The Sagan Moment
The world is very old, and human beings are very young….
[So] imagine the 15-billion-year lifetime of the universe…[as] a single year….
[T]he earth does not [appear]…until early September;
dinosaurs emerge on Christmas Eve;
flowers arise on December 28th; and
men and women originate at 10:30 PM on New Year’s Eve.
All of recorded history occupies the last 10 seconds of December 31; and
time from the waning of the Middle Ages to the present occupies little more than one second….
[W]hat happens [in]…the 2nd cosmic year will depend very much on the
scientific wisdom and the distinctly human sensitivity of mankind. (The Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan, 1977, 13–17)
‘The Sagan Moment’ is an exploration into a two-part assertion made by the late, great, astronomer and author, Carl Sagan. One amplifying the ideas he and other scientists had about the future of any technological civilization like ours. That:
- Given the vastness of the universe, the probability of life elsewhere must approach 100 percent.
- The probability of any civilization surviving its technological epoch, however, is likely to be 0.001 percent.
Implicitly, Sagan was saying that, while the cosmos is teaming with life, the number of ways powerful technologies can be used, abused or misused — deliberately or accidentally — and thus likely to pose a major existential risk to any civilization, is truly huge. Consequently, it would be extraordinarily rare for any civilization to be wise enough to survive its technological epoch.
Of course, when thinking about our civilization, suggesting such a high probability of extinction sounds like apocalyptic hyperbole. However, we already know this is the same percentage of species estimated to have already gone extinct on earth. (Ernst Mayr)
Obviously, probability is not prophesy. Still, there’s no doubt we’ve become a technological civilization. As such, the existential concern Sagan raised should be our collective concern. Yet, broadly speaking, our civilization seems incapable or unwilling to invest any real thought or energy into this concern.
Relativism of the Infinite Present
Instead, like many other civilizational concerns in today’s zeitgeist, Sagan’s existential concern has been reduced to a relative concern in our infinite present. A milieu with no past or future and thus lacking any genuine evolutionary context. An absurd situation that conflates our civilizational journey with the here and now.
Similarly, any attempt to develop scenarios about the future of civilization are considered a waste of time. Moreover, when it comes to adapting to any consequential change coming, ultimately the most important resource civilization will have to work with will be the generation of reliable predictive scenarios. A strategic trait built into today’s machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) systems.
Consequently, attempts to actually explore a worthwhile future in meat-space is effectively beyond the available mind-space. This is extremely unfortunate because the one thing we can be certain about our civilization’s future is that it will be different from the present.
Nevertheless, the fundamental problem with a collective focus on an infinite present is that it comes at the expense of seeing the bigger evolutionary picture impacting civilization. A classic case of a figure-ground reversal. That is, depending upon an observer’s focus, preference or bias, the shape in a picture can be seen as either a foreground or background image.
In the context of Sagan’s existential concern, our infinite present represents a foreground image while the background image represents humanity’s evolutionary journey. That’s problematic because only the background image shows the intimate connection between nested systems — cosmic, biological, human, civilizational and technological — that reflect our past and current evolutionary journey.
More importantly, the evolutionary trends emanating from these nested systems will point to our civilization’s future options and influence the option pursued directly and indirectly.
So, a central argument herein is that the evolution of every major system in the cosmos reflects a set of feedback systems or a feedback ecology. Of course, ‘causal reasoning about feedback is difficult because the first system influences the second and second system influences the first, and so on, leading to a circular argument. This makes…it necessary to analyze the system as a whole.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feedback
For example, while entropy in the cosmos leads to the emergence, life and death of systems and objects in the universe, an ecology of various feedback systems ensure entropy continues to grow unabated. Similarly, while biological species are engaged in a seemingly blind exploration to become ecologically fit and survive, every biological system is dependent upon internal and external feedback systems.
In this respect, evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, has distilled these feedback systems into an interdependent ecology.
- selfish gene — individual organism’s drive to survive and reproduce
- extended phenotype — how a species adapts to or modifies its environment to better survive
- epigenetics — environmental changes impacting the inherited genetics of a species.
Applied to humanity, Dawkins’ feedback ecology suggests an interdependent relationship between individuals, cultural systems and our civilizational systems (i.e., governing systems).
- selfish gene — an individual’s self-aware brain-mind system
- extended phenotype — a culture’s communication system with sufficient fidelity to rapidly share and mutate memes and scenarios
- epigenetics — ability of a civilization to deliberately develop, replicate and mutate technological tools.
So, in civilization’s figure-ground image, the background evolutionary image includes this trifecta of unique capabilities: cognition, communication and technology. Together, it’s these capabilities that have provided us the ecology of feedback systems needed to stay ahead of biology’s natural selection race. As a result, we easily out competed other species in securing a preferred ecological niche and dominance (Think: Anthropocene).
Keep in mind, however, that, to date, our success as a civilization occurred unconsciously. Consequently, the utility of Dawkins’ ecological feedback model starts to fade away at this point. That’s because, historically, governing systems never sought to institutionalized real feedback systems between cultural and governing systems.
Emotion versus Reason
Broadly speaking, the development of civilization’s feedback ecology has been continuously and deliberately arrested by governing elites. While this shouldn’t come as a surprise generally, what may be surprising is that this self-interest behavior reflects a biological legacy that exists in every one of us.
Indeed, as behavioral psychologist and Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman, has demonstrated, in the vast majority of life’s situations, our brain-mind system is predisposed to accept the mind’s emotions over our seemingly more rational brain. Said differently, regardless of the merit or appropriateness of our behavior, decisions and actions, the mind’s emotional self-interest effectively has veto power over reason.
So, despite our civilization’s ‘rational’ 21st century hubris, the dominance of our emotional biological legacy is imprinted on all governing elites, and thus always present in their behavior, decisions and actions. Consequently, over the course of our civilizational trek, the feedback ecology needed for a technological civilization to survive The Sagan Moment has been severely skewed.
- selfish gene — an individual’s emotional predisposition
- extended phenotype — cultural system’s emotional and rational need for upward mobility
- epigenetics — civilization’s dependence on the emotional self-interest of governing elites.
We know this skewing of the feedback ecology is true because, since the dawn of civilization, there has really only been two generations of governing systems; authoritarian and representative.
More to the point, regardless of the type of governing system employed, the emotional whims of individual governing elites have always dominated our civilizational journey. This was accomplished either by the dictates of
- despots claiming the divine right to govern as a reflection of the mind of god(s), or
- representatives claiming the elected right to channel the mind of society.
Moreover, regardless of the type of governing system or rationale used to empower governing elites, these elites have continuously asserted might makes right techniques — physical, legal, economic and informational — to preclude the development of genuine feedback ecologies and thereby ensure their behavior, decisions and actions can’t be challenged effectively.
Consequently, both self-serving claims of governing elites and popular cultural lore about elections in representative governing systems today constituting dependable feedback systems is utter nonsense for a couple of obvious reasons.
- Many modern autocrats have risen to power through an electoral process.
- The career ambitions of individual governing elites are emotionally tied to retaining the power and benefits derived from their governing system.
- Governing elites form monopolistic partisan tribes that consciously make rules to avoid any accountability.
- Real, dynamic feedback systems between governing and cultural systems have never been institutionalized in any reliable, tangible and meaningful way.
So, absent the real conscious feedback ecologies needed to adapt to a constantly changing world, the amount of complexity that has accumulated within civilization already overwhelms the capacity of existing governing systems. More to the point, the unconscious feedback ecology that got humanity this far, is highly unlikely to suffice for a technological civilization hurtling toward The Sagan Moment.
Adapt or Die
Consequently, for our technological civilization to survive the abundance of existential risks ahead, there’s a critical need to evolve new governing systems. In particular, systems designed to institutionally maximize the
- quantity, quality and frequency of feedback between governing and cultural systems
- accountability of governing elites
- evaluation of reliable scenarios about the future of civilization.
Suffice it to say, in terms of the cosmic feedback ecology, the nonlinear birth and death of objects is the equivalent of an evolutionary ‘law.’ As such, it’s reasonable to assume that only civilizations with strong, vibrant feedback ecologies are likely to be wise enough to successfully adapt and survive their technological epoch.
However, in the context of our civilization’s current foreground focus on an infinite present, and the absence of the real feedback ecologies needed by our governing systems, governing elites are leading us on a forced march through a ‘twilight zone.’ A somnambulant march through an alien, and exceedingly disorienting, environment.
A forced march that limits our civilization’s gaze and attention to the banal and away from the larger cosmic drama we’re deeply immersed within. A contrived blindness to the existential risks our civilization is likely to encounter and choice that will need to be made at the crossroad ahead.
Simply stated, it’s likely that there’ll soon be a time — ‘The Moment’ — when our civilization either has its Darwinian dance card canceled, or it enters a profoundly new and different stage of its evolution. While the precise arrival of The Moment is unknowable, what’s certain is that we’ll know when The Moment has passed. And, relatively soon thereafter, we’ll either relish or regret its arrival.
Fortunately, civilization can anticipate the arrival of The Sagan Moment. More to the point, common sense suggests civilization should begin to prepare for it — now. However, to be wise enough to survive our technological epoch also requires an emotion that remains conspicuously absent in today’s civilization. Namely, a passion to evolve.
Find more of my ideas on Medium at,
* A Passion to Evolve (archive at bottom of the page.)
May you live long and prosper!