The Great Filter That Made Us

A thought and microstory about the Fermi Paradox

I think I wrote before about the Fermi Paradox (link). An obsession of mine. I’m a curious man, and the answer to this paradox would tell us so much about the universe we live in. Anyway, that’s too deep a topic to discuss now. But a crucial element of the Paradox are the Great Filters: events so rare that few civilizations can pass through before making their stars their home.

I want to write today about one of the Great Filters. A Filter very much neglected by the Fermi Paradox literature. Which honestly surprises me, because it is the one most spectacularly human. And I am convinced, every space-faring civilization ever to exist or have existed in the universe must pass this Filter, too. It is unavoidable.

As all Filters, this was also incredibly rare, perhaps even more than the advent of high intelligence (there have been many of those on Earth before us, and there are still some left—the octopus, for example), or the evolution of knowledge-transfer structures (all the wisdom that is the legacy of a lifetime must be transmitted to the next generation, if it is not to start from scratch every single time—sadly, the octopus has not yet passed this Filter).

The Filter I am addressing today is in our past already. It happened roughly forty to fifty thousand years ago, so at least this one we passed. Back then, Homo Sapiens had been around for roughly hundred-fifty or two-hundred thousand years. But, in my view, we were still just another unremarkable species in a remarkable world. Successful, yes. And adaptable. But many other species are too.

We were still not—yeah, I am going to use word—human.

There was something missing.

Something crucial. Without it, we would still be roaming the land in small groups, hunting our prey, and fearing our gods, destined to go extinct as every species eventually does, given enough geological time.

This is a microstory about the last Great Filter passed by humankind. The Filter that made us human, where we began to transcend our animal substrate and turn into something that could—that will—transform the galaxy. That is, if there are no more Great Filters in our future. Cross fingers.

The summer of 49,512 BC was unusually cold in the eastern shores of southern Africa. It has been cold for too many seasons already, and game was becoming scarce. Kamat and the rest of his hunting clan were now almost constantly on the move, and he had barely time to practice his latest obsession: tool making.

The ritual of tool making: wisdom and techniques passed intact and untouched by his fore-elders through uncountable generations—more generations than there are stars in a cloudless night.

But it was more of a ritual for him. Every new tool was a journey of discovery. To the desperation of Elder Abat, Kamat would start changing the prescribed techniques as soon as he would master them. It was like a scream in his head, telling him to tinker this and that, in search of impossible perfection.

He couldn’t wait every day to make camp and, regardless of the worried eyes of Mother, keep to himself on the edge of the group, hammering and studying his increasingly bizarre creations, surrounded by a growing mountain of stone and bone splinters. He would only stop when he would hear the rest of his tribe loudly forcing Father to tell yet another of his stories.

New stories.

Never heard before.

Irresistible. Even to the young, obsessed Kamat. He would crawl to the communal fire, lean on Mother, and listen with wide eyes about other peoples and worlds beyond their dull, everyday experience. There would be quests and sacrifices, heroes and gods, creation and destruction. Stories to hope and dream. To take you where your feet will never will. Forget the boring old myths told and retold endlessly by the elders since the dawn of creation. When Father was really inspired, he would even add a verse or two, or sign a matching tune.

Never heard before.

Tonight the Barrau clan are guests—they have been hunting together for a few days already—and two of their young women are seeking permission from Elder Abat and their own elder to lay with Father. He has always been a favorite of their visiting clans, Kamat thinks with pride. Even more than their strongest hunters.

But tonight Kamat is in for a surprise. Elder Abat approaches with a third woman, who is carrying in her hands a threaded set of ivory needles. Kamat recognizes at once the craft—they are his own creation. Last summer he was obsessed with perfecting needles able to pierce the toughest skins. It was good business for his clan, too, regardless of Elder Abat’s diatribes about his constant transgressions of the tool-making rituals. And now, this beautiful young admirer is eager to lay with him. With their clans’ blessings.

The nights are cold this summer in the eastern shores of southern Africa. But tonight, it is less so for Kamat.

And for humankind.

His children are destined to spread through every land, over every mountain, across every ocean, and one day they will scatter across the stars.

The same stars he is staring at tonight in the moonless sky.

The same stars to which his father has given the most evocative names in his stories.

Like? SHARE!

Get Free Book