Altruism and Aliens

It may be a little early in my blog game to talk about my spiritual beliefs. What is that old cliché? “Don’t discuss politics or religion in polite company”? Or is it on a first date?  Either way, it’s kind of a silly cliché.  People wear their politics and their spirituality on their sleeves — and literally on their skin sometimes, thanks to tattoos — these days.  I’ve already shared my first political rant, so maybe religion – or, in my case, spirituality, as opposed to any organized religion (which is another discussion for another day) – is up for discourse.

Recently I read an article about an extra credit question a psychology professor at the University of Maryland had included on a final exam. [Jenna Birch, “Why People Are Obsessing Over This Psych Professor’s Tricky Extra Credit Question”, 7/18/2015, Yahoo! Health, https://www.yahoo.com/health/why-people-are-obsessing-over-this-psych-124426709647.html%5D. The students were asked to choose between getting two extra-credit points or six extra-credit points, but there was a catch: If more than 10% of the class chose the six-point option, then NO ONE would get any points. Evidently, this is a tried-and-true illustration of a psychology concept called the “tragedy of the commons”, which is “basically a dilemma between doing what’s good for you as an individual versus doing what’s best for the group,” according to the professor, Dylan Selterman, PhD.

My natural inclination, without much consideration, would be to go for the two points: Benefit everyone, sacrifice nothing. I’m still getting two extra points and now so is everyone else. But as one of my favorite political pundits, Bill Maher, frequently says, “People are selfish and greedy.” I wonder how many of the students in Professor Salterman’s class went around the room in their minds, saying, “Nah, that guy’s a dick, he’s only looking out for himself, he won’t opt for the two points.” If at least 91% of them had said to themselves instead, “Hey, I want everyone to get the two points, and I’m sure my fellow classmates feel the same,” then everyone would have won with two bonus points! But clearly the students don’t do that. According to Professor Selterman, since 2008, only a single group of his students has received the extra credit.

There’s another, stickier inquiry that is sometimes used in these studies (which was also cited in Ms. Birch’s article). This one involves a desert island and a boat that is too small to carry all of the stranded folk, so someone needs to be left behind. My personal analysis of the situation would be to ask a series of questions among the entire group. The first question: Does anyone want to stay? [An aside: This query could lead into a discussion about suicide, but we’ll save that for another day, too, especially since I recently lost someone I liked very much to what is at least for now being considered a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Something like that makes one think about more serious matters. Unfortunately, you can’t always tell from the outside when someone has just given up on life.] If there were no takers on the “Who is all right with staying behind and, in all likelihood, perishing in short order?” option, the next question to be considered by the group would be if there is someone old or infirm who might not survive the trip or live much longer after arriving at their destination and who would be willing to “sacrifice” themselves. If still no takers, I guess it would have to boil down to a random “draw straws” exercise, although there should probably be some folks — those with vital skills, like doctors or a boat captain – who are exempted from the draw because they are absolutely necessary for the journey to be completed with all the travelers intact. That’s how I’d figure it out.

I wonder what that would tell the psych professor about me? I suspect he would say that I fall into a “group first” mentality. Frankly, I think humans have to start thinking that way or we’re doomed as a species. Maybe that was the “original experiment” set out here on planet Earth, by whatever intelligence originally “programmed” our DNA: How long will it take these incredible inventions called human beings (or homo sapiens sapiens, to use the taxonomic term) to destroy themselves and their perfect, symbiotic planetary home?  Each individual is only around for about 100 years, at best, and we’re designed to reproduce and sustain the species, so doesn’t it stand to reason that we’re also designed to do things during our 100-year life spans that don’t benefit us individually (because we’ll be gone in short order, a dust mote on the timeline of modern history) but rather benefit our children, and our children’s children, and all future generations? Why else would we be here?

It was recently announced that Stephen Hawking and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner were teaming up on an initiative called “Breakthough Listen” to scan the galaxies and star systems closest to earth to possibly pick up some evidence of other civilizations, in whatever form, and then use the supercomputer universe here on Earth to decipher all of the gathered data. At some point in the near future, a “Breakthrough Message” component will be added, which will feature an international competition offering million-dollar prizes for people of all ilks to come up with potential messages to send out (and methods for sending them) into the universe.

Stephen Hawking undoubtedly possesses one of the most brilliant minds ever known, and he is convinced that there must be some intelligence that shares this universe with us (“There is no bigger question,” Hawking says) and that, in all likelihood, shares something else with us as well. Perhaps that “something else” is our DNA. Perhaps they are even the source of the programming of the DNA of every living thing that has grown and developed on Earth. But Hawking warns: “A civilization reading one of our messages could be billions of years ahead. If so, they will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.” [Sarah McBride and Ben Hirschler, “UPDATE 1:-The $100 million question: are we alone in the cosmos?”, Reuters, 7/20/2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/07/20/space-milner-idUSL1N1000NV20150720%5D

It’s all incredibly mind-boggling. Far be it for me to disagree with Stephen Hawking, but I can’t believe that we were just created to be “bacteria”. Humans have been given such gifts, and are such amazing pieces of biological equipment, we must have some deeper purpose than just to destroy ourselves.

It troubles me to my core how people get so wrapped up in their own lives, thinking only of themselves – or, even worse, investing so much time (and money!) into the lives of so-called celebrities (especially those, like the Kardashians, who are famous merely for being famous and who have created an industry of self-centeredness). Perhaps those egotistical preoccupations with ourselves and other selfish people could be considered an “escape” from the daily drudgery of our working lives (which constitutes, admittedly, a small individual sacrifice on behalf of a greater good in support of our own personal families, but doesn’t often extend beyond the four walls of our own homes).  It’s also a distraction from the kind of impossible-to-answer questions that neither our most brilliant scientists nor our various theologies can adequately address. It’s true – reading People magazine and following the “Blind Gossip” website (both of which I confess to doing on occasion) can sometimes be a welcome respite from the deeper (and often more disturbing) questions of life.

But if all it takes to make the world a better place, and perhaps prolong the homo sapiens life span on Earth, is for each person to pause for a moment to think about the “other” guy and how one’s actions might benefit or harm him — to think about the “group” rather than the “individual” – why can’t we do that? It really seems so simple.

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