The universe, it’s vast, old, and full of interesting shit. We constantly gaze into the heavens and look for things no human has ever seen before. But with each passing year, more and more people begin to question whether or not we’re alone in the universe. Early on in our development we were fairly certain this was the case. After all, we thought the stars were just pinholes in the heavens, windows to the realm beyond, or even lanterns hung to keep our nights from being total darkness. But as time went on we became aware that we were much smaller in the cosmos than we believed.
It was inevitable that we would start to picture aliens being everywhere, even on planets in our solar system. There are countless stories about Martians from before the time we realized it was a barren wasteland. Even after discovering it was a big ball of rusty dust, we’ve had people who still insist that the world is still populated or was populated until very recently. After all, this clearly looks like a face (before you see the higher resolution pictures that prove it was just a shoddy camera).
But as that search for extra terrestrial life continues, people have started to become more and more concerned about the Fermi Paradox – the idea that we may be alone in the universe and that, somehow, someway, life that should be plentiful just simply isn’t. Combined with our natural obsession with the Apocalypse (which, you’ll recall, also had a lot to do with being unable to see beyond ourselves) and I’ve seen a lot of people declare the great filter is out there and it’s going to get us.
So… is it? I don’t think so.
Don’t Fear The Filter
For those not familiar, the Fermi Paradox raises a simple question: if the universe is so old and vast, where are the aliens? We know that faster than light travel is a tough nut to crack but we also know that you could probably colonize the majority of the galaxy even by the slow route in a couple million years with little issue. Theoretically, if anything came before us, it should be everywhere and we should be seeing signs of that throughout the cosmos. Yet, as we glimpse out into the rest of the galaxy, there are few signs that anything has ever or could ever live in the regions we’ve looked.
This is a bit of a problem for a lot of us. If life is something that should be able to spring up through the right mixtures and circumstances, 13 to 14 billion years should be more than enough time for it to happen in a lot of places. Even if only the tiniest of fractions of planets out there could have made life, something would have gone out into the cosmos by now. And, frankly, if that’s true then it becomes a paradox that there’s nothing out there yet.
A couple years back I addressed this in passing by pointing out that the more recent findings of our universe have made certain space stories more compelling. The idea that we may be completely alone in this universe is a frightening idea and it can produce many great stories. In fact, it’s so frightening that when combined with our love for the idea of the apocalypse it has produced something of a bogeyman to haunt us all: The Great Filter.
And what is the Great Filter? We have no clue, we’re not even sure it exists. But if you ask people who know of the Fermi Paradox just what it is, they’re usually going to tell us that it’s literally game over and we’re eventually going to wipe ourselves out. Because, remember, we are really hooked on the idea of the end times here.
The thing is, this is a pretty pessimistic view of the universe that comes out of assumptions of facts without evidence. We see no proof of something existing, so we become convinced it doesn’t, and have to draw conclusions of why. We don’t have any evidence there’s a great filter, we just have a lack of evidence that there’s another civilization out there. When left to that, all the Great Filter really has to back it up is the logical fallacy of “begging the question”. In other words, “doesn’t the fact we’re asking about it prove it’s there?”
No, not really, that’s not how this works.
Don’t get me wrong, could there be a massive hurdle we’ve yet to cross? Sure. But that’s not exactly the same as saying that the lack of signs in our corner of the universe is proof of this. And, as a sci-fi fan and writer, I think the scenario we’re seeing out there may be a lot more interesting than our old views and raises a lot of possibilities other than the great filter. First, a thought that may blow people’s minds…
We Might Be The First
I’m not usually one to be anthropocentric in these sorts of discussions, what with the fact we usually use our superior position as excuse to do really stupid shit. But in the case of this we have to recognize a few really fascinating details about just how we got here. One of the theories of the Great Filter that I actually do subscribe to is that getting to the point of intelligent life is really hard. The reason I believe this is possible is because our own history totally shows it.
Think about it for a moment, it took us over 4 billion years to get to the point where Earth had complex life on it at all. After that, half of the time since complex life first appeared on this planet was dominated by incredibly primitive ancestor species acting as a first run prototype for most of the things to come afterwards. The first fish, amphibians and lizards were roaming around for a great deal of time in a land before all going extinct in one big flash. That second half, where we live now, was dominated for the most part by these bastards here.
Which rose to power primarily because of an extinction event that came before them and then were wiped out by another extinction event to come after. So we already know that there are a lot of mass extinction events that could hit once a planet actually does spawn life and that, without one of those, we never would have existed.
Some would argue that the dinosaurs could have potentially, maybe, become smarter over time and eventually gained sentience like we did. To those people I say… they had over 200 million years to adapt that trait and even today their survivors have only gotten smart enough to really spook us and little more.
So the fact we’re here at all is owed to some incredibly gigantic events that were completely random and accidental. As we live and breathe on this planet, the majority of life on it has been wiped out a grand total of 5 time so far and, this is usually a thinker, without any of those events we wouldn’t exist at all. If dinosaurs still roamed the planet, we’d still be small, furry, and terrified.
So we’d have to accept that, if it took that much time and those many gigantic events to get us to where we are, then intelligent life is incredibly hard to evolve naturally. Most species are perfectly happy just evolving jaws powerful enough to shred metal and leaving the thinking to the rodents. So we have to accept that, if it took us 4.5 billion years out of the billions of years this universe has existed to get where we are… we might be the first. We might be the smartest things out here right now, not alone, but more capable than anything else because it took us a really long damn time and multiple crazy events to get where we are.
Do I think that’s the case? Not really. But you have to be willing to accept it’s a possibility and explore the ideas that it could happen. After all, we’ve seen plenty of stories where we’re the inferior little bugs being invaded – how often do we see ourselves as potential invaders?
Then Again, We Might Be (slightly) Behind
Now, as someone who’s not very anthropocentric, I’m more than willing to admit that humanity probably isn’t the super special snowflake in the universe. But it is still clear that we haven’t seen any major civilizations out there just yet. If these things had millions of years to spread through the cosmos ahead of us, they should be there. So…what if they haven’t had millions?
Like I just got finished saying, the very act of getting to the point where we are at this moment is the result of a lot of really crazy events lining up to get this result. To those of you nerdy folks out there, it’s like getting your D&D dice to cooperate in a pinch – possible, but you’re pretty sure the dice hate you. So let’s say some other civilization out there could be only ahead of us by a few centuries, maybe even a couple of millennia. You’d think that would still give them a tremendous advantage ahead of us.
But, once again, you have to be aware of just how bat-shit it is we got to this point to begin with. One of the quirks of history that really shaped the world today is the introduction of gunpowder to the west. While the material had been known of since the first couple of centuries CE in China, we didn’t have a clue about it until the late middle ages in the west and it changed almost everything.
Stop to consider how much it impacted war, science, and exploration to have something which gave us the ability to tap into tremendous power in short order. The Chinese were developing it into new uses just fine on their own, but once the whole world was exposed to it there was an exchange of ideas happening so quickly that only a few centuries later we were using ballistics science to fling people at the moon.
And none of that would have happened without Genghis Khan.
The rest of the world outside of China was introduced to the concept of gunpowder primarily because the Mongols used it to blow shit up when they went on their rampage through the rest of Eurasia. From the time that it was first introduced to the Middle East and Europe, it only took a couple decades for these new regions to adopt the stuff themselves. But without Genghis Khan, we wouldn’t have known about it in the west for much longer. And, because of that, you can credit the shape of the modern world to someone pissing off Genghis Khan.
You’d think that would mean it was a given to always happen and that, at any moment, Genghis would have spread it everywhere anyway – but you’d be wrong. The fact was, after dominating much of Asia, Genghis was pretty content with just controlling the east and wanted to open trade routes with the west to promote stability. He sent envoys to the west to try to establish peaceful relations and would have likely gone that route had he been allowed to. But once they arrived, a governor of a city in Khwarezmia decided the caravan Khan sent had been full of spies. He killed them and defied Genghis, getting backing from the Shah who refused to compensate Genghis for the actions taken. Suddenly, Genghis decided diplomacy with the west was for morons, and burned everyone’s shit down.
If they hadn’t pissed off Khan, it’s possible what we consider modern society wouldn’t have developed to where we are for a few more centuries, if not longer. Once again, here by accident.
And because of that, those alien civilizations may not have had the happy accidents necessary to be in warp ships for thousands of years while we’re still in rockets. In fact…
Some of them might as dumb and backwater as us.