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Alien Planet - 3D rendered computer artwork
Alien Planet - 3D rendered computer artwork

What If We Don’t See Aliens Because They Have Not Evolved Yet?

If so, not only did we emerge during a favorable time in the universe’s history but we could end up suppressing them

Readers will recall that we have been looking at science writer Matt Williams’s analysis of the various reasons offered as to why we do not see extraterrestrials except at the movies. Last week, we looked at the Brief Window hypothesis (there is only a comparatively short period of time during which a civilization could make such contact).

But there is another, darker possibility: We are ahead of them. And if we are not careful, we could end up suppressing them. That’s the Firstborn hypothesis: The universe has only begun to be hospitable to intelligent life and humans are among the first to benefit from that fact.

The current model of the universe shows it radiating from the Big Bang over 13 billion years ago. Again, according to current thinking, intelligent beings have inhabited Earth only a few hundred thousand years. What if intelligent beings only became possible recently? Williams puts it like this,

What if we are currently living in a cosmological window where the emergence of life is possible, and in previous epochs, conditions were too harsh for life to exist? Arguments of this nature have been made by many researchers attempting to resolve the Fermi Paradox. In each case, they began with the hypothesis that extraterrestrial life hasn’t had enough time to catch up with us, let alone overtake us.

Matt Williams, “Beyond “Fermi’s Paradox” X: What is the Firstborn Hypothesis?” at Univers4e Today (September 27, 2020)

That hypothesis would make humans unique but mainly because we arrived before the others had a chance. Or, as Williams says, “Humanity is therefore alive during a transitional phase in the Universe that will be followed by the emergence of many intelligent species.”

How would we hold other species back? If we were the ones to first go spacefaring, the theory runs, we might accidentally infect them or intentionally colonize them.

At least, that’s the hypothesis suggested in 1982 by Stanford Stanford radioastronomer R. N. Bracewell (1921–2007): “Furthermore, terrestrial history demonstrates that the advent of one tool-capable and traveling population results in that species’ expansion to all viable territories. The spread of the population occurs in much shorter time than does the evolution of the species, indicating that, perhaps, humans are the first intelligent species in the Galaxy, and may be the future population of the Galaxy.” (Extraterrestrials – Where are they? Elmsford, NY, Pergamon Press, 1982, p. 34-39.)

As Williams tells us, Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb (pictured) followed up on the idea in 2016:

“If you ask, ‘When is life most likely to emerge?’ you might naively say, ‘Now,'” says lead author Avi Loeb of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “But we find that the chance of life grows much higher in the distant future.” …

The dominant factor proved to be the lifetimes of stars. The higher a star’s mass, the shorter its lifetime. Stars larger than about three times the sun’s mass will expire before life has a chance to evolve.

Conversely, the smallest stars weigh less than 10 percent as much as the Sun. They will glow for 10 trillion years, giving life ample time to emerge on any planets they host. As a result, the probability of life grows over time. In fact, chances of life are 1000 times higher in the distant future than now.

“So then you may ask, why aren’t we living in the future next to a low-mass star?” says Loeb.

“One possibility is we’re premature. Another possibility is that the environment around a low-mass star is hazardous to life.”

Although low-mass, red dwarf stars live for a long time, they also pose unique threats. In their youth they emit strong flares and ultraviolet radiation that could strip the atmosphere from any rocky world in the habitable zone.

Is Earthly Life Premature from a Cosmic Perspective?” at Center for Astrophysics: Harvard and Smithsonian (August 1, 2016)

The paper is here. In another paper, he and colleagues offer some figures: “We find that unless habitability around low mass stars is suppressed, life is most likely to exist near 0.1 solar-mass stars ten trillion years from now. Spectroscopic searches for biosignatures in the atmospheres of transiting Earth-mass planets around low mass stars will determine whether present-day life is indeed premature or typical from a cosmic perspective.”

The Firstborn hypothesis lines up well with Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee’s contention in Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, that conditions are not conducive to very many alien civilizations just now.

And if, conveniently, as Guillermo Gonzalez contends in the Privileged Planet hypothesis, Earth is well suited to space exploration, the second concern (that our space faring could harm other civilizations in vulnerable stages of development) makes even more sense. We could reach them long before they reach us.

Plus, the Firstborn Hypothesis is in line with traditional religious and philosophical teachings that humans are unique. It differs from that traditional consensus in that the situation is seen as a temporary state rather than a permanent fact of the universe.

The question then becomes, will our civilization burn out long before most of the others get started? Will we be puzzling artifacts in their galactic museums? That’s worth a film or two.

You may also enjoy these accounts of why we do not see the aliens:

1.Are the Aliens We Never Find Obeying Star Trek’s Prime Directive? The Directive is, don’t interfere in the evolution of alien societies, even if you have good intentions. Assuming the aliens exist, perhaps it’s just as well, on the whole, if they do want to leave us alone. They could want to “fix” us instead…

2.How can we be sure we are not just an ET’s simulation? A number of books and films are based on the idea. Should we believe it? We make a faith-based decision that logic and evidence together are reasonable guides to what is true. Logical possibility alone does not make an idea true.

3.Did the smart machines destroy the aliens who invented them? That’s the Berserker hypothesis. A smart deadly weapon could well decide to do without its inventor and, lacking moral guidance, destroy everything in sight. Extinction of a highly advanced civilization by its own lethal technology may be more likely than extinction by natural disaster. They could control nature.

4.Researchers: The aliens exist but they are sleeping… And we wake them at our peril. The Aestivation hypothesis is that immensely powerful aliens are waiting in a digitized form for the universe to cool down from the heat their computers emit.

5.Maybe there are just very few aliens out there… The Rare Earth hypothesis offers science-based reasons that life in the universe is rare. Even if life is rare in the universe, Earth may be uniquely suited to space exploration, as the Privileged Planet hypothesis suggests.

6.Does science fiction hint that we are actually doomed? That’s the implication of an influential theory as to why we never see extraterrestrials. Depending how we read the Kardashev scale, civilizations disappear somewhere between where we are now and the advanced state needed for intergalactic travel.

7.Space aliens could in fact be watching us. Using the methods we use to spot exoplanets. But if they are technologically advanced, wouldn’t they be here by now? The Hart-Tipler conjecture (they don’t exist) is, of course, very unpopular in sci-fi. But let’s confront it, if only to move on to more promising speculations.Is the brief window for finding ET closing? According to some scenarios, we could be past our best-before date for contacting aliens. Of course, here we are assuming a law of nature as to how long civilizations last. Can someone state that law? How is it derived?

8.Is the brief window for finding ET closing? According to some scenarios, we could be past our best-before date for contacting aliens. Of course, here we are assuming a law of nature as to how long civilizations last. Can someone state that law? How is it derived?

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What If We Don’t See Aliens Because They Have Not Evolved Yet?