The Great Filter

Eric Watt Forste (
Tue, 27 Aug 1996 16:47:22 -0700

A while back, I posted my opinions that the jump from prokaryotic to
eukaryotic life (the evolution of endosymbiotic organelles and nuclei) was
improbable enough that it probably makes up a substantial portion of the
Great Filter.

But after reading Robin's latest version of his essay, and being reminded
by it that sophisticated tool use (which seems to me to be closely related
to sophisticated language use and other means of culture-acquisition and
culture-transmission) has only evolved once so far and seemingly led to an
almost immediate technological-cultural explosion, I'm starting to think
that this may be a *much* larger element in the Filter.

Specifically, ruminating on these things reminded me of my own earlier
complaints in an unrelated thread that we still haven't got any very good
ideas about how to make unsupervised-learning feedback networks do useful
things. Yet we human beings seem to be an existence proof that
unsupervised-learning feedback networks can be very useful indeed. (I find
people, myself in particular, to be the most useful tool to solve most of
the problems I run into. ;-)

So now I'm starting to think that much of the Great Filter, probably much
more than lies in the evolution of eukaryotic endosymbiosis, lies in the
evolution of the various neural-net internal control mechanisms that enable
us to learn and transmit culture, including language but many other
memetic-transmission mechanisms as well. And given that evolutionary
psychology is still a small, young field, it would make sense that we still
wouldn't have a very good idea of how difficult this step might be.
Certainly, surveying the current state of AI and neural-net engineering, it
seems like a very difficult barrier for we ourselves to cross

I've decided that I need to read Crick's book (I forgot what it's called,
it has some wildly arrogant title calculated to sell a lot of copies) about
the searchlight hypothesis, because given what little I know of the
differences between human and nonhuman-animal psychology, I'd suspect that
a new mechanism for deliberately controlling the focus of attention might
be an important part of the evolutionary step up from ordinary mammalian
intelligence to human, culture-rich intelligence. Nonhuman animals seem far
more difficult to "distract" from their immediate surroundings and their
immediate environment, whereas humans often get "lost in their thoughts",
especially if they are absent-minded professors like Thales who was reputed
to have fallen into a well once while wandering around stargazing. (I can
relate!) I've never heard of elephants or dogs or dolphins or bonobos
getting themselves into this sort of predicament of absent-mindedness. Such
ability to distract oneself from one's immediate surroundings is a
necessary part of the skill we call "studying", and all our best
technologists understand how their skill at studying has led to the
acquisition of most of their other technological skills. If any trained
ethologists or evolutionary psychologists out there can tell me different
(e. g. that nonhuman animals are known to suffer fits of
"absent-mindedness" or "distraction"), I'd love to hear about it.

Eric Watt Forste <>