Thursday, March 11, 2004

Depressing Cosmic Thought

. . .what if at least partial atheism is necessary to reach certain levels of technology? I was reading a book about the evolutionary psychology of religious urges, and it occurred to me that's another bottleneck - it might be one of the traps of intelligence to create a social order that punishes questioners and so stops progress. As happened to China several times.

After getting this comment from Covington, I had an even more depressing thought about extraterrestrial intelligent life.

The flip-side to Covington's hypothesis is a theory by Sir James George Frazier of the Golden Bough. He believed that rudimentary science often directly evolved from primitive religions.

Frazier documented several early societies (and by several, I mean about a million; the complete Golden Bough is 12 volumes long and very repetitive) that contained shamans or other spiritual leaders whose job was to control the environment. Their most common task was rain-making which was done with rituals, dances, and other non-scientific methods.

In primitive societies, religion and science are considered the same subject (also true in the Cincinnati Enquirer). Frazier noted that in this level of development, it was the shamans who had the most to gain by pure scientific research, and anthropological evidence seemed to support this theory. True, everyone benefited eventually but they felt compelled to look into every possibility, usually because if it didn't rain (or they couldn't predict eclipses or weather patterns, etc.), they didn't eat.

With their lives on the line, they pursued every avenue of science available to them. (I tried to use this as a basis of a novel: the Pope and other religious leaders must periodically solve scientific challenges or be ceremonious put to death.)

Obviously this extreme openness to scientific thought didn't last, and eventually creates strangle-holds on progress. Brian Aldriss's novel, The Malacia Tapestry, is a good illustration of this.

What if both Frazier and Covington are right? What if it is religion that initially put us on the path to scientific discovery but winds up grinding it to a halt? What if the same curiosity and need to explain the world eventually snuffs itself out? The universe could be filled with species that never developed either a sense of a supernatural power or technology beyond the hand axe, and species like us who started down the road but are continuously blocked by little green Pete Bronsons. The Catch-22 of Galactic Empires.

Carl Sagan once said that humanity would be the most primitive intelligent race throughout the galaxy. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe everybody's like us.

How depressing would that be?

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