Sunday, Jun 17, 2012 7:00 PM UTC

How will the world end?

War. Environmental collapse. Natural disasters: Writing from the near future, a sci-fi master imagines our Doomsday

apocalypse_rect

 (Credit: sdecoret via Shutterstock)

If and when our civilization expires, we may not even agree on the cause of death. Autopsies of empires are often inconclusive.

Sixty years ago, a German historian Alexander Demandt collected 210 different theories for the fall of the Roman Empire, including attacks by nomads, food poisoning, decline of Aenean character, vanity, mercantilism, a steepening class-divide, ecological degradation, and even the notion that civilizations just get tuckered out after a while.

Some were opposites, like too much Christian piety vs. too little. Or too much tolerance of internal deviance vs. the lack of it. Other reasons may have added together, piling like fatal straws on a camel’s back.

Now it’s your turn! Unlike those elitist compilers over at the Pandora Foundation, our open-source doomsday system invites you, the public, to participate in evaluating how it’s all going to end.

Using World Model 2035 as a shared starting condition, we’ve seed-slotted a thousand general doom scenarios. Groups are already forming to team-reify them. So join one, bringing your biases and special skills. Or else, start your own doomsday scenario, no matter how crackpot! Is Earth running out of phlogiston? Will mole people rise out of the ground, bent on revenge? Later, we’ll let quantum comparators rank every story according to probabilities.

But for now, it’s time for old-fashioned, unmatched human imagination. So have fun! Make your best case.

Convince us all that your chosen Failure Mode is the one that will bring us all down!

To get you started, let’s review the vast range of doom scenarios that have already been cataloged by the good (though dour) folks over at Pandora’s Cornucopia:

A Myriad Paths of Entropy

Does the universe hate us? How many pitfalls lie ahead, waiting to shred our conceited molecule-clusters back into unthinking dust? Shall we count them? Today, our means of self-destruction seem myriad — though we at Pandora’s Cornucopia will try to list them all!  So adjust your AI-ware, your im-VR-sive wraparounds, your omnivision eyeptics and dive right in.

At one level, none of this is new. Men and women always felt besieged. By monsters prowling the darkness. By their oppressive rulers, or violent neighbors, or capricious gods. Yet, didn’t they most often blame themselves? Bad times were viewed as punishment brought on by wrong behavior. By unwise belief.

We modern folk snort at the superstitions of our ancestors. We know they could never really wreck the world, but we can! Zeus or Moloch could not match the destructive power of a nuclear missile exchange, or a dusting of plague bacilli, or some ecological travesty, or ruinous mismanagement of the intricate aiconomy.

Oh, we’re mighty. But are we so different from our forebears?

Won’t our calamity (when it comes) also be blamed on some arrogant mistake? A flaw in judgment? Some obstinate belief? Culpa nostra. Won’t it be the same old plaint, echoing across the ruin of our hopes?

“We never deserved it all! Our shining towers and golden fields. Our overflowing libraries and full bellies. Our long lives and over-indulged children. Our happiness. Whether by God’s will or our own hand, we always expected it would come to this.

“To dust.”

The Great Filter

Way back, about a century ago, physicist Enrico Fermi and his colleagues, taking a lunchbreak from the Manhattan Project, found themselves discussing life in the cosmos. Some younger scientists claimed that amid trillions of stars there should be countless living worlds inhabited by intelligent races, far older than ours. How interesting the future might be with others to talk to!

Fermi listened patiently, then asked: “So? Shouldn’t we have heard their messages by now? Seen their great works? Or stumbled on residue of past visits? These wondrous others … where are they?”

His question has been called the Great Silence, the SETI  Dilemma or Fermi Paradox. And as enthusiasts keep scanning the sky, the galaxy’s eerie hush grows more alarming.

Astronomers now use planet-hunting telescopes to estimate how many stars have companion worlds with molten water, and how often that leads to life. Others cogently guess what fraction of those Life Worlds develop technological beings. And what portion of those will either travel or transmit messages. Most conclude — we shouldn’t be alone. Yet, silence reigns.

Eventually it sank in — this wasn’t just theoretical. Something must be suppressing the outcome. Some “filter” may winnow the number of sapient races, low enough to explain our apparent isolation. Our loneliness.

Over 10 dozen pat “explanations for the Fermi Paradox” have been offered. Some claim that our lush planet is unique. (And, so far, nothing like Earth has been found, though life certainly exists out there.) Or that most eco-worlds suffer more lethal accidents — like the one that killed the dinosaurs — than Earth has.

Might intelligence be a fluke? Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr said — “Nothing demonstrates the improbability of high intelligence better than the 50 billion earthly species that failed to achieve it.” Or else, Earth may have some unique trait, rare elsewhere, that helped humans move from mere intelligence to brilliance at technology.

Sound gloomy? These are the optimistic explanations! They suggest the “great filter” — whatever’s kept the numbers down — lies behind us. Not ahead.

But what if life-bearing planets turn out to be common and intelligence arises frequently? Then the filter lies ahead. Perhaps some mistake that all sapient races make. Or several. A minefield of potential ways to fail. Each time we face some worrisome step along our road, from avoiding nuclear war to becoming skilled planetary-managers, to genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and so on, we must ask: “Is this it? The Big Blunder? The trap underlying Fermi’s question?”

That’s the context of our story. The specter at our banquet, slinking between reflection and foresight, as we turn now to examine a long list of threats to our existence.

Those we can see.

Natural Wrath

As we embark on our long list of threats to human existence, shall we start with natural disasters? That is how earlier top-critters met their end. Those fierce dinosaurs and other dominant beasts all met their doom with dull surprise, having no hand, paw or claw in bringing it about.

So how might the universe do us in?

Well, there are solar superflares, supernovae, and giant black holes that might veer past our sun. Or micro black holes, colliding with the Earth and gobbling us from within. Or getting caught in the searchlight sweep of a magnetar or gamma-ray burst, or a titanic explosion in the galactic center.

Or what if our solar system slams at high speeds into a dense molecular cloud, sending a million comets falling our way? Or how about classics? Like collision with an asteroid? (More on that, later.) Then there are those supervolcanos, still building up pressure beneath Yellowstone and a dozen other hot spots — giant magma pools at super-high pressure, pushing and probing for release. Yes we had a scare already. But one, medium-sized belch didn’t make the threat go away. It’s a matter of when, not if.

The Lifeboat Foundation’s list of natural extinction threats goes on and on. Dozens and dozens of scenarios, each with low-but-significant odds, all the way to the inevitable burnout of the sun. Once, we were assured that it would take five billion years to happen. Only, now, astronomers say our star’s gradual temperature rise will reach a lethal point sooner! A threshold when Earth will no longer be able to shed enough heat, even if we scrubbed every trace of greenhouse gas.

When? The unstoppable spread of deserts may start in just a hundred million years. An eyeblink! Roughly the time it took tiny mammals to emerge from their burrows, stare at the smoldering ruins of T-Rex, then turn into us.

Suppose we humans blow it, bigtime, leaving only small creatures scurrying through our ruins.

Life might have just one more chance to get it right.

Mixed Blessings

There is a hybrid kind of “natural” disaster that’s amplified by human action.

Remember back in 2026 — soon after Awfulday – when a band of crazies was caught “casing” the Cumbre Vieja volcano in the Canary islands? Digging exploratory wells and looking for some way to trigger half of that steep mountain to collapse into the sea? By some calculations, the avalanche would propel a tsunami more than a hundred meters high, surging unstoppably to strike every shore of the Atlantic Basin, killing tens of millions already struggling with rising seas …

Or so the maniacs thought, as they plumbed a hole wide enough to convey a tactical nuclear device. Oh, they were imbeciles, falling for a sting operation. Anyway, sober calculations have shown it wouldn’t work. Probably.

Still, plenty of other dangers might be hastened by human effort or neglect. Take the rush to drill new, extremely deep geothermal power systems. A source of clean energy? Sure, except if just one of those delvings happen to release enormous amounts of buried methane. Or take new efforts to mine the sea floor for valuable minerals, or to stir sediment and fertilize oceanic food chains. Both offer great potential … but might disturb vast tracts of methane hydrates if we’re not careful, melting those ancient ices, releasing gigatons of new greenhouse gas.

Sure, these events might happen anyway. Some in Earth’s past may explain large- and medium-scale extinctions. Still, the odds change when we meddle. And meddling is what humans do best.

Chicken Little

What of doom from outer space? Everyone knows how a giant boulder struck the Yucatan, sixty-five million years ago, slaying the dinosaurs. In 2024 the Donaldson Sentinel Survey finished cataloging every regular asteroid big enough to do that again. And for the first time we crossed an existential “filter” threat off our list.

That leaves comets, myriad and unfeasible to spot in the distant Oort Cloud, till some minor perturbation drops one toward us. As may happen whenever the sun swings through a dense spiral arm. And we’re overdue. But let’s put those aside for later.

What about small meteoroids? Like those some say exploded over Siberia in 1905, or that caused a year without summer in 536 C.E? Today, such a “lesser calamity” might kill a hundred million people, but civilization will survive — if the mushroom cloud makes no one trigger-happy. So, yes. Downgrade the asteroid threat.

Assuming the big rocks are left alone. But suppose someone interferes, deliberately nudging a mile-wide object Earthward. Sure, no one travels out that far nowadays, though a dozen nations and consortia still send robot probes. And both China and the EU are talking about resumed manned exploration as the Zheng He tragedy fades into memory.

Suppose we do regain our confidence and again stride forth from this threatened planet. Well, fine! Start putting our eggs in more than one basket. Still, let’s be careful out there. And keep an eye on each other.

Small Packages

Another potential failure mode is deliberate or accidental misuse of science.

Take nanotech. Way back in the 1960s, Richard Feynman predicted great things might be accomplished by building small. Visionaries like Drexler, Peterson and Bear foretold molecular scale machines erecting perfect crystals, super-strong materials, or ultra-sophisticated circuits — anything desired — built atom by atom.

Today, the latest computers, plenats and designer drugs all depend upon such tools. So do modern sewage and recycling systems. Soon, smart nanobots may cruise your bloodstream, removing a lifetime’s accumulated dross, even pushing back the clock of years. Some envision nanos cleansing polluted aquifers, rebalancing sterile swathes of ocean, or sucking carbon from the air.

Ah, but what if micromachines escape their programming, reproducing outside factory brood-tanks? Might hordes evolve, adapting to utilize the natural world? Lurid sci-fi tales warn of replicators eating the biosphere, outcompeting their creators.

Or this tech may be perverted for man’s oldest pastime. Picture an arms race between suspicious nations or global synds, each fearing others are developing nano-weapons in secret. When danger comes packaged so small, can we ever know for sure?

Doing It the Old-Fashioned Way

What of destruction by devastating war? Shall we admit that our species passed one test by not plunging into an orgy of atomic destruction?

Millions still live who recall the Soviet-American standoff — the Cold War — when tens of thousands of hydrogen bombs were kept poised in submarines, bombers and silos. Half a dozen men at any time, some of them certifiably unstable, held the hair-trigger to unleash nuclear mega-death. Any of a dozen crises might have ended civilization, or even mammalian life, on Earth.

One sage who helped build the first atom bomb put it pungently: “When has man, bloody down to his soul, invented a new weapon and foresworn using it?” Cynics thought it hopeless, given a basic human reflex for rage and convulsive war.

But it didn’t happen. Not even Awfulday or the Pack-It-Ind affair set off the unthinkable. Were we scared back from that brink, sobered to our senses by the warning image of a mushroom cloud? Chastened and thus saved by an engine of death?

Might the cynics have been altogether wrong? There was never any proof that vicious conflict is woven into human DNA. Yes, it was pervasive during the long, dark era of tribes and kings, from Babylon and Egypt to Mongolia, Tahiti, and Peru. Between 1000 C.E. and 1945, the longest period of uninterrupted peace in Europe was a 51-year stretch between the battle of Waterloo and the Austro-Prussian war. That tranquil period came amid the industrial revolution, as millions moved from farm to city. Was it harder, for a while, to find soldiers? Or did people feel too busy to fight?

Oh, sure, industry then made war more terrible than ever. No longer a matter of macho glory, it became a death-orgy, desired only by monsters, and fought grimly by decent men in order to defeat those monsters.

Then, Europe’s serenity resumed. Descendants of Viking raiders, Centurions and Huns transmuted into pacifists. Except for a few brush fires, ethnic ructions and terror hits, that once-ferocious continent knew peace for a century, becoming the core of a peaceful and growing EU.

One theory holds that democracies seldom war against each other. Nations ruled by aristocracies were more impulsive, spendthrift and violent. But however you credit this change — to prosperity or education, to growing worldwide contacts or the American Pax — it shattered the notion that war burns, unquenchable and ineradicable, in the human character.

The good news? Violent self-destruction isn’t programmed in. Whether or not we tumble into planet-burning war isn’t fore-ordained. It is a wide-open matter of choice.

The bad news is exactly the same.

It’s a matter of choice.

Organizing Our List

Way back at the start of the 21st century, the Lifeboat Foundation assigned doom scenarios to four general categories:

Calamities – Humanity and intelligence go extinct from Earth. Causes range from nuclear war or spoiling the ecosystem to voraciously unstoppable man-made black holes or ravenous nano-plagues.

Collapse – Humanity survives, but we never reach our potential. For example, eco-decay and resource depletion might be slow enough for a few descendants to eke a threadbare niche. Or a world society might enforce hyper-conformity — drab, relentless and permanent.

Dominium – Some narrow form of posthumanity is attained by limiting the range of what’s possible. Take every tale of domination by a super-AI or transcendent-intolerant uber-beings. Or the prescriptions offered by fanatic utopians from left to right, across 5000 years, each convinced of “the way” ahead. Suppose one of these plans actually delivered. We might “advance” in some cramped ways. Caricatures of sameness.

Betrayal – A posthuman civilization heads in some direction that cancels many of the values or things we cherish. Isn’t this the nightmare fretting conservatives? That our children — biological or cybernetic — will leave us far behind and forget to write? That they’ll neglect to visit and share a joke or two? That they’ll stop caring about the old songs, the old gods? The old race?

Worse, might they head off to the stars in ways that we (today) abhor? As predators, perhaps. Or all-consuming reproducers, or as meddlers, hot with righteous malice, or else cool and unsympathetic. Not the eager-greeters that we envision as our starfaring destiny, in recent, high-minded fables. But, instead, the sort of callous descendants we’d disown … as if such beings would care what we think.

Any of these general categories might contain the Great Filter. Whatever trap — or host of traps — winnows the number of confident, gregarious, star-traveling species down to the skimpy near-nothing we observe, keeping empty what should have been a crowded sky.

Worst Cases

What about those “collapses?” Failure modes that would not wipe out humanity, but which might kill millions, even billions? Even with survivors scratching out a bare existence, would there forever after be harsh limits to the range of human hopes?

This category is where we’d assign most punishments for mismanaging the world. For carelessly cutting down forests and spilling garbage in the sea. For poisoning aquifers and ruining habitats. For changing the very air we breathe. For causing temperatures to soar, glaciers to melt, seas to rise and deserts to spread. For letting the planet’s web of life get winnowed down, through biodiversity loss, till it’s a fragile lattice, torn by any breeze.

Most animals have the sense not to foul their own nests.

On the other hand, no other species of animal was ever so tempted. So empowered. Or so willing to gradually learn from its mistakes.

Would intelligent rats, or ravens, or kangaroos have done any better, exercised more foresight, or dealt with the world more carefully than we have?

Good Intentions

What about those “collapses?” Failure modes that would not wipe out humanity, but might kill millions, even billions? Even with survivors scratching out a bare existence, would there forever after be harsh limits to the range of human hopes?

This category is where we’d assign most punishments for mismanaging the world. For carelessly cutting down forests and spilling garbage in the sea. For poisoning aquifers and ruining habitats. For changing the very air we breathe. For causing temperatures to soar, glaciers to melt, seas to rise and deserts to spread. For letting the planet’s web of life get winnowed down, through biodiversity loss, till it’s a fragile lattice, torn by any breeze.

Most animals have the sense not to foul their own nests.

On the other hand, no other species of animal was ever so tempted. So empowered. Or so willing to gradually learn from its mistakes.

Would intelligent rats, or ravens, or kangaroos have done any better, exercised more foresight, or dealt with the world more carefully than we have?

Tag, You’re It

In his prescient novel “The Cool War,” Frederik Pohl showed a chillingly plausible failure mode in which our nations and factions do not dare wage open conflict, and so they settle for tit-for-tat patterns of reciprocal sabotage, each attempting to ruin the other’s infrastructure and economy.  Naturally, this sends civilization on a slow death-spiral of degrading hopes.

Sound depressing? It makes one wonder — what fraction of the “accidents” that we see have nothing to do with luck?

Oh sure, there are always conspiracy theories. Super-efficient engines that were kept off the market by greedy energy companies. Disease cures, suppressed by profit-hungry pharmaceutical giants. Knaves, monopolists and fat-cats who use intellectual property to repress knowledge growth instead of spurring it.

But those dark rumors don’t hold a candle to this one — that we’re sliding toward despair because all the efforts of good, skilled men and women are for naught. Their labors are deliberately spiked, because some ruling elites see themselves engaged in a secret struggle on our behalf. And this tit-for-tat, negative-sum game is all about the most dismal human pastime.

War.

The Enemy Of Wisdom

Suppose we manage to avoid the worst calamities. The world wreckers, extinction-makers and civilization destroyers. And let’s say no black holes gobble the Earth. No big wars pound us back to the dark ages. Eco-collapse is averted and the economic system is kept alive.

Let’s further imagine that we’re not alone in achieving this miraculous endurance. That many other intelligent life forms also manage to escape the worst pitfalls and survive their awkward adolescence. Well, there are still plenty of ways that some promising sapient species might rise up, looking skyward with high hopes, and yet — even so — fail to achieve its potential. What traps might await us because we are smart?

Take one of the earliest and greatest human innovations — specialization. Even way back when we lived in caves and huts, there was division of effort. Top hunters hunted, expert gatherers gathered, and skilled technicians spent long hours by the riverbank fashioning intricate baskets and stone blades. When farming created a surplus that could be stored, markets arose, along with kings and priests, who allocated extra food to subsidize carpenters and masons, scribes and calendar-keeping astronomers. Of course, the priests and kings kept the best share. Isn’t administration also a specialty? And so, son a few dominated the many, across 99% of history.

Eventually though, skill and knowledge spread, increasing that precious surplus, letting more people read, write, invent … which created more wealth, allowing more specialization and so on, until only a few remained on the land, and those farmers were mostly well-educated specialists, too.

In the West, one trend spanned the whole 20th Century: a steady professionalization of everything. By the end of the millennium, almost everything a husband and wife used to do for their family had been packaged as a product or service, provided by either the market or the state. And in return? A pilot had merely to pilot, and a firefighter just fought fires. The professor simply professed, and a dentist had only to dent. Benefits abounded. Productivity skyrocketed. Cheap goods flowed across the globe. Middle-class citizens ate strawberries in winter, flown in from the other hemisphere. Science burgeoned, as the amount that people knew expanded even faster than the pile of things they owned.

And that is where — to some of us — things started to look worrisome.

Let me take you back quite a ways, to the other end of a long lifetime, before the explosive expansion of cybernetics, before the Mesh and Web and Net, all the way back to the 1970s, when I first studied at Caltech. Often, late at night, my classmates and I pondered the dour logic of specialization. After reaping the benefits for many generations, it seemed clear that a crisis loomed.

You see, science kept making discoveries at an accelerating clip. Already, a researcher had to keep learning ever-increasing amounts in order to discover more. It seemed that just keeping up would force each of us to focus on ever-narrower fields of study, forsaking the forest in order to zero-in on tiny portions of a single tree. Eventually, new generations of students might spend half a lifetime learning enough to start a thesis. And even then, how to tell if someone else was duplicating your effort across the world or down the hall?

That prospect — having to know more and more about less and less — seemed daunting. Unavoidable. There seemed to be no way out …

… until, almost overnight, we veered in a new direction! Our civ evaded that crisis with a technological side-step that seemed so obvious, so easy and graceful, that few even noticed or commented. There were so many exciting aspects to the Internet Age, after all. The old fear of narrow over-specialization suddenly seemed quaint, as biologists started collaborating with physicists and cross-disciplinary partnerships abounded. Instead of being vexed by overspecialized terminology, experts conversed excitedly, more so than ever!

Today, hardly anybody speaks of the danger that vexed us so. It’s been replaced by the opposite concern — one that we’ll get to next time.

Only first consider this.

Sure, we may have escaped the specialization trap, for now, but will everyone else manage the same trick, out there across the stars? Our solution now seems obvious — to surf the tsunami! To meet the flood of knowledge with eager, eclectic agility. Refusing to be constrained by official classifications, we let knowledge bounce and jostle into new forms, supplementing professional skill with tides of zealous amateurism.

But don’t take it for granted! The approach may not be repeated elsewhere. Not if it emerged out of some rare quality of our natures. Or pure luck.

Nor would it have been allowed in most human cultures! Which of our past military or commercial or hereditary empires would have unleashed something as powerful as the Internet, letting it spread — unfettered and free — to every tower and hovel? Or allow so many skilled tasks to be performed by the unlicensed?

One can imagine countless other species — and our own fragile renaissance — faltering back into the dour scenario that we students mulled on those gloomy nights. Slipping into an endless, grinding cycle where specialization — once a friend — becomes the worst enemy of wisdom.

The Opposite Extreme

We just talked about one more way that civilizations might fail to achieve their dreams — not because of calamity, or war, or ecological collapse, but at the hands of something mundane, even banal.

Over-specialization.

Failure to keep climbing the near-vertical mountain of their accumulated learning. Pondered logically, it seems unavoidable. The greater your pile of information, the steeper the chore of discovering more! Concentrating on a narrower subject will only work up to a point, because even if you live long enough to master your cramped field, you’ll never know how much of your work is being duplicated, wastefully, across the world or down the hall, by people using a slightly different vocabulary for the same problem. Humanity’s greatest trick for making progress — subsidizing ever larger numbers of specialist-professionals — seemed destined to become a trap.

Indeed, this failure mode may trip up countless civilizations out there, across the galaxy.

But not us. Not on Twenty-First Century Earth. That danger was overcome, at least for now, by stunning achievements in human mental agility. By Internet connections and search-correlation services that sift the vast sea of knowledge faster than thought. By quest-programs that present you with anything germane to your current interest. By analytic tools that weigh any two concepts for mutual relevance. And above all, by our new ability to flit — like gods of legend – all over the e-linked globe, meeting others, ignoring guild boundaries and sharing ideas.

The printing press multiplied what average humans could know, while glass lenses magnified what we could see — and every century since has expanded that range, till the Multi-Tasking Generation can zip hither and yon, touching lightly upon almost any fact, concept or work of art and exchanging blips, nods, twits and pips with anyone alive … and some entities that aren’t.

Ah, but therein lies the rub. “Touching lightly.”

Much has been written about the problems that accompany Continuously Divided Attention. The loss of focus. A susceptibility for simplistic/viral notions. An anchorless tendency to drift or lose concentration. And these are just the mildest symptoms. At the extreme are dozens of newly named mental illnesses, like Noakes’s Syndrome and Leninger’s Disease, many of them blamed on the vast freedom we have won — to skitter our minds hither and yon.

Have we evaded one dismal failure mode — the trap of narrow overspecialization — only to stumble into the opposite extreme? Shallow-mindedness? Pondering thoughts that span the farthest horizons, but only finger-deep?

Listen to those dour curmudgeons out there, decrying the faults of our current “Age of Amateurs.” They call for a restoration of expertise, for a return to credentialed knowledge-tending, for restoring order and disciplined focus to our professions and arts and academe. Is this just self-interested guild-tending, as some call it? Or are they prescribing another badly needed course correction to stave off disaster?

Will the new AI systems help us deal with this plague of shallowness … or make it worse?

One thing is clear. It isn’t easy to be smart in this galaxy of ours. We keep barely evading a myriad pitfalls along our way to … whatever we hope to become.

When you add it all up, there’s not much surprise that we seem so alone.

Convergence

Optimists offer evidence that things will be all right, like the fact that major war has been evaded — despite some burns and narrow scrapes — and that most individuals today know far more peace than their ancestors did. Even in this economy, hundreds of millions strive each day with real hope of climbing out of poverty, seeing their children healthier and better educated. Except in the toxoplasma hot zone, interpersonal violence is down again, on a per-capita basis.

Yes, there are rumors and worried models predicting a coming conflagration — one between classes, rather than nation states. But who really yearns for such a thing to happen?

What if the optimists are right? Suppose we in this generation are — on average — growing both smarter and more sane at a decent clip. That average still leaves a billion human beings, out of almost ten billion, who are steeped in rage, or dogmatic rigidity, or delusional repetition of discredited mistakes. You know such people. Do you recognize those traits in some of your neighbors? Or perhaps in that face in the mirror?

Remember that one harm-doer can wreck what took many hands to build. A thousand professionals may be needed to counteract something virulent released by a single malignant software or bioware designer. It’s not that sociopaths are smarter — they generally aren’t. But they have the element of surprise, plus the brittleness of a society with many vulnerable points of attack.

Suppose the ratio of goodness and skill continues to rise — that each year far more decent and creatively competent people join the workforce than sociopaths. Will that suffice?  Perhaps.

But then, imagine someone finds a simple way to make black holes or antimatter using common materials and wall current? Even if 99.999 percent of the population refrains, the crazy 0.001% might kill us all. And there are other scenarios –– conceivable ways that one lunatic might outweigh all the rest of us, no matter how high a fraction are good and sane.

If the ratio improves, but the series doesn’t converge, then there’s no hope.

Excuses, Excuses

Suppose the threat comes from human nature — some obstinate habit woven in our genes. Might science offer a way out through deliberate self-improvement? First we’d have to admit that we have a nature.

Take the argument over Evolutionary Psychology. EP claims we all inherit patterns from prehistoric times — that long epoch when domineering males gained extra descendants because they were powerfully competitive, or jealous, or good at deception. Monarchy and feudalism heaped more rewards on any king who could talk thousands of virile men into marching and fighting to protect his seraglio. We’re all descended from the harems of fellows like Charlemagne and Genghis Khan who mastered that trick.

Opponents of EP argue we’re more than the sum of our ancestors. They cite our vaunted flexibility, the way we learn and reprogram ourselves, as individuals and cultures. Each sex can do almost anything that the other does, and the rules that limited opportunity because of caste, race or gender have proved baseless. Indeed, our greatest trait is adapting to new circumstances and attaining improbable dreams.

Only, starting from this truth, critics puritanically claim that Evolutionary Psychology might be used to excuse bad conduct, letting rapists and oppressors cry “Darwin made me do it!” Hence, for political reasons, they claim people have no hardwired social patterns, or even leanings, at all.

What, none? No matter how contingent or flexible? Are we so perfectly unlike every other species on Earth? Isn’t that what religious fundamentalists claim? That we have nothing in common with nature?

Can we afford simpleminded exaggerations, in either direction? In order to survive, humanity must overcome so many old, bad habits. We must study those ancient patterns — not in order to make excuses, but to better understand the raw material of Homo sapiens.

Only then can we look in the mirror, at evolution’s greatest marvel, and say.  “OK, that’s the hand we’re dealt. Now let’s do better.”

Talmudic Gloss

Martin Ramer (for the BBC): We’re here with Jonamine Bat Amittai, compiler of Pandora’s Cornucopia — the epibook that’s been scaring and depressing so many of us ever since Awfulday — conveying all the myriad ways that the universe might have it in for us, bringing an end to human existence.  Or perhaps only our dreams.

Either way, it’s been a heady ride through the valley of potential failure and plausible death. Jonamine, how do you explain the popularity of your series?

Jonamine Bat Amittai: Men and women have always been attracted to stories about ultimate doom, from the Books of Daniel and Revelation to Ragnarok, from Mayan cycles to Nostradamus, from Doctor Strangelove to Life After People. Perhaps there is an element of schadenfreude, or deriving abstract pleasure from the troubles of others — even if those others will be your own descendants. Or else, some may feel stimulated to relish what they have, in the precious here-and-now, especially if our lives and comforts appear to be on temporary loan from a capricious universe. For billions of people, nostalgia fascinates with the notion that the past is always better and preferable over the future.

I like to think that much of our fascination with this topic arises from our heritage as practical problem-solvers — the curiosity that drew our ancestors toward danger in order to begin puzzling ways around it.

Martin Ramer: But your list is so lengthy, so extensive, so depressingly thorough. Even supposing that we do manage to discover some pitfalls in time, and act prudently to avoid them –

Jonamine Bat Amittai: And we have already. Some of them.

Martin Ramer: But dodging one bullet seems always to put us in front of another.

Jonamine Bat Amittai: Is there a question, Mr. Ramer? Or were you merely stating the obvious?

== Let the Games Commence ==

Okay. All right. Is that enough grist for the old brain-mill, boys and girls and AIs? It should suffice to get you started. Form teams, build your projections and convince us that you know how it all will end!

We’ll be offering all sorts of intermediate prizes for those of you who come up with the top ten doom scenarios — those scenarios that offer the best combo of scariness and plausibility!

Extra points if your model seems so disturbing and real that it generates action by public officials, politicians, movers n’ shakers!  Do well enough, and your forecast might become that rarest of blessings, a self-preventing prophecy! A warning so vivid and persuasive that your fellow citizens all act to make sure it never actually plays out.

A pitfall avoided. If so, good for you.

Hey, it could happen.  It has happened … now and then.

What’s the grand prize in this gloomy contest?

Why, proving to be right, of course. You’ll have that ironic satisfaction if humanity ever stumbles into the quicksand pit or land-mine that you predicted, in detail.  Only this time, as the ultimate tragedy plays out, you’ll know that not enough people listened.

As brief as that moment lasts – and it may only be an instant – you’ll have the satisfaction of muttering those most voluptuous of consoling words:

“You fools! I TOLD you s –“

– TRANSMISSION CUT-OFF … REASON UNKNOWN –

Excepted from “Existence,” a novel by David Brin, appearing in June 2012 from Tor Books.