I’m Still Here. Where Are the Aliens?

As the few of you who have followed my blog might know, I haven’t posted anything in over a year. I don’t have a special explanation for this beyond that I just didn’t feel like working on something. Writing is not particularly easy work for me. For a while, I told myself I was working on a longer work and true enough I have been writing on something longer or rather more precisely several longer pieces. I would start one, grow dissatisfied with it, start another – you get the idea. Some of this writing may eventually appear in some form but most of it will go by the wayside to be stored on some disk drive that eventually gets destroyed under one circumstance or another. To shorten the story somewhat – let me say I am back posting and will try to be more regular about it, at least once every month or two.

Back in June I was strongly tempted to post something on the big Anonymous claim that NASA was about to announce the discovery of extraterrestrial life. I didn’t believe the claim for a moment. I don’t think NASA would hide the discovery of extraterrestrial life. They might hold off an announcement until they could confirm it beyond reasonable doubt but not hide it. If anything, with our science fiction and movies, we are more than prepared to accept that life (even intelligent life) could exist elsewhere other than Earth. There would be no reason to hide the discovery because of its culture shock impact. They wouldn’t withhold it so NASA could gain some secret technological or military advantage either. Aliens aren’t going to come here to do “deals”, even “big deals”, with us. If they were smart and benevolent, they would probably withhold their technology from us – prime directive sort of thing – and maybe even hide themselves from us. If they were not benevolent, we would never know what hit us before we would be gone.

So, the aliens still haven’t arrived and probably won’t be arriving any time soon, otherwise we would have probably already spotted some evidence of their existence. Where are they? The Fermi Paradox again.

An emerging meme is that technological civilizations destroy themselves by destroying their environment. Some want to bundle climate change and the Fermi Paradox to explain why no other technological civilization (of which there must be or have been many) has spread itself far and wide in our galaxy. I am not buying it. If we want to go down that path, I still think the nuclear war scenario would be far more destructive and far more likely to result in our extinction. Don’t get me wrong. Climate change might eventually put Miami underwater but the people who are there will just go elsewhere. The runaway greenhouse effect (the Venus scenario) isn’t happening. We are too far from the Sun. Putting aside stronger hurricanes, sea level rise, and some species going extinct, things are improving. Alternative energy technologies are increasingly cost-effective and many of us may live to see the time when almost all vehicles are powered by batteries charged by the sun.

So where are the alien civilizations?

Part of the answer, I think, is to be found in Nick Lane’s book The Vital Question. Life established itself on Earth relatively quickly, possibly almost as soon as the Earth cooled enough to have liquid oceans, or at least within a billion years of it. The thermal vents look increasingly to have right physical structures and chemical characteristics to create life. Since these conditions are probably common elsewhere in the universe, life in some form likely is abundant elsewhere. On the other hand, complex life required almost another three billion years before it established itself. Complex life has been around on Earth for probably less than a billion years out of the four and a half billions of years since Earth formed. To get complex life, among other things, you basically needed to have one bacterium assimilate another bacterium and create a genetically stable organism with mitochondria. Without mitochondria organisms are unable to harness sufficient energy to create complexity. This must be difficult and very random or it would have happened sooner on Earth.

Even after we get complex life, we still need to go through a whole other series of advancements to arrive at civilization, our civilization. To get civilization on our planet, we had to oxygenate the atmosphere, move out of the ocean, and then we had to go down the big brained primate path to an ape that began to walk on two legs and use its hands to make tools. How likely was that? All the time we were evolving our planet had to have been relatively stable, not hit by a giant asteroid, not bombarded by gamma rays from a nearby super nova, or suffer some internal geological calamity.

Could aliens create a technological civilization without any appendages whatsoever capable of manipulating the environment? Technology begins with manipulating and shaping the environment. It is certainly true an advanced technological species could manipulate the environment with technology itself. We, in fact, do. The question, however, is how does the capability evolve in the first place. Many species on Earth can create tools or use the environment to their advantage – birds, other apes, insects to name a few. However, none so far have been capable of the degree of manipulation that our distant ancestors possessed. We like to think that we make things because we are smart but it might be we are smart because we started to make things.

Scientists often caution us about making no assumptions about how much like extraterrestrial intelligent life would be to us. We shouldn’t expect alien intelligent life to look like Romulans or Klingons. Yet when we also ask where are the alien civilizations, we are assuming that extraterrestrial intelligent life would be very much like us in the aspect that makes us most human – our long evolutionary history of manipulating the environment and making sophisticated things. How many billion years of good fortune on a habitable planet does it take to make a creature that does what we can do?

I think the odds are that the aliens aren’t here because there are not that many advanced civilizations who could ever get here. And that, I think, makes us very special.

Posted in Aliens, Fermi Paradox, Human Evolution, Origin of Life | 6 Comments

Followup to “Of Minds and Crows”

New research shows that birds have as many neurons as mid-size primates. Evolution apparently has figured out a way of packing neurons more densely. Researchers took brains from 28 different species and dissected them.

Although many in the field expected the bird brain could be densely packed, the extent came as a surprise to the study authors. “My expectation was simply that bird brains should be different from mammals in size and number of neurons,” says neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, now at Vanderbilt University, one of the senior authors on the paper. “But we didn’t have any idea that the difference would be so extreme that in a parrot brain you would have as many neurons as in a mid-size primate.”

Particularly of interest here is that the advanced cognition capabilities of the small brains of birds might really be the result of the same mechanisms that is usually associated with larger brain size – the number of neurons. Over three years ago I speculated on changes from the early anatomically modern humans to present day humans. I wonder now  if this change can be accounted for by a similar mechanism. In other words we really are smarter than the early Homo sapiens because we have more neurons than they did. What’s more this increases the possibility that human intelligence could still be increasing despite the huge energy requirements that the large brain makes on our species.

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World Stuff

“Human beings are organizations of – do not let us use the philosophically tendentious word ‘matter’, but rather the neutral and philosophically non-committal term translated from the German Weltstoff – the universal ‘world stuff’. But our organization has two aspects a material aspect when looked at objectively from the outside, and a mental aspect when experienced subjectively from the inside. We are simultaneously and indissolubly both matter and mind.” – Julian Huxley

I used the quote from Julian Huxley in a post years ago. I’ve had good reason to think about it recently on encountering the ideas of Donald Hoffman. Hoffman is a professor of cognitive science at the University of California and has spent years studying perception and the brain. He appears to have done a lot of work particularly in the area of visual perception. Hoffman’s main conclusion after these years of research and study is exactly the opposite of what we might expect.  Instead of “brain activity creates consciousness”, the usual and safe scientific view, Hoffman’s radical view, that he calls conscious realism, is that. “consciousness creates brain activity, and indeed creates all objects and properties of the physical world.”


We might expect this coming from a mystic, or maybe an insane person, but not from a scientist. An interview with Hoffman in Quanta Magazine excited a firestorm of comments, mostly dismissive, with some threatening to cancel their subscriptions. Let’s take a look.

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Posted in Consciousness, Intelligence | 15 Comments