I’ve borrowed my title from the words famously uttered by the great Italian physicist Enrico Fermi with reference to a problem that was puzzling the best minds among scientists already back in his day, namely the problem of why no evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe had yet been found.
The question seemed pertinent, since the picture was emerging of a universe that appeared to be vast beyond comprehension – a universe that thus offered abundant, countless opportunities for life to develop, and with it also, arguably, intelligent life. His question remained unanswered, though, and it still remains today.
We are still asking that question today, more than ever, since we now understand even better that there is probably nothing intrinsically special about the intelligence and abilities peculiar to our species. It is now widely believed in the scientific community that nature will simply evolve intelligence, just like it did flight, or echolocation, or any other adaptive traits, many times over, whenever the opportunity arises.
Aliens on earth
We don’t have to go very far to find evidence of other forms of intelligence. Already right now, in our earthly oceans, intelligent species live their highly complex social lives parallel to ours: they are the dolphins, and the other bigger Cetacea.
Dolphins are truly extraordinary creatures. They have even bigger brains than ours, possibly to account for a social life that researchers believe might be even more complex and nuanced than ours. Yet, we still know so very little about this magnificent species. So much remains to be unveiled about how they communicate, perceive the world, and think. You let a dolphin look you in the eye, and you get the uneasy sensation that this big-headed, brainy creature is scanning you from the inside out. They’re the true aliens living next door.
Even closer to us, on dry land, the modern big apes, notably chimpanzees and bonobos, also fully qualify as intelligent species, and share with us many more of the distinctive traits of an intelligent life than most of us would ever suspect.
None of the things that we think make us uniquely human are absolute prerogative of our species, except maybe the highest forms of spiritual and intellectual life. But then again, these latter are rare even among us, and besides, intellectual variance plays a big role within each species. So, for example, researchers do sometimes come across an exceptionally smart chimp, the same way that we may sometimes encounter an exceptionally gifted dog. At the same time, not all humans appear to be endowed with indisputable reasoning power.
What makes us really stand out, and rule the planet, is the fact that we have reached the technological stage sooner than any of the other species. And that happened, in turn, because we have evolved tool-making ability sooner and better than any of them. The first species to make it to that critical stage clearly shapes itself as the game-changer for the future of life on the planet. It just happened to be us rather than someone else.
The recent history of earth has seen an intelligence arm-race among various lines of primates, taking place over million of years (yes, millions of years is still recent). That arm-race was eventually won by Homo sapiens. But things could easily have gone very differently. Homo sapiens might have suffered the same fate that for instance befell the Neanderthals, or any of the other now extinct lines of apes. In such case, the arm-race would have gone further on for possibly hundreds of thousands of years, eventually leading to highly civilised, and then even technological – bonobos, for example. Who can tell? A random twist of fate is probably the only reason behind the current state of affairs on the planet.
It is important to understand the sort of huge timescale over which these evolutive processes take place. Bonobos are still evolving today, although we cannot appreciate the rate of change over the tiny timescale of our short lives (or even of our recorded history). But nonetheless there is no reason to believe that their line shouldn’t possess the same potential for civilisation and technology as ours, or that even dolphins might not be able to evolve tool-making capabilities, in due evolutionary time.
Evolution is a slow, continuing journey without any clear destination in sight. What appears to our eyes as a static and seemingly perfected natural world is in fact a very dynamic, still evolving biosphere – nothing more than a particular snapshot in time of a natural process that unfolds aimlessly over enormous stretches of time.
The paradox of the elusive alien life
Although still an unsettled issue, the modern view on the evolution of intelligence is therefore more inclined towards seeing it as almost inevitable, rather than improbable, once life has started to evolve. What’s more, there seems to be plentiful opportunities out there for life to spring, since we now know that there are a hundred billion (or more) stars in our galaxy alone, most of which appear to have planetary systems similar to ours. And that, you have to admit, is an awful lot of opportunities.
There are also some hundred billion other galaxies beyond the boundaries of our Milky Way, though most of them are way out of reach both in space and time. Distance in space, in fact, equates to time-travel in the past from an observational point of view, so that too distant stars may wound up being buried in evolutionary uneventful times.
That doesn’t apply to the billions of stars in our own galaxy though, since the size of the galaxy is ‘only’ in the range of a hundred thousand light-years, which is insignificant in the time-scale required for the evolution of life. Same for our twin galaxy Andromeda, that’s ‘only’ two million light-years away.
Given what we know, then, why should our solar system be anything special in the midst of such vast universe – a universe that seems able to replicate countless times those same life-nursing conditions that we have enjoyed? Copernicus showed the way many centuries ago, and by his teachings the only reasonable way to go would appear to be assuming that there isn’t anything special about us, or our place in the cosmos.
Yet, ironically, much as we seem to better understand this fact, finding any hint of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe still remains as elusive an endeavour as ever, even today with the advanced technology at our disposal. So, what kind of explanation can we seek out for this puzzling fact?
I think I may actually have found one.
I will now make an educated guess as to where I believe the main difficulty actually resides – a guess that, I suspect, Fermi himself, had he lived in our times, would have probably come to.
My contention is that intelligent life, albeit likely to evolve anywhere in the universe, and notably among the billions of suitable planetary systems in our very galaxy, is unlikely to be detected for the simple reason that it is extremely short-lived.
This is going to sound a bit of a shocking statement, therefore let me explain in some more detail.
First of all, I need to better clarify the important distinction between intelligent life and technological life. Intelligent life isn’t necessarily short-lived – it hasn’t been for our species to begin with, but technological life, in my opinion, is bound to be.
Technological life follows in due course from intelligent life, just like this latter follows in due course from more primitive forms of life. Signs of advanced technological life are also the only clues we could realistically ever hope to detect of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, which in turns means that, if I’m right, the window of possible detection is extremely short, arguably as short as a few centuries – which is a trifling nothing, compared to deep cosmological time that’s measured in billions of years. Hence the extremely long odds of detection in the brief observational window of a few decades, or even centuries, that we can realistically foresee.
But why do I believe advanced technological life must inevitably be this short-lived, in the first place? Let’s take a look.
Intelligent life in itself is certainly very much adaptive in terms of evolution, quickly leading the species that first acquires it to conquer unchallenged the entire ecosystem where it lives, just like we did. But that’s precisely when the trouble begins.
If we look at the history of mankind, and at the landmarks of its evolutionary trajectory, we cannot fail to notice how the pace gets faster and faster as those landmarks are reached. It took millions of years to evolve a tool-making ape, but it only took a few thousands to build a complex civilisation. And from there only the last couple of centuries to achieve a highly advanced technological society. The pace is clearly getting frantic. New landmarks are now reached in a matter of decades or less.
From an evolutionary standpoint this process appears to be acquiring explosive speed. Seen in a deep time perspective, it looks very much like an evolutionary exploding supernova. We might well be in the middle of an evolutionary bang, and not knowing it.
The key point to understand is that any technologically evolving alien species will inevitably see an exponential growth of its leverage on its supporting ecosystem, and with it an equally exponential growth of its capacity, and risk, of wiping it out altogether at some point.
In case you didn’t get the hint, this is precisely what is happening right now to our own species in relation to our actions on our own sustaining ecosystem.
Scenarios of doom
Only a few decades ago, anyone inclined to muse gloomily over the future of mankind could realistically extend his worries no further than a looming nuclear armageddon. Nowadays the options are a lot more varied. We have now engineered so many opportunities for disaster, from tinkering with the DNA, to the pillage of the planet, or the devastation of the ecosystem, that already today the chances of us humans moving unscathed for any substantial length of time into the future look quite slim.
But that’s just today. Given the current explosive pace of technological advancement, we can only expect that things will get a lot trickier in the future, and that the chances of some irreparable disaster occurring will grow accordingly.
A turning point is reached when man acquires enough leverage as to take into his own hands those processes that used to be the exclusive prerogative of nature, and of immense evolutionary stretches of time. When he can finally afford to be playing god, like he is now, he also has to start walking the tight rope of an extremely fine balancing act, where the penalty for getting it wrong, even once, is unbound global catastrophe. Think genes manipulation, experimentation with deadly viruses, irreversible damage to atmosphere and hydrosphere, unbound littering of the environment with indestructible materials, to name a few – and the list grows longer by the year.
If you are thinking along the lines of “we need more regulations, more controls,” and so on, that’s laudable but ineffective. It’s like hitting the brakes on a very steep descent: you can slow down your course somewhat, but you’ll keep skidding nonetheless. Once the means are there they will be used sooner or later by someone.
That’s the reason why I believe any species, anywhere in universe, that reaches as far as its technological stage, also, at the same time, fatally enters its final and invariably short-lived stage of existence.
One may object that alien species might be wiser than us, and handle themselves better than we currently do through their technological stage – but one must also fully appreciate the tremendous risks that are simply inherent to the explosive technological growth process in itself. No one could have remotely fathomed a hundred years ago the many shades of destructive power we have today. Likewise, we haven’t the faintest clue today what even greater destructive power we’ll have a hundred years from now. When the leverage over the supporting ecosystem starts blowing to such ever-increasing levels, it eventually only takes one rogue individual or organisation, or one single crucial action gone wrong to seal the fate of any such technological species.
As an aside, it may still be conceivable that among millions, or possibly billions, of such doomed attempts at evolving technological life in the universe, one of those attempts may, by sheer chance, hit on a rare sustainable path. In that case, something absolutely fantastic and unimaginable could then follow in its wake. A fascinating topic, this latter, that lends itself to further wild speculation.
In the end, our story may not be so special, and probably isn’t unique. Like potentially many other similar stories in the universe, it might be nothing more than one of countless examples of the highly explosive process of evolution of life. Just like stars are slowly born, live relatively low-key lives, and then die in a terrific conflagration, so, I should imagine, does the seed of life anywhere it happens to be planted in the universe.