another look at the fermi paradox

November 30, 2009

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…

alien contact

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.

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  • Very interesting article gfish. I agree that what we think of as intelligent has a lot of room for definition. But, I can’t help but think in terms of curiosity. Don’t we hear of wild tales in which whales and dolphins do try to communicate with us at some level? If intelligent-like-us aliens were out there, would they not be just as curious about us and we are of them?

  • Greg Fish

    Curious? Maybe. But the big question is whether that curiosity will outweigh the risks and they decide to go for it. In their mind, we could be giant monsters who’ll pound them to dust after getting offended at one of their transmissions, or cuddly ETs with glowing fingers and all the best intentions of sending positive messages to their world via abductions in the middle of the night.

    They don’t know and that uncertainty creates a lot of room for doubt and second guessing your innate feelings of curiosity and the need for exploration…

  • If Roman Catholic Europe had locked in “Poenitentiam agite adpropinquavit enim regnum caelorum” – no Arabic numerals, no Jews or Protestant Reformation, no New World, no devilish studies… no concrete, reinforced or otherwise. But why impress when we can ignore? China had no optical glass – no microscopes, telescopes, eyeglasses, or chemicalware. China eventually had no interest in the outside world. China has a crippling written language refractory to containing explosively growing technological vocabularies.

    What the Official Truths of god and bureaucracy cannot suppress, frank criminality can dissipate. Earth will go dark within a generation.
    Plot it linear to see the true slaughter.

  • Russ Toelke

    What is this intelligence, this curiosity, this awareness we have? Would not a set of social skills bestowed upon wolves, ants, or apes have served us well enough to survive as a species without the presence of mind to ask who we are and where we came from?

    Are we the product of a random plasma incident that just happened to affect one species on the planet? Are we a seed sent from a distant dying civilization, meant to inseminate and evolve from what existed already on the planet? Is this awareness an as-yet unrecognized instinct to phone home? Is there a God, and could he be some collegiate experimenter playing with a controlled explosion (big bang), knowing conditions had to occur just so to allow his intelligence to survive?

  • Greg Fish


    All your questions are very important to our understanding of the universe around us and of our own lives. This is why those of us interested in scientific investigations spend so much time and effort trying to solve them. Not just write a book and claim it holds the truth, but go out and find real, tangible proof of what happened, how and when. And possibly even why.

    As for the more esoteric concepts of alien and divine intervention, I would offer that our mental abilities could indeed be totally random but we just can’t accept that idea because we’re so focused on causality and logic, that we need to look for a purpose where there might be none, skewing many of us away from accepting the organized chaos of nature as a possible answer to this question.

  • Russ Toelke

    I sure hope we find out before we destroy ourselves.
    I often wonder whether a latent consciousness is present in all living things on the planet, and we’re just the first species to develop it.
    Whether it’s universal or just present in the human brain, I have to wonder about the evolutionary purpose of its existence.

  • Jypson

    I can’t help but think of the movie District 9 where they are trying to present eviction notices to the aliens. Trying to apply our logic and reasoning to an alien race who couldn’t care less about human “due process.” The ego of the Human Race is mind boggling.

  • mytor

    Maybe there are intelligent life forms out there , would they wish to communicate with a race of beings that destroy each other over issues such as skin colour, particular superstitious beliefs, greed etc.
    Possibly the fact they they would have nothing to do with such a race of morons is what defines their intelligence.

  • Greg Fish

    “…[that] they would have nothing to do with such a race of morons is what defines their intelligence”

    I’m not sure that holding aliens up to such high standards is really warranted. They could be every bit as petty and destructive as we are. Nothing out there shows that intelligent life has to be what we would consider noble and altruistic.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Another part of the answer may lie in that comparison between primates and cetaceans.

    I personally suspect that our definition of “intelligence” is too narrow, and that there’s a huge amount of sophisticated, abstract, and profound discourse going on underwater, among brains whose symbol-processing capacities dwarf ours. But even if we set that aside and accept that dolphins and whales are competing for 2nd place…

    Consider that there are (were? I haven’t had the heart to follow the extinction studies) dozens of species of aquatic big-brains – who came first – and just a few similar terrestrial species (only one now surviving). This indicates evolution of intelligence happens more easily & often in the seas, which also allow more room for co-existence without terminal competition.

    In which case, the Drake equation could turn out to have pretty high numbers all the way through to the “technological” factor – then drop low enough to answer Dr. Fermi’s question. You could be smarter than Einstein & Lex Luthor put together, with more functionally manipulative limbs than a Hindu god, and still never get to the use-of-fire level of tech (never mind radio or spaceships) if you’re committed to a fully hydrological lifestyle.