Intelligent Life in the Universe

Source: antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov

We cannot completely discount the possibility that alien life will look or act like us, not least of all given the statistical probabilities. The laws of natural selection alone may no longer govern humans; however, whilst cloning and gene manipulation may allow human enhancement and the curing of disease, we are still constrained by the physiological limitations hard-coded into our genes. Other carbon-based life forms might utilize the same chemical structures (DNA or even RNA) as information carriers, especially with these molecules found in abundance throughout the interstellar medium. On the other hand they may be completely different. Extrapolate to the practical applications of, say, superstring physics (if it’s right) and maybe they can put their intelligence into non-biological forms. Arthur C. Clarke said that what they could do would be like magic to us.

We have already begun discovering extrasolar Earth-like planets, revolving in ‘habitable zones’ around main sequence stars as our instruments have become more powerful and exploration continues into the vast unknown. That’s not to say the sequence of events that gave rise to complex life on Earth aren’t fortunate, but the ‘ingredients’ aren’t as rare as one might think, with evidence that amino acids exist in interstellar clouds. Whilst proponents of the Rare Earth hypothesis argue that the universe is naturally unfriendly towards the development of complex life, the ‘principle of mediocrity’ insists that our circumstances are not uncommon – within our own Solar System, Saturn’s moon Titan has been described as possessing many of the atmospheric conditions present on a primordial Earth. There is even evidence of liquid water, past or present, on Enceladus, Europa and Mars.

However, the main focus is on behavioral traits – we cannot assume that characteristics we observe amongst humans are exclusive to our species. In any case, so-called human-like intelligence is difficult to define, particularly with so many variations between different people. Self-awareness, fundamental to definitions of our ‘living’, implies a consideration that other beings, with distinct identities, will also share self-awareness. Extend that further, and it is no stretch of the imagination to consider that any advanced life, no matter its biochemistry, will possess similar faculties of reasoning.

The existence of just one species with human-like intelligence on our planet is not surprising if we take into account Darwin’s theory of evolution. Homo neanderthalensis, one of our “closest relatives”, had an ever-greater cranial capacity, and arguably, fossilized evidence indicates the physiology to develop complex language. One of the most established theories is that contact with Cro-Magnons ultimately led to its demise. After all, a prolonged co-existence between two competing species is unlikely.

It is entirely possible for convergent evolution to occur, for aliens to independently develop similar thoughts and behaviors, which are essential to the functioning of an advanced society. Steven Dick’s Intelligence Principle suggests that cultural evolution amongst all terrestrial and extraterrestrial species is governed by a universal goal to further knowledge and intelligence. In theory, the laws of natural selection apply throughout the universe, and while there will of course be great diversity, convergionism argues that nature will come up with the same base designs, conducive to survival in various environments. Frank Drake has even proposed that anthropomorphic extraterrestrial life might be the norm.

The potential for complex language is possibly one of the universe’s greatest evolutionary advantages, utilizing as it does higher brain functions. Following on from the previous section, it does seem as though language, including, but not limited to vocalizations, will be a common output for intelligent life. Studies analyzing the sounds emitted by cetaceans such as dolphins and whales show that they have a complex system of communication and behaviors. In fact, it has been suggested that dolphin intelligence, with problem-solving ability beyond that of the great apes, is akin to an alien intelligence, potentially offering an insight into how we might communicate with extraterrestrials.

Hypothetically speaking, out of the million advanced civilizations in our galaxy (as predicted by Carl Sagan) we can expect at least a handful of them to have developed similar, or more advanced technologies to our own – including quite possibly, the capacity to travel the great distances required to visit our own planet on some level. Similarly, the Drake equation (using the values initially proposed by Drake himself) seems to infer the existence of civilizations in our galaxy with which we could communicate. Rapid technological progress, of the kind that aids the long-term continuation of a civilization, intuitively necessitates a sense of cooperation and cohesiveness of society. We may come into contact with power-hungry aliens, united in a goal to conquer any hapless life forms they encounter, or peaceful beings who have decided to pursue a more spiritual existence and in doing so have completely overcome their primal instincts. Furthermore, there will probably be some variation within these populations.

Logic would dictate (or so it seems) that any civilization that has developed the capacity and technology required to travel to our planet would likely be thousands or even millions of years older than our own. It is unlikely that any species that has survived this long would mean us harm. I believe that the evolution of life in other parts of the universe – at least those advanced enough to visit our planet – has likely managed to transcend the nature exhibited by humans today with its greed, violence and exploitation to become a master of a higher and more peaceful way of life of which we on Earth have still much to learn. As a race, our minds are as closed as our narrow hearts. Our eyes are blind to the variations of our own species if those humans are bold enough to disagree with our blinkered intravenously fed anthropoid-centric views. We usually kill those whose views differ from our own, either in reality or socially with an appropriate put down whisper. We are rather timid and easily manipulated by fear and other abstract power thought forms. We are actually amazingly underdeveloped as rational beings.

The convenience of speculation on all matters astrobiological is that one’s opinion can rarely be disproved (for now). These are questions that will take years to answer given the sheer scale of the universe as well as our limited knowledge. Knowing this, we should leave the door open for the possibility of alien life in many respects similar to our own. Automatically discounting the idea that intelligent life exists beyond our own or even the possibility that other species may have developed the technology capable of travel to our planet is infantile at best and certainly evidence of how little we actually know of the universe today. The risk of discovering life, science, or technology superior to our own, while frightening (or even threatening to some), is an insufficient reason to discount the possibilities that await us in the universe. I think that now is the time to begin preparing for the inevitable discovery of life beyond our own. What do you think?

Image Credit: antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov

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