Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?
It’s a question that has captured countless imaginations throughout history, and certainly one that bears asking. For the scientifically minded, it’s hardly a question; today, all scientific theory holds the existence of intelligent life elsewhere as an inevitability. Indeed, from the philosophical perspective, an entire universe with a single intelligent species would appear to be a waste of space on a cosmic scale.
Thus, for the science fiction writer today, the question of how to address alien life is one that weighs heavily on the mind. Most sci-fi writers address this in some manner, whether through featuring alien life prominently, or in a more subtle sense (in Dune, Frank Herbert briefly mentioned that mankind maintains a sizeable stockpile of nuclear weapons in the event that we encounter a hostile alien species).
Though I personally accept the existence of alien life as scientific fact, I seldom depict intelligent alien species in my writing. How then, in light of modern scientific theory, does one reconcile the absence of alien life with the science of it?
Well, from the scientific perspective, we science fiction writers do have something to fall back on: the Fermi Paradox. Fermi proposed this paradox to address the seeming discrepancies between equations predicting the prevalence of alien civilizations and the lack of evidence of their existence.
Since then, numerous attempts have been made to reconcile the paradox. These attempts have led ultimately to several possible explanations.
- Intelligent life may be far less common than our current models, including the Drake Equation, predict.
- Intelligent, spacefaring civilizations may be relatively common, and are avoiding us for some reason.
- Due to the time frame involved with the evolution of intelligent life, all other intelligent species in our galaxy may be either too primitive to detect, or too advanced for us to recognize (noted science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke subscribed to this idea).
Of course, many theories now point to a far less optimistic concept: the “Great Filter”.
The rather apocalyptic idea of the Great Filter suggests that intelligent life is fairly common, but most intelligent species become extinct before achieving interstellar travel.
It’s a sobering thought: perhaps we haven’t found any aliens because they’re already dead.
Far more sobering is an obvious question that arises from this: what does it mean for us? Have we already passed the great filter, making us among the lucky ones? Or does the filter lie ahead, suggesting that at some point in the future mankind will face likely extinction?
It’s safe to say that whether we’ve passed the filter yet or not depends greatly on what, precisely, the filter is. Numerous possibilities have been suggested, some more optimistic than others.
- Some have suggested that the great filter may be a common natural phenomenon, the most likely culprit being catastrophic asteroid impact. This would suggest that most intelligent species would eventually be wiped out by the sort of impact event that killed the dinosaurs. Many have pointed to this as motivation to develop a plan to deal with near-Earth asteroids.
- Another common idea is nuclear technology. This theory would suggest that, upon discovering nuclear fission, most intelligent species annihilate themselves with nuclear weapons.
- More recently, many have pointed to global warming. This suggests that most intelligent species, when facing a climate crisis as we are now, fail to act in time, and ultimately die out as rising temperatures render their planet uninhabitable.
Such speculation is a grim business, to be sure. However, it also presents some intriguing possibilities for writers, allowing for believable stories that omit alien civilizations.
For my part, my general avoidance of aliens comes from a more stylistic direction. Science fiction, in my opinion, stands as the most powerful and effective vehicle for social commentary and satire. In science fiction, a writer has the opportunity to challenge the reader’s beliefs by presenting a future produced either by the fruits of positive choices (utopian science fiction) or the consequences of negative ones (dystopian science fiction).
In science fiction, the most interesting experience is taking a glimpse into one possible future, produced by the decisions we make today, be they good or bad. As such, I have always felt that what will become of us is most important.