another look at the fermi paradox
Considering that The Daily Galaxy’s record on topics like aging, evolution and futurism are not exactly stellar, if you pardon the pun, we might expect their feature article on the Fermi Paradox to be rather lacking in both detail and science. But instead, it’s actually fairly decent overview of a big question posed to all SETI efforts; if the universe is crawling with life, why aren’t we being constantly bombarded with signals from alien species? Explanations so far have ranged from the practical challenges of delivering a powerful enough signal across light years, to limits of our detection technology, to theories of an evolutionary roadblock that limits how long a nascent civilization has to live before it’s wiped out by either its own efforts or a planetary cataclysm which are duly noted by the Galaxy’s writers. However, there are two more ideas that seem to get little consideration…
We’ve brought up the topic of evolution and its role in astrobiology before when discussing how many aliens could evolve some sort of intelligence and how intelligent they could be, as well as what they might choose to do with their brainpower. Given the right environment and the potential for complex life, the ability to evolve what we would consider societies isn’t at all far fetched. Since there are so many worlds that aren’t hospitable to life in general, civilizations may be separated by vast distances and time scales. As one society is rising to power, the other may be in its decline and death, or vice versa. But even when we consider that, there should still be countless alien species out there, just itching to contact us in the dream scenario of alien hunters. To find out why scientists can’t seem to find them, we need to consider what exactly we mean by intelligent aliens since many of us like to use this phrase so casually, it’s become a very nebulous construct.
Many humans tend to forget that we’re not the only intelligent creatures on our own planet and may theologian navel-gazers use our lack of humility in this regard as proof of some sort of divine design. Why would there be only one creature endowed with the brainpower to understand its existence by random chance, they ask. If we consider that argument outside of a theistic framework, it sounds something like one of the comments in the aforementioned Daily Galaxy article…
There are about 1.5 million known animals, plants and algae on earth. Never mind bacteria and [any] as yet unknown species. How many of these have developed “intelligence”? Just one. I think life is rampant, but “intelligent” life is not.
I wonder why we’re forgetting about dolphins, apes, elephants, parrots, whales, squid and octopi? They’re all endowed with some sort of intellect and many scientists tend to hold dolphins as the second smartest living things on the planet in a very close tie with whales. If we go by what the theory of evolution predicts, there has to be a spectrum of intelligence in a wide number of species and depending on whether natural selection and key mutations have enabled a small number of species to capitalize on brainpower as a means of survival. By letting go of our egotistical notions of our superiority over the planet, we’ll notice that we’re not the only ones on planet Earth with some wits. How far ahead we are, we don’t know because there’s a still a lot to find out how smart some of the other species around us really are. And when we’re looking to other planets, their situation should be roughly similar. Maybe, there really are countless intelligent species out there, but they could never build spaceships or cities because they don’t have the right limbs or don’t have the conceptual skills because natural selection on their world limited the reach of their mental abilities?
Continuing to stray from the beaten path, let’s also think about what we would say to an alien creature. Some of us are desperate to talk to one while many are content to find them at our own pace rather than spend time, money and effort on the task. Do we really want to tell them our secrets? Do we want to send them everything we know in digital form? Would what we consider our great works of art and science impress, infuriate or just bore an alien society? Our cultural differences might be so vast as to be irreconcilable. We can’t even talk with each other most of the time, much less other intelligent creatures on our own world. Chatting with aliens who live quadrillions of miles away isn’t exactly going to be any easier and this may be why there are a whole lot of very smart and advanced civilizations who make it a choice to shun games of interstellar message tag.