We might find extraterrestrial life soon, but intelligent life?

Alien

Alien (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Forbes has an article up noting that many scientists, including Seth Shostak, are now saying that we could find intelligent extraterrestrial life in the next twenty years.  I definitely think we might find extraterrestrial life in that time frame, but I’m pretty skeptical that it will be intelligent.

I’ve written about this before, but the summary is that the universe is far older than our planet.  There has been plenty of time for intelligent aliens to have evolved.  But if they had evolved, they should have been here long ago.  Indeed, we should have been colonized many times over.  But there’s no evidence of that having happened.  This is known as the Fermi Paradox.  If all the statistics point to pervasive intelligent life, then where are they?

There have been lots of proposed answers to the Fermi Parafox, such as the rare earth hypothesis (discovering any other world with life would falsify this one), berserkers, interstellar travel is impossible or hopelessly impractical, and many others.  Personally, I think the most likely scenario is simply that intelligent life is very rare, and that the nearest extraterrestrial civilization may be millions light years away.  Too far away for any of them to have reached us yet.

Of course, there are more disturbing alternatives.  It might be in the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself, we are living on borrowed time, and the possibility of us encountering another intelligent species in our mutually brief existences is remote.  Or intelligent life might be pervasive, and we’re staring right at it, but like a troupe of monkeys unable to recognize the significance of buildings and machinery, we might be mistaking their technology for natural phenomena.

If intelligent life is pervasive, and some form of interstellar travel is at all possible, then it’s probably reasonable to assume they have probes in the solar system right now.  Our first evidence of them may be when we stumble on one of their probes on Mars or in the asteroid belt.  Although with a rich biosphere on the third planet, you’d think they’d have parked themselves somewhere close to observe, but who knows?  (No, there’s no good evidence for UFOs.)

So, it won’t surprise me much if, in the next few decades, we find evidence of life on an exoplanet, or possibly even in our solar system.  But I’ll be pretty surprised if it attempts to start a conversation with us.

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16 Responses to We might find extraterrestrial life soon, but intelligent life?

  1. john zande says:

    Would you visit earth?

    Imagine if life evolved here in such an abhorrent way that no one wants to visit. Having to steal something/someone else’s protein (by killing them) just to survive might just be considered ghastly.

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    • We don’t know how universal evolutionary principles are, but I suspect that any intelligent species would have had to fight its way to the top of its food chain. If not for our predators arm race since the Cambrian, it’s questionable that we’d be where we are now.

      Now, they may have reached the point where they’re machine or engineered life, and have no interest in biospheres anymore. But if they’re no longer curious, then it seems unlikely they’d cross interstellar space to any large extent. That’s a possibility I didn’t mention. It might be in the nature of intelligent life to stagnate, lose interest in the outside universe, and simply retreat into virtual fantasies.

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  2. Brett says:

    It’s not just intelligent life you need for space travel, it’s presumably social, intelligent, recursive* tool-using and tool-creating civilizations. We’re only going off of a single example here, but my guess is that that’s the key filter there – you don’t get a lot of intelligent species that develop “technology” capable of space flight and actually go out and do it, and those that do it are pretty heavily separated in space and time.

    * Emphasis on the “recursive”, tools-upon-tools creation factor there. Chimpanzees and their immediate ancestors have existed for around a million years or so (back when their common ancestor diverged into what became Chimps and Bonobos), are social creatures, use tools, and appear to pass the knowledge of tools socially to their children, but they do not appear to create tools or seriously improve upon them over time.

    Our first evidence of them may be when we stumble on one of their probes on Mars or in the asteroid belt.

    If they passed through the solar system, say, ten million years ago, then the asteroid belt seems the most likely place any remnants would be (resources without gravity wells!).

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    • That’s a good point. A lot depends on how we define intelligence. I define it, perhaps anthropocentrically, as one capable of producing a technological civilization. Of course, by that measure, we’ve only qualified for an infinitessimally small time, at least on geological or astronomical time scales.

      I agree on the asteroid belt being a more likely location. Given just how vast the belt is, we might never find any probes unless they signal their existence to us, particularly if they’re nanoscale. Another possibility is the Kuiper belt, which is dramatically larger, although it’s distance from the energy generating sun might make it less likely.

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      • Brett says:

        Good points on the tiny probes, which could be all over the solar system and we’d never be the wiser (how would you even detect them if they’re not putting off noticeable waste heat and radio signals?). Even a probe that was five meters by five meters in size would be difficult to detect if you weren’t doing a dedicated asteroid search if it wasn’t putting off a lot of waste heat or broadcasting a detectable radio signal.

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  3. Scarlet says:

    I would be happy if extraterrestrial life was even microbial, if it where even small furry creatures so much the better, if it was intelligent life I’d be ecstatic as long as it didn’t try to convert me as soon as we made contact, I’d be very disappointed by deists form another world.

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  4. Sable Aradia says:

    Reblogged this on Confessions of a Geek Queen and commented:
    Some thoughts on the issue of intelligent life. If we have counterparts out there, where are they? Do they not like us? Are they preparing an invasion to destroy us? Is their technology at our equivalent level? Do they visit us in secret until we “grow up” a little, or are we their laboratory experiments? Are they in some form we don’t recognize and can’t imagine communicating with (like, say, dolphins?) Or is space just so hostile that crossing it is almost impossible?

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  5. I always thought the “then why aren’t they here?” counter made no sense. I mean, we consider ourselves intelligent, but we haven’t gotten very far.

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    • The reasoning of the Fermi Paradox goes something like this. We have only had civilization (using the broadest sense of the term) for about 10,000 years. This is a blip in cosmic time (0.000072% of the age of the universe). Consider where we might be in another 10,000 years (assuming we don’t destroy ourselves), or 100,000 years, or a million. Now consider that there are tens of billions of stars in our galaxy older than our sun, where species that started before us would have had millions of years head start.

      If there are thousands of civilizations out there, and if even the slowest forms of interstellar travel are possible, then it doesn’t make much sense that they aren’t here, or been here before.

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  6. CrisisMaven says:

    As for: “if they had evolved, they should have been here long ago.” Well, if Magellan and Columbus had already been ethnologists like those pride themselves today on their prowess in leaving the last primordial cultures on earth undisturbed, then no, these even more advanced being might not care to shock us and change the path of our natural development. “Indeed, we should have been colonized many times over.” Only, again, if colonization is a category that intelligent aliens really think in after tens of thousands of years of more advancement than we have to our credit. “But there’s no evidence of that having happened.” … Sorry, but how do YOU know??? You should read about the African Dogon tribe that has an ancient religion about a star system (today known as Sirius) where there is a smaller star circling the big one that we can see. Only in the last forty or so years has modern astronomy ascertained that this star system actually behaves as the Dogon “knew” since centuries (or longer). This is the strongest contender, which is why I refer to it here, for an earlier landing of alien starships. You can dismiss even Greer’s Disclosure Project as the work of cranks, but these people know stuff that even Galileo or later Hubble could not yet observe!

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    • Hi CrisisMaven,
      The problem with the they-just-don’t-want-to-disturb-us arguments is that it only works for one or a few civilizations and then only for a limited period of time. If there are hundreds or thousands of civilizations in the galaxy, the idea that such a rule would hold across all of those civilizations across millions, or even billions of years seems pretty implausible to me.

      I’ll admit to not being familiar with the tribe you cite, but from what I’ve read, none of these claims for ancient alien visits have historically borne skeptical scrutiny. I was quite taken with the claims when I was younger (I read Chariots of the Gods in the 70s), but repeated debunking doesn’t incline me to spend time and effort looking into them now. You’ll probably regard me as closed minded, but it would take a sizable portion of the archaeological field buying into it before I would invest the time and energy.

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