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Long odds for intelligent life

McLeod Brian-mug
Columnist Brian McLeod

A question asked way back in 1950 by the brilliant physicist, Enrico Fermi, came to my attention recently and has bothered me ever since. His question was: “Where is everybody?” He was referring to the fact that the universe has trillions of stars, and likely multiple trillions of planets, some of which must harbor life. Even intelligent life must be very, very common in the universe. This is known as the Fermi Paradox. Thus: “Where is everybody?”

At about the same time, I read an article recently published by Nick Longrich, senior lecturer, Paleontology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Bath. I won’t explain his article, as the science is lengthy, but Longrich’s main point is that life, even simple life, is an extremely improbable event. But the emergence of simple life was only one of a long number of ridiculously unlikely events. Next came photosynthesis, then complex cells, then sex, then highly complex organs, then complex animals, then skeletons, then intelligence itself, then complex intelligence. As he points out, since the creation of our planet, it took complex intelligence nearly 4.5 billion years to show up on Earth. And when one realizes the ridiculously huge odds of any of these other events occurring twice, the chance of creating intelligence life twice is about the same as winning the lottery next week, and then the week after that, and then again, and then every week after that for multiple centuries!  

Longrich writes: “And yet, we're here. That must count for something, right? If evolution gets lucky one in 100 trillion times, what are the odds we happen to be on a planet where it happened? Actually, the odds of being on that improbable world are 100 per cent, because we couldn't have this conversation on a world where photosynthesis, complex cells, or animals didn't evolve. That's the anthropic principle: Earth's history must have allowed intelligent life to evolve, or we wouldn't be here to ponder it.”

Despite constant claims of UFOs, alien visitors, alien abductions and a host of other extraterrestrial alien claims, as of today we have no solid proof of the existence of any intelligent life. None. In fact, we have no solid proof of any life in our universe except ourselves. The ridiculously impossible odds of intelligent life occurring twice begs the question: are we the only intelligent life in the universe? As crazy as that may seem, the odds that a second planet developed intelligent life are even more crazy.   

It’s a sobering thought that we might be alone. And, if we are, then mankind desperately needs to grow up, start treating human life (and all life) as something incredibly sacred and stop the environmental assault on our planet. But screaming over little environmental assaults means nothing. The damage to our environment is occurring in China, India and South East Asia, and world governments need to start issuing ultimatums: Quit dumping plastic in the oceans, stop burning coal, stop air and water pollution, or your economy is going the way of the dinosaurs. As sad as it seems, money motivates people, companies and nations, and we need to motivate these nations now (while also cleaning up our own act). If not, then does Earth really have intelligent life after all?

Brian McLeod is a St. Albert resident.

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