Editorial note: The following is a speculative thought experiment intended to provide an objective assessment of our species. It projects the likely view of one possible external observer, and is not intended to characterize the nature of all such observers if in fact any actually exist. Undoubtedly, extraterrestrial life would be as diverse as terrestrial life, and extraterrestrial civilizations would be similarly different from each other. Since the perspective here is based on science, subjective and supernatural beliefs along with their associated moralities reside outside the purview of this presentation.
By Robert A. Vella
The Fermi paradox, or Fermi’s paradox (named after physicist Enrico Fermi), is the apparent contradiction between the lack of conclusive evidence and the high statistical probability for the existence of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations. Our own human history provides ample reason to hypothesize that before a crucial survivability threshold is reached in their evolution, intelligent species will likely face extinction from both natural and artificial threats (e.g. pandemics, predation, volcanic disasters, cosmic impacts, orbital disruption, solar variability, supernova explosions, catastrophic war, ecological changes, and environmental degradation). In 1978, the Smithsonian Institution published an article by Dr. Carl Sagan titled The Quest for Extraterrestrial Intelligence which eloquently addressed this paradox:
When we do the arithmetic, the number that my colleagues and I come up with is around a million technical civilizations in our Galaxy alone. That is a breathtakingly large number, and it is exhilarating to imagine the diversity, lifestyles and commerce of those million worlds. But there may be as many as 250 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Even with a million civilizations, less than one star in 250,000 would have a planet inhabited by an advanced civilization. Since we have little idea which stars are likely candidates, we will have to examine a huge number of them. Thus the quest for extraterrestrial intelligence may require a significant effort.
And why has there been no clear evidence of extraterrestrial visits to the Earth? We have already launched slow and modest interstellar spacecraft called Pioneers 10 and I 1 and Voyagers 1 and 2 -which, incidentally, carry small golden greeting cards from the Earth to any space-faring interstellar civilizations which might intercept them. A society more advanced than we should be able to ply the spaces between the stars conveniently, if not effortlessly. Over millions of years such societies should have established colonies which themselves might launch interstellar expeditions. Why are they not here? The temptation is to deduce that there are at most only a few advanced extraterrestrial civilizations – either because we are one of the first technical civilizations to have emerged, or because it is the fate of all such civilizations to destroy themselves before they are much further along.
There are some who look on our global problems here on Earth – at our vast national antagonisms, our nuclear arsenals, our growing populations, the disparity between the poor and the affluent, shortages of food and resources, and our inadvertent alterations of the natural environment of our planet – and conclude that we live in a system which has suddenly become unstable, a system which is destined soon to collapse. There are others who believe that our problems are soluble, that humanity is still in its childhood, that one day soon we will grow up. The existence of a single message from space will show that it is possible to live through technological adolescence: the civilization transmitting the message, after all, has survived. Such knowledge, it seems to me, might be worth a great price.
Imagine an advanced extraterrestrial species visiting Earth for the first time. What would they think of us? Let’s assume they have evolved beyond the critical point of survivability (“technological adolescence,” in Sagan’s words), that their technology has solved the time and distance problems of interstellar travel, that they have been observing our planet remotely for some time, and that their interest in us is purely scientific curiosity.
Upon arriving in our solar system, the E.T.s would probably verify what they had already learned about the Sun, Earth, and the other planetary bodies. Then, they would turn their focus to our planet. They would study our atmosphere, lithosphere, geology, chemistry, biochemistry, and discernible histories. They would begin analyzing and cataloguing the Earth’s life forms from the smallest microorganisms to the largest flora and fauna. They would immediately realize that one species, which calls itself Homo sapiens, is capable of impacting the biosphere of the planet very quickly and significantly; so, they take precautions to conceal their presence and restrict their activities.
The E.T.s do not see humans as like themselves. They see nothing remarkable about human intelligence and social organization. Rather, they simply recognize that Homo sapiens are the only technological species on Earth at the current time. What the E.T.s do see as remarkable, however, is the Earth’s tremendous biodiversity which shares a unique physiology they’ve never encountered before. They attempt to correlate it with other planetary life systems they’ve studied, but in each case the Earth’s combination of chemistry, gravity, temperature, and astronomical cycles make it particularly distinct.
Their research of life on Earth is so systematic and sophisticated that terrestrial scientists would be awestruck if privy to it. Although they use techniques and practices unknown to us, some of their research would be recognizable such as direct examination of individual specimens temporarily immobilized when necessary. For example, human scientists who study polar bears in the wild must tranquilize the animals first to ensure the safety of both themselves and the bears. Typically, helicopters are used to quickly locate and immobilize their targets. What the bears are thinking when being pursued in this way is unknown except for their obvious attempts to flee from a perceived threat. After the examination and recovery from the anesthesia drugs – which can induce analgesia (insensitivity to pain), paralysis (extreme muscle relaxation), amnesia (memory loss), and unconsciousness – the animals can probably only remember the incomprehensible image of the helicopter, the fear they felt at being pursued, their capture, vague images of unusual creatures, and waking up alone.
The E.T.s would likely study human beings up close in a similar fashion. In addition to our basic biological functions, they would surely be interested in our psychology and social habits as well. Beyond that, they would be particularly interested in humankind’s past, current, and future impact on the planet as a whole especially with respect to our technological activities. This would inevitably result in an assessment of sorts – a number of scientific conclusions which, if taken in the aggregate, could be interpreted as an appraisal of humanity or as an objective judgment on our species.
So, what would these E.T.s think of us?
- Homo sapiens evolved from earlier hominins – which relied on bipedalism, intelligence, and social organization as a survival strategy – as early as 300,000 years ago.
- The species was marginally successful in an era dominated by megafauna up until the end of the most recent ice age approximately 12,000 years ago.
- From there on, warmer global temperatures and the extinction of many competing species fostered the development of agriculture which replaced Homo sapiens’ reliance on hunting and foraging as a food source.
- The advent of labor-intensive agriculture necessitated the development of hierarchical social organization facilitated through the creation of philosophical constructs (e.g. religion) which elicited the population’s subordination to authority by defining existence arbitrarily and in lieu of empirical knowledge. The division of labor which resulted from social hierarchy additionally enabled a rise in technological advancement.
- This new social organization, with its concentration of authoritative power and technological prowess, gave Homo sapiens a significant competitive advantage. Its populations grew measurably in both size and scope. This success also encouraged its aggressive tendencies and instilled arrogance among its leaders. Tribal conflicts escalated into regional wars, exploitation of natural resources began to degrade local ecosystems, and increasing population density resulted in deadly disease outbreaks.
- These miserable living conditions prevailed for most humans until about 400 years ago when a series of social reforms, collectively known as the Age of Enlightenment, were implemented. Secular ideas and practices began to supplant religious dogma, equitable principles codified into legal constructs began to replace arbitrary authority, and a vigorous exploration of the empirical sciences sparked an explosion of technological achievement. Living standards started to rise, population growth resumed, and contact between geographically isolated cultures dramatically increased.
- However, the technological progress occurred disproportionately faster than did the social progress of this era and that caused an irresolvable imbalance. Humankind’s indefatigable aggressiveness, which had impelled the species to dominance over the planet, turned into its greatest liability. Wars became global with ever worsening capacity for destruction, ecological degradation transitioned into an existential environmental crisis including a mass extinction event, and the unsustainably large population is now so restive that it is tearing the social fabric of the species apart.
- We estimate that the time required for Homo sapiens to evolve into a self-sufficient species capable of interplanetary or interstellar habitability far exceeds our prognosis for its continued viability on Earth. Within the next 100 years, its social structures will collapse and its remnant populations will devolve separately in various secluded enclaves. We recommend this planet be closely monitored for an indefinite period of time to: 1) record the demise of Homo sapiens, 2) observe the natural recovery of Earth’s biosphere, and 3) document the potential evolutionary advancement of other intelligent terrestrial species such as hominids (i.e. primates) and cetaceans (i.e. whales, dolphins, and porpoises).
For Mary and Rosaliene