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Is Anybody Out There?

Why we hear nothing from neighbors in the galaxy next door

All reasons concerning why we receive no phone calls, emails, or text messages from other intelligent life in the universe are highly speculative, and thus probably all equally valid. So, I will throw my two cents into the hat, and advance an idea centering on the nature of evolution. Since Charles Darwin’s revolutionary insights into the origin of species, notions like survival of the fittest and environmental adaptation are abundantly used in the literature. But let’s look more closely at what these concepts actually mean, and how they may impact “intelligent life.”

It’s with some hubris we cast ourselves as representatives of intelligent life, but because no other life-forms choose to debate the issue, it sticks. Of course, the species Homo sapiens is the result of four billion years of evolution, so much has gone before us. Over ninety-nine percent of all species ever in existence are now extinct. Occasionally the majority of living species disappear all-at-once in mass extinctions, but so far, life has an excellent record of never wholly vanishing. However, it’s hard work. Survival is a struggle, and genetic programming drives individual species to survive and dominate their ecological niches.

But what happens when a species is too successful? When its members exhaust the resources necessary for their own survival and start competing among themselves for what’s left. What happens when a species is intelligent enough to build devices allowing one member to destroy millions of others at the push of a button? Genetic programming is not rational; it merely demands we reproduce and dominate.

The timeline

The human timeline runs something like this.

First 3.5 billion years: slime and soft squishy things

Next 250 million years: life manages to crawl out of the ocean and walk around on dry land

Next 185 million years: big guys, like dinosaurs, stomp around eating each other

Next 63 million years: mammals and such start to dominate

Next 1.8 million years: primates learn lots of new tricks

Next 180,000 thousand years: Homo sapiens become intelligent

Next 15,000 years: humans hang out in tribes and chase food around the planet

Next 4,850 years: we settle down, farm, build castles, fight wars, and a few of us start thinking about life

Next 150 years: We build atomic bombs, fly rockets into space, invent computers and the internet, and try to make contact with the rest of intelligent life out there in the universe.

The math is not pretty, but intelligent life, capable of communicating across the universe, has existed for less than 0.0000025% of the history of life itself. Even if we make it another 500 years without destroying the planet or killing ourselves off, the reign of intelligent life may be a fleeting blink of the eye. Assuming this evolutionary cycle is normal, then the chance of two intelligent civilizations being around simultaneously is minuscule. Perhaps we haven’t been contacted because “intelligent life-forms” tend to wipe themselves out before they have a chance to do anything significant, like contact other intelligent life.

Just a thought in the bucket of equally valid excuses for being shunned by our alien neighbors.

Also published in Dropstone on Medium

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.