Evolution and the Fermi Paradox

YOU have surely heard of the Fermi Paradox: If the universe is full of life, some of it intelligent, then — as Enrico Fermi is said to have asked — “Where are they?”

Everyone eventually takes a shot at answering Fermi’s question, but we haven’t tackled it yet at our humble blog. It’s time to remedy that defect. Our answer: It’s evolution!

Look at it this way — we’re a new species in an old universe. Some of the intelligent creatures out there have been around for millions, perhaps billions of years. It’s likely that they’ve made some improvements.

For example, being fresh from the steaming cauldron of evolution, we’re mostly comprised of primitive parts. Consider our torsos. They’re mostly filled with guts! From the mouth down to the other end, we’re almost all guts. Think about it — your colon is probably the largest internal organ you’ve got. Are you proud? Well, maybe it’s not the colon; perhaps it’s your liver — yuk!

Internally, we live in symbiosis with billions of bacteria that help us digest our food. It works, usually, but it’s really quite crude. An advanced species would almost certainly dump the whole messy business and opt for replaceable power packs. Then they could use the freed-up internal space for other purposes.

Consider how we speak. We use our mouths — organs evolved for sucking and chewing. Yes, we make a lot of neat sounds by flapping and clicking our membranes, all of it powered by exhalations, but a simple radio speaker can do far better. Allegorically speaking, we’re still yodeling in the mountains while the aliens are using iPhones.

A few obvious improvements would make an incredible change in us — power packs, computer chips, that sort of thing. No food, no intestinal disorders, no forgetfulness, no dementia. We’d still want to be human — especially the way we reproduce — but we could be much improved. It’s virtually a certainty that the aliens have already taken that route, and we think that’s the key to the Fermi paradox.

Compared to Humanity 2.0, which our posterity will probably be in the not-to-distant future, we’re — let’s be candid here — we’re rather disgusting right now. And if our descendants will see us that way, imagine how we’d appear from an alien’s point of view.

For example, if they had sense organs that could see and smell what’s really going on, they’d be aware that each of us is surrounded by a pungent cloud of decaying dandruff as we constantly shed dead skin cells. And that’s just the start of it.

This whole planet is probably revolting to aliens. What we might see as a pleasant stroll through the meadow, with dandelions and butterflies and such, to them would be a hideous experience of being surrounded by air swirling with bacteria, fungi, and pollen, walking on top-soil composed of centuries of decayed organic waste, and everywhere would be the stench of dead ants — you get the picture.

We’ve evolved to live in this mess, but the aliens haven’t. Whatever evolution they went through was long ago, and they’ve undoubtedly made lots of changes since then. If they learned about our recent appearance on our pretty little planet, although we think we’re wonderful, it’s doubtful that they’ll appreciate us nearly as much as we do.

So we think that’s why they’re staying away — they think we’re grotesque, like any newly-evolved species. They’re waiting for us to grow up and make a few improvements. If the world is ever ruled by creationists (who think we’re wonderfully created as we are), then there won’t be any changes; and there won’t be any alien visits either. We’ll be the bumpkins of the universe, isolated forever.

Until we take charge of our future evolution, don’t expect any alien landings. If there’s any alien contact at all, it’s going to be limited to long-distance conference calls. Very long distance.

What about abductions and probes? No way! That’s the last thing they’d want to do. Sorry to disappoint you.

See also: Charles Krauthammer and the Fermi Paradox.

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

add to del.icio.usAdd to Blinkslistadd to furlDigg itadd to ma.gnoliaStumble It!add to simpyseed the vineTailRankpost to facebook

. AddThis Social Bookmark Button . Permalink for this article

22 responses to “Evolution and the Fermi Paradox

  1. That’s very good, Doc Bill. I hadn’t seen it before.

  2. Yep, not only are we on a 3rd generation star, but we had that damn asteroid impact 65 million years ago that basically reset the clock on intelligence.

    We are waaaay behind the curve on evolution, intelligence, and exploration.

    For all we know, the entire milky way is run by energy based, machine intelligences and they haven’t even seen us yet.

  3. I always though the Fermi paradox was silly. “Where are they” doesn’t mean anything. It presupposes that there is some reason why we should, or should not, have expected to see evidence of alien life. (It is surprisingly difficult to find out what Fermi actually said, so I’m never sure with what “Fermi paradox” I am arguing.) Consequently, the paradox is not “if life is so common, why doesn’t it appear to be”. The paradox really is “Generalize from one case”. Which of course is a waste of time.

  4. Gabriel Hanna says: “I always though the Fermi paradox was silly.”

    Everybody watch out, Gabe is having one of his cantankerous days.

  5. Not to argue with Gabe, but I always thought the Fermi paradox was profound. Under almost any set of assumptions one could come up with regarding the evolution of intelligent life, a 13 billion year old galaxy of 200-400 billion stars should be swarming with it. Paul Davies recently wrote an excellent book, “The Eerie Silence”, on this very topic. It’s very disquieting. Either we are extraordinarily unique, which doesn’t seem likely, or something happens to intelligent life forms when they develop the technology of space travel. Maybe they kill themselves, destroy their planets…or something else we haven’t thought of. It IS eerie.

  6. Every time we improve our technology, we upgrade our ‘alien detection’ methods to find the sort of signal we might send. If they’re doing the same thing…

  7. Interestingly, there are slightly over 500 G-type stars within 100 light years of Earth. So our EM radiation should have been picked up by at least one of them by now…

  8. Under almost any set of assumptions one could come up with regarding the evolution of intelligent life, a 13 billion year old galaxy of 200-400 billion stars should be swarming with it.

    2x + y = 3. Solve for x. Oh, well, since you don’t know what y is, x is anything you want it to be provided you assume something for y.

    So for the Fermi paradox. How many stars have planets capable of producing life? We don’t have any idea. Of those planets, what percentage do produce life? No idea. Of those planets which produce life, how many produce life capable of and interested in doing things that might enable us to detect them? No idea. For how long do these civilizations last? No idea.

    So for the Drake equation, which is supposed to estimate the number of civilizations which we could contact,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_equation

    only one parameter has any evidence for its value. The other 6 parameters can be adjusted to give any number that you’ve decided is reasonable, which is exactly what Drake and his colleagues did; they thought 10 was a reasonable number.

    We have no way to know if we are the only civilization, ever, and no way to know if this state if affairs is unexpected. You can’t generalize from one case.

  9. Every time we improve our technology, we upgrade our ‘alien detection’ methods to find the sort of signal we might send. If they’re doing the same thing…

    Every time we upgrade our technology, we try to make it more secure and efficient. We try to go from point to point. We don’t wish our mothers a happy Mother’s Day by, for example, burning letters into a forest on the side of a mountain.

    If you have something to say to someone far away, wouldn’t you try to get the message to them in a way that only they can read it and using the least amount of energy?

    Why would it make any sense to broadcast signals at an enormous energy cost, if you want anyone any distance away to read them, at everyone in every direction?

    There’s no reason to assume that alien civilizations will have anything to overhear.

  10. Every time we upgrade our technology, we try to make it more secure and efficient. We try to go from point to point.

    Yes, I vaguely recall that early Drake estimates for “lifetime of an emitting civilation” were on the order of 10E4-10E6 years. In hindsight, that is an enormous overestimation given that it looks like our own civilization will stop large-scale emissions after about 100 years. Not because we will die out, but because it took us less than 100 years to find more efficient means of communication.

  11. Interestingly, there are slightly over 500 G-type stars within 100 light years of Earth.

    We haven’t been broadcasting (not strongly) for 100 years yet, so the signal will only have reached … {grabs a calculator } …
    … ~175 of those stars, or roughly 35% of that 100-LY volume (assuming an even distribution and 70 years of broadcasting). It could be a while yet before we hear anything back.

  12. First-time poster, long-time lurker (okay, “long-time” meaning “since about half an hour ago, when I found this blog while Googling a certain insane creationist”), and wanted to chime in to say I’ve never been impressed by Fermi’s paradox; even if life and intelligence are relatively common in the universe, that doesn’t mean there will be interstellar travel. The most obvious reason is that there are no sf-style loopholes to get around the lightspeed barrier: no warp drives, traveling through wormholes, pulling space-time threads, nothing. As for radio waves, wouldn’t they degrade or fade out over a great enough distance?

    But there’s plenty of other reasons the universe could be full of intelligence we can’t detect from Earth: intelligent life could evolve either underwater or on an oxygen-free planet, which means no fire and thus no metalworking. It could evolve on a planet without enough metals to work with in the first place. It could lack manipulative limbs. Fermi’s paradox is only paradoxical if you believe too many unproven assumptions.

  13. As for radio waves, wouldn’t they degrade or fade out over a great enough distance?

    Yes, but for any reasonably powerful transmission, the signals can be easily detected for a VERY long distance, especially at certain frequencies (e.g., hydrogen line at 21 cm).

  14. for any reasonably powerful transmission, the signals can be easily detected for a VERY long distance, especially at certain frequencies (e.g., hydrogen line at 21 cm).

    So we might detect radio transmissions if another space culture is deliberately sending super-powerful transmissions out, specifically in hope of contacting us, but ordinary radio transmissions of the “Good-Time Variety Entertainment Hour” wouldn’t make it out very far.

    And another possibility is that radio only lasted for a small percentage of a civilization’s history: right now, on Earth, I’d wager the amount of communications done via fiber optics or cables is much greater than the amount transmitted through the air strongly enough to cut across vast swaths of space.

    It’s even possible that humanity spent most of its existence bathed in powerful radio waves from a distant alien civilization, but the radio waves died out just a few days before humanity invented its first radio receiver.

  15. but ordinary radio transmissions of the “Good-Time Variety Entertainment Hour” wouldn’t make it out very far.

    Sure they would, as long as the receiver is sensitive and the frequencies are high enough to not bounce off the ionosphere. By “reasonably powerful,” I was excluding cell phones and flea power transmitters. A 50kW FM station will go a LONG way out.

  16. SY: A 50kW FM station will go a LONG way out.

    Inverse square law is not your friend here. 50,000 W / (4.2*9.5 trillion km)^2 = 0, for all practical purposes. And that’s just Alpha Centauri.

  17. Gabe, I think you’re striving for a curmudgeon award! :)

    Assume for a moment that we can develop a very large space telescope or interferometer, something like the terrestrial planet finder, and further have a means of canceling out the light from the star we are observing such that we can image its planets directly. Suppose we apply this technology to those 500 G type or sun-like stars within our 100 light year bubble, and find a few candidate planets in habitable zones. Is there something that might show up in the spectra of such a planet that would indicate technology? For example, we produce quite a bit of light in our cities – would mercury lamps (lots of them, of course) be detectible? Would certain chemicals in the atmosphere (lead, CFCs, etc) be detectible in a spectra? My point is, might we develop the ability to detect technology even if it is not transmitting signals?

  18. Ed asks:

    My point is, might we develop the ability to detect technology even if it is not transmitting signals?

    How would we detect an entire planetary civilization that had existed for millions of years, but which peaked technologically at, say, the level of the Roman Empire?

  19. Ed, we could devlop all kinds of technology, but the fact is that we have no idea what we should expect to see, because we can’t generalize from one case. I am sure that life IS common in the universe, in fact, because life is what you get when you have chemistry for a very long time. We find such a huge variety of life on Earth under such a wide range of conditions. But in the case of mere life we have far more than one example.

    When it comes to technological civilizations, our solar system has produced one. We have no idea what the odds could be.

    Yes, we should be looking at planets and finding out all sorts of things in their spectra, but making any sort of effort to specifically search out alien civilizations just makes no sense when we have no idea what sort of thing we should be looking for or what the odds are of finding it and have no way to get any information about these things.

  20. SC and Gabe, my thought about Fermi’s question “why aren’t they here” is that he is voicing the very ideas that you are stating, in other words, if aliens were anything like what the folks that populated Drake equations and developed radio telescope search strategies assumed them to be like, they would be here. So our ideas must be wrong. The evidence is staring us in the face, that we don’t know what we are talking about. That’s why I think it’s profound. Either our assumptions about the existence of intelligent life are grossly over-optimistic, or there is something even scarier about the lifespans of technological civilizations. Or maybe, intelligent life is so different than what we assume it to be, that we are asking the wrong questions in the first place.

    However, that does not mean we shouldn’t look and listen. It seems to me that we should screen the stars within our technological reach (maybe that 100 light year bubble) to determine whether or not they have planetary systems, and whether or not any of those planets have markers of biological life. It might be possible to isolate something in the spectra of some of those planets which would be a marker of technological activity – something that would not occur naturally. We probably won’t find it, but it can’t hurt to look for it. The data would support good science anyway – a complete catalog of the types of systems and their characteristics could support building better models of planetary formation, frequency of life, etc.

    The trouble with all of this is that we’ll probably all be gone before anyone finds anything. :(

  21. Inverse square law is not your friend here.

    But receiver sensitivity is. So is antenna size. Voyager, for example, uses about a 20-25W transmitter, yet we are receiving its signals at a 70AU distance, with plenty of s/n headroom and using non-exotic methods. Now admittedly Alpha Centauri is something like 900 times farther away, but the signal strength from a 50kW transmitter would still be easily within our capability to detect.