Why no space aliens?

By Dr. Ralph Maughan

It’s been an exciting year for astronomy.

We have sharp photos from the New Horizons space probe that zipped past Pluto. Pluto’s surface features were completely unanticipated. There were also very close up photos from the Dawn probe made from its tight orbit around the largest asteroid, Ceres. Most recently came “good” evidence for existence of a large planet, “Planet X,” in the far recesses of the Solar System well beyond Pluto. Discovery of Planet X would restore the number of planets in our solar system to nine.

This year again more new “exoplanets” were detected around other stars. As of Feb. 5, the total number of confirmed exoplanets was 1937. So it’s 1937 down and about 100 billion planets (estimate) to go for our Milky Way galaxy. Despite this, no life has been discovered, not even a single celled organism anywhere but Earth.

Many people reason on the basis of the huge number of planets that there must be many alien civilizations out there — millions perhaps in our own galaxy — or not!

So far no planets like ours have been observed, and our efforts to find messages or signs of alien civilizations have failed despite years of listening. Is life rare?

Even here on life-friendly Earth, life consisting of more than one cell was painfully slow to emerge. The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, yet over 3.5 years billion years passed without permanent multi-cellular life taking hold. It appears that multi-cellular life emerged perhaps 42 times before it became a permanent feature. In fact, some multi-cellular life even evolved backwards. It returned to being single celled. Others just disappeared.

There was no animal life for about 4 billion years — until about 500 million years ago. The dinosaurs emerged 230 million years ago. Control of fire (by Homo erectus) began about 400 thousand years ago. Fire was the first technology unless we count the stone tools that were used by various hominins.

Note that hominins such as Homo erectus are a group consisting of modern humans, extinct human species and all their immediate ancestors. This includes older members of the genus Homo, such as Australopithecus, Paranthropus and Ardipithecus. The great apes of the present and past are not hominins.

Modern humans are a very recent development, relatively speaking. Homo sapiens evolved about 160,000 years ago. These early humans had modern bodies but only primitive technologies — very hard to detect from afar. For hypothetical aliens outside our solar system, detection of our intelligent civilization probably has been possible only recently. If there are aliens a bit more advanced than us, they might detect our artificial lights, radio waves, large land use changes, and our cloud of pollution.

If not already, then with a long technological future ahead of us they might see us, or we, them.

On the other hand, do we have a long future? What could go wrong? We regularly hear about very many possible disasters.

If humans disappear, what about other intelligent life on Earth? None are as intelligent as us, but some examples having large or sophisticated brains and behavior include dolphins, crows, chimps, elephants.

Crows, dolphins and elephants will have a major problem ever using their current intelligence to develop technology. How could dolphins ever tame fire? The trouble is not in their brain but the shape of their body and their watery environment. The hindrance to more development of bird brains and bird technology is that they have only a beak and two legs with clawed feet.

For we hominins, it appears a changed body developed first — upright with flexible arms and hands that could grasp and manipulate. These led to growth of the brain. Them came more body development, and then more brain. In their bodily form, crows, dolphins and elephants cannot evolve in this way toward greater intelligence and technology. Sadly, we will shortly kill all of them off anyway except the crows.

Regardless of our future, what about the future of those in our imaginary galaxy of intelligent alien races. Perhaps they exist for just a flash of cosmic time. There a just a few at any time and far between. That is a reason why we haven’t heard from them. As an aside, if this is so, we don’t need to worry about alien invasions or the erection of their barriers to humans exploring and controlling places far from Earth.

Any population of people, plants, animals (or aliens) is more secure from extinction if they are located in geographically dispersed groups. It would be wise if lived on more than the Earth.

To me it seems our fate matters less if there are many intelligent races out there than if there are just a few. If intelligence is universally rare, don’t we have a special obligation to survive, prosper and expand? What a crime hoping for some prophetic apocalypse would be!

Finally, it could be that intelligent life is abundant throughout the universe. For some reason we can’t see it and they can’t or won’t contact us. Perhaps the distance barrier between stars is insurmountable.

Dr. Ralph Maughan of Pocatello is a professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He has written three books plus articles about backpacking and outdoor adventure.