Armageddon and the Limits of Evolution

On March 28, 2022, the Biden administration sent to Congress a revised version of its classified National Defense Strategy. The new version removed the longstanding doctrine of “no first use” of nuclear weapons, and opened the door to a nuclear response to a non-nuclear threat. Within months of the new U.S. policy, but without referring to it, the Putin administration responded that it might consider first use in case of an existential threat to Russia, including a non-nuclear one.  More recently, Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a non-governmental Russian think tank, argued that perhaps Russia should use a low yield tactical nuclear weapon in order to convince NATO to back off and stop threatening Russia’s security.

What drives human society to engage in such reckless behavior? The answer to this question is at once familiar to any student of human nature, human society and human history, and yet equally perplexing given the prospect of potential obliteration. This article is an exploration of such causes and their consequences, with possible implications that go far beyond human behavior alone, and may be grounded in universal principles.

We live in extraordinary times – possibly more extraordinary than we realize. How many of those living even fifty years ago imagined that today we might be able to carry in the palm of our hand a device that can access most of human knowledge. Or quantum computers with almost infinite and instantaneous computing capacity, which are now being designed. We can now even peer at the birth of the universe.

We owe this to human intelligence, which is sometimes ridiculed, but is an extraordinary evolutionary development nonetheless. More specifically, we owe our superpowers to human technology, which is a product of human intelligence, and which further expands the production of human intelligence with new tools, even including the ability to augment human intelligence with artificial intelligence.

How did this come about? The answer is quite simple and well known, although only the most imaginative science fiction writers have even scratched the surface of its potential consequences. Intelligence is born of evolution.

Evolution, in turn, is born of competition, and more specifically the competition between life forms. In fact, if there is another form of competition, such as between astronomical or chemical or physical units, they might have to be defined as life forms by virtue of that competition. Even the most ancient and primitive life forms, such as viruses, compete against other life forms and against each other. This is the fundamental fact of evolution.

We know that evolution has produced a fantastic array of life forms on earth, and we can imagine that the array is infinitely greater when life forms in the rest of the universe are eventually included. We also know that life forms have lived and died and gone extinct and passed on their genes according to their ability to compete and survive in different environments and in response to other life forms, and to great catastrophes, as well, such as the Chicxulub asteroid that wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs and ushered in the age of mammals 65 million years ago.

What are the strategies that organisms have employed in the competition for survival? There are many that we all can name: size, speed, venom, diet, teeth, claws, regeneration of tissue, immunity to disease, etc. These can also be called tools or weapons, though not in the technological sense. The term weapon is nonetheless appropriate because it confers advantages in the competition against other organisms, eventually resulting in the survival or extinction of some over others, depending on the success or failure of the weapon.

But there is a special weapon that is implied by the term strategy itself, namely intelligence. Intelligence is present in all living things. Even a virus has a form of intelligence and responds to its environment. Plants and fungi have also shown this ability, including a means of communication. Intelligence therefore qualifies as a tool or weapon in the tool chest or arsenal of every organism.

It is not surprising, therefore, that evolution should experiment with intelligence in much the same way as with teeth, claws, horns, plumage and other traits. The antlers of the Irish elk, the diving adaptations of the sperm whale, the size of the Beast of Baluchistan, the plumage of birds of paradise, the predations of the strangler fig and carnivorous plants are all examples of evolutionary experiments that have gone to extremes. Some organisms, like the nautilus, have survived relatively unchanged for vast eons, while others have painted themselves into evolutionary corners that have resulted in extinction. The development of humans, therefore, demonstrates that evolution is also capable of taking intelligence to extremes.

It has often been noted that humans are relatively helpless creatures, except for their brains. Furthermore, those brains place a great demand upon the body’s metabolism, the female birth canal, the rearing requirements of the young, the number of offspring, etc. Nevertheless, our brain confers enough of an advantage to overcome these disadvantages, at least thus far in our evolution.

This has been true in the last few million years of our existence, and especially in the last ten thousand. Today, human technology has carried us off the charts as a species. It began in the paleolithic period, so called because stone tools are the only ones that survive in the archaeological record from this earliest and most basic stage of technological development. From then on, the human species has continued to evolve physically, eventually resulting in the homo sapiens species. But our technological evolution proceeded and accelerated even faster. In fact, our species essentially invented technological evolution, at least within our corner of the universe, and it is now proceeding at breakneck speed.

The reasons for the acceleration of technological advancement have been widely discussed elsewhere, and may be summarized as 1) population growth (the increase in the number of minds that can be applied to technological advancement), 2) the increase in available time at the disposal of those minds, and 3) the multiplying effect of technological advances, i.e. the use of existing technology to create new technology, at an ever increasing and perhaps geometric pace.

Why is technology so attractive to us? Most of the reasons are self-evident. It has the potential (though not always the effect) to make our lives easier, more comfortable and more secure. These are motives that drive all life forms, not just humans. It also gives us competitive advantages, both against other species (now a lesser issue), and within our own.

In fact, the competition within our own species has become the primary evolutionary drive for humans. This sometimes takes relatively benign forms, such as social achievement and recognition, but the most intense competition is what we call warfare. Not surprisingly, it is also the time of greatest and fastest technological advancement, due to the much greater investment in the development of new weaponry during times of conflict. As noted earlier, we are now proceeding into unknown territory, powered by our ancient competitive drive, our relatively recent brain capacity, and our seemingly self-propelled technology.

Are we the only life forms in the universe to experience these developments? Many well-known thinkers agree that this is extremely unlikely. Although the proportion of planets capable of developing and sustaining life is undoubtedly a small fraction of the total, and although the number that have developed intelligent life and technological societies is smaller still, the total number of planets is so enormous that intelligent life cannot be unique on a cosmic scale. Furthermore, some or many such planets will have reached an evolutionary stage comparable to our present millions or billions of years before us.

Why, then, is there no incontrovertible evidence of alien societies having come to our planet? Why is there no synthetic substance of clearly alien origin that we can point to? We have sent synthetic terrestrial substances to the moon, Mars and other planets despite our short history of space travel, so why would alien civilizations not do the same?

This is sometimes called the Fermi paradox, after a famous question posed by Enrico Fermi in a conversation with other physicists in 1950. Many thinkers have proposed explanations, but I would like to approach it from first principles rather than responses to the question, per se.

I propose that just as physical laws govern the entire universe, there are evolutionary and biological laws that also apply universally, not merely on earth. A good candidate for one such law is clearly evolution, and the competitive forces that drive it. It is, in fact, hard to imagine that competition between species and among the same species is not one of these universal laws. A species without such a drive would simply not bother to attempt to survive, and therefore disappear in short order (or, more likely, never come into being).

It is also reasonable to assume that, sooner or later, intelligence inevitably becomes one of the experimental paths of evolution. As on earth, it becomes the impetus for technological development, and also more rapid in times of warfare than at other times, in pursuit of an advantage against competitors.

This is a clue that we can use to help answer the question of why alien civilizations would not have visited earth, and why we are unlikely to visit theirs. It is also the reason for the title of this article. In order to explore this line of inquiry, it is instructive to look at the history of weapons development, already mentioned in passing.

Weapons are often cited as a metric for technological advancement. They may have other uses, but it is their use in warfare that often stands out in the creation of empire and domination of competing societies. Such may have been the case with fire and stone implements, although we often have only inferential evidence for prehistorical periods. Clearer evidence comes for the taming of the horse and other domesticated creatures, and from metallurgy and then gunpowder. Shipbuilding, external and internal combustion engines, chemistry, electricity and the other developments of the industrial revolution eventually also contributed to advances in weaponry and warfare.

Since 1900, we have experienced poison gas, aircraft, hypersonic missiles, electronic weapons, artificial intelligence, and of course, nuclear weapons. We know that poison gas (“chemical weapons”) has been banned by international treaty, and that no one has used nuclear weapons in warfare since 1945. But poison gas has been used despite the ban, and nuclear weapons still exist in great quantities, with delivery systems capable of destroying most or all of humanity. It is a Sword of Damocles over the human race, with other swords under development. Some suspect that biological weapons have also been tried.

Will we succeed in avoiding our own destruction? For how long? Will no one in the next 10 years trigger a nuclear war? The next 100? 1000? 10,000? No one at all? Has there ever been a weapon that has not been used? In the case of nuclear weapons, a single war between nuclear powers might be enough to finish us off. Will the US/NATO use a nuclear weapon when it runs out of conventional weapons, to prevent a defeat in Ukraine? In eastern Asia? Will Russia be driven to use if nuclear weapons in order to avoid disappearance as a nation?

Most of us know the story of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion asks the frog to carry him across the river. “No way!” says the frog. “You’ll kill me with your stinger!”

“Why would I do that?” asks the scorpion. “I can’t swim.”

So the frog takes him halfway across, when the scorpion mortally stings him.

“Why did you do that?” asks the dying frog,

“I’m a scorpion,” says the scorpion. “It’s in my nature.”

And what is the nature of humans? Has there ever been a time without war? Many of us will acknowledge that we came close to nuclear Armageddon during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Reportedly, there were scorpions in both Washington and Moscow. Washington’s chief scorpion was Gen. Curtis Lemay, the Air Force Chief of Staff. He is reported to have considered a nuclear war “winnable” and worth the risk, and he even permitted some of his bombers to stray beyond the callback point despite lacking the authority. Khrushchev made reference to similar pressures on his side (a negotiating bluff, perhaps, but certainly plausible).

Are there scorpions in Washington today? Some policy makers are certainly tempting fate, principally the neoconservative warmongers. They bear major responsibility for pulling the U.S. out of nuclear arms reduction and limitation treaties, including the manufacture and testing of low-yield “battlefield” nuclear weapons that both sides previously refrained from developing, for fear that the temptation to use them would be too great if they found themselves losing a conventional war, as in Ukraine. This sort of nuclear brinkmanship is exactly the sort of folly that can lead to masses of dead scorpions and frogs.

The question therefore arises: is nuclear holocaust even avoidable (permanently, that is)? Or a holocaust by biological or other means, such as a takeover by artificial intelligence? Or other technology that we haven’t even thought of yet? If not, does it explain why we have no evidence of visitation by alien civilizations? Are we hitting a barrier to further evolution that is universal in scope, and which sooner or later results in a lifeless burnt-out planet, or one with only primitive life forms, or perhaps a small number of intelligent survivors, doomed to rise again, bump against the ceiling of evolutionary development and get thrown back in an endless cycle?

I am not the first to make this case, but I believe that it is unfortunately very timely, and I hope it stimulates new thoughts for consideration.  I also hope that I am wrong, that there is something that I am overlooking, and that we can find a way to overcome this aspect of our nature and build a more peaceful – or at least less warlike – society that has eluded us for as long as we have existed.  But the evidence is not encouraging, and I would feel a lot better if an alien civilization came calling soon, proving that self-destruction is not the inevitable end of evolution and technology.

Paul Larudee is a retired academic and current administrator of a nonprofit human rights and humanitarian aid organization. Read other articles by Paul.