The Rare Earth Hypothesis…Are We Alone in the Universe?
Not very likely. :(
The discovery of a (possibly) Earth-like planet nearly 20 light years away (in our back yard as galactic distances go) inspires me to write this basically pessimistic blog. Sadly in this case I think pessimism and realistic are synonymous. I think there’s an excellent chance that intelligent life such as ourselves is as rare as hen’s teeth in the universe. And that’s being generous, I think there’s an excellent chance that we are indeed…alone. I’d love to be persuaded otherwise, and my readers are welcome to do their best to convince me, but here’s the reasoning behind my bleak conclusion.
The first problem is the Fermi Paradox, which basically boils down to, where is everyone? If the universe is teeming with intelligent life, as so many people have concluded, why hasn’t anyone contacted us? Why do we see no evidence of intelligent life in the universe? So far the amount of empirical evidence for the existence of aliens is zero. Nada. Nil. Nothing. Granted there is some curious anecdotal evidence, but so far every UFO or alien sighting has a perfectly reasonable non alien explanation. And none has yielded a single artifact or sample of extraterrestrial origin.
As the wags say: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” This is of a course a stupid truism like all truisms, why people think statements like this are logical arguments is a mystery to me. It’s a shame they don’t teach logic in the schools, we’d hear a lot fewer weak arguments like this. However, I digress. And I do have further reasoning to support my case.
My second argument is the rarity of intelligent life on Earth. Since the first cells divided in the primitive seas of earth there have been literally millions of different species on earth. Tens of millions possibly. How many of these species have evolved intelligence like humans possess? One, us. We do have a few cousins, but none that can play a game of chess, carry on a conversation, or anything even remotely close to the intellectual tasks that humans are capable at a few years of age. Signing apes are a sad joke, on Earth, we are indeed alone. Wishful and religious thinking aside, there’s no reason to assume our evolution was anything more than an unlikely fluke.
Thirdly, space exploration. More importantly, discoveries in our own solar system. At this point, it turns out that each and every planet and moon in the solar system appears to be unique. And I mean unique, the things we have discovered have vastly exceeded the imaginations of sci fi authors and scientists by incredible margins. In other words, the idea that there are “types” of planets and moons is silly at this point. Even the gas giants are each completely and utterly different. And when we go to other solar systems, it’s even worse. We aren’t finding anything like our own solar system, every new discovery makes our system appear like an oddball at best. The point I am making, is the idea that there is anything like a “normal” planet or solar system is more and more appearing to be wishful thinking at best.
So to me it appears that we have two incredibly unlikely events multiplied by each other. The likelihood of intelligence evolving on an Earth like planet appears to be very low. And the creation of a planet like earth appears to be very unlikely. Think of it this way, even with just a tiny handful of variables, there appear to be an infinite number of possible chess games. Yet despite a massive amount of study, the game has never been broken…there does not appear to be a sequence of moves that guarantees victory. Maybe at some point it will be discovered, but even then it will be one sequence of moves out of an infinite number of possible games.
To put it mildly, when it comes to the creation of planets and the evolution of life, there are vastly more variables than exist in a game of chess. When one starts to multiply huge improbabilities with other huge improbabilities, one gets numbers so large that they defy imagination. It is indeed entirely possible that the creation of an earth like planet with intelligent life on it may be so unlikely that there’s a good chance it won’t occur in the lifetime of the universe. No matter how many trillions of stars there are, we may be alone, we may represent an almost unimaginably unlikely lottery win.
I wish it were otherwise, and no one will be more thrilled than me if a flying saucer lands on the White House lawn. Until one does, or someone points out a flaw in my thinking, I’m betting that the bookies have a sucker bet at even 100 to 1 odds that alien intelligence will be discovered. And I’m apparently not the only one to reason this way, after writing this post I came across the Rare Earth Hypothesis. Sigh. Oh well, at least we still have our imaginations. Star Trek wouldn’t have been very exciting if on every planet Kirk visited he said “Beam me up Scotty, There’s no intelligent life down here.”
(The above image from Earth vs. The Flying Saucers is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is central to to illustrating the post and it is not being used for profit. It was also a classic movie for its era and I loved it when I was a young lad.)