Sunday, April 18, 2004

A Proposed Solution to the Fermi Paradox

I am sure that it says something about me that one of my hobbies is the Fermi Paradox. More precisely, it says that I'm a hopeless nerd who could really stand to get out more often. Be that as it may, the Paradox is something that engages and delights me.

A while back, the great physicists Enrico Fermi (one of the key players for the Manhattan Project) came across some of his colleagues discussing the question of whether or not there was life in the universe. Fermi pondered the question for a bit and then said (and I paraphrase), "Where are they?"

Like many profound questions, it's deceptively simple. Fermi's point was that if life did, indeed, exist and was, in fact, common (as is often believed), why haven't we seen any evidence for it? Indeed, why aren't they already here.

Other physicists have emphasized this last question by noting that the time it takes to get to the farthest star in the galaxy is the same duration that it takes to get to every star in the galaxy since you can send out a multitude of ships in every direction. Since the farthest star, from us, is about 100,000 light years away, this means that if we were expanding through the galaxy at only 10% the speed of light it would take one million years to completely colonize the galaxy. At a mere 1%, you could do it in ten million years. Even at a glacial tenth of a percent, you could still manage the task in 100 million years.

These may seem like long durations but, when you consider that the galaxy is approximately 10 billion years (or 10,000 million years, if you prefer British notation) old, even 100 million years isn't a very long time. If alien colonizers had developed just 200 million years ago at the farthest galactic point from us, they would have already gotten here well before the dinosaurs went extinct (aided by the fact that the stars, themselves, are in orbit around the galactic center).

So where, in fact, are they?

That's the Fermi Paradox. It cuts to the very core of our place in the universe and it has no easy answer. This isn't, however, to say that answers have not been proposed. On one side, you have the bleak proposition that we are, in fact, likely to either be alone or so isolated as to make no difference (see, for instance, Rare Earth by Ward and Brownlee). On the opposite extreme, you have the contention that aliens are, in fact, already here and that they've been here since the dawn of history (as the infamous Chariots of the Gods suggests). In between these extremes, you have diverse propositions including Zoo hypotheses that suggest that we're in a kind of cosmic wildlife preserve (where we mustn't be disturbed!), economic models that suggest that interstellar colonization is just too damned expensive to make it worth the effort, and such disturbing suggestions as the theory that intelligence is self-limiting and always results in its own extermination before it gets out of hand.

I will be the very first to admit that, right now, the Paradox is basically a philosophers game. A less kind way to put it would be to call it mental masturbation. In truth, the only way to solve the Paradox is to go out there and to actually take a comprehensive look around. I think that it's fair to say that this won't happen for a very long time, if ever. Be that as it may, even if there's no value to be had in considering the question, right now, it doesn't change the fact that it is still an important question as well as a good way to stretch one's mind. We certainly don't criticize the ancient Greek philosophers for thinking about the nature of the Cosmos (even though their answers were typically wrong and often amusing). In the last resort, it's harmless fun and I see no risk in indulging myself.

The first challenge for any attempt to address the Paradox is that it must account for the existing data. If alien intelligences are out there, their presence is not obvious. We have (tabloids and UFO enthusiasts to the contrary) not found any solid evidence that we are being visited. We have found no artifacts, much less anything as telling as a piece of advanced machinery recovered from the Carboniferous. Diligent sky surveys have also failed to yield anything above natural cosmic noise and a single, unrepeated "Wow Signal" that's more likely than not just an artifact of the equipment that detected it. The universe is eerily quiet. This is a challenge not only to the UFO crowd, but also to the Sagan's and Drake's of the world who imagined a universe brimming with life.

My personal hunch is that intelligence is, for one reason or another, rare. I also suspect that we are near the beginning of the fertile age of the universe and that we may well be among the first to look out upon the universe with wondering eyes. Might there, however, be some way to preserve the notion that life and intelligence are common while, never the less, accounting for the silence?

I don't have much confidence in the theories of Intelligent Design that are currently being offered as a popular alternative to the Theory of Evolution. I distrust any theory whose ultimate support rests upon the proposition that, at some point in time, a miracle happened. Appeal to miracles has always struck me as lazy, even when I was a theist. I no longer believe in any gods but, even if there did exist something godlike, I think that I would have less respect for it if it had to prop up crucial elements of its creations with supernatural buttresses. I think that a truly consummate deity would only need a single miracle to start the universe, if that many, leaving a creation that could look after itself from that point forward. Call it an aesthetic preference for Deism if you like.

That said, if there is one thing about humanity that strikes me as verging on the miraculous, it is the invention of writing. More specifically, it's our very capacity for being able to invent it and use it in the first place. Every other element of our biology and our cognition has developed through evolutionary time, including the explosive development of our brains over the last two million years. Even tool making, which has been seriously proposed (with little contention beyond stick using Chimps) as one of the few things that genuinely distinguishes us from the other animals, has an evolutionary pedigree.

Writing is not like that. Writing relates to language, of course, but language was shaped into our throats and our brains by selective pressure. Even if language is only as old as this more recent (and lonely) branch of the Hominid family, it had time to be forged by evolutionary pressures. Writing, by contrast, is too recent. Much too recent.

The earliest proto-writing extends back a mere 7,000 years, or so. Most humans were not introduced to writing until the last few centuries. Many people, throughout the world, remain illiterate. Despite this, if you were to take any random child from any random part of the world without any concern about selecting a child of the proper race or lineage, you could teach that child to write with as much facility as any other randomly selected child. What's more, if you were to apply a specific sort of lesion to a literate person's brain, you could destroy their ability to either read or write or both. This means that although we didn't evolve literacy, the structures that allow us this feat are present in every single person on the planet barring only those who have developmental handicaps and those who have suffered particular forms of neurological trauma.

I said that I would consider this to be something that verges on the miraculous. I do not mean that literally. Clearly, the skills that allow us to become literate must be co-opting existing neural structures. PET scans and MRI bear this out. Our ability to read and write is closely tied to our ability to speak and comprehend. It is, in practice, little different from being able to use a heavy wrench to drive a nail. Was it, however, an inevitable adaptation?

Is it possible that our easy facility with the written word is a fluke? Could it be that there's something particular about our own neural architecture that allowed us to adapt existing linguistic skills to the novel solution of literacy? We know that intelligence alone does not guarantee literacy. If a person misses a certain magic window, between the ages of four and seven, their ability to become literate, at some later point in life, is compromised even if their overall linguistic development is not impaired. It is not that far-fetched that there could be a species, out there, that has strong linguistic skills but no innate ability to learn how to read and write. From there, we only need to take the further step of supposing that our own species is the exception rather than the rule.

Imagine what it would mean for an entire species to be illiterate. Imagine what would happen to our own species if we were to suddenly lose the ability. Literacy is more than a form of communication, it's a way of distributing intelligence. Instead of each person having to hold everything they know in their own heads, they can offload part of the burden of memory to paper freeing up space to more efficiently use their overall intelligence. Consider how much more difficult the task of constructing a large building would be if the foremen were forbidden from using blueprints. For that matter, think of how much more challenging it is to do long division without a pencil and paper.

Literacy also gives us history. Oral histories are notoriously unreliable over any sort of long term. There is a reason that our understanding of the past changes sharply once you pass the point where we had developed any systems of writing. Once you go past that terminus you literally have to start digging history out of the ground and piecing it together in the form of pot shards and other durable artifacts. This is the reason that we know next to nothing about European history beyond a mere two thousand years ago. Literacy hadn't reached that far, yet, and more the pity.

If literacy is rare, so, I believe, must be technology. Without an ability to record a reliable history, innovations don't tend to accumulate at anything but a glacial pace (again, I use that term literally). More so, the overall level of innovation that you can achieve is limited to the population's ability to hold their entire store of knowledge in their own brains. It is not, I think, outrageous to suppose that a truly illiterate species could not achieve a high technology, much less an interstellar one.

So there is my proposal. Let's call it the Rare Readers hypothesis.

Now, do I believe that this is likely to be the case. No. I suspect that once you achieve brains that are capable of complex symbolic manipulations and abstract associations (that is, language), it's probably that the tools for literacy are already in place and only waiting to be discovered. Even if literacy requires particular neurological features, I think that it's probable that there would be selective pressures towards developing those particular features. I would not be surprised if there were a few intelligence species out there that were stranded in islands of illiteracy, but I am doubtful that this would constitute a norm.

So what was the point of all this. Well, it's fun to think about. At least if you're the kind of nerd that I am.

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