A Darwinian Explanation for the Fermi Paradox?

In an April 4 paper in arXiv, Adrian Kent of the University of Cambridge and Perimeter Institute suggested two alternate reasons why we haven’t heard from extraterrestrials:

•“Intelligent species might reasonably worry about the possible dangers of self-advertisement and hence incline towards discretion” — the “Undetectability Conjecture,” suggested by Beatriz Gato-Rivera.

•Strengthening that argument: “Evolutionary selection, acting on a cosmic scale, tends to extinguish species which conspicuously advertise themselves and their habitats.”

Referring to this new article, the good folks at Kurzweilai.net added:

In SHOUTING AT THE COSMOS … Or How SETI has Taken a Worrisome Turn Into Dangerous Territory, astrophysicist and science-fiction author Dr. David Brin advises that “people who care about [transmissions from Earth] — preferring a wide-ranging discussion before a few individuals start screaming into space on our behalf — are going to have to do some yelling of their own.” He explores this issue further in A CONTRARIAN PERSPECTIVE ON ALTRUISM: THE DANGERS OF FIRST CONTACT and other thought-provoking articles.”

Thanks Kurzweil folks!

Alas, I have been wrassling with the Fermi Paradox since before it was called that! Back in 1985 I named this mystery “The Great Silence” in what is still the only full review article ever published on the subject.*

There I cataloged almost a hundred explanations that people have offered for the silence and the impression that we have – so far – of being alone in the cosmos. Alas, most folks tend to choose one particular answer, over all the others, for reasons having a lot more to do with individual psychology than either logic or evidence!

If you look at the good old Drake Equation (it needs to be expanded by a couple of factors), then it’s clear that some factor must be lower-than-expected, in order to make the emptiness that we seem to see around us. But which factor?

Funny thing. Those who *want* the cosmos to be empty of competition (so we can fill it with our descendants) tend to choose factors on the left side of the Drake Equation – e.g. those having to do with the number of potential life-bearing worlds, or the likelihood of biogenesis, or of intelligence or industrial civilization.

Those who are eager for contact – like the SETI folks – tend to choose factors on the right side to blame for the apparent absence of neighbors. Factors that let them say “that just means things are a little sparse; but give us time. Those signals will show up any minute!”

The saddest thing that I’ve noticed? Once a person picks a favorite explanation, he or she tends to cling to it, vociferously sure that all other theories are utter nonsense. I’ve seen this happen to some of the smartest guys I know. Such certainty… in a realm that has been called “the only scientific field without any known subject matter.”

Almost nobody seems willing to admit “We just don’t know; there’s too little data. A dozen of the best explanations may be true, maybe even several at once. So let’s act accordingly.”

ShoutingCosmosAs for the theory recently published? The so-called “Darwinian Explanation” amounts to “they’re all cowards out there, because some predatory types may be mean. So everybody’s hiding.” Well, well. It is an old, old, old hypothesis. It’s been around a boringly long time, though sadly it seems that the authors think they invented it.

Heck that explanation could be true. Indeed, because it might be true, I am part of a growing movement trying for a moratorium on idiotic “message-to-ET” shouting, at least till we learn a bit more and have had a chance to discuss these matters, openly, like adults. Still, that doesn’t make the idea original.

(Or even especially likely. The notion of a universe filled with cowards… who stay cowardly FOREVER, no matter how advanced they become… seems no only unimaginative and temporally myopic, but deeply dismal, as well.)

Someday, I hope, some people will enter this field interested in exploring the full scope of ideas, the way grownup scientists do in almost any other field, actually reading the literature and comparing past arguments and progress before blabbing “I just figured it out!”

Perhaps it will happen one day, when curiosity and professionalism outweigh impulsive egotism. Heck, maybe then we’ll be worthy and ready for contact.


* My “Great Silence” paper about the mysterious Fermi Paradox, the strange lack of signs, in the heavens, of extraterrestrial intelligent life. Quarterly Journal of Royal Astronomical Society, fall1983, v.24, pp283-309 (Downloadable at my website
or at http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1983QJRAS..24..283B )



Filed under science, space

17 responses to “A Darwinian Explanation for the Fermi Paradox?

  1. Barrie

    Or maybe we are so freaking primitive in their eyes that they think it would be completely uninteresting to make contact with us openly? I mean we still have no flying cars yet or anything. Heck, we could be in some sort of ET game preserve, a protected habitat until we evolve into something intelligent. 🙂

  2. El Coqui

    So movies like Skyline and Invasion: LA are a preview of possible scenarios brought for our uncontrolled shouting to the skies? Darn. 🙂

  3. 1. Do radio waves retain a coherent message out far enough for other civilizations to pick them up?

    2. Might there be another form of communication (yes, subspace radio, for example) that more advanced civilizations use?

    3. As Carl Sagan wondered, do technological civilizations inevitably destroy themselves before they spend enough time transmitting to be heard?

    You are correct to observe that the possibilities are many. We may get into a serious discussion of all of this once any kind of life is found somewhere other than Earth.

  4. Thomas

    Did we invite chimps to the United Nations when we learned they could fish for termites on a stick? No, Humans have a long way to go before anyone takes interest in us as peers.

  5. Bill Goodwin

    1.) Before ETs develop the technology for robust transmitions, they develop the internet, and discover universes in chips of sand.

    2.) An as-yet-unappreciated law of thermodynamics divides environmental information from encoded information, and causes the latter to degrade over distance. In addition to its obvious global properties, spacetime possesses subtler local ones that underpin mentality; Mind HERE is not Mind THERE. We are in fact bombarded by transmissions, but they remain (necessarily) perceived as noise.

    3.) There IS no extraterrestrial universe. Objective reality itself is a kind of epistomological exhaust or projection. Over biologically relevant distances, a dreamworld of culture may develop and even enjoy a brief internal consistency. But to speak of “other cultures” is oxymoronic in the most literal sense.

    4.) ETs communicate by perturbations of the laws of probability. We should be analysing economic vicissitudes, disease outbreaks and American Idol results for signals.

    5.) They all have fur and we don’t [my cat informs me]. The Galactic Brotherhood is a compassionate body and wishes us well. But equanimity has limits, even among the Most High.

  6. The nice thing about the Drake equatoin is that we are slowly but surely filling in the “constants”. Because of the nature of the problem, we are doing a better job on the left side of the equation than the right, which means that we will be able to decide if the universe is empty much sooner than we will be able to decide if it is full.

  7. In the Drake equation I think it would be perhaps humble and wise to remember how much of our universe is currently labeled “dark” and why that label has endured. The truth is we really do not know how a lot of it is put together. Occam’s razor in my view has become an idol. I do not think we can be well served by imagining simplicity in a complex universe. I think that that it is as possible as anything else that the explanation of much of the blankness will turn out to be geometric. In other words the universe is shaped in such a way that something very much like the universe we see is continued and bent around through some as yet unimaginable border so that we see its wrong side as nothing. Virtually every physical thing that is phased or quantized in our universe actually passes through this border to become an almost nothing in another. If this is true then advanced societies doubtless have listening stations on all their planets and traveling out like Voyager and buried in silent geological formations on dead moons and are listening to oceans of data — almost all of which is the non-civilized noise of mechanical processes of nature. Some of it is from universes clear to their ears but entirely unapproachable and some just beyond this unimaginable border which perhaps they can cross or perhaps not. In the meanwhile they also scan EMR from their own space. With a integrated fractal receiver of perhaps 50,000 AU composed 99.999999999999999999999999999999999% of nothing and operating as an effective receiver of say 50% coverage these Super SETIs work around the clock for centuries using linked capcity of computers in generations we cannot conceive .

    So let us presume our small bubble of EMR has reached one of them. as I write this they have just printed out Marconi’s announcements for the first time. Such folks would be pretty patient and my guess is would add us to a list of thousands of cultures (many dead no doubt) to look at. This does not mean in any way that we will not be invaded by little green men tomorrow — I think that is respectable. I just honestly believe they are truly distinct questions. Unless of course one is being invaded by little green men who picked up your transmissions — then all questions relate to that event emphatically for you. Now if the advanced listeners I described above decide they wish you harm and commit to it then my guess is that it will be a bad day for the old neighborhood.

    That leaves the twin possibility. We may be very near a culture very near our level of sophistication. With such a culture within a hundred lightyears of Earth we will likely know each other (if we both survive in technical progress) in about 200 years but not before. That is unless a future Kepler type project gets very lucky.

    • Bill Goodwin

      Your “something that appears nothing from the reverse side” seems to me to neatly illustrate the mind/body divide.

      I suppose the idea I was toying with semi-humorously (in 2 and 3, above) is that “outer” and “inner” spaces may ultimately obey very different laws. Rational thought serves as a sort of “translation software” between incommensurate sides of existence. It works well enough to leave us with a gut sense of potentially perfectible corellation between “landscape and map.” But as gaps both spatial and mental are increased, what constitutes a meaningful signal might go “over the horizon” while garden-variety physics are still in plain view.

      Of course, this sort of thinking defies clarification by its very nature. Convenient for a crackpot such as myself…baffling for puzzled primates awaiting one or more paradigm shifts. Probably the paradigm is fine. Civilizations are rare and signals faint and we just haven’t found anything yet

      • franksummers3ba

        Bill Goodwin,

        I can see where you are and in fact am very intereted in the spiritual. However, I did in fact mean this in terms of physics. Science and religion are both very good when allowe to have thing all completely there own way.I also am infallible when allowed to change my answer when proven wrong and then declare that this makes me more right than ever before. My thoughts are not independepent from human religious and metaphysical experience. Any real inified theory has to deal with that as well. I do not find it impossible that aliens currently lease beachhouses on Mailibu. It is not my contention that I know we are alone. Many people have always believed we are not alone, planets are common, we do not know most of the universe, duks being hunted and hyenas being videographed at night often think that they are alone. God, the Devil and the blue giants of Avatar all have lots of room as far as I can see. So I cannot say we do not have contact yet. Nor can I say it is without consequence. People are content with ever simpler views of causality. This does not make them true. Causality is often like a lifeboat, mechanics determine that only ten people can be saved by a given set of parameters but which ten people are saved may make a huge difference. If the Alien species shaping corporation dropped by every fifty thousand years and did a bit of tweaking we certainly would not know it. I believe many religious traditions carry coded historical truth and are used and abused for the purposes of various powers over centuries. in the same way science is used to create materialist atheist it does not support much less prove. We can reason, learn and design and we can have and should do so. However, we know that we know very little. We are in danger of forgetting how to measure knowledge/ We may be alone as regards technical civilizations, almost alone or not really alone at all. Unlike emanations and trace signals in the patterns of the universe this question is answerable and is much easier. But we are not in a position to answer it. we barely know there is water on our own moon and the water is not a spaceship built with five or seven million years of spaceship building before it. The idea that stellar age tells us what to expect is mostly silly. We are the results of a supremely inefficient process. nearly identical groups must have been wiped out in worse chaos and gone much farther in more efficient biological and cultural formation.

        We can agree to hndreds of thousands of volumes of facts, data, theorems, theories and models. After we have done all that I could say “So, we really know almost nothing then?”. Few I think would agree with me but I would be quite sincere…

        I appreciate your comment however. I think you say true things in it and in a tone which fosters conversation.

  8. Steven

    Is this article written in English or journalistic hyperbole?

    Could he not just have said, ‘We have no firm evidence either way so the safest and most realistic position to take is agnosticism?’ The hysteria is superfluous.

  9. Tom Parsons

    I suggest below a view similar to the “L” argument that there is a finite (and maybe short) window of opportunity for a species to become technological starfarers. (biological methods are another story, not usually considered) However, there is no upper limit on the time or level of capability when a species might wipe itself out of contention, which may happen before or long after an interstellar empire is achieved. Sooner or later, self-destruction seems inevitable, because evolutionary pressure favors the speedy exploitation of capabilities (however poorly understood).

    So there’s little need to speculate about their competitors’ treatment of starfarers, because the starfarer rarity that follows so clearly from these considerations ensures that two technological starfaring species will never encounter each other.

    1) Interstellar travel requires the control of large amounts of energy.
    2) At every step up the ladder, new technologies are used asap, rather than after a complete evaluation of all consequences.
    3) The impact of unintended/unexpected consequences is proportional to the power of the technology.
    4) Sooner or later, an unintended/unexpected consequence of a new technology will prove lethal, or at least culturally debilitating in a way that cannot be corrected because the damage (when finally noticed) has already destroyed the ability to correct it.

    IOW – If you are lucky, you survive and just go back to wood-fired steam technology, having been selected out of the starfarer population. Otherwise, you’re selected out, period.

    • franksummers3ba

      Tom Parsons,
      Although the threshold is much higher (10 to the 8th power maybe) for colonial interstellar crews I think you could see a range proportional to the “Kon-Tiki” and the “Queen Eliabeth 2” as normal. You also assume no unimaginable efficiencies which attract starfarers to similar resources not attainable or identifiable excpt by starfarers. I have designed as a way of proof a sort of Kon-Tiki starship we could have launched in ourown history and I know of others. It could even improve itself as it traveled but a real idiot would be required to send it as a hostile force to an improving technological society because when it arrived in thousands of years they would have had many chances to surpass it. But wherever the bottom level is that could reach us as we first step into that field, I believe such a bottom exists and is quite distinct from the theoretical top.

  10. Jimbo in limbo

    Maybe they walk among us.

  11. It would make a certain amount of sense for some – not all – technological civilizations to behave in that way.

  12. Walt

    Of course, it was called the Fermi Paradox well before 1985…

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