Some recent reading has led me to think about this topic more broadly. The December 2020 issue of Discover magazine has a cover theme of Are We Alone?, and of the articles, one titled “Science . . . or Just Fiction?” was particularly interesting. It covered a theme I have considered for some time (as millions of others also have) and found that it fits in with related writings about various topics that I have thought about.
This article discusses some of the many reasons why we haven’t found or recognized other intelligent life forms in the Universe: whether we are truly alone or not. Of course, the “intelligent” part is rather biased towards the human standard of measurement, but that’s another issue. The main point is that maybe the distances in space and time are too great, or that other such life forms use different laws of physics which we don’t know about, or maybe they just don’t care about anyone else, or a hundred other more specific reasons. Regardless, it’s interesting to contemplate, but I’d like to take another perspective.
Perhaps they do, did, and will continue to exist on various planets throughout the Universe. However, they all still have to live according to the basic foundations of life as I described in Control. All of us, from microbes to insects to mammals, must assert a minimum of control over the physical and living environments to stay alive. And the way to do that is through physiological and behavioral adaption/evolution over time, maintaining an ecological balance with the environments, and (for humans and some other mammals) developing cultures that help accomplish the other two.
That’s the essence of survival for a species and an individual of a species (like you and me). If a minimum of control isn’t maintained, the individual dies and eventually the entire species can become extinct if enough die. This means that for other extraterrestrial life forms to exist, they too would have to meet the same requirements we have here on Earth. How they might do that is interesting to speculate about, but really beside the point. They would all be like us in having to solve the problems of existence, brothers and sisters in space, to speak. Which is a comforting thought that somewhat counters the implied feeling about labeling them as “aliens.”
Yet, before we get to feeling too warm and fuzzy about that, remember that in solving the problems of control and survival here on Earth we have some very terrifying species and behaviors, such as eating each other, atomic bombs, viral pandemics, and the list goes on. We have to ask, wouldn’t the same situation exist on other planets for their species? We all have the same requirements for living, so maybe it’s best to be more cautious in our enthusiasm to find life elsewhere. We already have a lot of undiscovered life on this planet to deal with, as it is—such as Covid-19 and other viruses and bacteria yet to appear.
Now, for the “intelligent” part of the title above. I think we can safely assume all of us humans think intelligence implies complexity: of physiology, cognitive processing, culture, and social behavior. Of course, we don’t know if whales, other primates, and similar species we consider having some degree of intelligence would agree with that (a little communication problem there), but we’ll just go with the idea, anyway.
This appears to be a fairly stable argumentation since when we examine the evolutionary record of fossils and living life forms, they do seem to have a general trend toward complexity. Which makes sense in terms of control efforts to survive: getting an advantage to solve the problems of conflict often means something new that the competition doesn’t have. Some would argue this is also true for human culture, that coming up with something new (a cultural artifact or behavior) confers an advantage for the individual as well as the social group, such as the cellphone and how it’s used, new items for world trade and distribution routes, and governmental procedures and participation by members.
Robert Wright, in his book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny entertainingly but effectively documents this idea of the general increase of complexity in physical and cultural evolution. He concludes that human evolution has the potential to do great things, but the historical record shows that we are extremely variable in our success with consistency to achieve them. Of course, I would point out that the reason for this inconsistency is that we, like all living creatures, contend with each other and the physical environment to achieve control of as much as we can. Then, in doing so, we step on each other’s toes—or much worse. Consequently, our intelligence resulting from complexity doesn’t serve so well for getting positive results.
To be sure, other intelligent aliens would have the same historical record since they likewise have the same control situations. So, we actually do know a lot about aliens in the Universe, after all. Not their exact form etc. but their living circumstances and behavior, which I consider more important, anyway.
(Continued next week)