Recently I came across an article on space.com, Study: If We’re Not Alone, We Should Fear the Aliens by Mike Wall, SPACE.com Editor, that I thought was deserving of some Cordial Deconstruction. Technically, this is more a Deconstruction of the study the article was reporting on, and not so much of the space.com article, though I may refer to the two interchangeably in this post.
The article makes the following statement which it describes as the only two possibilities based on the study:
“When considering the prospect of alien life, humankind should prepare for the worst, according to a new study: Either we’re alone, or any aliens out there are acquisitive and resource-hungry, just like us.”
My basic reaction to this false dichotomy is, 1.) Bull and 2.) So What?
I’ll first deal with the assertion that we are probably alone. It would only take one other example of a planet with intelligent life in the approximately 300 sextillion (30 X 10,000 billion billion) stars in the visible universe for this assertion to be wrong. The fact that we have not heard from ET is not reasonable support for the assertion that not even one single ET existst. There are numerous possible reasons why we might not have heard from ET yet, other than ET doesn’t exist (though that is a possibility). Among those possible reasons are the following:
-It’s possible ET’s civilization didn’t stay at the level where they leaked radio signals into space long enough. (Fiber optics, directed digital broadcasts, and beyond anyone?)
-It’s possible that ET is so far away that there hasn’t been enough time for its signals to reach us yet.
-It’s possible that ET’s civilization is too far away for their leaked signals to be discernable from background noise.
-It’s possible that ET evolved on a planet that wasn’t conducive to developing technology. Maybe the requirements for life are there, but there aren’t enough heavy metals to develop technology beyond the Stone Age level. Maybe the environment is so hostile that ET is just barely able to survive and doesn’t have time to develop beyond the Stone Age. Maybe it’s a water world of whale like creatures. (Our whales haven’t developed radio technology despite a lack of serious interference from humans until a few hundred years ago.)
Really, at this point the only conclusion that we can come to from the fact that we have not yet detected ET is that if ET exists, it is not an easy thing to detect ET.
As a footnote, I’ll mention that there are at least two other possible reasons why we may not have heard from ET:
-It’s possible that ET died out before developing radio technology, either due to natural events or self destruction.
-It’s possible ET’s civilization didn’t last long enough to be detected.
Though both would support the idea that we are currently alone, they lead to another possibility- Even if we do detect signals from an extraterrestrial intelligence, considering that they will have likely originated a very long time ago (anywhere from thousands to billions of years ago), ET may have died out since transmitting the signals, and thus we could technically currently still be alone despite the signal. In the absence of an actual visit by ETs, we can’t actually know if there are currently any other intelligent civilizations light years away. Even with a visit from ET, they can’t know if their civilization still exists back on their home world, signals and information can’t travel faster than the speed of light.
One very astonishing assertion by the article/study is that evolution is predictable, and that it inevitably leads to intelligent civilizations.
“Further, Conway Morris says, evolution operates predictably, producing relatively predictable outcomes. These two suppositions argue that alien life, if it exists, should be fairly similar to terrestrial life, generating intelligent beings much like us”
It’s very astonishing because life existed on this planet for about 3.7 billion years before a species came along that could fashion simple stone tools, let alone broadcast electromagnetic signals such as radio. For 99.9% of the time that there has been life on this planet, there has been no species that comes close to the study authors’ definition of intelligent. Multicellular didn’t appear on Earth until after about 2 billion years after life first developed, and vertebrates took about 3.2 billion years to show up. Dinosaurs roamed the Earth fat, dumb, and happy for about 160 million years and may have stayed that way if they hadn’t been killed out in a mass extinction. Seeing as we have only one example of a planet with life on it to use as a reference, I think it’s incredibly anthropic and near sighted to conclude intelligent beings are always the inevitable result of evolution.
The article quotes Conway Morris, one of the authors of the study, regarding the ability to contact alien civilization despite the probable vast distance between them,
“At least so far as this galaxy is concerned, a distance of circa 100,000 light years doesn’t seem insurmountable, given a relatively slow diffusion rate and a geometrical rate of establishment of colonies,”
Ignoring the possibility that intelligent life could be as rare as one civilization per galaxy (we really have no idea how rare or common intelligent life may be outside the sailor system) as Morris does, that’s an interesting use of the word “given”. Normally, I would reserve the word given in such a context for either an established fact or a reasonable assertion. In this context the word would be better replaced with the word “assuming”. There is no reason to assume a geometrical rate of establishment of colonies or any interstellar colonies at all. I’ve previously shown in a series of posts that there’s no point in worrying about an alien invasion, partly because the resource requirements of interstellar travel make such travel and alien invasion highly impractical. Simply put, the energy and resource requirements for interstellar travel vastly outweigh any possible returns. If you have the resources to travel to another star to plunder one of its planet’s resources, you don’t need to do so. By analogy, why drive from Florida to Alaska to buy gas for your car? If you have enough gas to drive to Alaska, you don’t need to go. The numbers don’t add up. This concept is covered more in depth in posts on the linked page.
The other reason to not worry about an alien takeover is that, assuming I’m wrong, we’re doomed anyway, as I also concluded in a post in the above link. If ET is so advanced and capable that it can travel across the stars (perhaps superluminally) without bankrupting their planetary economy, then they will find us and do as they please no matter how hard we try to hide or prepare, and our puny bullets and nuclear weapons likely won’t bother them at all.
Don’t worry, be happy, because worrying won’t matter one way or another. 🙂
Series of related posts HERE.