The esteemed professor, an expert on interstellar civilizations, is giving a public lecture about the area of her specialization. For years she has been studying the distant planet of Lipar, where intelligent life once existed but has been long extinct. Tonight she discusses some of her findings:
Good evening. Almost half a billion years ago (435 million years ago to be more precise) the civilization of the Neans, a highly advanced species on the planet of Lipar, which orbits a star in an outer region of the Azima galaxy, came to a sudden, climactic conclusion. Interstellar historians are fascinated by the records of this civilization, for they reveal a life form with remarkable intelligence.
Indeed, though Lipar is desolate now, highly sophisticated time capsules left by the Neans provide us with detailed information concerning all aspects of their planet, their history, and their civilization. What one finds is a world that was very much like our own, with large and diverse populations, extensive knowledge of the natural world, and complex social and political structures.
Of course, we long ago answered the question of whether life exists on planets other than our own, and we now know that the evolution of life is a phenomenon that occurs with some predictability when conditions are within certain parameters, but the findings from Lipar are nevertheless especially significant. Not only were the Neans of Lipar intelligent animals, but they are the first animal that we have found whose brain capacity actually exceeded our own.
In fact the data provided by the Neans, through detailed biological information preserved in their time capsules, indicate that the average Nean brain capacity exceeded ours by four percent. That impressive brain capacity is apparent in the scientific advances that they made. Their architecture, their modes of transportation, their medical technology, and their communications technology – all are recorded in detail, and all are quite impressive by any standard.
Hence, the intrigue of Nean civilization is obvious. They were smarter than us, but why not smart enough to preserve themselves? After all, it wasn’t an uncontrollable natural phenomenon – a plague or a giant meteor – that wiped out Nean civilization. No, the Neans, as intelligent as they were, were responsible for their own demise, by voluntarily unleashing large-scale nuclear weaponry.
Interestingly, although the Nean time capsules are filled with information concerning their knowledge of science and the history of their civilization, only bits and pieces of information are preserved regarding how their demise came. It appears that it happened rather quickly, through sudden political and military convulsions that rapidly escalated out of control. Nevertheless, enough information is available so that we can piece together at least a basic understanding of what happened. Let me start from the beginning.
First, it’s noteworthy that the Neans’ evolutionary history was very much like our own. That is, the Neans of course evolved from lower life forms, via the general evolutionary process of natural selection, genetic mutation, gradual change, etc., commonly seen whenever life has been discovered in the universe.
Just as our species would do on our planet hundreds of millions of years later, the Neans evolved from ancestors who lived in what we would consider a very primitive manner, struggling for survival, often perishing due to starvation and disease, and often finding itself being hunted by other animals. The early Neans, like our own ancestors, developed intense emotions that proved to have survival value – fear, anxiety, and fight-or-flight tendencies, to name a few. Tense and worried as a natural state, with violence and suffering commonplace, competing with other animals and other clans for survival and dominance, these ancestral Neans were much like our own ancestors.
And like our own ancestors they survived and eventually thrived, slowly spreading around their planet until eventually they populated almost the entire sphere. As they did so they slowly developed technology, finding better ways to hunt and gather food, better ways to construct shelter. Clans grew into tribes, and as tribes got larger they merged into larger political units.
Although I’ve been referring to the Neans as an impressive animal that was even more intelligent than us, it’s important to realize that for most of its history the Nean was just a struggling animal, primitive and without any characteristics of advanced civilization. But again, we should realize that the same could be said about our own civilization – if an interstellar observer were to piece together our history, he or she would quickly find that the vast majority of our time has been spent as primitive hunter-gatherers, and only the most recent sliver of history would reflect so-called “civilization.”
The Nean emergence, from a struggling animal to a highly advanced and civilized being that dominated the natural world in which it lived, is what is perhaps most instructive, for the Nean made that emergence just as we did, by utilizing a tool that frequently accompanies a highly developed brain – the tool of language. As would be expected, Nean languages were at first primitive and they varied around the planet, but over time they became more and more impressive in their ability to convey precise meaning to specific ideas and concepts.
And just as on our own planet, a major milestone was reached when the Neans acquired the ability to put their language into a new, more permanent form – writing. With written language, the Neans no longer had to rely on word of mouth to pass down information from generation to generation. Complex ideas could be permanently recorded, and then intelligent minds could read them, ponder them, debate them, and improve them. Written language set the stage for major advances in science and technology. Within a relatively few generations after the invention of written language on Lipar, Nean civilization began racing ahead in leaps and bounds.
In fact when we study the advancement of writing and communication on Lipar we find the parallels between our civilization and theirs to be uncanny. Just like us, the Neans appear to have devoted most of their early writings to perceived religious and theological matters. The Neans, like ourselves, evolved from pre-theological ancestors, animals that lacked the brain capacity to generate deep, religious ideas.
In our studies of interstellar life forms, we have found very few examples of what we would consider highly advanced life forms, and certainly none that have approached the level of advancement of the Neans, but in all those examples we have found a recurring pattern. It seems that when an animal first becomes capable of pondering deep universal questions, it inevitably leaves the pre-theological stage and enters the theological stage – the stage where it necessarily invents theology to answer those seemingly unanswerable questions that it has begun asking. Once an animal becomes capable of wondering where his or her world comes from, that animal, not knowing the slightest bit of truth about astronomy or other natural sciences, naturally invents theological answers. Gods inevitably become the default answer to baffling questions, those questions that only a remarkably intelligent animal is capable of asking.
Thus the Nean, with its impressive brain, not surprisingly became a theological animal, and not surprisingly it incorporated its theology into its social infrastructure, making religion an integral part of it cultures and giving religious significance to many aspects of life. And when written language was invented, again not surprisingly, religion became the subject that was central in much of that writing.
But written language also allowed the Nean animal to race ahead in the acquisition of knowledge, and this of course enabled Neans to discover scientific answers to many of the questions that had previously been unanswerable. Neans learned that previously inexplicable phenomena, such as weather and natural disasters, could be explained in ways that made earlier theological explanations seem absurd. They learned that Lipar was a spherical planet that traveled around a star, and that the star itself was just one of billions of stars within a galaxy, and that there were billions and billions of galaxies in the universe. The Neans learned that life evolved naturally, through means that required no divine guidance; they discovered microscopic organisms, and of course learned about mutation, and evolution.
Indeed, as scientific knowledge grew, the authority of well-entrenched religious institutions on Lipar seemed to whither, and the historical injustices and ignorance of those institutions became more and more apparent. Again, the parallels to our experience are uncanny.
As you can see, the Nean experience gives much support for the theory that the stages of progression found in both our world and theirs – from the pre-theological stage, with its inability to ponder religious notions; to the theological stage, with the intelligent animal pondering the universe from an uninformed vantage point; to the post-theological stage, where the animal has acquired knowledge and therefore left theological explanations behind – are natural and even predictable stages of development among certain extremely intelligent life forms.
But importantly, here is where the Nean experience and ours take different paths. Unlike ours, the Nean civilization never completely transitioned into the post-theological stage. Although Neans acquired the scientific and technological knowledge that should have allowed the transition to post-theological society to occur, many Neans simply failed to make that transition. Instead, stubbornly insisting that the theological explanations of their ancestors deserved their continued allegiance, huge percentages of Neans refused to set aside ancient religion.
This may seem puzzling to us, for in our world we experienced a similar phenomenon when our ancestors first began making huge strides in the acquisition of scientific knowledge, but our species eventually made the transition to the post-theological stage without destroying itself. How were we so fortunate, and why were the Neans so unfortunate?
My theory is that the explanation might be found in our slight difference in brain capacity. As I said earlier, the Nean brain capacity, on average, was slightly greater than our own; therefore, when the Nean animal began making scientific progress the advancements came fairly quickly, at a faster rate than our own historical experience. Thus, sophisticated technology became available so fast that, from a sociological and psychological standpoint, the animal did not have time to shed its deeply entrenched religious beliefs and traditions. In fact, there appears to be one key, critical juncture that might have doomed the poor Neans. Let me explain.
Though its advancement as a species was much like our own, the Nean experience differed from ours in one very important way. It seems that the Neans, in an achievement that was remarkable (but ultimately unfortunate), managed to discover nuclear physics – and specifically the splitting of the atom – at a stage in their history when they were far too immature, from a social and psychological standpoint, to properly handle such technology.
In fact, the Neans of Lipar – and let me at this time refer to them using their own terminology, using the language that dominated their planet at the time of their demise. They didn’t call themselves Neans and they didn’t call their planet Lipar – those are terms we created for them. They called themselves humans and they called their planet Earth. So, as I was saying, the humans of Earth were a doomed species. They were so similar to us, but fatally flawed, for they discovered nuclear technology at the time when they were still deeply immersed in their theological stage of development. As we can see from their experience, the theological stage and the nuclear stage are a dangerous mix.
Not only were humans of Earth still theological when they discovered nuclear technology, but the dominant theologies of their species were still dangerously violent, even apocalyptical. Their holy books predicted their planet going up in flames, referring to it as an inevitability, and the masses of people adhered to such beliefs with a surprising level of devotion. Even well into the scientific age, adherence to anti-intellectual religion was still commonplace among the masses of humans, and religious differences continued to fan the flames of ancient tribal animosity and violence. As you can see, with highly advanced nuclear technology available but such ignorance and social neuroses still so prevalent, there was little hope.
Fortunately for our species, we left such tribalism and emotional attachments to theology behind us long before we discovered how to split an atom. And that’s why we can look back at the Neans of Lipar, or, if you prefer, the humans of Earth, with interest and with pity. Half a billion years ago or so, they were an animal possessing even greater biological brain capacity than our species possesses today. But we, not they, live prosperously in a post-theological world of peace. We can only be thankful that our nuclear age and our theological age did not overlap, as theirs did.