Cover of Summa Technologiae by Stanislaw Lem

Ever since I saw the movie, “I, Robot” as a kid, I have had serious doubts about the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and moving forward with new technologies without first considering the potential effects. I am less fearful of violent rise of the machines than I am skeptical that driver-less cars and automated service industries will enter seamlessly into societies around the world. Before you label me a Luddite, I will say that I am constantly struggling with this techno-skeptic attitude and trying to come to terms with my fears about technology. Typing on my laptop, and publishing this on the internet, I am aware that technology forms an integral part of my daily life.

In my quest to better understand the interplay of technology and humans I came across a book by a Polish writer, Stanisław Lem. Lem is most famous for his novel Solaris which has been adapted for the silver screen three times, but the object of my attention, affection, and frustration for the past year has been, Summa Technologiae*. Those familiar with Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae can appreciate the breadth of scope that Lem decides to take on within his “Summa”.  A collection of philosophical writings, Summa Technologiae is a contemplative look into technology, intelligence, and the future of humankind and the universe. First published in 1964, the work has its share of inaccuracies in specific mathematical and biological statements, but many of the themes discussed by Lem seem almost prophetic. Discussing virtual reality, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and the singularity, Summa Technologiae remains relevant today, over 50 years past its conception.

The book is as dense as it sounds, though Lem’s sense of humor does shine through the translation and helps to keep the reader going. In an effort to make the book accessible for a more casual observer, I am going to do my best to summarize some of the main themes that are discussed, and provide quotes from the text so you can get a feel for Lem’s unique point of view. Over the next few months, I will be publishing chapter overviews onto this post. My recommendation would be that you read along with me, using this as a helpful guide. However, my hope is that this post can also be viewed on its own while still providing value to the reader.

Before getting started on such a lengthy endeavor, it is necessary to gain some understanding about the subject of this work: Technology. Think to yourself, “What is Technology?” To some, it may be electronics and machinery, to an archaeologist, it may be a stone tool or a ceramic bowl. If you consider it at length, it becomes difficult to determine what is, and what is not technology. If you think have solid understanding of what technology is, let me provide a quote from Stanisław Lem that may bend your mind a bit:

Every technology is actually an artificial extension of the innate tendency possessed by all living beings to gain mastery over their environment, or at least not to surrender to it in their struggle for survival. Homeostasis — a sophisticated name for aiming toward a state of equilibrium, or for continued existence despite the ongoing changes — has produced gravity-resistant calcareous and chitinous skeletons; mobility-enabling legs, wings, and fins; fangs, horns, jaws, and digestive systems that enable eating; and carapaces and masking shapes that serve as a defense against being eaten. Finally, in its effort to make organisms independent of their surroundings, homeostasis implemented the regulation of body temperature. In this way, islets of decreasing entropy emerged in the world of general entropic increase.

*I am using a copy of Summa Technologiae translated into English by Joanna Zylinska. I regret not being able to read it in the original Polish, but find that Zylinska is able to capture the wisdom and wit of Lem quite well.

Chapter Overview

We are going to speak of the future. Yet isn’t discoursing about future events a rather inappropriate occupation for those who are lost in the transience of the here and now? Indeed, to seek out our great-great-grandsons’ problems when we cannot really cope with the overload generated by our own looks like a scholasticism of the most ridiculous kind. pg. 3

Lem isn’t oblivious to the fact that much of what he is writing about in this book will be speculation and guesswork, and also throws out notions that he is writing to create a better world or to find truth. In a statement that is as peculiar as it is wise (as I find much of Lem’s wisdom to be) Lem offers his own explanation for why he is writing this book:

But the justification for my argument does not lie in scholarly passion or in an unshakeable optimism that would guarantee a favorable turn of events, no matter what happens. My justification is even simpler, more sober and probably also more modest, because, in setting off to write about tomorrow, I am only doing what I am capable of doing — no matter how well, since this is my only ability. And if this is the case, then my labor will not be any less or any more unnecessary than any other kind of work, as they are all based on the fact that the world exists and that it will continue to exist. pg. 3

After satisfying his need to express the common philosopher’s creed that he really does not know anything, Lem begins his discussion about how humans interact with technologies. “Technologies,” he describes, “are means of bringing about certain collectively determined goals that have been conditioned by the use of our knowledge and our social aptitude.” Beginning with an extreme example, Lem writes that today we are capable of destroying life on Earth with nuclear weapons, although this was not the goal of any of the researchers who first discovered atomic energy. These unintended consequences are what drew Stanisław Lem to the study of technologies. For, as he suggests, there are few technologies that are not double-edged, and once something has been created, intention has little to no effect on its usage.

Adding to this lack of control over technologies, Lem describes the gap between generation, pointing to the acceleration of scientific and technological development and wondering, “When the entire life of a future generation ceases to be a repetition of their parents’ lives, what kinds of lessons and instructions can the old, experienced as they are, offer to the young?” This touches on something that we all fear as we grow older: a separation between ourselves and the new things that come to be, whether they are people or technologies. Lem suggests that this disconnect negatively affects the homeostatic systems we set up. As a science fiction writer, Lem is constantly aware that the predictions he makes and writes in his books are most likely incorrect and will be scoffed at in the future. Yet societies are constantly designing solutions for the future acting as though the people from the 1950 know how to solve the problems of 2000.

Keeping in mind the unknown consequences of technologies, and the rapid acceleration in the development of new technologies, Lem is concerned that humanity will be unable to properly examine the consequences of their actions before it is too late – again drawing on the nuclear bomb as an example of the size of the risks we are taking. His goal in writing Summa Technologiae is to take into consideration the technologies of today and of the future and what they might lead to. Lem closes the chapter by outlining some common fallacies in our way of thinking that enable poor decision-making as we plan for the future. Our tendency to view phenomena within a closed schema, and a desire for events to fit a narrative that has a beginning-middle-end structure, leads us to create doomsday scenarios and imagine specific events as the “End of an Era”. Rather than this way of thinking, Lem thinks it is beneficial to view progress as a constant struggle for homeostasis, with change constantly occurring. He closes by expressing his wish that humanity’s story will not have a true ending like that of a novel:

History does not deal with tripartie closed schemas entailing “a beginning, a middle, and an end.” It is only in a novel that a character’s life gets immobilized to a certain image, before the words “The End” appear, thus filling the author with aesthetic dlight. It is only in a novel that we must have an end, a happy or an unhappy one, but certainly one that closes things off on the level of composition. Yet the history of humankind does not know, and I hope will not know, such definitive closures or “final ends.” pg. 10

These words of encouragement are a comfort, and show that underneath the critical view of technology and how it can negatively affect society, Lem has an optimistic view for humanity. There is a strong current throughout the book that humankind is capable of mastering the stars, but we must be mindful so that we do not destroy them, and ourselves, in the process.

Within the first pages of Chapter II, Lem barrages the reader with a series of questions that will feature into the remainder of the book. They won’t be covered in detail in this chapter, but they are thought provoking and good to have in your mid as you read on.

Who causes whom? Does technology cause us, or do we cause it? Does it lead us wherever it wishes, even to perdition, or can we make it bend before our pursuit? But what drives this pursuit if not technical thought? Is it always the same, or is the “humanity-technology” relation itself historically variable? If the latter is the case, then where is this unknown quantity heading? Who will gain the upper hand, a strategic space for civilization’s maneuvers: humanity, which is freely choosing from the widely available arsenal of technological means, or maybe technology, which, through automation, will successfully conclude the process of removing humans from its territory? Are there any thinkable technologies that are impossible to actualize, now and in the future? What would determine such a possibility — the structure of the world or our own limitations? Is there another potential direction in which our civilization could develop, other than a technical one? Is our trajectory in the Universe typical? Is it the norm — or an aberration? pg. 12

If you’re still following along, I’m guessing that at least one of those questions piqued your interest. It’s a lot to take in all at once, and Lem admits that finding answers to all of these questions is unlikely. But you should not be frightened away or intimidated by the scope of the questions at hand. Set aside your doubts and concerns as we continue through Summa Technologiae together.

The rest of the chapter is devoted to describing the similarities and differences between the two evolutions (biological and technical), what caused the evolutions to occur, and towards the end the chapter, Lem goes into a discussion about morality and technology and how that plays into the future of the both biological and technical evolution.

 

Similarities

We know nothing certain about the origins of evolution. What we do know rather well is the dynamics of the emergence of a new species from its birth through its developmental peak to its decline. There are almost as many evolutionary paths as there are species, and they all have numerous characteristics in common. A new species appears in the world unnoticed. Its appearance seems to come from what already exists, and this borrowing seems to testify to the inventive inertia of the Designer. At the beginning, there is not much indication that the upheaval in its inner organization, to which a species will owe its later development, has in fact already taken place. The first specimens are usually small; they also sport a number of primitive features, as if their birth had been hurried and fraught with uncertainty. For a period of time, they vegetate in a semisecretive state, barely managing to compete with the established species – which are already optimally adapted to the tasks of the world. pg. 14

This is about one-third of the full description of evolution given by Lem where he is simultaneously describing the processes of biological and technical evolution. It is purposefully vague in order to prove a point. Next, Lem takes a more straightforward approach to prove his point with a few examples. “It is not only that the first amphibians were similar to fish, while the mammals resembled small lizards. The first airplane, the first automobile, or the first radio owed its appearance to the replication of the forms that preceded it. The first birds were feathered flying lizards; the first automobile was a spitting image of the coach with a guillotined shaft; the airplane had been “copied” from the kite (or even the bird), the radio from the already existing telephone.” Lem continues to list examples in order to show the reader that the processes of change in biological and technical evolution are indeed similar. Prototypes, or organisms that stray from their evolutionary predecessors, are often impractical, “initially deserving pity more than enthusiasm.”

Lem also sees similarities in the way that evolutionary branches decline. “The piloted hot air balloon, which, when threatened by machines whose weight exceeded that of air, developed symptoms of elephantiasis, so typical of the pre-decline blossom of dying evolutionary branches. The last zeppelins of the 1930s can be easily compared with the atlantosauruses and brontosauruses of the Cretaceous period. Gigantic size was also achieved by the last exemplars of the steam-driven freight train, before it was made obsolete by diesel and electric locomotives.”

 

Differences

Having outlined some of the similarities between the two evolutions, we may now proceed to the differences.  The first difference is based on a difference in the driving forces of the two evolutions. As Lem states, “nature is the ‘cause’ of bioevolution, Man of technical evolution.” While we have a fairly good understanding of the cause and origination of technical evolution, the origin of bioevolution continues to evade us. We don’t have an exact moment in time to point to the first technical processes undertaken by man, but we are capable of imagining why and how a human being could spark technical evolution. When it comes to bioevolution, we are still unable to pinpoint the origin of life. Lem explains that this is a major roadblock to the further development of technology. “We are not so much concerned with the [origin of life] itself as with the consequences it still bears on any further development of technology. Its development has resulted in a situation in which any further progress will not be possible unless we gain accurate knowledge about extremely complex phenomena – phenomena as complex as life itself.”

Though there are clear differences between the two, Lem illustrates to the reader that the two evolutions are co-dependent. Or at least, in order to further progress technical evolution, humans must gain a more complete understanding of biological evolution. “This is not to say that we want to “imitate’ a living cell. We do not imitate the mechanics of bird flight even if we do fly ourselves. It is not imitation that is at stake here but understanding. And it is this attempt to understand biogenesis ‘from the designer’s point of view’ that is causing such immense difficulties.” While we are able to consciously influence and design, we lack a complete understanding of the processes of life and are unable to progress technologies to their full potential. Think of a child who wishes to build a robot. They may stack together several boxes to form a body, add a tin-can for a head, paint on eyes, and attach some antennae. A child can only imitate the ingenuity of a Creator because they lack a complete understanding of what they are trying to achieve. In the same way, our society attempts to achieve technical goals through imitation when we lack a complete understanding of the processes at hand.

The second difference outlined pertains to how the evolutions occur. Biological evolution is blind, focusing on, “the short-term planning of its activities, since every change directly services current adaptive needs.” Working by trial and error, there is no opportunity for this blind designer to stop and reconsider its plans as an engineer may do. The difference in evolutionary drivers creates much different results. Bio-evolution starts out very broad. Cell-structure from billions of years ago, is still the foundation of all life on earth. Or, as Lem states,

The cell as an elementary building block of biological material emerged, manifesting the same core structure both in the trilobite from a billion years ago and in chamomile, the hydra, the crocodile, and the human being of today… the cells of the paramecium, of the mammalian muscle, of the plant leaf, of the snail’s lymph glands, and of the abdominal gland of an insect all have the same basic components that a nucleus has – with its mechanism that allows for the transfer of hereditary information, which has been perfected on a molecular level – and also that the enzymatic system of mitochondria and the Golgi apparatus have. Every one of such cells contains the potential for dynamic homeostasis, for selective specialization, and also for the hierarchical construction of multicellular organisms. pg. 23

This is a drastic difference from the way that technical evolution has occurred through human intervention. “Technical evolution has so far been moving in a kind of reverse direction to biological evolution in that it has only been creating narrowly specialized devices. The human hand was a model for the majority of tools, yet each time it was only one of its movements or gestures – finger clenching, one straight finger revolving around a longitudinal axis thanks to the movements in the wrist and elbow joints, a fist – that was respectively imitated by the pliers, drill, and hammer.” This is the roadblock in technical evolution that concerns Lem. The technologies we have created thus far in human history have a rigid set of behaviors they can perform, and lack the ability to adapt and re-program in the same way that biological evolutionary products can. Again, Lem stresses that duplicating the hand is not the answer, but it is necessary to gain an understanding of life from the Designer’s point of view before we can match the perfection of life’s technology.

 

Moral Aspects of Technoevolution

We are told that, culturally, technology is at best barren. I say ‘at best’ because the unification of humanity it promotes takes place at the expense of the spiritual heritage of the past centuries and also at the expense of the ongoing creative efforts.” The changes brought upon us by technology may benefit us in some ways, but they also separate us from past belief systems and ways of life. People growing up with jet engines and the internet will never view things in the same way as those who grew up with horses and town squares. “Briefly put, techno-evolution brings more evil than good, with man turning out to be a prisoner of what he himself has created. The growth of his knowledge is accompanied by the narrowing down of possibilities when it comes to deciding about his own fate. pg. 28

Lem is briefly stating the position that condemns technological progress. It is convincing enough (the above statements had me nodding my head in agreement), and doesn’t demean the people who ascribe to those beliefs. However, it is not Lem’s belief. Often throughout the book he will begin an argument by arguing the other side. To be fair, they are credible concerns, and Lem treats them as such before entering into his own opinions of the morality of technology.  It can be jarring, and lead you astray, but it forces the reader to pay attention, rather than agreeing with everything written in the book.

 Let us say right from the start that technology can be approached in different ways. At first glance, technology is a result of man’s and Nature’s activity because it enacts that to which the material world gives its silent consent. We will thus perceive it as a tool for achieving various goals, the choice of which depends on the stage of development of a given civilization and on its social system and is therefore subject to a moral judgement. But it is only this choice that is subject to judgment, not the technology itself. So it is not a question of condemning or praising technology but rather of examining to what extent we can trust its development and to what extent we can influence its direction. pg. 29

I can’t find a better way to word the concerns I have with technology, without at the same time, condemning it. Just as we shouldn’t condemn nature for creating the Lion or the Snake, we shouldn’t condemn technology for the dangers it presents.  Concerns over things like nuclear technology or facial recognition often lie with the way they are implemented by humans, rather than the technology itself. Lem goes on to say that many of our fears regarding technology are based on the quietly accepted premise that techno-evolution is an aberration of development. Meaning, techno-evolution, and all of our technologies (cars, TV, phone, atomic energy) are inherently bad because they go against the natural order. In his reasonable tone, Lem suggests that, “we have to see it as inevitable that such generative capacity [of techno-evolution] should reveal, in its cumulative effect after centuries of activity, some undeniably harmful consequences alongside desirable ones.”

Setting up his next point, Lem tells us, “technology provides us with means and tools, but credit or blame for putting them to good or bad use lies with us.” This is becoming a popular opinion, and while it may be overused, the best example may be the slogan, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Without getting political, I think the logic behind that statement makes sense. There must be an operator, and in technical evolution, that operator is us. However, Lem looks at this viewpoint as merely a, “brief introduction” into the morality of technology.

“The preceding distinction cannot be maintained, especially long term. It is not because we construct technology; it is because technology constructs us and our views, including our views on morality.” Here, Lem is opening up the idea that there is no “transhistorical morality.” This is the idea that morality changes through time, depending on certain social structures, and technologies. A stunning, yet unrealized, example from the text addresses the immorality of murder: “If we could resurrect the dead, the killing – while continuing to be seen as a negative act – would stop being a crime, the same way slapping somebody in anger is not a crime.” This example is extreme, but I think we can see the changes in morality elsewhere if you consider past stances on divorce, labor rights, and environmental protection. As Lem states, “morality changes slowly, but it does change, which is why the greater the temporal separation between two moral codes is the more difficult it is to compare them. We are close to the Sumerians, yet the morality of the people from the Levallois culture would terrify us.”

It might seem like I have gone off on a tangent into ethics, but the above is important if we consider that the moral decisions made today, may have little or no basis in the morality of tomorrow. Lem writes that we are in a period of rapid technical evolution, unparalleled in history, and that tomorrow is coming much faster than ever. Thus pointing out the difficulty of looking into the future, whether it’s 50 or 100 years, and trying to make a moral decision. It is through this thinking that we arrive at one of my greatest personal concerns with technical evolution: unemployment.

As per usual, Lem attacks the negative side of the argument first in the idea that technical evolution should be stopped short of the point where all labor is automatized. “Are people supposed to say at some point, ‘Enough! We will not be automatizing such and such areas of work anymore, even though we can; we shall stop Technology to save man’s labor so that he does not feel redundant’? This would be a peculiar kind of freedom and a peculiar way of using it, after centuries of fighting for it.” This logic fails to provide an answer for the problems that arise when we do become redundant, but it provides some solace to skeptics by pointing out that stopping the evolution of technologies at this point is absurd. Not wishing to alienate the technologically cautious reader, Lem assures us,

The fear of unemployment as a consequence of automatization is justified, especially in highly developed capitalist countries. Yet we cannot consider as justified the fear of unemployment resulting from “excessive consumer prosperity.” The vision of the cybernetic Land of Cockaigne [Eden] is false because it assumes the replacement of human labor by machine labor that forecloses all options for man, whereas in fact, the opposite is the case. Such a replacement will no doubt happen, but it will open up some new possibilities, about which we can only have a rather faint idea today. It will not happen in the narrow sense of laborers and technicians being replaced by programmers of digital machines because future generations and future types of these machines will not need programmers anymore. So this will not be a mere swap of one category of old jobs for another — that of new and different jobs, yet essentially similar to the old ones — but a fundamental transformation, perhaps equaling the transformation of anthropoids into humans. Man cannot enter into direct competition with Nature because Nature is too complex for him to measure himself against it on his own. Figuratively speaking, man has to build a whole sequence of intermediaries between himself and Nature, every one of which will be more powerful in its role as an amplifier of the Intellect than the previous one. This is a way of enhancing thinking rather than might, of enabling control over the material properties of the world in the future — properties that are inaccessible to the human mind. Surely these intermediaries will be in some sense “cleverer” than their human designer — but “cleverer” does not yet mean “rebellious.” … man, in a thousand or a million years’ time, gives up his entire animal heritage, his imperfect and impermanent body, for the sake of a more perfect design, and when he turns into a being so much higher than us that it will become alien to us. Our preview of the future will thus have to stop at sketching out the beginnings of this autoevolution of the species. pg. 39

In this lengthy quotation from the text, Lem truly takes on the role of our guide through technology and the future. Acknowledging justified concerns, stating that it isn’t quite as we see it, and providing a hopeful outcome. Lem writes of a fundamental transformation of man that may occur when we reach a certain threshold. As we progress technologically, we are growing closer to Nature, and more able to understand the complex processes of biological evolution that were once incomprehensible. The vision he describes at the end is incredibly ambitious, and reminds me of religious aspirations of transcendence into heaven or Nirvana – an evolutionary ascendance of the species. Masterfully, Lem imprints the idea that technical evolution is not some aberration, immoral by necessity, but that it might just lead to the answers we’ve been after all long. The paradise we seem to crave. It is a far cry from the rise of the machines, and comforting enough to allow me to sleep through the night without fear.

    The comparison of biological evolution with technological evolution in the previous chapter was necessary because the latter is the only instance in which we can compare two different processes, “of improving the regulation and homeostasis of very complex systems that is available to us. One driven by nature, and one driven by man.”

    Lem compares us to a young Robinson Crusoe stranded on a deserted island. Up to this point, “we have acted like someone who, in trying to find out about his future and the possibilities that await him, studies himself and his environment.” Hypothetically, there is another way of becoming more aware. A young man may, “decipher his fate from the fate of other people. Observing them, he will find out what paths lie ahead of him, what choices await him, and what limitations his choices are constrained by.” Stranded on the island, Robinson’s understanding of his humanity would be severely limited if he had no other humans, and only fish, mussels, or plants to compare himself too. Lem suggests that Robinson may have come to guess at his mortality, and his basic needs, but he would never come to know the greater possibilities of human beings and civilization without any external contact.

    Humanity is in such a state of isolation, writes Lem, “marooned as it is on a lonely planet.” As Kanye West wrote, “Everything I’m not made me everything I am,” and unable to know everything that we are not, it is impossible to determine what we are, where our place is in the universe. Left in this situation, one must consider if there is anywhere we can look to in the universe to see where our civilization is headed? “Seeing some signs of cosmic activity coming from other civilizations would teach us something about our own fate.”

    There is something deeply saddening in the silence of the stars that awaits us in response to this question – a silence so absolute that it seems eternal.

    Lem posits that any civilization nearby that would be able to compete with ours (technologically speaking), should be able to notice our existence, as our impact on the Earth is visible from far distances due to shortwave radiation (not to mention spacecraft and satellites). In the absence of communication from extra-terrestrials we are left with some troubling possibilities, although Lem notes that even contact from extra-terrestrials that may provide direction to where we are headed could be troubling to our psyche.

    Any too explicit and too definite answers would show us that we are slaves to developmental determinism rather than creatures exposed to ever great freedom – which stands for an unlimited freedom of choice. The latter would be the more illusory the more convergence there would be between the paths of the different galaxies within a given group. pg. 42

    In other words, Lem is warning that contact from more advanced civilizations could prove that our existence is not at all unique, and that our future prosperity or demise has little to do with the individual choices we make. He’s suggestting that advanced civilizations could display fatal symptoms inherent to all lifeforms when they evolve to a certain point. The most obvious example is the finite amount of energy to sustain life. Without considering the fuels humans consume, it is accepted that the Sun will one day burn out and all life on Earth will have to adapt or die. He’s not at all saying we shouldn’t explore the universe, but that some may not like what we find. The fact that the chapter does not end here, and that Lem continues to hypothesize about alien life and what it could mean, tells you that he views the threat of discovery well worth the risk in the face of the stagnation of solitude that our knowledge and awareness may approach marooned on our planetary island.

     

    Would we recognize alien life?

    As the chapter proceeds, and speculation about what forms more advanced civilizations may take in the universe, Lem reminds us that, “we have no idea in what way beings higher than us exceed us.” While there is no way to test the hypotheses that Lem comes up with regarding other civilizations in the universe, he insists that this will remain a scientific inquiry and not delve into science fiction. Even so, he acknowledges that science and art often intermix – “every scientist has something of an artist about him, just as every artist is also a little bit of a scientist.”

    Starting on a quest to determine if there is other life in the universe, we must first consider our knowledge of life. Hinted at in the analogy of Robinson Crusoe, we have a very limited knowledge of life in the universe. We know of only one planet which has life, and that is our own. This raises the unsettling question of whether or not we would recognize extra-terrestrial life as such. If we sometimes fail to recognize other human beings as intelligent life, how likely is it that we would recognize and appreciate the achievements and development of organisms entirely alien to us?

    I think the reason we shall not see the presence of Intelligence in outer space is not because it is not there but rather because its behavior defies our expectations. pg. 69

    “As we know, man can be alone in a large crow. Yet is this to say that this crowd does not exist?”

    Before delving into such mental gymnastics, maybe we should address whether or not our existence can be viewed to be a normal occurrence in the universe? Based on our knowledge of astro-physics, Lem argues that there is much evidence supporting the notion that we are average. Our sun appears to be fairly average, it is not an anomaly compared to other stars:

    The very positioning of the Sun within the Milky Way is “average” (neither on its edge nor too close to its center), and the Milky way itself, that is, our Galaxy, is a typical spiral galaxy, like billions of others that are represented in the massive catalog of nebulae. This is why we are justified to see Earth’s civilization as typical, ordinary, and common. pg. 46

    While it wasn’t the case at the time Lem wrote Summa Technologiae, advanced telescopes like the Hubble Space Telescope at least theoretically) of supporting life. This helps the argument that our existence is not an anomaly, that it is not an aberration from the natural progression of the universe. However, if this is the case, we should be seeing signs of extra-terrestrials, or “astrophysical miracles” as Lem refers to them. If we are average, then it follows that there should be some civilizations much more advanced than our own, why are we not hearing from them?

     

    Does evolution always value intelligence?

    It is important to understand that the evolution of life doesn’t aim for what we deem to be “progress”, but toward survival. Thus, planets that we are predisposed to deem a “paradise”, may be the least likely places in the universe to discover advanced lifeforms. As Lem states, “life does not evolve as a result of an inherent tendency toward “progress”, but only in the face of absolute danger.”

    Consider Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Had they remained in that paradise, content and without external threats, the scale of humankind’s technological progress would be severely limited. Innovation and adaptation in paradise is needless. For better or worse, when they were cast out of the Garden it created a need to innovate new technologies.

    A disturbing thought is that we don’t even know what to look for. We only look for evidence of cosmic interference that we can envision, things based in our own minds. Remember that evolution has no preference other than survival, so it can be different anywhere depending on environmental change. What evolution may “value” in one situation, it may not in another. Thus, we cannot predict what evolution may lead to in other planets facing different environmental factors.

    Like a buzzing mosquito, Lem continues to wear down the reader and the reader’s preconceived notions regarding civilizations in the universe. Already establishing that we may not even recognize what we are looking for, he proceeds to suggest that we may not even be looking for the right thing. Humanity’s quest to discover extra-terrestrial life, certainly in the most hopeful inquiries, involves searching for intelligent life.

    Evolution is not a kind of player that would recognize it has lost; it is not like an opponent who either overcomes the obstacle or dies, or like a hard missile that can only smash against the wall or go right through it. It is more like a river that avoids obstacles by changing its course. And just as on Earth there are no two rivers with analogous routes and shapes of their beds, it is highly likely that in the Universe there are no two identical evolutionary rivers (or trees). pg. 58

     

    What is Intelligence?

    Not referring to being “smart or “clever”, the Intelligence that Lem refers to, “a second-level homeostatic regulator that is capable of coping with disturbances to its environment thanks to the activities in which it engages on the basis of historically acquired knowledge.” With this more abstract definition in place, it becomes easier to understand how we may fail to recognize intelligence in other, alien species, due to the existence of countless types of intelligences rather than a simplified humanoid, psychozoic intelligence. “As we know, man can be alone in a large crowd. Yet is this to say that this crowd does not actually exist.” Our ignorance creates that possibility that we are like the man in the crowd, alone by perception but not in reality.

    Not every environment values intelligence the same. There are species that originated millions of years before our own, and persist to this day, without attaining a significant level of Intelligence. Is intelligence always valued in evolution? Lem reminds the reader again that what we look for is ultimately something that fits our own mentality. “The intelligence we shall discover one day will possibly be so different from our ideas of it that we shall not even want to call it intelligence.” Furthermore, “I think the reason we shall not see the presence of Intelligence in outer space is not because it is not there but rather because its behavior defies our expectations.”

    This does not mean that we should give up, rather, that we should consider that, “instead of being only one Intelligence, there exist various forms of Intelligence… [which] perhaps change in the course of evolution to such a degree that, in its manifestations, it eventually stops resembling its original state.” And likely, other civilizations in the universe will be, in the words of James Thurber, “Something very much like nothing anyone had ever seen before.”

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