Astronomers assumed for years that there were planets similar to earth throughout the universe… planets that could possibly harbor life and even intelligent beings. Now astronomers are regularly finding evidence of planets circling other stars (“exoplanets”). This virtually guarantees what many of us thought; we are not alone. Or does it?
There is a chilling alternative theory, namely that the very process of organisms evolving intelligence and “advanced” societies also limits the life-span of such high-tech civilizations to perhaps a few hundred years on average. As the argument goes, the competitive pressures of evolution eventually create creatures that end up destroying each other and destroying the planet on which they live. If one looks at the behavior of homo sapiens over the past century, the theory certainly seems credible.
The obsessive craving for more power impels the already powerful to do whatever it takes to win—thereby risking the destruction of civilization. All of this reminds me of Nietzsche, who said, “What is strong wins; that is the universal law. If only it were not so often precisely what is stupid and evil.” And although he probably wasn’t thinking of exoplanets when he said “universal law,” he would probably have agreed that his law would apply to little green men and women as well as human beings. It’s just the way things usually work out.
Look at present day United States and consider “what is strong” and therefore winning… a veritable devil’s desiderata: billionaires launching organized campaigns to deny climate change; gun manufacturers preventing common sense gun laws; private prison owners ensuring that we have the highest incarceration rates in the world; military contractors collecting billions in profits through no-bid contracts; for-profit hospitals shunting poor emergency patients to non-profit hospitals; wall-street criminals using their ill-gotten gains to buy a fifth or sixth luxury home; billionaires paying lower tax rates than their secretaries; a completely dysfunctional government where most legislators are bought and sold by wealthy special interests; a US Supreme Court laden with ideologues whose every vote serves the powerful and betrays the vulnerable (note Scalia’s astonishing statement that there is nothing unconstitutional about executing the innocent). The list goes on, but you get the point.
If Beelzebub existed, reading the previous paragraph would no doubt make him feel all warm and fuzzy inside, especially because all of this happened without him lifting a finger; we have done this to ourselves.
Of course, “man’s inhumanity to man” has existed from the beginning, but for the first time in human history, human evil has existential implications. We are in the process of destroying the planet on which our lives and the lives of our descendants depend. Will the “strong” (but stupid and evil) individuals Nietzsche talked about be able to keep us on this course until it is too late? Perhaps. Has this scenario already played out on countless other planets in the cosmos? We can only guess.
Ernest Becker warned us that there are no guarantees of survival for the human race, but he remained optimistic. We may know within a few decades whether or not his optimism was warranted.
Let us give Nietzsche the last word on how we ended up in this mess: “Not necessity, not desire—no, the love of power is the demon of men. Let them have everything—health, food, a place to live, entertainment—they are and remain unhappy and low-spirited: for the demon waits and waits and will be satisfied.”