Fermi and the Nature of Intelligent Life

The brilliant Italian physicist Enrico Fermi reasoned as follows:
  1. Our Sun is a young star. There are billions of stars in the galaxy that are billions of years older;
  2. There is a high probability that some of these stars have Earth-like planets which, if the Earth is typical, may develop intelligent life;
  3. These older stars with Earth-like planets would be way ahead of us in developing interstellar travel.
  4. At any practical pace of interstellar travel, the galaxy can be completely colonized in a few tens of millions of years. Given billions of stars that have billions of years of head start on us, a few tens of millions of years is nothing.
It follows, concluded Fermi, that the Earth should already have been colonized, or at least visited. But Fermi did not think there was any convincing evidence that we had been. Moreover, not only have we not been visited, we haven’t even spotted a sign of intelligence elsewhere in our galaxy.

Hence Fermi's question, "Where is everybody?" This question has come to be known as the Fermi paradox.

One theory that has been proposed as an explanation of why we haven’t encountered or seen other intelligent life is this:
It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself.
The theory is that, on any planet that evolved species that developed civilization and then technological civilization, those species will “usually or invariably destroy themselves before or shortly after developing radio or space flight technology. Possible means of annihilation include nuclear war, biological warfare or accidental contamination, climate change.”

It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself.

It’s a conjecture some scientists have offered – just one of many possible answers to the Fermi paradox. Do you think this is plausible? Is it inherent in the way that intelligence emerges that a species will arrive at enough intelligence to be able to destroy itself before it arrives at enough intelligence not to?

Intelligence emerges in response to competition for scarce resources. As long as resources are plentiful, species don’t need to outsmart other species, and all species remain comparative simpletons. So wherever intelligence emerges, it necessarily comes with aggressive, instinctual drives. When that ancient competitive aggression and drive to consume resources, extend longevity, and reproduce suddenly becomes paired with powerful new technology: boom. That “boom” need not mean that the civilization entirely self-destructs, only that it becomes once again non-technological.

That’s the theory: the conjecture, according to which this has already happened on billions of other planets and is now happening here. What do you think? Is it happening here? A recent NASA-funded study, due for publication in 2014, concludes that industrial society is, indeed, headed for "irreversible collapse" (CLICK HERE). There are a number of factors: unsustainable resource depletion and unequal wealth distribution among them. In what follows, The Liberal Pulpit will look at the climate change piece of the picture.

We've had some unusually cold snaps this winter. Much of the US has seen the coldest air it’s had since 1994 or ’96. One explanation is that climate change is disrupting the jet stream, breaking up the polar vortex, and chunks of that vortex are now susceptible to breaking off and drifting south. So while we had some cold down here, the arctic itself is warmer.

It has also been pointed out, as weather historian Christopher Burt said:
“Prior to 1996, cold waves of this intensity occurred pretty much every 5-10 years. In the 19th century, they occurred every year or two (since 1835).”
So we used to have more frequent intense cold – and it seems not to have come from the breaking off a chunk of the polar vortex – which is to say, intense cold snaps over the great plains did NOT used to correspond with ongoing warming at the pole.

Average weather-related disasters per year between 1975 and 2005 was 10 times the average number of annual disasters, 1900 to 1975. What used to be measured as years-per-disaster is now measured in disasters-per-year.

Are we following the cosmic pattern of intelligent life destroying itself?

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This is part 1 of 4 of "The Ecospiritual Challenge."
Next: Part 2: "The Climates They Have A-Changed"


  1. Great summary of the Fermi Paradox, including one of the most frequently given resolutions. Actually, at least 50 answers to the Fermi Paradox have been proposed ("Where Is Everybody: Fifty Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life" by Stephen Webb, Praxis, 2002), and Dirk Schulze-Makuch and offered what we consider the 5 most plausible explanations in our book ("Cosmic Biology: How Life Could Evolve on Other Worlds, Praxis, 2011) on pp. 289-292. In brief summary, I believe that the low density of technologically capable life (despite its large absolute numbers) in combination with the vast distances between habitable planets and narrow time window within which we have been able to recognize alien visitors accounts for the 'apparent' lack of evidence for life on other worlds. Our analogy is the failure of discovery of the Hawaiian Islands for more than 1500 years after their colonization by technologically-advanced Europeans capable of ocean voyaging.

  2. So maybe ET gave us a fly-by, back before we had the ability to detect them, but either they didn't land, or, if they did, they didn't leave behind any trace that our current tech would have much likelihood of discovering. Is that it?