August 19, 2008


Where Are They?: Why I hope the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing. (Nick Bostrom, May/June 2008, Technology Review)

I begin by reflecting on a well-known fact. UFO spotters, Raëlian cultists, and self-­certified alien abductees notwithstanding, humans have, to date, seen no sign of any extraterrestrial civilization. We have not received any visitors from space, nor have our radio telescopes detected any signals transmitted by any extraterrestrial civilization. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been going for nearly half a century, employing increasingly powerful telescopes and data-­mining techniques; so far, it has consistently corroborated the null hypothesis. As best we have been able to determine, the night sky is empty and silent. The question "Where are they?" is thus at least as pertinent today as it was when the physicist Enrico Fermi first posed it during a lunch discussion with some of his colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory back in 1950.

Here is another fact: the observable universe contains on the order of 100 billion galaxies, and there are on the order of 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone. In the last couple of decades, we have learned that many of these stars have planets circling them; several hundred such "exoplanets" have been discovered to date. Most of these are gigantic, since it is very difficult to detect smaller exoplanets using current methods. (In most cases, the planets cannot be directly observed. Their existence is inferred from their gravitational influence on their parent suns, which wobble slightly when pulled toward large orbiting planets, or from slight fluctuations in luminosity when the planets partially eclipse their suns.) We have every reason to believe that the observable universe contains vast numbers of solar systems, including many with planets that are Earth-like, at least in the sense of having masses and temperatures similar to those of our own orb. We also know that many of these solar systems are older than ours.

From these two facts it follows that the evolutionary path to life-forms capable of space colonization leads through a "Great Filter," which can be thought of as a probability barrier. (I borrow this term from Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University.) The filter consists of one or more evolutionary transitions or steps that must be traversed at great odds in order for an Earth-like planet to produce a civilization capable of exploring distant solar systems. You start with billions and billions of potential germination points for life, and you end up with a sum total of zero extraterrestrial civilizations that we can observe. The Great Filter must therefore be sufficiently powerful--which is to say, passing the critical points must be sufficiently improbable--that even with many billions of rolls of the dice, one ends up with nothing: no aliens, no spacecraft, no signals. At least, none that we can detect in our neck of the woods.

Now, just where might this Great Filter be located? There are two possibilities: It might be behind us, somewhere in our distant past. Or it might be ahead of us, somewhere in the decades, centuries, or millennia to come. Let us ponder these possibilities in turn.

If the filter is in our past, there must be some extremely improbable step in the sequence of events whereby an Earth-like planet gives rise to an intelligent species comparable in its technological sophistication to our contemporary human civilization. Some people seem to take the evolution of intelligent life on Earth for granted: a lengthy process, yes; ­complicated, sure; yet ultimately inevitable, or nearly so. But this view might well be completely mistaken. There is, at any rate, hardly any evidence to support it. Evolutionary biology, at the moment, does not enable us to calculate from first principles how probable or improbable the emergence of intelligent life on Earth was. Moreover, if we look back at our evolutionary history, we can identify a number of transitions any one of which could plausibly be the Great Filter.

For example, perhaps it is very improbable that even ­simple self-replicators should emerge on any Earth-like planet. Attempts to create life in the laboratory by mixing water with gases believed to have been present in the Earth's early atmosphere have failed to get much beyond the synthesis of a few simple amino acids. No instance of abiogenesis (the spontaneous emergence of life from nonlife) has ever been observed.

The oldest confirmed microfossils date from approximately 3.5 billion years ago, and there is tentative evidence that life might have existed a few hundred million years before that; but there is no evidence of life before 3.8 billion years ago. Life might have arisen considerably earlier than that without leaving any traces: there are very few preserved rock formations that old, and such as have survived have undergone major remolding over the eons. Nevertheless, several hundred million years elapsed between the formation of Earth and the appearance of the first known life-forms. The evidence is thus consistent with the hypothesis that the emergence of life required an extremely improbable set of coincidences, and that it took hundreds of millions of years of trial and error, of molecules and surface structures randomly interacting, before something capable of self-replication happened to appear by a stroke of astronomical luck. For aught we know, this first critical step could be a Great Filter.

Conclusively determining the probability of any given evolutionary development is difficult, since we cannot rerun the history of life multiple times. What we can do, however, is attempt to identify evolutionary transitions that are at least good candidates for being a Great Filter--transitions that are both extremely improbable and practically necessary for the emergence of intelligent technological civilization. One criterion for any likely candidate is that it should have occurred only once. Flight, sight, photosynthesis, and limbs have all evolved several times here on Earth and are thus ruled out. Another indication that an evolutionary step was very improbable is that it took a very long time to occur even after its prerequisites were in place. A long delay suggests that vastly many random recombinations occurred before one worked. Perhaps several improbable mutations had to occur all at once in order for an organism to leap from one local fitness peak to another: individually deleterious mutations might be fitness enhancing only when they occur together. (The evolution of Homo sapiens from our recent hominid ancestors, such as Homo erectus, happened rather quickly on the geological timescale, so these steps would be relatively weak candidates for a Great Filter.)

The original emergence of life appears to meet these two criteria. As far as we know, it might have occurred only once, and it might have taken hundreds of millions of years for it to happen even after the planet had cooled down enough for a wide range of organic molecules to be stable. Later evolutionary history offers additional possible Great Filters. For example, it took some 1.8 billion years for prokaryotes (the most basic type of single-celled organism) to evolve into eukaryotes (a more complex kind of cell with a membrane-enclosed nucleus). That is a long time, making this transition an excellent candidate. Others include the emergence of multicellular organisms and of sexual reproduction.

If the Great Filter is indeed behind us, meaning that the rise of intelligent life on any one planet is extremely improbable, then it follows that we are most likely the only technologically advanced civilization in our galaxy, or even in the entire observable universe.

We all believe in the homocentric universe now.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 19, 2008 11:51 AM
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