At a crossroads.

Right now, humans are trying desperately to master our evolutionary heritage. Some big choices are ahead. (iStockphoto.com)

By Adam Frank

Science and Technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr

In 1961 Frank Drake, the astronomer who pioneered the search for extraterrestrial life (SETI), devised a simple equation to determine the number of technologically advanced civilizations in the galaxy. The Drake equation, as it came to be known links the number of galactic ETs to a whole list of factors: the number of stars in the Milky Way; the fraction of stars that have planets; the fraction of stars that harbor life. In watching the maelstrom of science, politics and theater on going at the climate summit in Copenhagen this week I have been reflecting on the final factor in Drake's equation and what it tells us about our moment in history and evolution.

Drake's final factor is expressed as L, the average lifetime of technological societies. How long can a species maintain a culture based on complex, energy intensive technologies? Is it possible for a high tech culture to last for millions, even billions of years or do they burn out after only centuries? If you take a very long view then Drake's final factor is the issue at the very heart of climate change.

There are laws and sausage being made in Copenhagen. But beyond the posturing and politics is, perhaps, the drama of a species struggling to come of age.

It is not too hard to imagine that life is robust in the galaxy and that species do occasionally gain intelligence through the pathways of evolution (both of which are highly debated points). From there it is only small step to imagine that everyone, every intelligent species, hits the very troubled point we find ourselves at now. Science emerges as the fruit of intelligence and curiosity, technology emerges as sciences' partner in the effort to both understand and control the world. Energy use becomes more intensive and with it comes unintended consequences. Sooner or later those consequences become global and sustainability of the culture becomes an issue. That may be the first moment in the species' history when Drake's final factor becomes an issue. Decisions are made in response to the challenges. Perhaps these decisions are made consciously and deliberately or, perhaps, they are not. Either way the fate and the future history of the species are set.

If I put on my astronomer's hat the drama playing out now in Copenhagen seems like it might be a common one -- another species trying desperately to master its evolutionary heritage and recognize the consequence of its science and technology. Like a cosmic version of Jared Diamond's Collapse the challenges we face might be seen as an evolutionary stage that is either mastered or missed. But, as we can see playing out before us in Copenhagen, what sets the misses from the mastery will not simply be a matter of science and technology. Instead something else is at work. As a culture, as a species, there is something else we will need to call upon which might also be common in these stories.

We have never had to act as a single global culture before. We have never had to act as single global species before. So perhaps the fraction of misses and mastery which determine Drake's final factor (for us at least) may be our ability to re-imagine ourselves as that global entity, a species tied inextricably to the living world from which we emerged. In the end, what may matter most is our ability to change our vision and values by creating a new culture with a new set of memories and myths to go along with it.

11:15 - December 16, 2009