the aircraft in takeoff and landing, a triumph of human technology. Dr. Bryan did not seem to imply that other human cultures develop no technology at all, but he certainly suggested that the rapid explosion in our own growth and knowledge traces back to an accident of geography and perhaps a poor judgment in perception: when the land is so unbelievably fertile and full of crops and animals perfectly suited for humans, how could we help but think the place was meant for us and us alone?

Dominion. Our culture that exploded in population and spread across the globe has its origins in the Near East, along with our world religions. This notion of dominion is not even religious in nature but arose from a mistaken perception of our place in the world. Instead of the one or two domesticable animals in other regions of the world, nearly every animal and plant in the Fertile Crescent—so it might have seemed—served some purpose to benefit the human species. The plethora of resources enjoyed by these people could easily have created the impression that the world was specially designed for human beings.

Geographic privilege is not inherently disastrous, for people across the globe adjust to the benefits and inconveniences of their region, but this particular advantage of geography gave an appearance of plenitude that led to the belief that humans were meant to control—or dominate—the world, generating the explosive and unsustainable growth that has nearly covered the planet. I reached into my bag and pulled out the Gideon Bible. Is this supposed to stay in the hotel? Oh well, too late now. I flipped past the first page of creation until I found the Garden of Eden. I slowly read through the story, carefully digesting the familiar and ancient tale, and was surprised by what I found.

I had read the story of Adam and Eve countless times as a child and an adult, but this time around I saw something new. This Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil always seemed a bit elusive: what exactly was this knowledge? I reread the words of God to the heavenly host after learning of Adam and Eve’s misdeed:

Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the Tree of Life, and eat, and live for ever’—therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.

The nature of this tree puzzled me upon rereading the verse, for the second half also provides an incredible historical insight: Adam and Eve lived in the garden as foragers, collecting whatever food they could find each day, but they left the garden as full time agriculturalists, a cursed existence where they would sweat and toil by their own hands. I had just sketched out a few ideas when the flight started boarding. I kept my notebook and pencil handy and found my seat next to an elderly gentleman who could have been my father, had my father lived in Southeast Asia. He seemed intent on sleeping, so I opened up a fresh page to explore this matter.

In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve have free reign to eat from any of the trees and bushes that they find tasty and appealing. Here was everything they could ever want, including safety from predators and the lack of starvation. Day in and day out they experienced the blissful life of this existence, foraging for food and enjoying the rest of their time as leisure. In a sense they lived like all the other animals in the garden, collecting whatever food they needed to live each day.

In the center of the garden stood two trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowing Good and Bad. These trees bore the two specific qualities of the heavenly host. God specifically commanded Adam and Eve to stay away from the latter of these trees, the threat of death a consequence of disobedience. Though the Tree of Life was not expressly forbidden, there is no indication that the humans or other animals had eaten from either of the two trees until the serpent approached Eve. Once the crafty serpent put in Eve’s mind that she, too, could become like one of the gods, knowing good and bad for herself, the human couple befell their demise. God curses the man, woman, and serpent, but he then speaks to the rest of the heavenly host, knowing full well that this act of disobedience meant the humans must leave the garden, and banishes Adam and Eve to a hard life of toil in the dirt. They became agriculturists and lived a full life outside of the garden. Where was the promise of death when they disobeyed? Why did Adam live for hundreds of years after his eviction from paradise? And what exactly was the meaning of this Tree of Knowing Good and Bad? What special knowledge of the gods was so dangerous in our hands?

It made little sense that the Tree of Knowledge contained an encyclopedic database of architecture, engineer¬ing, science, art, and literature that passed into Eve as she bit the fruit. Nor did it seem likely that this knowledge was of sexuality, for all the creatures in the world, presumably including Adam and Eve, already practiced their sexual knowledge. The tree was nothing at all like a magical elixir that opened one’s eyes; instead, the tree was forbidden because it was not intended for humans to eat.

The garden was a delicately balanced place where Adam and Eve ate whatever looked good and the other animals did the same. Not every plant was useful for Adam and Eve, but these were enjoyed by other creatures. Throughout the garden was food for humans to eat and food not for humans to eat, and Adam and Eve lived the first part of their lives content with this distinction. The Tree of Knowledge was one of those trees not for humans to eat because it was the food of the heavenly host. By taking and eating of this tree, then, Adam and Eve were claiming entitlement to food not only from the trees meant for them but also from those meant for others. God and the heavenly host who planted the garden decided which foods each creature should eat. All was right in the garden until these humans decided that they deserved more; the daily allotment of food free for the taking was not sufficient, for the other trees of the garden—including the tree of the gods—should also be theirs! This knowledge is of what you should and should not eat, what must be harvested and what must be left, when to kill and when not to kill; it is the heavenly knowledge of who should live and who should die.

Under no circumstances could these humans remain in the garden. Armed with the gods’ wisdom, the humans would claim and consume the garden themselves, so Adam and Eve were sent to become agriculturalists and till the soil, to grow their own food and live and die by their own hands. In the garden, after all, they never worried about where their food came from, for each day they simply took a walk and found good things to eat. God made the garden grow and provided for them each day, and they only went hungry if God made the garden less fruitful. They lived each day in the hand of God, but the garden soon became a distant memory.

The humans now worked long and hard in the fields every day to produce the food needed to stay alive. Day in and day out, their survival depended on their success at cultivation: they now lived and died by the work of their own hands, not by the providing hand of God. In a sense, this story is about the tragic birth of human agriculture, when Adam and Eve’s defiance in the garden traded paradise and leisure for hardship and struggle where failure meant their demise. Come to think of it, this story says almost the opposite about dominion.

The promise of death did not mean that Adam and Eve were previously immortal but instead was a promise that the consequence of this knowledge is the burden of your own life. Uncontent to eat what was freely provided in the garden, they faced the frightening prospect of working hard simply to avoid death. Remaining in the garden meant Adam and Eve would continue devouring the trees including the Tree of Life, which would make them immortal and fully like the gods. Evicted from the garden, they lived a cursed status of partial godhood, armed with the knowledge to live on their own but powerless against their ultimate and inevitable death. Indeed, if they could not have eaten from both of the trees, it would have been better to have left them alone entirely.

This story puts the origin of humans at around six to ten thousand years discussed this morning, this coincides with the advent of the Agricultural Revolution. The Garden of Eden is not so much a tale of human origins as the birth of the unsustainable development that fuels our expansive civilization; it is a story of the folly of this decision, the complete and utter futility of basing a society on the belief in human entitlement.

Neighboring societies of this exploding agrarian culture must have been baffled and confused by this strange behavior. Why would any creature work harder than necessary just to survive? And what if the soil becomes too dry to farm? They will suffer famine and go hungry, while we can just move to another place! Nevertheless, this expansive way of life spread across the land and swelled to populations that dwindled the cultures not already destroyed. Adam and Eve were evicted from Eden, then, because they decided to dominate the earth.

I ran my hands across the lines of my notebook and considered the meaning of all this in a story. The tale of the Garden of Eden is, after all, an ancient and mythological way of viewing the world. I do not mean myth in the sense of untruth but as a vehicle for communicating an idea, regardless of its historicity, plausibility, or predictability. A myth is a story we use to construct meaning between ideas. All human cultures create myth to explain their place in the world; our own account of beginnings may include the divine hand of God, the Big Bang, or something in between, but any account of this type forms a mythological framework for viewing the world. Myth reflects the cultural viewpoints and values of the society telling the stories.

The writer of this narrative in Genesis viewed the concept of dominion as foolish and deadly, but our own culture thinks differently, behaving as if we really are entitled to all of the world’s resources. Our culture, the one reflected in the rest of the Bible, believes it is our God given destiny to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it,” and our mythology—whether from the Bible or television commercials—reflects and reinforces this mantra, for believing this myth is the only way we succeed. So where did this idea of dominion come from? An accident of convenience.

When the Near Eastern wanderers saw the Fertile Crescent bursting with abundance, they were overjoyed at first. The land itself was so fruitful that it might have seemed as if everything were created for humans to eat—and so some people started believing it. From this land of plenty, this land of near gluttony, came the belief that everything on earth was meant for humans, the lush Fertile Crescent a testament to the destiny of human rule. True, the practice of dominion led to densely populated cities that generated science and art at a tremendously rapid rate, yet it instilled upon everyone the constant fear and reminder of their impending doom, for death could arrive at any moment when diligence and cunning failed to produce enough food. Here was the birth of a tired and fearful culture.

Was this shift to belief in human dominion accidental or malicious? Probably a bit of both. Somehow, though, I felt as if a great weight had lifted when I reread the first few pages of Genesis from the stolen Gideon Bible. There certainly is some truth in those pages. I wondered whether this answer would satisfy those who subscribe to a literal reading of the Bible, but as I looked over my notes I realized this is more than just a theological issue for debate. This is a story of our culture that continues to live in an unsustainable and ultimately futile way. We continue to believe in our dominion and authority over the earth, not because we read it in religious texts—for not everyone who believes this is religious—but because it is ingrained within the fabric of our expanding culture. The problem is not one of religion, but culture.

In order to survive and in order to overcome our fear of death, we must forget the idea that we are the masters of the world. We must remember that we are not special.

Jacob Haqq-Misra holds Ph.D.’s in Astrobiology and Meteorology, has completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Rock Ethics Institute, and has published two science fiction books and more than a dozen scientific articles. He’s an editor for EARTH Magazine, and a founding member and research scientist at Blue Marble Space Institute of Science.
Planetary Messenger and other works by Haqq-Misra are available on Amazon.com and HaqqMisra.net