Charles Krauthammer and the Fermi Paradox

There’s an interesting column by Charles Krauthammer in the National Review. It’s titled Are We Alone in the Universe? The sub-title tells us Krauthammer’s basic theme: “Intelligence may be a fatal endowment.”

Sooner or later, most of us spend some time thinking about 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?”

We’ve written about it before (see Evolution and the Fermi Paradox). In that post we suggested that intelligent aliens have probably been around far longer than our species, and they’ve made improvements in themselves such that they’d see us — newly evolved with torsos full of guts and bacteria — as physically disgusting. Thus, they’re avoiding us until we grow up a bit.

We’ve been giving the issue a bit more thought, and we’ll tell you about that after we see what Krauthammer has to say. To his credit, he totally ignores the creationists’ “privileged planet” explanation. First he discusses the recent discovery of few earth-size extra-solar planets, but none yet found are in the habitable zone “to allow for liquid water and therefore possible life.” Then he says, with bold font added by us:

But it’s only a matter of time — perhaps a year or two, estimates one astronomer — before we find the right one of the right size in the right place.

And at just the right time. As the romance of manned space exploration has waned, the drive today is to find our living, thinking counterparts in the universe. For all the excitement, however, the search betrays a profound melancholy — a lonely species in a merciless universe anxiously awaits an answering voice amid utter silence.

After that he describes the Fermi Paradox, and then:

So why the silence? Carl Sagan (among others) thought that the answer is to be found, tragically, in the high probability that advanced civilizations destroy themselves.

In other words, this silent universe is conveying not a flattering lesson about our uniqueness but a tragic story about our destiny. It is telling us that intelligence may be the most cursed faculty in the entire universe — an endowment not just ultimately fatal but, on the scale of cosmic time, near instantly so.

We’ve never been impressed with that argument, but Krauthammer obviously is. Let’s read on:

This is not mere theory. Look around. On the very same day that astronomers rejoiced at the discovery of the two Earth-size planets, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity urged two leading scientific journals not to publish details of lab experiments that just created a lethal and highly transmittable form of bird-flu virus, lest that fateful knowledge fall into the wrong hands.


And forget the psychopaths: Why, just 17 years after Homo sapiens discovered atomic power, those most stable and sober states, the United States and the Soviet Union, came within inches of mutual annihilation.

He’s undoubtedly referring to the Cuban Missile Crisis. We continue:

Rather than despair, however, let’s put the most hopeful face on the cosmic silence and on humanity’s own short, already baleful history with its new Promethean powers: Intelligence is a capacity so godlike, so protean that it must be contained and disciplined. This is the work of politics — understood as the ordering of society and the regulation of power to permit human flourishing while simultaneously restraining the most Hobbesian human instincts.

If Krauthammer thinks our only hope is in politics, then we’re surely doomed. He concludes with this:

We grow justly weary of our politics. But we must remember this: Politics — in all its grubby, grasping, corrupt, contemptible manifestations — is sovereign in human affairs. Everything ultimately rests upon it.

Fairly or not, politics is the driver of history. It will determine whether we will live long enough to be heard one day. Out there. By them, the few — the only — who got it right.

We know you’re all wondering: What are the Curmudgeon’s latest thoughts on the Fermi Paradox? We think we may very well be unique. It’s not that life on Earth is unique in the universe — not at all. And we don’t think we’re unique in possessing intelligence. But what may be unique about us is that we’ve developed the glorious concept of science.

Think about it. For most of humanity’s existence, although some technology was developed, there was nothing like our modern scientific civilization. It could be that, like humans until quite recently, the intelligent aliens out there never develop beyond the stage of ancient Egypt, or Babylonia, or even Rome. The aliens, abundant though they may be, have no serious disciplines like physics, chemistry, etc. They’re not sending signals because all they have is torches, trumpets, and their own equivalent of the pony express. So although they exist, we can’t hear them.

What does it take for a civilization to develop science? For one thing, it requires a degree of prosperity. If everyone is scampering around just to stay fed, or to keep his slaves working in the fields, then almost no one will have sufficient leisure in which to do serious thinking as a career. The first human civilization to systematically develop geometry, logic, and philosophy was the Greeks — primarily the Athenians. What did they have that none of their predecessors had? They had a mercantile economy that generated prosperity — at least for some significant segment of the population. That requires several abstract notions like property and money and credit and laws and such. Some earlier civilizations had those, to some extent, but the Greeks also had the concept of freedom — at least for those who were citizens.

Alas, the Greeks didn’t endure long enough to develop what we would consider science. And the Romans who succeeded them were more interested in other things. Science had to wait until the Dark Ages abated — a thousand wasted years when Europe was ruled by a variety of theocratic tyrannies. Such societies can copy the work of others, but they’re unlikely to generate anything original. And then came the Age of Enlightenment, when all the philosophical pieces finally fell into place. The result is our modern scientific civilization.

Even a brief acquaintance with history reveals that our current situation was by no means inevitable, and its survival is certainly not assured. Humans could have gone on, as they always had, living in one version of Babylonia after another, without ever creating the philosophical foundation for what we now enjoy. Except for the last ten generations or so, that’s been the entirety of human civilization. And so it could be with intelligent aliens.

That’s our new explanation of the Fermi Paradox. Krauthammer is only partially correct. He says it’s politics; we say it’s far more than that. It’s a whole package of abstract concepts, loosely described as philosophy. We’ve got it and the aliens don’t. We should take care to preserve our fortunate legacy.

Copyright © 2011. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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21 responses to “Charles Krauthammer and the Fermi Paradox

  1. Regarding the science, you leave out the vast extent of the universe. If we were to draw a sphere 100 light years around the earth, still 99% of the universe would be outside. Which means intelligent aliens would have to travel for a minium of 100+ years to encounter us (assuming they could travel at or near the speed of light). Seems like a long trip for a fishing expedition.

    And then there is time. In the 13+ billion years of the universes existance, modern humans have been around for about 10,000 years, which means we missed the first 99.99923% of all that was happening. Maybe we missed something.

  2. Writers like Charles the K have watched too much Star Trek. They fall into the anthropomorphic trap that aliens must be like us.

    Aliens will be nothing like us, that’s why they’re aliens. Just look at the diversity of life on this planet. Not much is “like us.”

    I envision being visited by aliens who have no interest in us whatsoever, no more so that we have an interest in understanding ants. I also envision aliens as being mechanical. One of the biggest problems with interstellar travel is taking your environment with you. Suppose you didn’t need an environment. Suppose you could operate perfectly well in the vacuum of space using some other source of power other than “wet chemistry.”

    Alien DNA will be totally different. The Earth would be poisonous to them. I wouldn’t be surprised if aliens labeled the earth “Biologically Contaminated” and, therefore, useless.

    Unlike Hawking who said recently that an alien encounter would likely be bad news for us (perhaps if they represent an intergalactic religious order dedicated to sterilization of biological contamination) rather I think it will be disappointing because of the psychological differences; we will have nothing in common, not symbology, not how we sense the external world or express it.

    Fictional civilizations that are interesting to read about are the Moties by Larry Niven (mote in god’s eye) and the Utodians by Brian Aldiss (the dark light years).

  3. To echo Doc Bill’s comments, not only will aliens be different, but many or most might lack manipulative appendages. Dolphins are quite intelligent, and might with time evolve even more abstract thinking ability, but no dolphin will ever build a radio. It’s possible that we are unusual in that our intelligence is also accompanied by the ability to finely manipulate objects, creating tools but more importantly symbolic writing, which enabled the preservation of knowledge the development of mathematics, and ultimately a technological civilization.

    Another possibility is that other intelligent creatures are not challenged by their environment. Perhaps they have evolved the physical means of acquiring all the food they require, and do not need to invent weapons to hunt with or develop agriculture. They may live in a climate that does not necessitate invention of clothing or shelter. Technology might simply not be important to them.

    Much of our technology has been driven by warfare. It’s not outrageous to postulate that aliens who do not engage in large-scale warfare might not develop technology of the kind that ultimately enables interstellar travel.

    My guess is that we are not alone, as intelligent creatures, but that we might currently be the only creatures in our part of the galaxy with both the technology and the desire to use it to leave our home planet.

  4. Stephen, a sphere of 100 light-years around the earth would only include a few hundred to a few thousand of the planets in our own Milky Way galaxy, out of perhaps ten billion such stars, nor does it come near reaching any of the other 10 billion or so galaxies out there. That we are at stage in our development that limits our travel to a few light-years doesn’t say much about limitations on more technically advanced contemporary civilizations.
    Our conceptualization of limits of travel also depends on our life span of perhaps 100 years… we can’ t even suggest such a limitation on beings with much longer lives, if they exist.
    Doc Bill, fictional representations of strange alien civilizations are enlightening to read, but if we ever do have an “Encounter,” it is likely to be even more difierent than our imaginations can give us. As far as not having any points of comparison to understand aliens, I think H. Beam. Piper got it right in his wonderful story, “Omnilingual.” We inhabit the same universe as those strange beings. If they find their way to us, we can be reasonably sure that their conception of our mutual universe must have many similarities to our physics. (In Piper’s tale, human scientists began to decipher the records of a long-defunct alien race, using their representation of the Periodic Table.)

  5. Herman Cummings

    The question may be “are we alone in this universe”, but the answer is “we are not even alone on this planet”. Another revelation conveyed by the “Observations of Moses”.


  6. As an avid science fiction reader since I was in the fourth grade, I have done a complete turnabout regarding the whole idea of aliens simply because anything I can imagine is based on my experience and will be wrong. That said, physical and astrogeological processes fall right in line with how we understand the world around us. That is, the formation of chemical compounds has led us to surmise that water once flowed on Mars, and perhaps still does at times based on satellite observations. Volcanoes spew out stuff that flows, stuff falls from the sky and pools whether it’s water or methane.

    Biology seems to be more difficult to pin down perhaps because it is so contingent. Dawkins has written that he doesn’t know exactly what processes will shape alien life, but it’s evolution will be Darwinian (in the general sense.) If that is correct then the fight for life or aggression may be a common factor through life in the galaxy. I think it’s our (life in general) aggressive tendency that drives curiosity, development, advancement, etc. Even trees are aggressive in their own way. The human ability to be aggressive – and all the other – coupled with the ability to manipulate the environment has allowed us to do things beyond those required for survival. We do extra stuff. If Dawkins is right then it could be those characteristics that enable aliens to do the same.

  7. Aggression certainly is the cause of much of our scientific advancement, but even for us, cooperative behavior is considered important. I can imagine running into an alien species with highly independent individuals whose science depends on a much more intense degree of cooperation, and for whom aggression is a relatively minor cultural component.

  8. Keith from NJ

    A species with intelligence that attains the prosperity to send probes outside its planet and bring them back has another way to destroy itself: it could bring to its planet an exogenous life form that, having no natural enemies, could overwhelm the endogenous species with which it competes. We’ve already seen the problems that invasive species cause (just think about the Japanese beetle for rose lovers and quick-growing vines that strangle trees). How much worse trouble could extraplanetary invasive species cause?

  9. Keith, I think for reasons postulated, invasiveness would fail. Simply, the DNA or whatever in the alien, would be totally incompatible. A Japanese beetle has the same DNA as the rest of life on the planet. Of course it could carve out a niche, and without predators it could spread like wildfire, given food and reproductive success.

    However, alien “DNA” totally different from our own which it must be would have no food source, other than raw materials like minerals and would be in hard scrabble to survive. Not to mention the atmosphere and other physical conditions that would condemn it to “die” or, perhaps, inactivate.

    Even on your own planet, Keith, you can’t eat leaves even though cellulose is composed of sugars, because you lack the enzymes to break down the cellulose. Termites can do it only because they have paramecia in their gut who do the job. Alas, it’s never simple!

  10. If we lived on a planet that had perpetually cloudy skies (a la Venus), we wouldn’t be having this discussion, for we would have no concept of the universe. We would have no astronomy, and since astronomy is arguably the first science to be developed, we would probably have little science at all.

    And if those clouds had a low ceiling, we probably would not have developed aviation. For that matter, with neither sun nor stars for navigation, we would never have ventured asea beyond sight of land.

    Even if the radio had been invented, we would have never built a radio telescope nor broadcast signals deliberately into space in an attempt to contact other worlds, because we would have no idea that there was anything beyond the clouds (or more accurately, “cloud”, since there would be just one, perpetual, planet-shrouding cloud).

    I haven’t read much science fiction since the 1960s. Surely this topic has been explored in depth — or has it? I can’t be the first person to think of this. So much of what we take for granted would be completely different. Without a view of the heavens, would we have developed the concept of heaven? Would we have even developed the concept of religion?

    Perhaps there are many, many intelligent species out there, but THEY are the ones living under a solid cloud, and have no idea that WE could exist.

  11. A possible answer to Fermi’s Paradox — our attempts to discover alien species rely entirely on the detection of intelligent radio signals. Perhaps the intelligent beings have no need of radio, or for whatever reason, have never invented it. Using an intelligent species on our own planet as an example, dolphins would never invent a radio, even if they could manipulate their environment to do so. Living underwater, they have no use for radio. It doesn’t work underwater, and besides, they have built-in sonar.

  12. While not based on cloud cover you always have Asimov and his Nightfall. Where a planet is set in a cluster system, and the whole planet is bathed in perpetual light, so they think the entire universe is just their system.

  13. Flakey says: “While not based on cloud cover you always have Asimov and his Nightfall.”

    That’s a fine example, but a bit contrived. A more likely scenario is that the aliens simply can’t see starlight because of an inherent limitation in their light-sensing ability, analogous to our blindness to ultra-violet and infra-red. Evolution gives you “just enough to get by,” and what species needs to see starlight in order to survive? Anyway, the concept is the same — they can be as intelligent as you like, but if they never see the stars they’re not likely to develop enough science to know about them.

  14. I had some more thoughts about things we take for granted on Earth that probably are exceptionally rare in the rest of the universe.

    Having mountains along with ocean basins, for instance. If mountain ranges were not continually rebuilt, they would have long ago been eroded down to sea level. We would have no highlands; our continents would be nothing more than vast salt marshes and shallow seas, surrounded by the deep ocean basins. Plate tectonics keeps replenishing our mountains.

    So, why do we have ocean basins? Why isn’t the Earth evenly layered all over according to the density of the material? Earth’s densest material is in the core, which in turn is covered by the fairly dense mantle. But then, why doesn’t the less dense minerals of the granitic continental crust cover the mantle in a uniform layer all over the Earth?

    Perhaps it’s because the huge impact that formed the moon blasted off a good portion of that even layer, leaving a huge basin of exposed basaltic mantle. This would have allowed what was left of the lighter, granitic crust room to move around, driven by convection currents within the mantle.

    In other words, if there had been no impact splashing off the material that formed the moon, there would be no plate tectonics, and we wouldn’t have mountains today, nor any dry land.

    So, if we are expecting an intelligent, technological society to evolve on another planet somewhere out there on dry land surrounded by water, similar to Earth, it would need its own version of dry land replenishment to keep ahead of erosion.

  15. RetiredSciGuy says:

    I had some more thoughts about things we take for granted on Earth that probably are exceptionally rare in the rest of the universe.

    Not bad. Here’s another thought — we had Darwin. Without him (and maybe Wallace too) we’d all be creationists, with no interest in looking for life elsewhere because we’d be certain that there isn’t any.

  16. Keith from NJ

    In reply to Doc Bill: I don’t think it matters if the DNA or other biochemical apparatus of an extraplanetary invasive species is the same or different from ours. What does matter is its ability to survive, prosper, and evolve on earth. For me, the risk of contaminating our planet with “something” that could completely upset the entire ecosphere is real and not negligable. In addition, there would be no “do-over” if this occurred.

    That I can’t eat leaves is OK, so long as I can eat something else. Imagine an invader who can eat the leaves off all (or almost all) trees or infect all cereal grains. We can’t seem to eradicate the Japanese beetle in the US–how would we handle something like these?

    As I said, once a mistake is made, it may be too late to fix it. However, let’s be optimistic: Merry Kitzmas and Happy New Year to all.

  17. Keith, I forgot about Day of the Triffids! Yes, a photosynthetic being that requires carbon dioxide, water and minerals would probably do OK if other aspects of the atmosphere, gravity, etc weren’t a problem.

    Now you’ve got me worried about an invasion of walking plants!

    Happy New Year!

  18. Curmy says, “Here’s another thought — we had Darwin. Without him (and maybe Wallace too) we’d all be creationists…”

    Oh, someone would have figured it out — maybe you! Curmudgeon’s Theory of Evolution. The DI would then be railing against “the Curmudgeonists”, and Klinghoffer would be equating “Curmudgeonism” with Hitler, etc., etc. Happy New Year, Curmy! And all readers of this blog!

  19. With all the enromous respect due you, Mr. Curmudgeon, there are quite a few examples of early science fiction and scientific speculation dating from before Darwin that dealt with the possibility of extraterrestrial life. The underlying assumption was that if the Creator could create life here, He could do it elsewhere as well. If anything, the early speculators were naively optimistic, in that once it became clear the points of light in the sky were other worlds, it followed that those worlds must all be populated. There was even an idea that conditions would be different on those other words, and their denizens would be adapted accordingly. I’ve seen more religious writers get into the question of whether the inhabitants of other worlds would be saved or fallen or never fell in the first place, but the idea that other worlds could be inhabited was certainly out there long before Darwin, and modern Creationists’ denial of the possibility is hadrly the default option.

  20. In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter what creationists think? Or more precisely, what they believe? Because certainly they are not thinking, for that implies the use of reason. And if you listen to them, it seems as though they believe that if they dare to use their ability to reason, they shall certainly be cast into the Lake of Fire.

  21. Hey, Krauthammer! I hope you’re reading this. See what you’ve started? Great discussion, no?