There is a common theory floating around in the collective consciousness of humanity, that if aliens are out there (hint: they almost certainly are) they’re likely to be domineering, violent, and colonial; and we should avoid them. I think that’s absolutely incorrect, and I’m gonna tell you why.
For starters, I want to dissuade the inevitable arguments that will attack me for this post personally, claiming that I’m “just being hopeful.” I appreciate it guys, your “logic first” approach is definitely not lost here. But please, don’t look at me, look at the facts as I present them to you; and argue on those.
I understand where the sentiment comes from. Some of the greatest minds of our time have put forward the contention that aliens will be bad news for us lowly humans. And there hasn’t been much talk at all challenging their logic. But they’re dead wrong. Here’s why.
“Where is everybody?”
When we look up at the clear night sky, we don’t see a bustling galactic population center. We’re greeted instead, with an unnerving emptiness. A vast silence appears to our radio antennae ears. And we’re left wondering. Based on all of our available knowledge, and every inference made by our understanding of life on earth; aliens should be out there. Even more so, they should be everywhere. We should see plumes in the sky as ships drop in and out of warp, trails as chemical rockets burn to decelerate around sol, solar scale engineering projects visible through our primitive spaceborne imaging systems. But we don’t see any of this, we see nothing. No sign of life anywhere. Just a bunch of rocks, stars, comets, and us.
When physicist Enrico Fermi uttered the now famous phrase “where is everybody?” in exasperation over finding such emptiness; he put into words this astounding reality of our observations. Thanks to him, it now has a name, we call this silence the Fermi Paradox.
You see, based on everything we’ve come to know. Life really should be everywhere. We have no reason to believe earth is particularly special. Certainly it holds all of the necessary resources for the creation and sustenance of life. But that may not be that rare of a thing. If anything, the evidence we have indicates that life is incredibly hardy. For starters, we’ve identified possible indications of microbial life here, long before earth was a beautiful paradise. Studies have put the emergence of life on earth as early as 4.28 billion years ago (or almost immediately after the creation of our planet); or possibly even sooner. We’re even aware of micro-organisms that are able to survive in the vacuum of space.
As Dr. Ian Malcom once put it, “life finds a way.” And if there’s anything that the history of this planet tells us; it is exactly that. Life has survived catastrophe after catastrophe. We’ve gone through 5 (five) mass extinction events (and many smaller ones). Sure, we all know about the meteor that killed the dinosaurs. But have you ever heard about the time our oceans turned to acid and 96% of all marine species were wiped out? Yeah, we try not to think about that one too often.
By all accounts, life is almost certainly hardy enough to survive on any number of planets decently similar to ours. And there are likely many “earth like” planets orbiting stars in our galaxy alone. Latest estimates put us around a billion such planets in the Milky Way.
So where is everyone?
A number of solutions have been proposed to explain Fermi’s observations. They range from the practical, to the abstract and downright wild. For starters, say we assume that it is almost certainly true that other “earths” exist. Given how quickly life appeared here we have to assume it’s possible or even likely that life appears rapidly elsewhere. Next, considering that our galaxy, let alone the universe: is a very big place; we would have to conclude that it must happen elsewhere. Life must be out there!
So maybe, we conclude that life is very likely. But, perhaps intelligent life is something much harder to achieve? But there are issues with that idea as well. Even just looking at our small sample size (of one planet); we notice a number of species specializing in intelligence. Take: primates, cetaceans, cephalopods, elephants. We may be the most advanced in our time. But without us here; it seems that a slow march towards civilization is almost certainly assured.
As such, it doesn’t make much sense to conclude that intelligence is all that impossible to create. Perhaps, intelligent species, capable of social organization, the creation of language, art, science, space travel… etc; are hard to come by. But even in that case, it is almost certainly true that it happens once in a very long while. And when it does finally happen, on a planet like ours, floating somewhere in the dark, it shouldn’t be long before that species has branched out to the stars.
You see it shouldn’t be that hard for a sufficiently advanced civilization to colonize the stars. Now when I say “sufficiently advanced” the keyword in this case, is “sufficiently.” It is argued, that were a civilization, only about 200-300 years more advanced than ours now, decide that they wanted to spread to the stars; it should be possible for them to colonize the entire Milky Way in only a few million years (that is: without radical technological advances such as warp drives). A time-frame that sounds like an eternity to us, but is truly a blink of an eye, on a cosmic scale.
An intriguing and very real possible way that a civilization not much more advanced than our own could conquer the stars; is through the use of what is known as a “von Neumann probe“. That is, a “self replicating spacecraft.” A ship capable of using the resources of planets that it lands on, to build copies of itself could easily propagate through the galaxy without worry about human lifespan, or support for colonies. Simply land, build a factory, and launch in every direction; over and over and over again.
Even one such ship, made by one man, from one “company”, in one nation, on one planet, could take the sky. As such, the fact that we do not see the stars absolutely crawling with signs of life, is a wildly perplexing proposition. Something must be up.
Are Aliens Evil?
It seems like most of our pop culture renditions of alien life focus on the idea that any form of extraterrestrial incursion here on Earth, would almost certainly come part and parcel with our doom. And it turns out; that this isn’t just crazy idea. In fact, this is one of the most dominant interpretations of the Fermi Paradox to date. It’s called “Dark Forest Theory“.
The theory goes that perhaps the reason why we don’t see alien life filling the cosmos, is because everyone out there is hiding. Perhaps, there was one massively intelligence civilization that beat everyone else to the stars. And now, fearing that another species will stand up to them; whenever they see the signs of a civilization beginning to become a threat, they wipe them out. If this theory holds, it spells bad news for us.
And whether or not this is in fact the reason for the silence of the night sky, many academics still argue that any contact with an advanced alien race would likely not go very well for us. They point to examples from human history. Examples, like Christopher Columbus…
It seems that throughout most all of human history; nearly any time an advanced group of individuals sets out for a new land, and on their way, encounters a less technologically sophisticated group, things tend to go quite poorly for the natives.
But does this observational pseudo-principle actually apply to the question of alien life?
The Great Filter
We spoke earlier on some of the variables surrounding the dissemination of life through the universe. About how hardy life is, and how early it seems to appear. By all our understanding. it’s reasonable to hazard a guess that life at least at some evolutionary stage, is nearly ubiquitous.
But what if there are some other events, for which the probabilities run the other way. What if there are points along a civilization’s trajectory at which nearly all examples of intelligent life destroy themselves, or otherwise fall to disaster.
This would certainly explain the cold silence of the sky. And so the question on our minds should be quite straightforward. What things must we do in order to advance beyond such filters, and take to the heavens? It is almost certainly the case that there is more than one such filter. And we have likely already passed a number of them. But some of the worst may be yet to come.
So, here’s kinda the thing…
Technology is wildly dangerous. The quintessential example, is nuclear weapons. Our species holds the ability to clean the map; many times over. That’s something that evolution never had a chance to prepare us for. We’re still struggling with things like obesity, due to evolution vesting us with a desire for fats. A thing which almost certainly served us very well in a primitive environment filled with starvation (eat as much as you can, when you can).
If evolution hasn’t yet had the time to catch up with one of the biggest killers in the world today, do you really think there’s any sort of system in place for ensuring that we are somehow “naturally” selected to be responsible with the power we now wield? Certainly not…
And it’s not just nukes. We are an inherently competitive species. With warring factions, fighting to control tribes, fighting to control nations, and so on. Even at our current level of technological advancement. There are ways in which in a single aggressive individual or group could decimate us. Consider the example of biological warfare, or what of a cyberattack? An EMP could send whole nations back to the stone age. But we’re just getting started.
Technology is advancing faster than anyone can keep pace with. Forget fighting a techno war; governments struggle simply to apply policy to innovation. What do you think the world will look like in ten years? How about twenty years from now, what then?
The ability for a single man, or single aggressive group, to cause significant damage; is accelerating. A few thousand years ago, if you wanted to raze a city, you needed an army. A few decades ago, a force of men was enough. Now, you can do it from a single airplane; piloted remotely. (Yes I understand that there are logistical requirements for this particular example, it’s simply a well known example of the power inherent to technology; that’s why I chose it.) And these types of weapons are only getting harder and harder to defend against.
And this isn’t even mentioning the plethora of challenges that we as a species may face together. Challenges such as anthropomorphic climate change. Where if we don’t come together to solve it, we will likely end.
What we see, is a collection of threats on the horizon, soon to be facing our species, wherein the solutions go against nature. Where the natural world is chaotic, violent, aggressive, and bleak. We see that the sophistication of technology clearly requires immense coordination; and a “step back” away from the paradigms of the natural world.
Unrestrained hyper-competitiveness will almost certainly end in our destruction. All it takes is one man, to design a self-replicating “man-killer” robot, and we have Terminator on our hands. Or maybe a nation state – kicked from the global order – decides that they will play the “nothing to lose” card with nuclear weapons. Or maybe someone uses biotech; to create a genetically engineered mosquito that spreads disease to everyone it touches. These are things that we think of requiring immense power to pull off. They no longer are.
Right now, if Elon Musk wanted to, he could send up a mission to “mine an asteroid.” Nobody would stop him. So he gets the proper launch permits from the US government, and he’s off. His rockets land on this thing; and they purposefully redirect it to hit Earth. There isn’t anything that anyone on this planet could do to stop him. That would be the end for humanity. And it’s not just Elon…
The power to kill us all, and end this game for everyone, will soon be democratized. And we have absolutely no plan for how to handle it. The likelihood is quite high that this will end our species, or at least delay our advancement long enough for a greater disaster, like a runaway greenhouse effect to finish us off before we escape.
Which leads to a really cool conclusion.
Aliens r Awesome!
For a species to have managed to navigate the plethora of threats associated with the creation of advanced technology prior to spacefaring; they must necessarily be highly responsible, coordinated, self-aware, and capable. They require all of the traits we have immortalized in our best. The things of mythological heroes and demigods. The things we all strive to be; and that we imagine our leaders all are. These are the things required for a civilization to succeed.
The funny thing is; subconsciously, we already know this. That’s why we care so deeply about such things. Human history is filled with stories of great men and women; who turned deep strife into lasting change, who lead hopeless masses to victory, and who brought us all together to perform miracles.
Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of the things which made us better than the beasts from whence we came. We started focusing on “market principles” and “survival of the fittest” to justify our shitty behavior towards our fellow man. And we turned our greed into a god. Now we think that we must necessarily be a certain way in order to thrive. That everyone who doesn’t follow along is a “sucker.”
Well here’s the thing these people forgot. Nature doesn’t just select for individuals. If hyper-competitiveness was the way to the future, we would all be 8ft tall muscle bound rage machines. But we’re not. Our kindness gives us the ability to do so much more than muscle (both literal muscle; and figurative “muscle”) ever can. We didn’t lift our first astronauts into orbit on a pile of bodybuilders.
You want to talk about survival of the fittest? Nature is actively in the process of selecting against us if we don’t get our shit together. Us, not me, and you, or red vs blue, us. If we can’t find a way to work together, our species will become cancerous. Cell turned on cell, fighting for supremacy. And we will die.
Look at the path we have walked, away from the brutality of nature. Look at the ways in which we take care of each other. Look at the ways in which individuals of our species selflessly choose to care and fight for animals. Look at how our collective psyche deeply desires to put aside our struggles, for the creation of something greater.
Our walk away from the beasts has put us on the path to becoming one of the species which makes it. The traits we need to solve the challenges which face us; gestate within the collective consciousness.
If you look at the changes we’ve undertook over the past ten thousand years; then walk a theoretical line forward another ten thousand along the same path… you’ll see heroes, and saints; and brave future men, explorers, protectors, and dreamers. You’ll see the things it takes to make it to the stars. You’ll see the gods of myth.
They’re almost certainly out there. Quietly waiting to see what we do.