We Are Alone

Early spring reminds us we remain creatures of which mind is only a part.

Internet, science fiction, reputable scientific journals, popular magazines and even religious works speculate on the search for life and intelligence in the universe.  “There are nearly infinite stars, so somewhere there must be intelligence to match ours.”  Physical studies, exotic instruments, philosophical essays all point to the inevitability of little green folks, if we can just find them.

Sensible thoughts.  I think they are wrong.  We are probably alone.

“Nearly infinite” is not infinite.  Lots and lots of stars do not mean anything can be happening somewhere.  Even multiple bubble universes would not be truly infinite.  Mathematically, it does not “stand to reason” that there must be other intelligence like ours. The odds against may be greater than the “nearly infinite” stars available.

Daffodils inspire poems and sprinkle joy on the landscape.

Life itself is improbable and requires significant conditions, like developing radiation resistance and the ATP energy cycle.  But even granting that life arises easily and everywhere, there is no definitive path to intelligence.  The earth itself is 4.5 billion years old, and 3.8 years ago life probably began here.  Single-celled organisms arose at 3.5.  And then, for almost 3 billion years, nothing really happened _ it was all single-celled organisms with this and that peculiarity.  And remember that years are only meaningful to us _ single celled organisms move at lightning pace measured in seconds or minutes rather than years.

So the rise of multi-celled organisms might be much more unlikely than “life itself.”  And special factors like our moon may make it even more unusual.  Not until .5 billion years ago are there animals with backbones.  .25 billion years ago almost everything is wiped out in the Permian Extinction,  which may have been a trigger for rapid evolution. Consider that:  4.25 billion out of 4.5 just fiddling around, then almost starting over (which may have been required for intelligence).

Darwinian evolution promises nothing beyond survival and reproduction honed to the environment.  Not until 20 million (.02 billion) years ago do primitive hominids show up.   An improbably varied ice age was required to generate homo sapiens at (earliest) 350K. 

In the last 40 thousand years we conquered the world.  In the last 10K or so we developed technological prowess.  In the last 200 (.00000002 B) we have electricity.  Pretty long odds right there. 

An awful lot of stars would need an awful lot of luck to come close.

A few wild violets break the monotony of burgeoning emerald carpets

In the short life of our species, most cultures have populated their cosmos with similar but not quite identical spirits, gods, and beings.  No doubt we are hard-wired to look for cause and effect, inventing magic when we cannot find anything obvious.  Since we increasingly understand our “mundane” reality, projections have moved farther away.

There is, I suppose, no harm in looking outward and imagining strange intelligences somewhere.  On the other hand, you might stare with a clearer eye at your mate, neighbor, coworker, or celebrity to find that genuine alien intelligence is not at all that hard to find.

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