Oh, god, the assumptions. I like speculations about alien life, just as I appreciate the diversity of life on Earth, the different forms of life in the past, and the prospect of evolution in the future, but every time I read about this stuff in astronomy-related journals, I feel like they’re making an effort to reduce my intelligence. The problem is that they have no imagination and no biology, but they’re trying to imagine the nature of alien biology, and all they end up doing is running around in circles trying to figure out why little grey humanoids aren’t landing their flying saucers en masse to march out and shake hands with the president. It’s all Fermi Paradox this and Drake Equation that, two stupid ideas that have captured the eyeballs of everyone with these biased priors, and they always go trotting off to get the opinions of the same spectacularly ill-informed people. Take this bad article in Universe Today.
The first horror: they favorably cite Robin Hanson, the creepiest economist in America, and they quote a contradictory statement by him.
Humanity seems to have a bright future, i.e., a non-trivial chance of expanding to fill the universe with lasting life. But the fact that space near us seems dead now tells us that any given piece of dead matter faces an astronomically low chance of begating such a future. There thus exists a great filter between death and expanding lasting life, and humanity faces the ominous question: how far along this filter are we?
Why? Why do you think a “bright future” is equivalent to “expanding to fill the universe with lasting life”? Why do you think that’s the road we’re on, when there’s a total absence of viable colonies of humans on other worlds, and all the other planets in our solar system are uninhabitable, and planets around other stars are unreachable? What is the basis for thinking that we have that particular “bright” future in front of us, especially when you immediately admit that the chances are astronomically low?
This is my problem with the general tenor of these speculations. They all assume that we, that is human-like intelligences, are desirable, inevitable, and the only proper kind of life; they’ve read far too many science-fiction novels prophesying a colonialist destiny led by strong-jawed Anglo-Saxons with glinting eyes and a finger on the trigger of their blaster. They never seem to consider that the truly successful clades on Earth are things like algae, grass, protists, and insects. If we were to speculate on the species with bright futures, they’d all be weedy and prolific and adaptable to a wide range of environments. They wouldn’t be overgrown monkeys who can’t even imagine a non-monkey future.
The second person the article cites is weirdo philosopher Nick Bostrom. It’s funny how these kinds of stories always shy away from talking to evolutionary biologists. It’s probably because we tend to get all squinky-eyed and sarcastic about their faulty premises. Or is that just me?
The Great Filter can be thought of as a probability barrier. It consists of [one or] more highly improbable evolutionary transitions or steps whose occurrence is required in order for an Earth-like planet to produce an intelligent civilization of a type that would be visible to us with our current observation technology.
See? That’s what I’m talking about. They’re always going on and on about the likelihood of finding an intelligent civilization like ours. Why not speculate about finding a planet that has produced kangaroos? Or stomatopods? Or baobab trees? These are all unlikely outcomes of a contingent, complex process that produces immense diversity, and they’re all wondering what the “barrier” is that prevents our kind from winning the cosmic lottery every time. Get over it, we’re not a favored outcome, there’s no direction to evolution, and that’s why there aren’t smarty-pants bipeds tootling about the galaxy stopping by for tea. That and physics, probably. I also don’t understand why mobs of physicists aren’t rising up and pointing at the speed of light and the energy requirements for interstellar flivvers and saying “That’s why!”
Then this article has to take a predictable slant in a section titled…
Gotta Love the Drake!
No, you don’t. The Drake equation is a simplistic collection of variables with no suggestion of mutual dependency that are concatenated to provide a whole string of excuses for why human-like aliens aren’t sending us their version of “I Love Lucy”. It’s basically a Ouija board for apologists for science-fiction outcomes. It’s a tool for churning out meaningless crap. It’s kind of like how the article ends with this self-serving statement.
We have written many interesting articles about the Great Filter, the Fermi Paradox, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), and related concepts here at Universe Today.
Again, no you haven’t. If I were an editor at Universe Today, I’d scratch out the word “interesting”, and maybe, to throw them a bone, write in “infuriating”.
One more thing that annoys me. They cite Hanson again, saying that one of the benchmarks for his preferred flavor of alien intelligence features
Wide-scale colonization. I’m just thinking, given his other criteria, that any planet suitable for colonization is already going to contain a fascinating extraterrestrial biota — they wouldn’t have an oxygen-rich atmosphere, or soil, or exploitable organic materials otherwise — and from a biologist’s point of view, the “colonization” he considers desirable is going to involve the destruction of native species on a large scale. We’re lucky, given that it’s Hanson, that he didn’t speculate on the universality of rape. That’s more his thing.