when science fiction is passed off as science

As soothing as it may seem, it's very, very, very unlikely there's a union of various alien species that imposes an interstellar order.
first contact
Illustration by Alex Ries

If you’re looking for a nascent, scientifically speculative field, astrobiology is a perfect example. Studying alien life based purely on vague hints, clues and educated guesses allows quite a bit of leeway in your papers. But while most astrobiologists are looking for life on Mars, dreaming about Europa’s oceans, or hoping to find something very exotic on Titan, biogeochemist David Schwartzman thought it would be a good idea to offer the plot of a Star Trek movie as the solution to the Fermi Paradox. According to him, intelligent alien life has such a high probability of evolving and spreading through the galaxy, they’ll know we’re here, waiting until we’ll live up to their expectations to make first contact. Pardon me and the readers of Centauri Dreams for being a little skeptical about this somewhat rosy scenario of a would-be galactic equivalent of the United Nations.

There are three big problems with Schwartzman’s conclusions. The first is the fact that just because life could evolve abstract intelligence on an Earth-like planet, doesn’t mean it will. Evolution is all about survival and if an organism doesn’t need to be all that clever to survive, or doesn’t undergo beneficial mutations that will expand its intelligence over millions of years, it won’t be all that brainy. Let’s remember that a smart alien isn’t a given and the only reason why it’s very likely that somewhere in our galaxy there’s another intelligent species is the sheer number of stars and planets on which it could evolve. But will there be enough alien civilizations which live close enough to each other to communicate? Will they be able to co-exist? How would they be able to talk to each other if we’re talking about completely different ways of communication, not just different languages? If one intelligent species vocalizes and the other exchanges chemical signals, finding a way to exchange things like complex technical information and make politically important plans would be fiendishly difficult.

That brings us to our second problem. Schwartzman’s view of the galaxy seems to assume that aliens share common cultural notions and biases, considering humans too primitive to warrant contact. But would aliens really be so picky and condescending? Would they really define us as primitive and primitive in comparison to what? Alien civilizations could be bloodthirsty marauders who kill for the sake of killing. They could run a totally egalitarian society which shares everything with everyone, considering all life in the universe sacred. And they could also be glib, xenophobic, and incurious creatures with absolutely no interest in space exploration or any concern as to whether they’re alone in the cosmos. How exactly would all these different organisms come to a consensus over anything when they’ll have a lot of trouble communicating with each other, have to cope with a massive culture clash every time a new member of a galactic union is added, and deal with the potential for a war if serious enough disagreements break out between some of the union’s members? We can’t get along with each other and we’re one species. A homunculus of disparate beings scattered across the cosmos and communicating over centuries with multi-decade gaps is probably not going to be much more productive. It would simply take too long to coordinate anything and the potential for violent culture clashes is huge.

And here’s the third problem with the idea of a galactic union: the longevity of its members. We already took a look at the factors which limit how far an intelligent, space faring species could expand and without warp drives or faster than light communication, which Schwartzman rules out, these hypothetical aliens should’ve been around for unrealistically long periods of time for virtually any species. Very few creatures have made it a billion years or more since their initial appearance and all of them are simple, efficient organisms rather than big brained creatures who like to paint on cave walls and build tools. If we were to look at the idea of this sci-fi galactic club, we’d end up with alien species that have been around since the Pre-Cambrian, can talk with an utterly different organism living on a world hundreds of light years away so well they can form alliances, have rather snobbish, egalitarian cultures, and all of which developed complex space faring technology. Even if we account for all the possible planets in the Milky Way, the odds of an arrangement like this are astronomical at best, and it’s far more likely that the notion of a galactic union of alien societies is just Schwartzman’s wishful thinking, and not very original wishful thinking at that when we consider the popularity of this idea in fiction…

# astrobiology // alien civilizations / alien contact / alien culture


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