Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

We have 12 years. That’s how much time the latest report on global warming released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us we have before the devastating effects become an irreversible certainty. You would think these warnings would spur us to act. The key word is ‘would.’

Watching The Expanse on TV based on James S.A. Corys book series, I know I’m not supposed to take it seriously. After all its space opera, why not put the brain in neutral, lie back and enjoy the show? I know the science is flawed but watching the drama there is this one nagging thought that keeps poking its way into my awareness. Do we, as a species, possess the ability to overcome persistent behavior embedded in our DNA?

The Expanse takes us (humanity) as we are and thrusts us into the hypothetical reality we may find ourselves inhabiting, presuming we survive, 200 or so years from now. Throwing humanity as we are today into this future setting serves to amplify all our warts, blemishes, and weaknesses. We see ourselves through the lens of a microscope of time that exposes how small and limited we humans are. The inclusion of potential outside threat posed by alien life serves as a catalyst creating the reaction stripping away our blinders revealing ourselves for the naked little apes we are. We are clever, but not really smart.

Many years ago, Nobel Laureate physicist Enrico Fermi asked the pertinent question: if there is such a high probability of abundant intelligent life in the Universe, where are they and why haven’t we seen or detected them or them us? This simple question has given rise to others asking other relevant questions to explain this apparent lack of contact or awareness.

The most interesting questions have settled on the possibility perhaps few creatures reaching our level of knowledge and sophistication are able to overcome their own inherent shortcomings to become an interstellar civilization. They point out there are a multitude of pitfalls and obstacles a species must overcome before they can aspire to reach that pinnacle of development. They dubbed this the Great Filter.

The Great Filter simply suggests throughout the course of development of a species there are periodically obstacles they must overcome. One obvious example for humanity is learning how to manage the use of nuclear weapons so we don’t destroy the planet and ourselves. A second is learning how to live within the earth’s sustainable limits to maximize the benefits of life for the whole ecosystem. These developments require changing the way of thinking our species has exhibited for at least 50,000 years. Other related issues might be population control and avoiding climate catastrophe. Topping off this short list of obstacles is the most difficult, pressing, and most dangerous issue of all — overcoming our persistent primitive tribal behavior. All these potential “filters” present us with significant challenges we may not be able to surmount.

As we approach the third decade of the twenty-first century the challenges we face seem monumental and perhaps overwhelming. The threat of nuclear annihilation seems more likely than ever. Climate change combined with pollution of the air, land, and oceans threatens not only our existence but also most other life forms on the planet. Human populations are exploding putting relentless pressure on ecological systems, and technological innovation is eliminating jobs and thus the need for people to perform them.

Evolution teaches us a species’ survival is most often determined by its ability to be flexible in face of challenging and changing circumstances and being able to adapt to new conditions. This may be our species biggest challenge in the 21st century as we struggle to overcome two traits that enabled humans to become the dominant species on earth, and ultimately those two traits may determine our continued existence or extinction.

The first trait making it possible for our primitive ancestors to expand and inhabit the whole planet, a form of behavior imprinted in our DNA, allowed us to work cooperatively with others to whom we weren’t directly related. As a consequence, it enabled us to separate the world into groups of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This small change in behavior allowed diverse groups of people to band together in pursuit of common goals. This tribalism still exists, persists, and is expressed in innumerable ways in a variety of instances and circumstances for a multitude of purposes. We sort ourselves and identify ourselves with different groups: ethnically, racially, nationally, by rural and urban dwellers, Cub or Yankee fans, or as rival high school or college athletic teams. This separation of groups into ‘us’ and ‘them’ is how we distinguish ourselves as a people and a nation from the others.

This leftover behavior from our primitive past persists because humans are still driven by a tribal sense to tell us who we are, how we should behave, link us to other like-minded people, and connect us with the past and future.

But our behavior exposes another unique and perhaps fatal flaw that could and may, given time, lead to our demise. Let me provide a few examples. Mankind has known about the poisonous nature of lead for thousands of years, yet we still expose ourselves to its consequences. Ancient Romans understood its toxicity, yet they used it to carry their drinking water, to sweeten wine, and for other purposes. Sadly, human behavior in that regard hasn’t changed. We have certainly understood the dangers of lead exposure but put it into gasoline, paints, and other products and uses. As recent events in Flint, Michigan demonstrate, we have even continued to use lead pipes to deliver our water. Why? What possible consideration would override protecting our health and particularly that of our own children and grandchildren, our future? The answer is a desire for pleasure. In this case, the pleasure is money, including the personal acquisition of wealth, and the generating of a profit. More broadly, pleasure is anything, activity, or object that provides happiness, delight, joy, gladness, glee, satisfaction, gratification, contentment, enjoyment, or amusement.

It seems our species is unable to do what is in our own best interests especially when doing so prevents us from deriving all the pleasure we can from an activity, a thing, or an object particularly when that pleasure is seen as having monetary value (money, real estate, stocks and bonds, precious metals, etc.). We would rather put our own survival in jeopardy in order to maximize our perceived short-term benefit (whatever that might be). This is especially true when we can separate who benefits from who pays by turning the question or issue into “us” vs. “them.”

Nowhere is this more evident than the approach to climate change and global warming brought about by our own deeds. Denial is everywhere, and one suspects only when the inevitable catastrophe comes will behavior reluctantly change in an attempt to meet the crisis.

In The Box, a 2009 movie starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, and Frank Langella, an alien race conducts an experiment on the humans to judge whether a majority will put other’s lives before their own opportunity for personal gain. The test involves receiving an anonymous gift with a caveat. If the receiver opens the package they receive a gift of a million dollars, but in doing so someone unknown to them will die. The question is whether or not the potential gain is worth the price. Many people fail and ultimately find themselves destroyed by the consequences of their decision.

The point of the alien’s experiment is to see whether enough of humanity is willing to make the choice of deferring on the potential pleasure (million dollars) for a higher purpose (their survival and wellbeing). It is revealed if humanity fails to reach a minimum threshold the aliens have set for the test, humans will be expunged from the planet. The movie highlights the principle issue emerging in our path. Can man defer on pleasure even if his own existence is in question?

Mowgli the chimp shows off his orange-carrying skills. Screenshot: The Jane Goodall Institute South Africa/Facebook

Humanity’s essential problem is tied to the way we think. Until about 12,000 years ago we were hunter-gatherers with stone tools and lived as we had for thousands of years. Today we may live in the space age, but our brain structure hasn’t changed. It is still in hunter-gatherer mode as indicated by our inability to defer a pleasure. We still approach nature with the awareness of our stone age ancestors and grab all the fruit from the tree we can before it disappears. We still believe the whole has no relation to the parts. We dump our wastes in the ground, in the sea, or in the air, and can’t understand why they turn up in our groundwater or that CO2 is causing heating of the atmosphere.

We wish to get our next fix from our culture of addiction without facing the reality of the cost to our bodies from the use of the drugs. Our habit of dividing the world into progressively smaller units leads us to a fractured view of the universe without being introduced to any mechanism or system to integrate the vast quantities of information we have gained.

In this new environment, the nation-state is being undermined by globalism and growth of multi-national corporations it is unable to control. The nation-state is largely a 19th-century creation that has reached its limit in effectiveness and is now increasingly becoming detrimental to our species survival.

The traits developed by Homo sapiens that made it possible for us to dominate and conquer the planet have become our potential fatal flaw. How we resolve resource scarcity, population growth, technological and climate change in the decades of the 21st century will determine our continued existence. Will we be able to adapt fast enough to the new realities to avoid catastrophe? Can we override these hardwired proclivities that are triggered by certain social and environmental stimuli? Can we overcome our biological instincts, or will we succumb and fall back into old and familiar habits and employ old means of solving problems? Will we give in to seeing ourselves as being part of small unrelated groups and divide the planet into tribes of “us” and “them” and do what we’ve evolved as a species to do in such situations and try to eliminate the competition?

Looking around today there is more than ample evidence suggesting our species is more likely to continue on the familiar well-worn path reinforced by over 50,000 years of thinking in the same way and fall into the trap our biology and evolution have set for us. As resources become scarce and competition increases the cry of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ are comforting as we tell ourselves we must subdue, eliminate, and annihilate the ‘others’ to survive. No ‘nation’ will be willing to sacrifice their pursuit of pleasure (money, wealth, material goods, profits). Nations seeking control and dominance over the others are more likely to spend outlandishly to acquire flashy implements of war and destruction while they destroy environments and key ecosystems in pursuit of the last ounce of commercially exploitable resources, filling the land and the oceans with waste and garbage. Our current president refers to this as “America first.”

Man’s end may finally come about, not by his much-touted nuclear weaponry, but because he dumped so much garbage in his own nest he finally ends up sneezing and blowing his nose until he dies of asphyxiation. The problem is we are altering the very ability of the earth to sustain us.

Our predicament suggests in order for Homo sapiens to survive the 21st century and continue to grow and flourish in the future we urgently need to redefine the meaning of “us” to include life in all its varied forms. To get there humans have to demonstrate the ability to overcome the flaw in the programming embedded in our DNA so beautifully exposed in The Expanse series that even in the face of possible extinction humanity is unable to put aside petty differences and cooperate to meet the threat posed by an alien presence. This same theme ran through the X Files TV series in the 1990s where a small group of humans believed by cooperating with an alien threat that they and their families would be spared.

We can visualize a future filled with wonder and promise, or we can stay on the well-worn path our species has chosen to tread and suffer the consequences. The choice is ours.

Writer and artist. Published over 150 essays, stories, and articles in 20+ publications and recognized as a Top Writer in History, Science, and Space.