Is life on Earth just a lucky fluke? (unpopular POVs)

C C Offline

EXCERPTS: . . . "It just hit me with the force of a sledgehammer that all these things that science fiction, and science as well, had told me to expect - that one day soon we would make contact with aliens, and that maybe we’d go out and have all these Star Trek adventures with them - maybe that was all wrong,” says Stephen Webb. [...] Webb found himself in a new and unfamiliar universe. The assault to his preconceptions needled him, but he liked challenges, and he took this one on.

“I got into the habit of starting to collect solutions to the so-called Fermi paradox,” he says. [...] The pile of potentials became a book in 2002: If the Universe Is Teeming With Aliens … Where Is Everybody? 75 Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life... Many of Webb’s collected hypotheses suggest that aliens live where we’re not looking, talk how we’re not listening or resemble something we haven’t sought out.

[...] There’s a problem with these ideas, though: They suffer from a modernity bias, a term historians and political scholars sometimes use. It means that we tend to conceive of society’s current state as both inevitable and significant - the most significant - and view all else through this lens. ... The aliens, should they exist, might be using technology humans won’t invent for millennia, if at all. And while scientists do sometimes see past Earth’s technological thresholds, they (and the rest of us) are notoriously bad at imagining where our own technology is going (did anyone predict Uber would come out of ARPANET?). How, then, could it be possible to imagine where alien technology might go?

Anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan, who studies SETI scientists’ culture at Memorial University in Newfoundland, thinks modernity bias might be keeping scientists from seeing an alien fingerprint right in front of them. “It might look like nature or magic, or any number of things,” he says. “It might look like the background processes of the universe. It might look like physics.”

Webb thinks that maybe there is no right thing. It’s an idea he lays out in the book’s most interesting section, with the scariest subtitle: “They Don’t Exist.” There is no “everybody.” “It is just us,” he says, almost trying the idea on. The notion, he says, can feel as cold as the universe itself. As he gathered his 75 solutions, Webb kept flipping between that intuitive emotion and what he realized his forebrain truly thought. “We’re just a rare fluke,” he says, sounding resigned.

Astronomers often suggest that’s unlikely. There are so many exoplanets, possibly multiple trillions just in our galaxy [...] There’s a problem with that logic, though: “We don’t know in this context whether a trillion is a big number or not,” he says. That depends on statistical calculations.

Here’s how the statistical calculations work: To get intelligent life, you need solar systems with home stars that aren’t too violent. Those systems have to have habitable planets. Those planets have to go from empty to alive somehow, in a process called abiogenesis. Once life arises, it has to stay alive. Then, it not only has to evolve into something smart, but the smart things also have to develop technology. No one knows how likely any of those things is. Each if-then represents a kind of turning point, a transition from one phase to another. “They don’t need to be hugely rare transitions, if there are many of them, for ‘a trillion’ to actually appear quite small,” says Webb.

Many biologists, for instance, think abiogenesis is much more difficult than many astronomers think, and no one knows how it happened on Earth. While some scientists suspect that life inevitably progresses toward complication and intelligence, that’s a human-centric bias. ... Oman-Reagan’s research examines these kinds of assumptions, the ones scientists often bring without even realizing it. ... To that end, he believes SETI would do well to abandon the idea that technological civilizations are superior, the progressive and predictable result of evolution.

That’s part of the traditional definition of cultural evolution, a social-science term. But it’s “not clear at all” that when a civilization continues existing for a long time, it inevitably becomes ever more technological, says University of Texas anthropologist John Traphagan [...] Similarly, Traphagan takes issue with another SETI argument: The longer a technological civilization persists, the more likely it is to be nice, because it’s learned how to resolve conflict without apocalypse. “There’s no reason to think that altruism is going to be an outgrowth of technological superiority,” says Traphagan. “Predators are usually the ones that have the highest intelligence.” Besides, why would a planetary society be monolithic in any way - good or bad? Humans certainly are not. Astronomers’ ideas on this point don’t make sense to him... (MORE - details)
Syne Offline
Perhaps authors like Asimov and Herbert insulated me against the starry-eyed notion of intelligent alien life. I've always found the notion of untold numbers of bipedal, four-limbed, intelligent aliens to be childlike fantasy, not far removed from dragons and orcs.

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