Jul 23, 2011

Been Here, Done That

I've previously blogged about the Fermi Paradox. My "solution" to the paradox is that we should assume a solution that allows us to create the most interesting science fiction stories.

In Hollywood, science fiction has been dominated by stories in which aliens miraculously evolve on another planet for hundreds of millions of years, develop technology and reach Earth while still at a technological level very close to our own. In the movies, it is desirable that the underdog species in a first contact battle be able to defeat the evil invader. Yawn.

However, it has been estimated that the average Earth-like planet might be a billion or more years older than Earth. Contact between Earth and another technology-using species might very well involve another species that has technology far beyond our own. Is it more likely that Earth was first visited long ago or that Earth would first be visited only now, just when our species is starting to take its first steps into space? Authors like Arthur C. Clarke have imagined human contact with aliens who long ago visited earth and influenced human evolution.

What should we expect of a hypothetical species that has been spreading between the stars for hundreds of millions of years? Would galactic explorers still be biological or some kind of artificial life? Why should their motivations be anything like our human motivations?

image source
A form of life spreading through our galaxy would likely find Earth-like planets before those worlds had evolved technological species of their own. There would be great temptation to tinker with the life forms on Earth-like worlds, to explore the ways that such life could be pushed into more interesting forms. Does the history of life on Earth show evidence of such tinkering?

Until about 65 million years ago Earth was dominated by small-brained animals. After the extinction event of about 65 million years ago, the mammals diversified and several large-brained clades have since evolved, particularly cetaceans, elephants and humans. As primates, we are unique in becoming a tool-using species that quickly (in evolutionary terms) eliminated all of our closes relatives and competitors. Was the rise of mammals just by chance? Is the evolution of our species a chance event or the result of some sort of intelligent design? When we finally obtain evidence of aliens will we discover that they found Earth long ago?

Image source: Blackwell Publishing.

Will our experience of first contact turn out to involve aliens who yawn and say, "Been here, done that....long ago. We've been here millions of years guiding your evolution so that you could finally recognize and welcome us."

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