Friday, August 14, 2015

A Great Filter: Genius Genes

Maybe an alien civilization needs geniuses to get to asymptotic technology and then to build starships. If so, and genius genes don’t occur that often among different planets, this could be a Great Filter holding back aliens from visiting Earth.

Would it be possible that an alien civilization, having gone through all the evolution that it takes to start with some chemicals floating around the ocean up to tool-using creatures able to build housing and think about astronomy, would have missed out on developing some possible genes that make some of their individuals smarter, actually, a whole lot smarter? In other words, does evolution just about produce everything, or is it a chancy process in regards to intelligence.

Just for a thought experiment, suppose the aliens have about 10,000 genes. Suppose 20 of them contribute to intelligence. Let’s suppose that 16 of them are easy to evolve, being simple one-letter substitutions of existing genes. And let’s suppose that four of them are really rare, multi-letter substitutions on genes that are fatal with only one letter changed. This means that among alien planets with this prescription for genes, most of them would have 16 intelligence genes. Maybe they would be idiocracies. They have enough smarts to build cities, thereby earning the title of alien civilization, but they don’t have the smarts, that is not even one alien has the smarts, to make the next step in civilization development. A few would have one of the four hard-to-get genius genes, a lot fewer would have two, almost nobody would have three, and the entire galaxy doesn’t have any planet where the alien civilization has all four.

There has to be a feedback loop here to maintain the situation. Let’s suppose that it takes at least three genius genes to be able to get to asymptotic genetics, where they can figure out what genes make geniuses, and construct them in a laboratory, and give them to everybody in a future generation of alien citizens. In other words, only a very small number of alien civilizations get to the point where they can cure their lack of genius genes. Genius genes are self-limiting in a sense.

Now we have a full fledged Great Filter. All those habitable planets do have life, and even mostly intelligent life, but not very intelligent life. If you were to go touring them, they would all be pretty much mud hut cities, or whatever passes for mud huts on their planet. Maybe the civilizations that lacked any genius genes would not survive for long, and some problem would eliminate them. The entire experiment that their planet conducted with intelligence would come to an end with the extinction of the species that evolved it. Perhaps they would just lose their intelligence genes, and be reduced to caveman level or worse.

There might be a second species that evolves intelligence on some of these planets, or even more. There could be a continuing on-again-off-again situation on the planets without genius genes, until one of the tries at intelligence does evolve the first genius gene, which might be enough to prolong their civilization until a second one evolved. What this thought experiment on a possible configuration of intelligence genes indicates is that there could be plateau planets all around the galaxy, with rudimentary civilizations or the ruins of one.

Does it make sense to attribute so great an effect on civilization to genius? To appreciate this, let’s imagine an alternate Earth, in which something like a 110 IQ was the maximum anybody ever had. This means that inventions that are so crucial to the advancement of civilization would not be conceived. Those which are not the result of adaption of obvious phenomena might be the ones which are not comprehended. Fire would be present, as it is a result of watching lighting strikes, but the wheel might be missing, as it was in many cultures on Earth. Spears and knives do what might happen if someone fell on a sharp branch, and might be inspired this way. Metal smelting might not be.

If the maximum IQ was a bit higher, perhaps some sort of nation might be created, but without the genius of someone like Bacon, would science ever get the foundation it needs to bloom? There are many other geniuses whose inventions or discoveries are fundamental to the progress of civilization. If Shockley had not invented the transistor, and we never found out how to do semiconductor processing and memory storage, all of the revolutionary advances of the last decades would never have happened. You would not be reading this blog, for example.

We don’t yet understand what the structure of intelligence genes are, or how to quantify them and determine if there are some difficult to emerge ones, or if they are all routine genes that develop without much difficulty by way of mutation. If they are all easy for the alien species inhabiting all the planets in our galaxy, then this is not a Great Filter and we have to look elsewhere to explain why we have not been contacted by aliens.

There are other genetic situations where genius genes might play a role in a Great Filter. If they are all easy to come by via mutation, but are easily suppressed by some other commonly available genes, then the prevalence of them might be so low that the changes in society that a genius could conceive of would not be accepted. Perhaps there needs to be a certain minimum number of geniuses or near-geniuses in order for brilliant inventions and concepts like the Scientific Method to propagate through society.

Another situation is the anti-genius gene or genes. If there are genes which customarily occur in alien species able to reach intelligence which promote stability at the expense of change, this would obstruct the progress of society. Even with a critical mass of geniuses, the large number of those who actively and powerfully oppose such changes might be enough to doom alien civilizations in general to stopping their climb to advanced technology long before any glimpse of starships was caught. This phenomena could provide obstacles for all technology, and in the best of situations, would delay its introduction. All this delay could cause other problems to arise, such as exhaustion of resources. Thus, genius genes might be a Great Filter, or anti-genius genes as well.

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