On the one hand, the National Academy of Sciences has said that we may communicate with extraterrestrial intelligences during our lifetimes. On the other hand, Italian physicist Enrico Fermi (1901–1954) asked, “Where are they?” (the Fermi Paradox).
A new study suggests that the natural development of civilizations may be to blame:
In the hopes of answering this question, a new paper published on May 4 in the journal Royal Society Open Science claims that “civilizations either collapse from burnout or redirect themselves to prioritizing homeostasis, a state where cosmic expansion is no longer a goal, making them difficult to detect remotely.”
“Either outcome — homeostatic awakening or civilization collapse — would be consistent with the observed absence of [galactic-wide] civilizations.”Jona Jaupi, “Researchers offer alarming reason ‘why aliens have never visited Earth’” at New York Post (May 13, 2022)
The researchers call it “asymptotic burnout and homeostatic awakening” and their abstract compares the process to the rise and fall of cities:
Previous studies show that city metrics having to do with growth, productivity and overall energy consumption scale superlinearly, attributing this to the social nature of cities. Superlinear scaling results in crises called ‘singularities’, where population and energy demand tend to infinity in a finite amount of time, which must be avoided by ever more frequent ‘resets’ or innovations that postpone the system’s collapse. Here, we place the emergence of cities and planetary civilizations in the context of major evolutionary transitions. With this perspective, we hypothesize that once a planetary civilization transitions into a state that can be described as one virtually connected global city, it will face an ‘asymptotic burnout’, an ultimate crisis where the singularity-interval time scale becomes smaller than the time scale of innovation. If a civilization develops the capability to understand its own trajectory, it will have a window of time to affect a fundamental change to prioritize long-term homeostasis and well-being over unyielding growth—a consciously induced trajectory change or ‘homeostatic awakening’. We propose a new resolution to the Fermi paradox: civilizations either collapse from burnout or redirect themselves to prioritizing homeostasis, a state where cosmic expansion is no longer a goal, making them difficult to detect remotely.Wong Michael L. and Bartlett Stuart 2022Asymptotic burnout and homeostatic awakening: a possible solution to the Fermi paradox?J. R. Soc. Interface.192022002920220029 http://doi.org/10.1098/rsif.2022.0029
In short, a technologically advanced civilization has only a short window of time in which to search for other such civilizations.
The history of our own search for ET is worth considering here. It has been much less than a century since we began to go into space (to the moon, for example). The James Webb Space Telescope was launched only December 25 of last year.
We could make great progress in principle. But suppose our societies become ridden with intractable internal political conflicts and go to war against each other using nuclear weapons? We will be forced to prioritize restoring peace (homeostasis) and abandon the search for intelligent extraterrestrials. If that happens, Wong and Bartlett’s argument may well be right about extraterrestrial civilizations going that way too.
The article by Michael L. Wong (Earth and Planets Laboratory in Washington, D.C.) and Stuart Bartlett (Geological and Planetary Sciences, California Institute of Technology) was published May 4 at the Royal Society journal Interface and is open access.
You may also find these accounts of why we do not see extraterrestrials of interest:
1.What if extraterrestrials can’t afford to take chances with us?
That’s the Dark Forest Hypothesis, riffing off the title of one of famed Chinese sci-fi author Liu Cixin’s novels. The Dark Forest Hypothesis assumes that we can use sociology to figure out what extraterrestrial intelligences might be like or might want. But can we?
2.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. Hence the Zoo hypothesis. 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…
3.How can we be sure we are not just an ET’s simulation? A number of books and films are based on the Planetarium hypothesis. 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.
4.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.
5.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.
6.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.
7.Does science fiction hint that we are actually doomed? That’s the implication of an influential theory, the Great Filter hypothesis, 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.
8.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.
9.Is the brief window for finding ET closing? According to some scenarios (the Brief Window hypothesis), 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?
10.What if we don’t see aliens because they have not evolved yet? On this view, not only did we emerge during a favorable time in the universe’s history but we could end up suppressing them. The Firstborn hypothesis (we achieved intelligence before extraterrestrials) lines up with the view that humans are unique but sees that status as temporary.
11.The aliens exist—but evolved into virtual reality at a nanoscale. That’s the Transcension Hypothesis, the latest in our series on science fiction hypotheses as to why we don’t see extraterrestrials.
On this view, after a Singularity the ETs become virtual intelligences, exploring inner space at an undetectably small scale.
12.Is intelligent life in the universe living in interior oceans of planets and moons? The Ocean Planets Hypothesis is that intelligent beings may flourish in the interior oceans of the moons of gas giant planets — or within exoplanets — but they are trapped there. If intelligent life forms are trapped in the interior oceans of rocky moons and planets, Earth is a special planet—much better suited to space exploration.
13.Is real-world space travel just too daunting for ET? That’s the Percolation Hypothesis as to why we don’t make contact with aliens. They can’t overcome the laws of physics, any more than we can. If there is a purpose behind the universe, maybe the aliens and we weren’t intended to meet. That’s worth considering, given the physics barriers.
14.The Aurora Hypothesis: ET could risk only rare contact with us. Given the difficulties and risks of space travel, extraterrestrials with advanced technology may have visited Earth only one in a million years, researchers say. After centuries of modern science, we are just now looking for fossil bacteria on Mars, not without risk. ET may be in the same position.
15.Data analyst offers 15 reasons extraterrestrials aren’t seen. He estimates that there should be 100,000 civilizations in our galaxy. Some of Yung Lin Ma’s suggested reasons are ones we had not considered before, including flow of time and communication differences.
16.What if ET has morphed into what we now call the laws of nature? Astrophysicist Caleb Scarf has asked us to consider a daring hypothesis for conundrums around dark matter and dark energy. Scharf’s hypothesis highlights the genuine difficulty of accounting for a universe that comes into existence without any underlying intelligence at all.