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There are several things that most people don't understand about humanity, traveling the universe, extrasolar planets and extraterrestrial civilizations.

Unfortunately, space based science fiction tends to amplify ideas and thought processes about life and the universe that are just not true or are vanishingly implausible.

One false idea, that I notice even intelligent progressive science educated people espousing, is that if and when we encounter an extraterrestrial civilization, it is likely to be like us, similar to us, and at a level of technology that is graspable by us.

To illustrate the truth, let me focus the gentle reader's attention on an admittedly only somewhat accurate but illustrative graph below:


The bottom graph is the one of planet earth.  There is an assumption built in that microbial life has been around for the entire history of the planet, but it could be just as easily read as "no life / microbial life".

You cannot see it, but Planet Earth does have a green section indicating the lifetime of our technological civilization, and a blue bar as well indicating the lifetime of intelligent civilization.  Compared to the life of planet Earth, these sections are too small to see.

What is important to note is, for our hypothetical planets 2 and 3, I put in small variances in planetary lifetime, versus when complex and technological life got started in each instance.  These are entirely reasonable numbers given the small variances by the possibilities inherent in the universe.

Planet 2 is a dead planet.  It is younger than Earth, and complex life got started earlier.  Similar to Earth, there was a technological civilization, but the planet was destroyed.  You will notice that its life was entirely gone before complex mulitcellular life ever got started on planet earth.

Planet 2 would have lived, gone through its life-bearing phase and died long before complex life ever got started on this planet.  Their civilization, too, lasted longer than ours - 100,000 years, but it is still just a smudge compared to the life of their planet.

Planet 3 is an older planet than Earth, but still alive.  They went through a multicellular stage 2 and very quickly developed intelligent life.  Some 600 million years later (far longer than it took us) they developed a technological civilization.  But because the age of the planet is older, this civilization is tens of millions of years more advanced than ours.

Though technology took far longer to start, the civilization of planet 3 would be so advanced that compared to them, we would be the equivalent of bugs, unworthy of notice.  Millions of years more advanced.  Whereas both our "intelligent" humanity and technological civilization, compared to the lifetime of the Earth, is a smudge so small you cannot even see it.

It is vanishingly unlikely given the small variations in the lifetimes of planets that we should ever encounter a civilization that is similar in technological level to us.  These planetary lifetimes are all well within the realm of possibility for life bearing planets.

In being generous, I applied the life of our "technological" civilization (meaning the use of things as complicated or more complicated than radios) at about 500 years.  This projects into the future somewhat, but estimates that we will destroy ourselves after 500 years (or at least, the future beyond that point is not projected).

But what you would see is that, should we encounter the beings of planet 3, they would have had things as complicated as radios MILLIONS OF YEARS before we did, with just small differences in when life on their planet got started, and how soon intelligent and technological civilization arose.

The graphs are also somewhat inaccurate in the sense of, were you to see them accurately, you would normalize them to the present day.  However, this graph inaccurate as it is should be sufficient to make my point.  If we were to encounter an extraterrestrial civilization, or its remains, the vast likelihood is that the civilization in question would have either been dead for millions, if not billions, of years, or that the civilization would still be alive and be millions, if not billions, of years, more advanced than ours.


Another false idea is that intelligent humans have evolved the ideal form for tool use and being intelligent and therefore that an extraterrestrial technological creature is likely to look like us, or similar to us.

Science fiction rewards this hypothesis.  But the truth is, we have four major limbs and two eyes and five fingers and toes because this is the body plan of our distant ancestors.

We evolved from a creature that looked distantly like this:


Were evolution were to have worked differently after this point, we might have two toes and two thumbs, and an extra finger or two, but we still would have looked substantially the same.  We might even have lizard like skin, or an eye in the back of our forehead, but, were we to encounter a creature so similar to us as to have that skin, or an extra eye, the first thing an informed scientist would do is to start looking for a common ancestry with us and the creature we as laypeople are likely to see as exceedingly strange.

What people who look at similar mammals know is that, yes, creatures as distantly related to us as dolphins and bats also have five fingers and toes, they just evolved to use them differently.  A bat's wings have five fingers, but just with one of the fingers elongated and webbing spread between the fingers.  Were you to x-ray a dolphin, you would discover that the dolphin's fin has 5 digits.

But even with eight fingers, we are still essentially tetrapods.  This is not because having four limbs and one head and a number of extra digits are ideal for tool use.  It is because we evolved from ancestors having one head, four limbs, a tail, and a number of digits.  We humans lost our tails, but the genome to have a tail is still a part of us, only it isn't expressed in humans.

Therefore, it is an accident of evolution that we look as we do.  It is a matter of evolutionary history, by random chance favoring that body plan in the extremely distant past.

By random chance, extraterrestrials are unlikely to look like this, or even a variant of this having the same body plan.  Star Trek, Babylon 5, and all other similar science fiction therefore is hilarious.  They don't have the standard alien being, for example, a wheeled creature with eight limbs, or sensory organs that can see microwaves as opposed to visible light.

One important spiritual aspect of this is how closely we are related to all other life on planet earth.  


Another facet of science fiction that, given recent technological advances, we are likely to have wrong is, we explore the universe, only knowing about habitable planets once we get there.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Optical Vortex Coronograph.

This is astonishing technology, and is here now.  The future will not be like Star Trek, because the technology is already here to sniff the atmospheres of alien worlds.

By the philosophical implications alone, this is likely to go down in history as the most important invention of the early years of the 21st century.

Yes, we have the technology to seek and find alien planets that look like our own.

And the thing is, once you can see an extraterrestrial planet, you can know many important things about it.  Once you can see, the possibilities that are derivable are the following:

  1.  You can know the orbital period of said planet -- the length of its year, and the average temperature of its upper atmosphere.
  1.  You can know the presence of constituents of the planetary atmosphere.  You can know how much oxygen there is, how much carbon dioxide, and everything else.  This is a basic feature of the long existing science of spectroscopy.
  1.  By knowing the size of the planet, and the length of its year, you can get a pretty good idea of the mass of a planet, and therefore, its surface gravity.  You can also, pretty much determine the number of moons, and by variations in albedo, the amount of land to liquid such a planet has.

We will know many important things about a second home before we go there.  Or, at least, enough to ensure to ourselves that before we embark on our extraterrestrial voyage, whether such a planet would be at least physically friendly to us (in terms of purely physical conditions) at the time we left to go there.

Unlike science fiction, we will not be journeying around in the dark, stumbling upon planetary systems, then finding out once we get there whether the conditions are habitable.  The technology is already here for us to know before we ever leave.

So, think about this with me, for a second.  As I said above, we are a primitive, barely conscious civilization by the standards of any possible intelligent extraterrestrials we might meet.

If we can do this -- image extraterrestrial planets before we ever leave our home systems, surely beings millions of years more advanced than us can do this already.

They do not have to be here.  They can know everything about us from where they already are.

This is why, for one reason, I dispute Stephen Hawking's belief that we should be careful, lest we loose the wrath of a hostile extraterrestrial civilization upon us, who will, if we advertise ourselves to the universe, will arrive and subjugate or kill us.

Here is what I would say to Stephen Hawking:

  1.  If they wanted to be here, they would be.
  1.  If they are advanced enough to be a threat to us, they already know everything there is to know about us, without even coming here.
  1.  At an early 21st century of technology, we have the Vortex Coronograph.  Imagine what an extraterrestrial civilization might have in terms of remote sensing being a MILLION YEARS more advanced than us.

We will be able to see extraterrestrial planets, and learn much about them, very soon, in the lifetime of civilizations, without ever leaving home.  And if we leave home and go somewhere else, "lightspeed" will not be possible -- it will take us thousands of years to get there (possibly the subject of another essay).  But what is a thousand years, or ten thousand, in the life of the galaxy?

Originally posted to AndyS In Colorado on Fri May 14, 2010 at 05:05 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

    •  First things first, (7+ / 0-)

      let's bust the speed limit.  :)

      Thanks, nice diary!

    •  I've been thinking about this for some years (14+ / 0-)

      now, and I would maintain that the first planet to achieve intelligent life and sufficient technology for space flight would be so far ahead of everybody else, that they wouldn't even notice us and if they did we would look like ants to them.

      However, I like to thing they wouldn't destroy us even then. They would see, "We were doing that also 500,000 years ago. Let's leave them alone and see how they turn out."

      There might even be a sign outside the orbit of Neptune saying, "Homo sapiens in their native habitat. Please do not feed the animals."

      I have flow thru Detriot in recent months and the number of TSA women in hijab is alarming. It's like the foxes are overseeing the chicken coop -- A RW blogger.

      by Kimball Cross on Fri May 14, 2010 at 05:17:45 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I tried to write science fiction too... (3+ / 0-)

      ... when I was young.

      Here are my conclusions.

      1. We will not contact any extraterrestrial civilizations in my lifetime.  We may find one, somewhere, but it will be so distant that getting there, even with the best feasible technology we can imagine (ie not fantasies like "faster than light"), will take several decades.
      1. Reason 1) is the main reason why we need not take Hawking's warning seriously.  They're just too distant, and it's likely that if they have the technology, they're more likely to explore habitable local planets than to go looking for us.  It will prob. take us fifteen years to reach Alpha Centauri.  I'm hoping there's something there.  The stars are FAR AWAY, and options b) and c) are Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti, 10.5 and 12 light years away, and the first of those is prob. too young, the second too old ("metal deficient").
      1. Civilizations capable of radio (which is prob. how we will find said civilization) are doubtless quite rare.  It took a number of freak accidents to create this one.  As for your point:

      By random chance, extraterrestrials are unlikely to look like this, or even a variant of this having the same body plan.

      I indeed agree.  This is doubtless why you won't see a lot of intelligent life out there with opposable thumbs, colored sight, bipedal gait, spoken/ written language capabilities, or any of the other things about our peculiar shape which served us as prerequisites for human civilization.

      1. Habitable planets are also prob. quite rare.  Remember that this planet's atmosphere was transformed through photosynthesis so that it would at some point be breathable by us.  Our lungs can tolerate maybe .04 atmospheres of carbon dioxide before they choke on the stuff -- I'm guessing that carbon dioxide is far more prevalent on other planets with life than it is on Earth, and that our low tolerance for CO2 will prob. make a lot of places off-limits.

      "War's good business/ So give your son/ But I'd rather have my country die for me" -- Grace Slick

      by Cassiodorus on Fri May 14, 2010 at 07:12:41 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Very cool, thanks for posting. (7+ / 0-)
    FYI - you might wantr to reconsider the text and number formatting of your graphic.  A bit hard to read, that.  Good stuff, though.
  •  I'm not willing to write of FTL travel just yet (5+ / 0-)

    Sure, with Einstein's understanding of the universe it can't happen. But it would be presumptuous of us to say that's the end of knowledge. And doing it the Start Trek way of sending a solid body may not be possible but I'd be happy to be taken apart into components and re-assembled on a distant world.

    Wal*Mart isn't the root of all evil but you can buy the plastic, cadmium-tainted, Chinese knock-off of it there for $4.27

    by ontheleftcoast on Fri May 14, 2010 at 05:20:47 PM PDT

    •  Well, you have to conquer cause and effect. (7+ / 0-)

      This is the nature of a problem with FTL of any kind.  It results in possible causality paradoxes.  That is, every possible method you use, you can posit a situation wherein effect precedes cause.

      And you cannot have causality paradoxes in this universe.

      The only possibility, therefore, would be one in which a causality paradox cannot happen.  And for that, you would perhaps ascribe to a stream theory of multiverses .. in that, if you create a causality paradox, you are automatically shifted into a new, parallel universe in which the paradox never occurred.

      "When in doubt, be ruthless" - Ferengi saying (-6.62, -6.26)

      by AndyS In Colorado on Fri May 14, 2010 at 05:29:07 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I think that FTL is more likely to be dealt (6+ / 0-)

        with through some application of Bell's Theorem than anything Einstein would recognise. Ben Bova's 'Moving Mars' scenario, for instance.

        As far as contact with other intelligent species goes, I can see a peripatetic species traveling through might be a threat, but unless FTL has been cracked it seems highly unlikely that a centralised civilization would maintain integrity long enough to send and receive scouts, much less traders or conquistadors bringing back loot. The time lag and relativistic effects alone argue against a stationary center of any civilization that sends out scouts or connected colonies. Spinning off independent seed colonies, maybe, but trade or loot over the time and space involved between habitable planets? Difficult to believe that a species achieved sufficient stability to compass  and coordinate such goings on.

        Without FTL or some manipulation of Bell's Theorem, the sheer distance is almost certainly sufficient buffer. Also, given the investment of time and resources to travel, what can we possibly have that's worth that sort of investment? The cost benefit analysis blows. A species that can conquer the tech to do that kind of travel should have the tech to manufacture. mine or harvest resources much more common than us out here in the galactic boonies.

        The species we see here that have been morphologically stable for millions of years aren't really cooperative within the species, sharks, turtles, mollusks. Hive insects are the exception, and it might take the continuity of a hive species to counter the drift across time involved in interstellar travel. And we're assuming that a species can either extricate itself from its evolutionary home or take enough of its home environment with it to survive. My personal view is that we haven't any clue yet how inextricably linked we are to multiple types of organisms in our environment, and whether or not we could travel or live off planet for many generations without the presence and interaction of an awful lot of indigenous biota.

        Organisation, entropy and drift, both genetic and cultural, over the time involved in traversing the distances  we're talking about seem like factors too strong to overcome. Culture isn't strong enough or cohesive enough. It's like light scattering, it would take the cultural equivalent of laser, a coherence that we can't conceive of, to hold together over such barriers of time and distance. At least, so it seems to me.

        Information is abundant, wisdom is scarce. The Druid

        by FarWestGirl on Fri May 14, 2010 at 05:52:52 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Well, there is another thing we could do, which (6+ / 0-)

          is to engineer ourselves in such a way as to slow our perception of time.

          Of course, this would make our own planet a maelstrom.

          "When in doubt, be ruthless" - Ferengi saying (-6.62, -6.26)

          by AndyS In Colorado on Fri May 14, 2010 at 06:02:41 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

        •  Bell's Theorem always runs into the (6+ / 0-)

          "no-communication" theorem problem. Though the physicist John Cramer here at the UW is doing an interesting experiment that might prove it is possible to send classic information via quantum entanglement. But even if that is possible and you were able to copy yourself to a distant location once the machinery was set up. It would mean that someone would have to first carry some number of particles using conventional subluminal means from Earth to the target world. Then press "Copy" and the copy of you appears. You didn't travel but "you" are there. The current estimates for the speed of information travel via quantum entanglement appears to be more than 10,000c. But even that would take lifetimes to travel to galaxies. Andromeda is 2 million light years from here. Even at 10,000c that would be 200 years of travel time. We'll be lucky if we bump into something in this galaxy we can communicate with. That's probably as close to Trek as we'll get.

          Wal*Mart isn't the root of all evil but you can buy the plastic, cadmium-tainted, Chinese knock-off of it there for $4.27

          by ontheleftcoast on Fri May 14, 2010 at 06:20:59 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  So every FTL trip would be a permanent exit (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiaD, AndyS In Colorado, sturunner

        from the universe of origin. And every successive FTL trip would send the ship and crew in question farther out into the multiverse.

        Those multiverses might be very similar to our own...perhaps no more than a few spin states of a few atoms off.

        Or, they might be antimatter universes with radically different cosmological properties.

        Of both, and all variations in between.

        •  But, in the originating universe, FTL MIGHT (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          cskendrick, RiaD, 1864 House, sturunner

          still be possible.

          The problem is, if you tried to do any one of those things that would create a causality paradox, it wouldn't appear to work to the observer.

          To the observer, nothing would happen.

          To the initiator, it might work, or might not work, but in any event, you would wind up in an alternate universe.

          "When in doubt, be ruthless" - Ferengi saying (-6.62, -6.26)

          by AndyS In Colorado on Fri May 14, 2010 at 06:29:20 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  If I follow this correctly... (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            RiaD, AndyS In Colorado, sturunner

            The initiator is, say, a FTL-capable starship.

            Let's presume the FTL thingie works and the starship crew pops up near the star Epsilon Eridani because there's signs a habitable/terraformable moon might be orbit one of the gas giants there.

            It drops off the makings of a space colony, people too.

            Then the ship scoots for home.


            1. the Earth the mission started from
            1. the Epsilon Eridani star system colonized, and
            1. the Earth the starship returns to

            are all different universes.

            I understand this is not the entire picture but I want to see if I even get a part of it.

            •  Well, what would depend is, would the mission (3+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              cskendrick, RiaD, sturunner

              BACK TO EARTH be faster than the mission to Epsilon Eridani.

              If the mission back to earth is slower, then the arrival of the earth return mission would be after the initial mission left.  Causality would not be violated.

              If the mission back to earth is faster, then the return mission to earth would be BEFORE the initial mission left.

              Causality violated.

              Therefore, in the initial universe, the second return mission would never have happened, because it isn't possible.  Then, therefore, you are in alternate-universe-ville.  They in the boat that traveled could have that mission, and arrive before the initial mission in the initial universe left.

              However, in their alternate universe, it still wouldn't have been possible for the initial mission to have left, yet, therefore, those parameters would be altered to make the causality violation in the initial universe a NOT. (not -- violation)

              So, one could hypothesize that in the alternate universe, the initial mission would not have left by just that much time as would be necessary as to have avoided the causality violation in the first place.

              "When in doubt, be ruthless" - Ferengi saying (-6.62, -6.26)

              by AndyS In Colorado on Fri May 14, 2010 at 06:53:33 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  Couldn't agree more (6+ / 0-)

    I think Hawking was channelling Pascal's wager when he said what he did.

    Though I'll keep a sea eye out for the intergalactic Wunch, just in case.

    "We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope." -MLK

    by mydailydrunk on Fri May 14, 2010 at 05:36:23 PM PDT

  •  But we've been quarantined, (5+ / 0-)

    outside the heliosheath (check the news on Voyager 2)

  •  I would like to know the real age of the Matter (4+ / 0-)

    in the Universe? Is it 12-14 billion years,26 billion years,46-50 Billion years or older and the reason why I ask this question is on this site check out the Comoving Distance part,so if this really means thing are way older than 12 Billion then that fact would impact how many Alien Civilizations could be out there.

    •  Current estimates (4+ / 0-)

      Are in the range of thirteen and a half to fourteen billion years old.

      The "comoving distance" doesn't mean what you think it means.  It's a notional distance that refers to things that are beyond what we can observe, and hence doesn't contradict the stated age of the universe.  As we look out into the universe, we observe things at an earlier period in time.  E.g., we observe the star Sirius as it was in 2002, or the Orion nebula as it was in the mid-7th century.  We observe the edge of the (observable) universe as it was 13.73 billion years ago; since the universe is expanding, any object that was at the location we observe 13.73 billion years ago would be much farther away today -- however, we cannot observe such objects in their present state.

      •  Here's the thing the matter that made things (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        AndyS In Colorado, confitesprit

        was made at a certain point in time known as the Big Bang so even if things can no longer be seen doesn't negate the fact that the matter those things are made of was made at the moment of the Big Bang,so is the Matter made at the moment of the Big Bang 12-14 Billion years old or is the Matter made at the moment of the Big Bang way older.Hydrogen was made just after the Big Bang and as I understand pretty much all the H in the Universe was created by the Big Bang so that means the H in a Glass of water is from the moment Matter came into existence so if someone had a way to tell how many Years old a sample of Hydrogen was would it be around 12 Billion or around 46 Billion years old.

    •  Well, if you mean atoms, then matter in the (4+ / 0-)

      universe would be the age of the universe + about 300,000 years or so.

      One thing you have to understand is that the speed of light is relative to space itself.  That is, space itself can expand faster than the speed of light.

      This has no bearing on whether we can travel faster than the speed of light or the age of the universe.  Because, lightspeed is relative to the size of the universe and the volume of space at any given time .. so if space were expanding at a given rate, and we were to travel from x to y, this would be relative to the space between x and y at that point, with time being an invariant in that equation.

      The universe could expand, and space expand with it, thus, in absolute terms, we might have the ability to travel faster, or estimate the age of the universe differently. But, for us, time is always measured in terms of how fast light can travel relative to space and time.

      So, for us, nothing, really, would change.  Our ability to travel quickly has to do with time, not space.  At least, as I understand it ;)  The age of the universe is still a constant, in temporal terms, also, except that space being able to expand faster than light can travel means the fundamental paradox is a temporal one.

      "When in doubt, be ruthless" - Ferengi saying (-6.62, -6.26)

      by AndyS In Colorado on Fri May 14, 2010 at 06:00:36 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  One little problem... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiaD, AndyS In Colorado, dorkenergy

      The farther we go back in time, the more irregular galaxies appear.  Spiral arms are nice, comfy places for intelligent life to involve, and take time to form (and probably a collision between moving galaxies).  Get too close to a galaxy's center, and planets cannot evolve in the Goldilocks zone before a neighboring star snatches them away.  Too far away, and what we learned by observing stars and planets goes unlearned:  if all the lights in the night sky are wandering, what's the big deal?

      Having established spiral arms, we need elements other than hydrogen or helium.  So, stars need to blow up and spew heavy elements about the universe;  this second generation of stars has the stuff of life.

      2009: Year of the Donkey. Let's not screw it up.

      by Yamaneko2 on Fri May 14, 2010 at 08:19:07 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Infant Mortality Rate of Tech Civilizations (4+ / 0-)

    I suspect there's an analogue to individual lifespans, in that there's a higher failure rate in very young tech civilizations.

    We often hear that Social Security retirement age was picked at 65 because that was "the" lifespan at the time. But that's only because the then high infant mortality rate was factored in. Those who made it to 65 to retire in the 1930's could expect to have a number of more years of retirement ahead.

    I could imagine that various circumstances of some planets could produce new technological civilizations that were more or less predisposed to surviving the early period when technological advances would be most transformational, and therefore dangerous with cultural and governance traditions that didn't anticipate such powers.

    Longer term survival of civilizations might then shift from dependence on intelligence and wisdom of the species, to factors such as astronomical hazards and opportunities.

    This part of the Drake equation is likely to remain guesswork till (we know that) we've found that 2nd civilization.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Fri May 14, 2010 at 05:56:43 PM PDT

    •  RE: Improvement of LE at age 65 (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Has been vast over the past two centuries.

      And people in the year 2010 routinely underguess their expected years of retirement by about five years.

      Men guess 15 years, women 17.

      As of 2010 they will live on average 20 and 23 years, respectively.

      And 50 percent of them will outlive their life expectancy.

      Sometimes by many years - many living 35-40 years past retirement.

      Oh - and the pace of longevity improvement at older ages is accelerating greatly.

      By 2100 that upside range will be the norm, with a new upside range in the low 100s.

      Just as in the year 1900, 5-10 years in retirement was usual...with many persons living into their 80s.

  •  We don't deserve a second planetary "home" (4+ / 0-)

    after the way we have made such short work trashing this one. We need to grow up and become responsible custodians before we even think of colonizing another planet.

    "If you do not read the paper, you are uninformed. If you do read the paper, you are misinformed."--Mark Twain.

    by ovals49 on Fri May 14, 2010 at 06:00:21 PM PDT

  •  When you say you (4+ / 0-)

    modified the assumptions.. are you using the Drake equation or some other similar rubric?

  •  The arising of intelligence (5+ / 0-)

    (By which, for the sake of convenience, I'll define as the ability to construct and use complex languages) is an odd and really bizarre development.  All signs are that life can get along perfectly well without intelligence, and quite possibly even better without it.  Intelligence doesn't so much confer evolutionary advantages as simply complicate existence.  For possibly a hundred thousand years, anatomically modern or near-modern humans, presumably with language and intelligence, walked around armed with (at most) stones with sharp edges, and judging by genetics, within that time were reduced to near-extinction: whether from climate, predator animals, or internecine warfare, is anybody's guess.

    Our current overpopulated (by humans) planet isn't a necessary or natural concomitant of existence; it's the result of secondary, runaway developments that started quite recently in the history of the human species, and which, while dependent upon intelligence, are essentially accidental.  Our intelligence evolved to find better ways of digging up grubs to munch, and its use to calculate orbital trajectories is a rather bizarre exploitation of a natural potential that humans managed not to use for a hundred thousand years.

    To tell the truth, we don't know very well what intelligence is, how or why it arose, and what, ultimately, it is good for.  If it's evolutionarily advantageous, why did it arise in only one species on Earth in some 600 years of the evolution of macroscopic animals?  Most animals get by with a brainpower which, while not necessarily different in kind from ours, is directed toward ends which are typically more specialized and hardly capable of being developed toward ends outside of acquiring food, sex, play, and self-defense.

  •  Excellent and very thought-provoking diary. (4+ / 0-)

    My compliments to the chef.

    This makes an excellent companion piece to a diary I published a few weeks ago that offers Eight Ways To Think About Timescale.

    I think you'd enjoy it.  I will return later to read your piece at leisure...gotta run now, though.

    Freedom isn't "on the march." Freedom dances.

    by WarrenS on Fri May 14, 2010 at 06:50:26 PM PDT

  •  Who knows? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    John DiFool

    Is it really an "accident of evolution" that we look like we do?

    Evolution does not proceed "randomly."  There are basic engineering constraints on what machines can look like and how they can operate in a given environment, and thus we see basic forms (I started to write "designs" but realized that's a loaded word!!) "reinvented" repeatedly in evolutionary and mechanical history.  Fish, porpoises, ichthyosaurs and submarines all have similar forms because they inhabit similar niches.  Ditto birds, bats, pterodactyls, flying bugs and fixed-winged aircraft.  Mechanical cameras are remarkably similar to biological eyes.

    It might well turn out to be the case that a tool-using, intelligent creature has to look more or less like we do -- i.e., be bipedal with arms and hands, since it has to move, but also easily manipulate physical objects. It should have a "head" that facilitates stereoscopic vision. It will probably be a mammal; I don't know the reason for it but no order other than that of mammals has come anywhere near the level of intelligence that would be necessary to "launch" an intelligent species. Maybe there's a relationship between warm-bloodedness and potential brain size; one way or another, there must be a basic bio-mechanical reason for it.  And the creature should live on land, since even very intelligent sea-mammals lack usable limbs -- again, for bio-mechanical reasons -- and therefore would be far less likely to develop the ability to manipulate tools and develop technology.  

    It's all about the niche.

    I got love, I got peace, I got happiness and you can have it too -- the Chambers Brothers

    by Egypt Steve on Fri May 14, 2010 at 06:58:50 PM PDT

  •  Why are "ants" never worthy of study? (0+ / 0-)

    "Though technology took far longer to start, the civilization of planet 3 would be so advanced that compared to them, we would be the equivalent of bugs, unworthy of notice."

    I keep seeing this meme here, there, and everywhere.  First of all, some humans DO like to make note of & examine ants (one of my favorite college professors did just that).  Second, unlike ants humans have self-consciousness AND a technological civilization, both of which many suspect to be rare/very rare in the cosmos (respectively), and any aliens which become aware of us are going to want to compare and contrast how we did it, vs. how they (the aliens) did it, at the very very least.  We are more like a physically small yet thriving technological ant civilization discovered out in the Australian outback say (each individual is c. 1 mm tall)-you really think they would be unworthy of our notice?  There's millions of ant colonies in Australia alone-but are there millions of technological civs in our Galaxy?  It's a terrible analogy which needs to be retired.

    I also want to express my agreement with Hawking on the issue of us wanting ETs to be aware of us.  There's no guarantee that they nearest extant spacefaring civilization is in the Milky Way, or even within 50 million LY of us.  If they were, they very well might consider us a threat down the road, if certain loopholes in interstellar travel are waiting to be discovered, facilitating travel (if they can do it, we eventually can too).  Unlike in international diplomacy, which assumes shared memes, shared languages, shared resources, etc., there likely would be none of that w.r.t. extraterrestrials, so there would be less compunction to be merciful and demurring (more than a few treaties undoubtedly involved sharing some jokes with the other negotiators).  There have been tons of dangerous species and civilizations described in science fiction, at least some of which are plausible-I don't want The Borg to become aware of us, or a Berserker, or even the Ferengi for that matter.  Hell some of those posthumanists claim that the Borg is what we'll eventually (effectively) become.

    •  Here is what I know. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiaD, dorkenergy, sturunner

      One is that, despite our knowledge of relative intelligence, we still cannot cross the species barrier.

      I would suggest that we are still highly primitive in our ability to understand and appreciate other earth species.

      We have hypothesized collective intelligence but because we are primates, we do not deem we have ever encountered one.  Perhaps that is incorrect.  How would we know?

      "When in doubt, be ruthless" - Ferengi saying (-6.62, -6.26)

      by AndyS In Colorado on Fri May 14, 2010 at 07:07:40 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  If a hostile civilization detects us (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiaD, dorkenergy

      They will have no way of knowing whether or not we are more powerful and/or hostile than they are.

      Even if we appear not to be powerful or hostile, we might just be concealing our true might and hostility.

      Even if we're not powerful or hostile now, nothing says (to them) that we might not be powerful and hostile by the time that they get here.

      And if we light up a big beacon saying "here we are", they're going to figure that we must have something dangerous in our possession, or we wouldn't be lighting beacons in a dangerous galaxy.  Perhaps our beacon isn't just a simple cry for attention -- perhaps it's a honey trap to attract civilized beings from all over the galaxy so we can trap them, take their technology, and destroy them.

      So any sufficiently paranoid civilization that detects our beacon is not only not going to respond, it's going to hide -- why risk a hugely expensive interstellar confrontation with a civilization that's got who knows what in its back pocket?

  •  Just remember, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AndyS In Colorado

    to a clam, all mammels look remarkably similar. And the differences between primates is miniscule.

    Tips, BTW, because of the reference to Arnold Schoenberg's second string quartet.

  •  "But what is a thousand years, or ten thousand, (4+ / 0-)

    in the life of the galaxy?"
    Not much.
    Taking on Stephen Hawking...priceless.
    I liked the diary. I would suggest that sci-fi television shows and movies are entertaining studies in society/ethics/romance...etc. Not so much a guess as to what we'd find.
    Tipped and recced.

    Cheney-tide...just when I got used to Red-tide.

    by reddbierd on Fri May 14, 2010 at 08:06:44 PM PDT

  •  Can I have my tail back? nt (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AndyS In Colorado

    We who have been nothing shall be all. This is the final struggle. ~E. Pottier

    by ActivistGuy on Fri May 14, 2010 at 10:25:18 PM PDT

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