Are Intelligent Civilizations Doomed?

25 Aug , 2014 by Video

One answer to the Fermi Paradox is the idea of the Great Filter; the possibility that something wipes out 100% of intelligent civilizations. That why we’ve never discovered any aliens… they’re all dead. Is that our future too?

In a previous episode, I presented the idea of the Fermi Paradox. If space is huge, like space huge, not aircraft carrier huge, and there are billions upon billions of stars, AND there seem to be lots of habitable planets around those stars, where are all the damn aliens?

There are plenty of theories about what might be the solution for the Fermi Paradox, like there aren’t a lot of aliens out there and we’re too far apart to bother with, or maybe they just don’t want to talk to us because of our meat cooties, or maybe we’re really in a cosmic zoo and if you break it, you bought it.

It’s possible that we’re the first intelligent civilization to exist in the entire Universe, but I’ve never been a fan of that idea. If we’re the best the universe can do in billions of years, I seriously need to make some heavy expectation adjustments to my view of everything.

There is still another theory, one that you might find troubling. It’s called the Great Filter, and it says that something prevents intelligent civilizations from ever forming, in a darkly mysterious Philip K Dick kind of way.

Consider the long series of steps that happened to get from the early Earth to where we are now: A planet with the right combination of atoms needed to have liquid water long enough for organic molecules to form, those molecules needed to somehow be able to reproduce, eventually becoming the first organisms, which became multicellular organisms, then learning to reproduce sexually, evolving tool use, and eventually becoming intelligent life, and all the while managing to survive a planetary extinction or two. And then, at some point in the future, this intelligent life goes on to colonize an entire nearby galaxy.

Since humanity has passed all those previous steps, we know they’re not impossible. Maybe really really improbable, but not impossible. As we imagine the future, there’s nothing in the laws of physics that’ll stop us from building machines that can help us colonize the entire galaxy. Pretty machines with blinking lights, possibly incorporating meat parts from future generations of humans. If we can do it, any race could do it.

If the universe has been around for 14 billion years, and we’ve done it in a fraction of that, there’s been plenty of time for this to have been done. And yet, still no aliens. So maybe the Great Filter is still waiting for us. No matter how hard we try to extend beyond our Solar System, something will stop us.

This image shows the Hubble Ultra Deep Field 2012, an improved version of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image featuring additional observation time. The new data have revealed for the first time a population of distant galaxies at redshifts between 9 and 12, including the most distant object observed to date. These galaxies will require confirmation using spectroscopy by the forthcoming NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope before they are considered to be fully confirmed.

There are so many places where aliens could have evolved. So where are they? Credit: NASA/HST

So what could the Great Filter be? There are lots of ideas. Maybe all civilizations discover the most horrible of weapons and eventually destroy themselves. They could develop virtual reality technology and choose to spend their future in a simulated reality. They could create an exotic type of matter that destroys their home planet. Perhaps they create robotic servants who inevitably overthrow their masters in a planetary robotalypse. Perhaps someone creates a super plague that wipes out all life, the civilization ruins their environment and its ability to support life by filling their oceans with plastic and their atmosphere with CO2 until their planet becomes a pressure cooker. Or maybe they just watch too much reality tv and just get too dumb to put food in their own mouths and die of stupid.

Whatever the cause is, here’s the haunting idea behind it… Whatever this Great Filter is, it must hit 100% of intelligent civilizations. Because if even 1% of aliens are able to avoid it, they’d go on to colonize the galaxy. And still even to this day, yes, we have no aliens.

There could be some high probability absolute devastation event in our future, which will happen just before we become a space-faring civilization…. And there’s no way we can predict or prevent it. The idea that all advanced civilizations are doomed is unsettling.

Here’s hoping that the Great Filter is wrong. Either we’re the first advanced civilization in the Milky Way, or perhaps we’ll figure it out, and avoid the catastrophe that killed off all the other aliens in the galaxy.

So what do you think? What’s it gonna be? What will wipe us out? Tell us in the comments below.

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FarAwayLongAgo
Member
FarAwayLongAgo
August 25, 2014 12:33 PM

We haven’t had a close look out for alien civilizations yet. But in a few decades we will have. And if the result still is zero, this question gets more important.

It is a great point that even only one single uninterrupted civilization on a similar trend as we are on, would be enough to colonize the entire galaxy within a small fraction of its history. The Sun has orbited it about 15 times, it’s been all over the place and had thousands of different stars as its nearest neighbors. And I love the expression I’ve never heard before: “OTHER” aliens…

Maybe it is the fear of the filter that is the filter and scares everyone from trying new things?

Pedro Gonzalez
Member
Pedro Gonzalez
August 25, 2014 1:38 PM

The viruses win. After trillions of generations, and trillions and trillions of individual dead viruses, a lethal virus that is immune to all drugs evolves and kills all the intelligent beings.

FarAwayLongAgo
Member
FarAwayLongAgo
August 25, 2014 2:55 PM
That’s why Mars and Venus are dead. They are infected by the anti life virus. When we bring back samples from Mars, all life on Earth will be reduced to dust too. That’s the filter. No, I don’t believe that! Mars bugs are welcome to have a fight with my immune system any day, we’ll kill them, make food out of them and fart what remains of them. The bad guys are those which have lived and evolved together with us for billions of years. They have figured out some of our weak spots. But a new guy on the block won’t stand a chance. Has no clue what it is dealing with. We are experts on surviving.… Read more »
Homonymous Anonymous
Member
Homonymous Anonymous
August 25, 2014 2:00 PM
Stupidity will wipe us all. But it will take many forms and hit like a perfect storm. 1-Overpopulation 2-Blinding plutocratic selfishness and greed 3-Natural ressources depletion 4-Worldwide and irreversible economic collapse 5-Climate change 6-Civilization collapse 7-Natural or man-made depopulation (war, famine, virus…) 8-Technological and scientific regression 9-Chaos 10-Return to everlasting feudal political system 11-Lack or remaining ressources to recover to previous state of knowledge and prosperity. Therefore, no space colonization. People must understand all our present prosperity is only the result of oil, a cheap energy source. Without oil, everything crumbles. We are bright enough to start the fire but not enough to extinguish the fire. Those of us able to see the world on the long term… Read more »
baileyredwood
Member
baileyredwood
August 26, 2014 11:30 AM

Yes, H, I think you nailed it on the head! Well said, by the way (not only because I was thinking the same thing).

Richard Kirk
Member
Richard Kirk
August 25, 2014 2:16 PM
Nope. Don’t believe we are doomed. It is not unreasonable to believe on present evidence that (a) there is other life in our galaxy, but (b) we may have to search for a hundred thousand years before we find anything. I don’t think our present state of explosive growth and research is typical of million-year societies. But we can write stuff down and store it. I am not saying that there might not be some nasty times ahead for some of us if we make serious mistakes with climate or genetics, but the death of even 99.99% of mankind would leave us with plenty to re-build, and hopefully the good sense to keep our numbers down a bit… Read more »
geckzilla
Editor
geckzilla
August 25, 2014 2:59 PM
I actually love the idea that we are the first technological beings, at least within our locality. It’s totally possible and I don’t think a lot of people give it much credence because it seems unbelievable, which is perfectly understandable. We shun the idea that we could be exceptional because of our cosmic perspective and because we once arrogantly thought we were at the center of everything, divinely gifted. Yet we have a data point of one. Who could judge how plausible or implausible it is with what is essentially 1 bit of information? Using Earth’s life as our only example, we can assume intelligence is unnecessary for evolutionary success but it is a prerequisite for technology. Intelligent… Read more »
FarAwayLongAgo
Member
FarAwayLongAgo
August 25, 2014 3:57 PM

You should consider:

1) That the Sun has done about 15 orbits around the galaxy. We aren’t “local”. The dinosaurs evolved on the opposite side of the Milky Way!

2) Intelligence and civilization and interstellar space travel are all evolutionary helpful. They should help multiply their practitioners. Universially, not just here and now.

But until we have evidence of anything else, I think we should act as if we are alone. It is quite possible that we are! We don’t know. Either way it is a miracle. (So I bitterly bet that we will never know, for ever wafting in darkness between the two possible miracles of being unique or having company).

Ronald
Member
Ronald
August 26, 2014 5:03 AM
I utterly disagree with Homonymous Anonymous, no matter how modern, fashionable and politically correct this view may be. We will not do ourselves in completely as a result of any resource scarcity, population problem, or any environmental problem. We will always survive any of those. I think the reason for the Great Silence is very mundane: rarity, both spatial and temporal. Our Milky Way galaxy may be big in space and time, but it isn’t endless. Of the few hundred billion stars, according to recent guesstimates, there may be only a few hundred million in the Galactic Habitable Zone, with a habitable terrestrial planet in the Habitable Zone of a roughly solar type star. If some 10% of… Read more »
theNeverKings
Member
theNeverKings
August 26, 2014 5:08 AM
CO2…or a lack of it! I was looking for info on paleo climates and happened upon some reconstructions of CO2 levels over the span of Earth’s history. I was initially surprised to note a long term downward trend that appeared to have begun accelerating approx. 100 million years ago. The modern, pre-industrial era CO2 levels would appear to be an all time low (~250-270ppm). What I found confronting was the fact that the majority of the more complex plants/trees require CO2 levels in excess of 150-170ppm to enable efficient photosynthesis. Below that threshold vegetation will start dying, although some plants such as certain grasses can apparently survive with as little as 3ppm. When historical CO2 values are taken… Read more »
Tihomir
Member
Tihomir
August 29, 2014 5:58 PM
I could agree with Ronald, except where he says “part of those will go extinct before ever becoming space-faring”. The whole subject of this article is “do (all) the aliens go extinct, and, if so, HOW?” and Ronald says many things but nothing about it. I don’t know about any aliens and if anything got them. For us, it would still take a looong time to conquer the Solar system, not even mentioning the galaxy! Before that happens, a valley around Old Faithful, called Yellowstone, is going to pop. After that, no more rockets, no more internet, no more cars. It’s back to the roots. Sooner or later, maybe even before Old Faithful, another event similar to Tunguska… Read more »
DPrime
Member
DPrime
August 31, 2014 7:24 PM
I’d have to say that there is no Great Filter, and that the universe is teaming with life. Why haven’t we met anyone? Because there would be no point to talking to Humans at our current level. We can’t travel the stars. We have no trad-able products of value that could not be gained in other ways such as taking them and reproducing the product themselves. We are moderately violent, and our tastes in art fashion and philosophy are probably not of any interest. I think aliens would be crazy to make contact with the human race as a whole, maybe some individuals but doubtfully the whole planet, as there is nothing to gain and everything to lose.… Read more »
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