THE DEMOGRAPHIC FATE OF intelligent SPECIES: 7/7. Like wildflowers in the cosmic desert, intelligent species across the universe blindly bloom and die, being just brainier wild nature?

7/7. Like wildflowers in the cosmic desert, intelligent species across the universe blindly bloom and die, being just brainier wild nature?

How could a species of smart, conscious individuals follow a knowable, deterministic path toward extinction? Is it already coded in our fun-loving genes? How is it that humans are aware of this course but still unable to avoid it? Isn't survival the primary purpose of life itself? All descended from an unbroken line of toughies who survived to reproduce through 3.5-billion years of adversity, are we going to die out from material plenty, of all things? What happened to our legendary consciousness? And that special destiny in space?
All this feels absurd until you stop attributing so much meaning to mankind's existence in the cosmos. It takes a degree of insular naivety to see Earthlings as unique or destined for something. Wide-eyed teenagers are rarely told that most of them are destined, in the unfathomably weird plan of the big (wo)man upstairs, to be bland, invisible nobodies. Then we grow up and realize, little by little, the banality of our place in the world. 500 years ago, Galileo was imprisoned for doubting Earth as the center of the whole cosmos. Over the next three centuries, we discovered gradually other planets in the Solar system. The larger-scale galaxies, for their turn, were only firmly determined in the 20th century. The first exoplanet orbiting other stars was not found before 1992, yet thousands more have been located since then. Will this historical trend towards insignificance lead to the recognition down the road that humanity is just one of countless intelligent species in the universe? Our run-of-the-mill Sun is one of about 200 billion stars in this Milky Way galaxy while there could be, for a middle estimate, 200 billion other galaxies in our observable universe. And other bubble universes/regions of the cosmos might very well exist beyond our cosmological horizon. The probability is that life has to exist somewhere in all this infinite vastness. Or is it everywhere? Suppose we assume the super slim odds of only one per galaxy, there should still be around 200,000,000,000 civilizations across this observable universe?
Nature's gradual, trial-and-error evolution that led to intelligent life on Earth might not be that exceptional after all. Sentient species may bloom and fade everywhere, blindly and purposelessly, like wildflowers across the cosmic desert. For the humans who don't believe in a Creator and the enactment of his/her premeditated plan, intelligent societies are just a natural phenomenon. Let’s imagine, as a wise man once did, a world where “there's no heaven... above us only sky". That boundless universe, this little puppy and the arbitrary physical constants allowing its existence... may just randomly be, not be created by some Dog-God. “He/She-did-it” explanations are opium for those souls who cannot handle cold randomness. Your love-hate affair with that Yahweh guy/girl is your own mental activity, all in your head, having nothing to do with a physical world that exists on its own. Cosmic civilizations are nothing but evolved and ephemeral masterpieces of wild nature. As our species didn't decide ourselves to appear here on this particular Earth, we may also have no say in a later disappearance from this planet. Bigger forces of nature are at work here, much bigger than the human mind.
Human consciousness, interesting as it is, isn't much in the greater scheme of things. This demographic path toward extinction will be one more phenomenon we are well conscious of but powerless against. Important things in the world, like the whole expanding universe, just run their own course, independently of our awareness of them or wishes for them. One such thing is the human body, this small piece of meat that hosts each and every one of us. However high up you are in a society's food chain, your soul can neither choose your body nor prevent its pre-programmed breakdown. Come a certain age, your superb soul case will begin to fall apart. No amount of tofu, yoga, inner dialogue... prescribed by your aware and worried mind can stop the decay. The failing body is oblivious of your spirit's parasitic existence. The self-destruct function keeps running. Soon enough the organism will have reached its expiry date. Your dear body turns into a dead body that stinks. And you are no more. Happy deathday, you bloody big shot! Hoping to alter the species' set trajectory when you can't escape your own body's, something you are only too conscious of? Consciousness is clearly overrated.
You are only conscious of what your heart wants. And the human heart is wild. To faithfully describe human beings, the over-hyped consciousness is just a sideshow besides the main event: our animal instincts. Intelligent life is nothing but an evolved form of wild life, highly evolved but no less wild.  Evolution may have made ours the most complex society in all of nature, the fact remains that we still belong to the kingdom Animalia (class Mammalia, order Primates, family Hominidae, aka great apes), being made of blood, flesh and cravings. With 95% of our DNA shared with chimps, we are evolved great apes, our society an evolved ape society. The call of the wild may be subconscious; it is irresistible for these Facebook-connected primates. It's staying alive and enjoying oneself. Most of our urges aren't that different from other primates', be it playing power-mad politicians (alpha gorillas greatly enjoy asserting their authority over underlings), watching web porn (monkeys too are willing to swap food for pictures of female monkey rears), enjoying intoxication (mandrills are fond of the hallucinogenic iboga root) or just contemplating the world from a hot spring (like those Japanese snow monkeys). Driven by the same animalistic desires, with a superior brain, humans have become, over time, far better than simpler animals at fulfilling them. Where wild creatures spend most of their life being hungry, obesity is fast becoming our bigger nutrition problem. While all primates go for the same primeval instincts (food, sex, pack ranks, neurological highs), this nerdiest of species has 24/7 snack machines, lap dance etiquette, cathouses, society balls, final clubs, spirits, music, books... Even the high-brow highs we get in writing terrible concertos or unreadable philosophical treatises… still come from the old neurohormones responsible for simian bliss. An evolved brain doesn’t kill our animal urges, it just serves them better.
If all living things wholeheartedly follow their innate drives, no species, besides us, ever forgets to go forth and multiply. They don't have a choice: while higher animals are all programmed like robots to seek sex, no one else can control its reproductive consequences. Nature gives them a lousy deal: going in for some casual fun, they end up with something they have no use of: babies. Bears or boars aren’t after old age support or Social Security preservation when mating, since most aged creatures die alone and abandoned, yet sexual desire in the woods frequently leads to unplanned offspring. Brainy humans, in contrast, have succeeded in separating the two intertwined sides of sex, recreational and reproductive, becoming thereby the only life form that can have the fun without the function. Effective contraceptives, invented by nature’s most evolved brain, mark a brand new chapter in natural history. For the first time ever, an animal can now override the hard-coded directive which ensures, since eternity, it will blindly multiply. Sex, what most of us are programmed to enjoy, no longer automatically means a multitude of babies, something many humans may not enjoy as much. As pills and condoms open up the way to low fertility, our now unshackled animal hearts will lead us into it. While humans might also be hardwired to find toddlers cute, and thus likely to have them, the fast spread of contraceptives is proof that our instinct for sex and other basic urges may be much stronger than the innate desire for multiple children. The pill-facilitated pursuit of earthly passions can therefore, as an unintended side effect, create a shortage of babies. What we do with the new contraceptive-afforded liberty is to double down on the old, eternal instincts, which are basically human nature itself. We are not much beyond these instincts Mother Nature gave us.
Which awareness will prevail, that of a fading mankind or that of our primitive cravings, when humans become conscious of the unintended consequences for the species of their new reproductive preferences? Can people deliberately choose otherwise, turning against their own fleshly nature? Not when those visceral urges primarily define who one is. This is me, wild at heart. Only my primeval desires are real, not that derivative, abstract aggregate called mankind. Even the highbrow, theoretically the most aware members of our great ape society, are no stronger than their little hormonal pleasures. Our learned brothers and sisters are being as active as anyone else in ruining mankind's future, having traded that additional baby for the dopamine-based highs of knowledge/art/philosophy… A series of deliberate choices dictated by basic instincts, all putting the corporeal individual above the abstraction of society, will guide humanity down this road of conscious self-extinction. First, when asked to choose between the various non-reproductive hobbies and mankind's numerical maintenance, we mindfully opt for the former. Next, existing people must explicitly vote to spend their common budget exclusively on themselves, not on buying lab-born state-raised replacement humans, which is technically a feasible way out for humanity. Demographic aging will happen regardless of mankind being totally conscious of it, every step of the way. The conscious mind is emotionless by definition; it just takes note of what our wild hearts lust for. While some hearts are in love with the lofty, abstract concept of humanity, most may not feel anything. Next to our animal heart and that evolved brainpower, consciousness is the most human but also most inconsequential attribute. We are aware of but powerless against nature’s preset courses: personal dying, demographic aging, cosmic expansion...
These super-smart wild creatures called humans constitute, in many ways, biological evolution's end of the road. This new chapter of demographic atrophy could very well be the last one in the evolution book, as evolution finally offers a species the unprecedented possibility for self-elimination. The road to self-extinction is opened by nature itself. The liberating contraceptives or the robots that will feed us until the end, all coming from an evolved primate brain, are as much a product of natural selection as the gorillas' sharpened spears or those beaver dams. When a species evolves enough brainpower to survive the kind of externally-forced hardships typical of lower-species extinctions, it will promptly self-terminate in pursuit of fun. Smart or dumb, no species will escape nature’s birth-death law. Evolution reaches its conceptual endpoint when the brainiest species can and do party itself out of existence. Even if other intelligent beings emerge on Earth after us, if those guys also drink/travel/advocate/philosophize themselves into oblivion, then the last chapter of evolution might have just been read. As the Buddha may put it, those species that successfully break the karmic cycle of ignorance will reach a nirvana of …drumroll… nothingness.
Does the same aging fate apply to intelligent societies all over the universe? Is humanity alone in space when Earth's astronomers estimate 100 million earthy planets in just this one Milky Way galaxy, one of hundreds of billions of galaxies out there? How do those faraway societies evolve? Do they follow the classic cycle of birth and death? Have some of them figured out a way to survive even the coming death of the entire universe? If they are out there, how come they never contact us? If the hallmark of science is the need for empirical evidence to substantiate claims, then to answer these questions scientifically, we have to start with the only real-world case researchable so far: ours. Extrapolated from our own aging society here on Earth, is high median age the natural ending common to all intelligent species in the universe, past, present and future? We may never know, but at the margin we now have an elegant evidence-based hypothesis to start with. Unless they are immortal in this dispersing-and-dying universe, all alien societies should have, after all, a quantifiable median age and a median/maximum lifespan for individuals.
To some extent, our "demographic fate" theory may have already provided an answer to the Fermi paradox of why ETs don't show up if they do exist. Absent survival threats from a changing environment, older societies may not find space conquests very interesting. Hollywood blockbusters aside, we are perhaps much closer to Hernán Cortés - the young, hungry, and brutal Spanish conquistador - than the rich and old aliens are. Fantasies about colonial invaders from outer space may reveal more about our youthful and barbaric past than about our future. After all, western nations only dismantled their colonial empires a short 60 years ago. When they conquered the colonies in the 19th century, western median ages were very low. Technological progress has given us barely 100 years of prosperity and now already many richer and older human societies want to think twice about contacting primitive Amazon tribes. Species that master interstellar travel may have had millenniums of good high-tech life and lost interest in alien search. Why do we so confidently assume that ETs want to meet us? Look at our own aging society and we may catch a glimpse of their much older worlds. As tons of old couch potatoes of our own species aren't interested in meeting new people, why should the high-median-age aliens be any different? Why would millions-of-years-old civilizations want to cross the universe to meet our 200,000-year-young species if they have become like grandpa, who has seen enough and now just wants to enjoy TV quietly? A general awareness of other species’ existence out there may be enough for those sweet old-timers. Their high-median-age societies are perhaps just too busy enjoying a peaceful fun-filled atrophy. For that, there may be no place like home.
How could anyone conquer the universe anyway? It's infinity out there. The very desire to travel that endless void of space is a sign of youth, a time when not even the sky is the limit. Then you get older, and those sweet, starry-eyed dreams fade. As the saying goes, where kids see the beach under the pavement, the old see the pavement under the beach. The mellow souls of the universe may just prefer the old joys of home, seeing nothing but pavement beyond their great blue (green/yellow/violet...) yonder. Why bother going to other worlds if all you will see is the same cycle everywhere? Going to the stars sounds terrific, but what about the aftermath? Without a disaster on your home planet, resettling to a faraway star to do what? To resume once there what is happening here and now: the moment folks begin to feel comfortable and take survival for granted, they won't care to bear even a minimum to maintain a society? Again, look around our own Earth: as soon as we can crawl to the moon in the 1960s, humans, increasingly richer and older, quickly become bored with both space and multiplying. As a percentage of the overall budget, space-related spending has gone down everywhere except in China, a place not yet rich and free. Further down the road, civilizations that have reached the technological stage of, say, intergalactic travel may have totally lost interest in exploring the cosmos. Interstellar migration may look like a pointless hamster wheel to those world-weary eyes.
A birth-death life cycle for intelligent species is just the way of nature. Complex animal societies rise and fall all the time around us. Extinction is as old as life itself. Today's living kinds may account for, in total, less than 1% of all the life forms that have ever existed on Earth. Nature is in constant renewal; billions of species died out only to be replaced by newer ones. After human departure, the eternal jungle will reclaim what remains of our technological constructs so completely that, in 10 million years, virtually no traces will be left of our previous existence. No future jellyfish, cockroach or network-connected biped will have these tech-loving primates in their memory. Ultimately, intelligent life forms are just another part of wild nature, evolving and fading anonymously and innumerably across infinity. It's a cosmic desert out there, endless, hostile but dotted with lush oases of green, full of births, deaths and rebirths... There might be trillions of terminally-evolved affluence-ended civilizations - being, have been and will be - throughout the universe.
When humans become fossils on this lost oasis, somewhere in a nearby galaxy, a species evolves to gain brainpower, develop technology, beat hunger, love fun, have fewer offspring… Yet another day in infinity. You watched that old wildlife show. No good, bad, or purpose to it: it’s all wild nature.

Recent posts