Given that my last post revolved around it, and the fact that I can be an insufferable bore with an inflated opinion of my own intellect, I figure I’d chime in on the whole question of the Fermi Paradox.
It’s a puzzle that’s entertained many great minds, and a few weirdos like me, for decades now, to the point there the notion of the Great Filter, the thing that’s preventing the universe from being filled with intelligent life, has become at least somewhat formalized.
For those disinclined to click on links, a brief summary of what I consider the most relevant possible filters:
1.) Life needs exactly the right environment to arise, and planets like Earth are just extraordinarily rare. The more we learn about the stars and planets in our galaxy, the less likely this explanation seems.
2.) Molecules like DNA and RNA are incredibly unlikely flukes.
3.) Simple single celled life (bacteria) is an incredibly unlikely fluke.
4.) Complex single celled life (eukaryotes, or more to the point the sort of single celled organisms that gave rise to us) is an incredibly unlikely fluke.
5.) Sexual reproduction (and hence the advantage in accelerating natural selection) is an incredibly unlikely fluke. Which, looking at what’s going on in modern day Japan, might actually be true.
6.) Multi-cellular life is an incredibly unlikely fluke, which raises the possibility of finding alien planets that are basically just one giant mat of algae. And nobody wants that much algae.
7.) Super-intelligent animals like us are extraordinarily rare.
8.) Intelligent life tends to wipe itself out, or be wiped out by other intelligent life.
The Killing Star focused on the 8th filter on my list, the notion that in an Einsteinian universe, with trade and conquest being functionally impossible, interstellar civilizations would engage in wholesale slaughter rather than risk the possibility that their neighbors would try it first.
I don’t agree, largely because while the human race has engaged in exactly that sort of behavior innumerable times in the past, we stopped doing it the moment it became possible to finish the job with authority. And any civilization capable of deploying relativistic weapons is going to know how hard it is to kill everyone, and how easily the survivors might be able to return the favor if they manage to regroup.
I tend to look at it from the perspective that simple life is probably inevitable in any environment capable of supporting it (which leaves the first filter open as a possible explanation, but pretty quickly bumps us to the 5 or 6th possible filter on my list), but where I generally stand is with the 7th filter, the notion that intelligence ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The eye has evolved a number of times over the history of life on earth, because the advantages of being able to access that sort of input are unbelievably huge. Similarly, most other sensory apparatus; smell, hearing, sonar, etc, show signs of having been evolved on numerous independent occasions, for exactly the same reason.
Flight has evolved at least four times that I can think of off the top of my head: insects, pterosaurs, birds, and bats.
Animals have climbed their way out of the oceans, only to turn around and pop right back in, kinda like people in a heated outdoor pool in the middle of December. They’ve learned to walk on two legs, reverted back to four, and occasionally just said screw it and done away with them entirely.
All of these events repeat over and over again across the past 300 or so million years.
The dinosaurs had 135 million years as the dominant vertebrates on the planet, and the best they managed… wasn’t that impressive.
So why would it be so uncommon? The advantages appear to be immense; humans have conquered the entire planet, functioning as the apex predator to the extent that quite a number of species today exists solely to become delicious, delicious morsels.
And yet despite all that, we’re the only ones that have ever gotten this far. At least on this planet.
My take on it is that while millions of years of natural selection can produce some incredible results (and a few hundred years of unnatural selection can give us Great Danes and Chihuahuas), it would seem that there must be a case of the right genome in the right place at the right time.
Cows would probably never develop much in the way of intelligence, because grass isn’t exactly a wily prey.
Animals without hands in general would have a tough time; while they can in theory evolve such appendages, it’s a lot easier to start out with them and move from there. Intelligence and tool use are synergistic, with the capability to craft more advanced tools serving to push the population towards higher intelligence, which allows it to craft more advanced tools, and so on, and so forth.
So something with grasping hands that it can choose not to use for locomotion, or at least not to use for just standing around. Something predatory, because plants are too easy to hunt. Something on land, because tools are difficult to use when they float away or sink out of reach. A thousand factors, all lining up in exactly the right order, at exactly the right time, all operating on exactly the right genome. And if any one of them is out of place, you get chimps instead of humans.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with chimps. But they’re not gonna be putting chimps on Mars any time in the next couple decades, and the odds are good that we will. Humans that is. Put humans on Mars.
Possibly chimps too though. Be hard to get that one past the ASPCA, I’ll admit, but apparently Elon Musk can be a pretty persuasive guy, despite being one of the worst public speakers I’ve ever seen.
We have a sort of collective hubris, viewing our intellects as the most important factor in natural selection, the end goal of evolution, when in fact most of the time, our level of intelligence is unnecessary, and you’d be better off being a bit faster, a bit stronger, a bit more resistant to the elements or quicker to mature or having the sort of incredibly bizarre reproductive tracts that you can find in ducks.
Seriously, don’t Google that. It’ll scar your brain.
Someday we’ll have to accept that all our hopes and dreams and aspirations, the sum total of our collective intellectual prowess and technological development, conquering the planet and hopefully the planets beyond our own… in the wrong place and the wrong time matter rather less to natural selection than having a corkscrew penis.