by Stephen Ashworth
On 28 April I participated in a debate at the Oxford Union on the subject: are we alone in the universe?
This was not one of their major debates, but a low-key affair with three speakers and a small audience of a dozen students. Nevertheless it generated an interesting (perhaps I should say: frustrating) clash of viewpoints.
Albert Zijlstra, Professor of Astrophysics in the University of Manchester, focused on stellar physics and a conventional discussion of the Drake equation. He was pessimistic about whether intelligent extraterrestrial life existed in our Galaxy.
The main reason why he considered that alien civilisations would be much rarer than Frank Drake had originally thought was an increased awareness of the environmental fine-tuning necessary to keep an earthlike planet habitable for multicellular life for an evolutionary period of time. In addition, he emphasised the fact that intelligence does not necessarily give a species an evolutionary advantage, citing the dinosaurs as an illustration, and hence the improbability of even a diverse and highly evolved ecosystem producing a species capable of science and technology within the period of habitability of an earthlike planet.
Mary Rodwell, a therapist from the Australian Close Encounter Resource Network, presented the UFO/paranormal view that the aliens are here already.
It was all in her presentation -- abduction experiences, lost time, telepathy, psychic powers, images of humanoids with large heads and enormous oval eyes, tiny nose and mouth and no ears, Roswell, sampling of human tissue, the claim that humans are a hybrid species, government cover-ups, UFO sightings, and the claim that the aliens are "interdimensional" (thus explaining why ignorant materialists such as you and I can't see them). The aliens are apparently guiding human history (except for the bad bits, which are our fault), and raising a genetically superior new generation of children.
She focused heavily on her clinical experience with sufferers from abduction experiences, and stated (significantly) that it was for her a matter of principle that the experiences should be taken at face value and not debunked with psychological explanations.
My own presentation offered an evolutionary account of civilisation. An extract from my talk is reproduced as item (2) below.
The audience remained evenly divided on whether humanity is or is not alone. But no vote was taken on whether those who thought we had extraterrestrial company preferred to believe in scientific aliens, or paranormal ones.
-- Stephen Ashworth
Oxford Union debate, 28 April 2006
I put it to you that a global civilisation such as ours, on a single planet, cannot possibly last for very long.
There are three orders of living ecosystem which can be defined at present. Two have existed on Earth.
The first kind of ecosystem is that of microbial life. Such a microbiota was the only kind of life on planet Earth for about two-thirds of its history to date. It is perfectly possible that we will find another, independent microbiota if we dig deep below the surface of Mars, down to the water table. Or even on a smaller world such as Europa in the Jupiter system, or Enceladus, a moon of Saturn.
On Earth, and so far as we know on Earth alone, multicellular life arose, and created what I call a gaiabiota, using James Lovelock's word. A gaiabiota is the integrated system of microbial and multicelluar life that we have on Earth at present. It is powered by sunlight.
But even a highly evolved gaiabiota such as ours makes very inefficient use of the natural resources available. Take sunlight. Of the solar power available in our solar system, only a half of one billionth part actually falls on Earth, and a fair fraction of that is reflected back into space.
The evolution of life so far demonstrates that where an ecological niche is possible, life will eventually evolve a species to fill that niche. But -- almost all the potential of the Galaxy for supporting life is accounted for by starlight which never falls on a planetary surface, and by raw materials which have never coalesced into an earthlike planet.
Therefore we must anticipate that a third order of living ecosystem will evolve to access those resources. Obviously, it must be dependent upon technology in order to harvest sunlight in space and extract useful materials from planets, moons, asteroids and comets. I call this a technobiota.
Just as a pre-existing microbiota is necessary for a gaiabiota to evolve, so too a pre-existing gaiabiota is necessary for the technobiota to appear. Each progressive leap forward is enabled by a crucial development. A gaiabiota requires the evolution of a kind of microbial cell that can join up with other cells to form a complex animal. And a technobiota requires the evolution of a gaiabiotic species with intellect and an aptitude, not only to use tools, but to use tools to make better tools.
The implication of this pattern must be perfectly clear and obvious to everyone here. All the problems of modern society -- third-world poverty, nuclear weapons, pollution, terrorism, war, refugees, fear of climate change, fear of an energy crisis -- all these are symptoms arising from one fundamental biological fact: our civilisation is the point at which planet Earth is evolving a technobiotic order of life. These are the teething problems of that higher order of life.
Any industrial civilisation arising on any planet in our Galaxy or in any other galaxy is therefore an unstable transitional stage between the lower order and the higher one. Such a civilisation has two possible destinies. Either it will peak at a certain point of development, collapse, lose its culture and be absorbed back into the unconscious gaiabiota from which it came. This will happen within a few million years at most, and maybe a much shorter time. Alternatively, it will expand, colonise its local planetary system, and then spread throughout its galaxy. In this case, it would effectively become immortal.
So: are we alone in the universe?
If another civilisation like our own has ever existed, and if it did not colonise space but remained a one-planet civilisation, then either it collapsed and vanished long ago, or its existence at the same time as ours is an unlikely coincidence.
Finding that civilisation by radio and laser searches would be extremely difficult. The idea that aliens would broadcast a message to our planetary system without knowing that we are here to receive it is very dubious. Far more sensible to send a space probe here. Then they will get valuable science out of our solar system regardless of whether or not it is inhabited by intelligent beings.
I applaud the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. But I don't think it'll find what it's looking for.
But supposing another civilisation like our own once existed, and that it did complete the evolutionary transformation into a technobiota. Then in a short time on the cosmic timescale it will have populated the entire Galaxy, including our bit of it. Its presence would be obvious. This has clearly not happened.
Perhaps it has only populated part of the Galaxy so far? -- say, the side of the Galaxy opposite us. Again, this would be an unlikely coincidence.
I conclude that it is perfectly possible that one or more alien civilisations exist at this moment in our Galaxy. But if you asked me to place a bet, I would put my money on the proposition that we are alone. Microbial life? Yes, there are probably billions of worlds with microbes. Gaiabiotic life? Maybe a few thousand. But other intelligent beings like us? Very unlikely.
Let us work to ensure that when the Galaxy is populated, it will be our descendants, our cultures and technologies which achieve that goal.
The next issue of Astronautical Evolution will be devoted to the question of the place of religion in an astronautical society.
Religion has recently become a topic of intense debate, no doubt thanks to the increasing profile of Islam in the Western world since 9/11/2001, as well as press reports about the religious convictions of the current UK prime minister and US president. Thus --
The question for us is this: is religious belief compatible with an astronautical -- and therefore science-based and democratic -- society? Or is it symptomatic of the type of social organisation appropriate to pre-industrial societies, and therefore a danger to the astronautical enterprise?
I invite all readers to send me their views on the matter, for the 1 June issue of Astronautical Evolution. Thank you!
Astronautical Evolution is an e-mail newsletter devoted to news and comment from an astronautical evolutionist perspective. To subscribe / unsubscribe / contribute / comment, please e-mail Stephen Ashworth, sa(at)astronist.demon.co.uk.
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