BB #46: We’re the Ancestors!

Heechee RendezvousYou may know about the Drake Equation, which is an attempt to quantify the number of intelligent species that evolve in a galaxy. Depending on how you set the parameters, the answer varies from “lots!” to “almost none.” The first answer leads to Fermi’s Paradox: Okay, if there are lots of aliens… where are they? So far we’ve seen no signs (pardon the reference).

If you read science fiction you may also be familiar with the idea of Ancient Alien Ancestors (AAA) who are now long gone leaving only a legend. Sometimes there are The Ancients (now long absent), the current Elder Races (powerful, not always wise, not always kind), and the Younger Races (which Earthlings invariably belong to).

But what if we are those Ancient Ancestors?

Here’s the thing: The universe — at least the part of it we can see — is extremely young. Our best estimate of the time since the Big Bang is 13.8 billion years. That sounds like a long time, but the universe will last hundreds of billions (if not trillions) of years!

Galaxy 1So it’s really early days, yet, and rather an interesting time. We know the universe is expanding. By one-trillion years, the Local Group coalesces and galaxies beyond the Local Group are forever out of sight. By two-trillion galaxies outside the Local Supercluster vanish.

If that one-trillion years were a day, we’d right now be just after 20 minutes past midnight. Literally just starting the first hour of that long day. Even if you think in terms of a mere 300 billion year timeline, we’re still just barely out of the first hour.

So here we are in a brand spankin’ new universe. Maybe we’re the first ones to the party. (Quick! Grab as much of the smoked salmon as you can. It goes fast. Get some shrimp, too.)

I’ve written about the Drake Equation before. Even what you’d think of as extremely small factors result in the “lots!” answers that had Fermi scratching his head. You have to get incredibly small (“Let’s get small!”) before intelligent life starts to seem rare. Make them finally tiny enough and you have a Rare Earth Hypothesis.

Startide RisingIf you consider Von Neumann probes, a trick we’re already starting to use at least in terms of sending out robots rather than humans, then it’s all the more surprising we see no signs of intelligent alien life.

But it’s not surprising if we’re first!

What if, in addition to the numeric probability being low, the time involved is also significant. What if it takes, on average, at least 20 or 30 billion years for intelligence to arise even with millions of star systems rising and falling during that time. (Our own solar system is only five-billion years or so and is about halfway through its life.)

It’s possible we beat the odds, not just in being here at all, but in being here so early.

It’s just possible we’re the first ones on the scene! Maybe we’ll get out there over the next million years or so and find planets in the very early stages of life. Maybe we’ll even help it along.

Maybe we’ll be the ones planting Monoliths and leaving behind tantalizing clues for those who come along millions of years after us!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

28 responses to “BB #46: We’re the Ancestors!

  • dianasschwenk

    I’m starting to think you should write Sci-Fi Smitty! ❤
    Diana xo

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Strangely, you’re not the first person to suggest that! But it’s like being a musician. I know real musicians (and writers), and I just don’t have the skill to play (write) at their level, and it’s the level I’d need to achieve to be satisfied with my own work, so… I just listen (read). And that’s fine. (Less work for me, for one thing!)

      There is also these days rather a glut of people pushing their writing and music, and I never liked being a part of any crowd. 🙂

      • dianasschwenk

        but…practice makes perfect and you have a wicked imagination!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Practice does make work better, but art takes talent. (If you have talent, practice makes you better, but you gotta have talent to begin with.)

      • dianasschwenk

        You’re a good writer so…. I’d call that talent!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Thanks, LD, you’re sweet! For fun I might someday give fiction a spin here. The thing is, while I can’t imagine running out of the sort of things I’ve been writing about, I don’t have any stories in me that are bursting to be told. That really says it all. I’ve written since I was in high school, but as much as I dearly love stories, I’m just not a storyteller.

      • dianasschwenk

        I’m sorry but I have to disagree. The stories you’ve written about your parents for example. :p

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Oh, yeah, sure, I gotta lot of those! Anecdotes a-plenty! To me, stories are fiction, and fiction is a different world. It’s been said that there is Truth, Lies, and Fiction. Fiction is lies that express truth. Creating it breathes life into a made-up world. As with True Musician, True Storyteller is a talent. In both cases, one I seem to lack. (I’m more upset about the music one. My desire to write fiction has never been that great.)

      • dianasschwenk

        oh. see. and I think our stories are stories too…

      • Wyrd Smythe

        And you’re right, they are. I’m the one drawing a specific line in the sand. I even differentiate “tall tales” (or “fish stories”) as anecdotes with an element of fiction (of what I call storytelling). I go so far as to say that really accurate telling of anecdotes gets into historian or documentarian territory! 😮

        There’s just no restraining me! 🐱

      • dianasschwenk

        Ok I’m rolling my eyes now haha!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        (But thanks for the compliment!)

  • Steve Morris

    The evidence does indeed point to us being the first in the Milky Way, however unlikely that may seem on an a priori basis. I can’t imagine us leaving monoliths however. We don’t have a good record in “non interference.” We are far more likely to go charging in. In fact, that’s the force that pushed us into space in the first place!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Absolutely! Stephen Hawking famously compared future humans exploring to technologically advanced Europeans exploring much less technological cultures and how it never went well for the latter. How much we might apply — actually apply — a “Prime Directive” is an open question! Maybe it’s best that we’re first. Less to screw up.

      When you think about it, the aliens behind the Monoliths charged in, too. (Especially if you’re read the book and therefore know what that “Star Child” business at the end was all about. Clarke kept the anti-nuke stuff that Kubrick purposely ignored due to his having been there, done that with Dr. Strangelove.)

      Now that you mention it, that’s not the only case of painting aliens as the same interfering “Prime Directive? What’s that?” busy-bodies we are. And Mike Smith and I were just talking about the Vorlons and Shadows in Babylon 5

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I think there is substantial space between a rare Earth hypothesis universe and one crowded with intelligence. My intuition is that the universe is crowded with life, that most of it is microscopic, complex life is rare, and intelligent life is profoundly rare, so rare that we may never meet another naturally evolved intelligence. (Microscopic life appears to have evolved early in Earth’s history, complex life billions of years later, and intelligent life, in geological time, just arrived.)

    But two interesting and contradictory notions occur to me. The first is that a second intelligent species may be unlikely to arise once the first one has spread everywhere. It may be that the first never really allows it, not necessarily consciously. Consider if a second intelligent species could evolve on Earth while we’re around.

    But the second interesting notion is that maybe the first goes around “uplifting” others, with or without monoliths (which eventually worked like Von Neumann probles). We may well be the first. Will we inhibit or bring intelligence to the stars?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Sadly, it may end up depending on how much money is involved in exploiting their resources.

      Your intuition sounds much like mine, and I think they do fall under REH as I interpret it. That is, the basic idea is the probability of intelligent life in a given galaxy being somewhere in the vicinity of 1.0 or lower. I agree simple life is a whole other proposition. Finding (or failing to find) organic alien simple life will be a seminal moment for the human race! Is it everywhere? Or scattered about?

      Something I hadn’t thought of until your comment triggered it: What if the probability of intelligent life evolving isn’t linear over time? Suppose in the first 25 billion years or so it’s extremely rare (the chances of it happening obviously increase over time, but at a certain low rate). After that (maybe due to conditions in the universe?), the odds get better.

      That would mean, in really beating the odds, humanity arrived in prime position to, as you say, either mess things up or help things along. I’ve often pointed to the difference in our sensibilities regarding the Prime Directive between Kirk (a real 1960s guy) and Picard (more a 1980s guy). In general we seem to improve morally over time, but you’re right that even unwittingly we might interfere.

      (Funny thing is that if aliens did exist and were so morally advanced as to be determined to not interfere, they could be keeping carefully out of sight. SETI is looking for those who want to be found. Maybe the real aliens are just waiting for us to grow up. It’s about the only other explanation for the lack of contact.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        On the probability of intelligence possibly increasing over time, it might also mean that most life will exist around red dwarf stars, since they have far longer life spans.

        Looking further down the road, the life with the longest run cosmologically might be life that evolves in low temperature environments. The lower the temperature, the slower their evolution (well, maybe), but the longer they’ll likely be able to survive as the universe cools, maybe orbiting white dwarfs. (Assuming of course we all haven’t uploaded and periodically re-uploaded ourselves into the evolving available substrates.)

        We’ve probably discussed the Prime Directive before, so I’d imagine you know I’m not a fan of the notion. (For instance, I think the current practice in some countries of not contacting remote natives is wrong-headed, but that’s a whole other topic.) For extraterrestrials, I think I’m skeptical because it implies that everyone out there would act more or less in unison, that no one would violate it, at least not in any way that would leave evidence behind. It might be conceivable if there’s only one civilization out there, but it seems like its enforcement mechanisms would have to be effective across millions of years.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, it seems unlikely a galaxy with lots of alien species would agree on how to behave. A galaxy with only a few races might be more aligned, but if those races were highly diverse maybe not even then. Most SF seems to assume galactic travel is reasonable and that there are more then a handful of races. But if Einstein was right, travel might be a major constraint on what kind of galactic society exists. Similar to a time on Earth when travel was long and expensive and dangerous.

        Point is, messing with other civilizations in any way might be so expensive as to prohibit it without a big return on the investment. Idle mischief would be untenable. Old Al may have end up being more of a constraining factor than any Prime Directive. (What will really test us is any species with something we consider extremely valuable. Some version of Arrakis.)

        If both RHE and Einstein are right, but there is at least one other species, contact might be very tenuous. It could amount to just information. Or, “You get that half, and we get this half.”

        Lower temperature could mean slower biology (although information does better at low temps), but the relationship might not be linear. There could be a minimum required. Those deep sea vents are rich in life because of the heat (and nutrients). When the heat goes away, the life all dies out (despite the nutrients). I suppose it depends on how powerful and prevalent life is. There is the “life finds a way” view and the “life is unique” view and both have their points.

        [shrug] I’m still not 100% convinced this isn’t a VR and that nothing really exists outside the solar system. I know it’s utterly preposterous, but it would explain so much.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        On Arrakis, I hate to say it, but I think Herbert got the that part exactly right. If we find an Arrakis, I doubt we’ll resist the temptation to exploit the heck out of it.

        Totally agree on cold life. Until/unless we find any, it’s just speculation. Still, ice mountains, cryo-volcanism, and methane lakes make me wonder.

        On the “life will find a way” vs “life is unique” thing, I think we’ll learn a lot by whether or not we find life anywhere else in the solar system, and if we do, by its nature. How different or similar it is to Earth life would tell us a lot. (Of course, if it’s too similar, we’ll likely conclude there was cross contamination over the eons.)

        If we are in a VR, it may just generate new environment when we move beyond the current edge. Or have us return from that edge with implanted memories.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Maybe somewhere there’s a bunch of alien developers madly working on the software model for “near solar system”! (You know my Voyagers joke, right?)

        Finding life in the solar system would be mind-blowing! Are you still optimistic about Mars? Seems the most likely place. Or Titan or a Jovian, maybe? Finding it in the Kuiper belt would be even more mind-blowing. Which would lead to expecting to find it all over the solar system.

        I’ve told you about the Robert Forward book involving intelligent life out in the Kuiper. In their case, the energy came from radioactives. As with deep sea vents — no light, but lots of heat — so long as there’s some energy source!

        Depends on how you define life. A definition I’m trying on for size is: Life uses energy and raw materials to produce structure and complexity plus copies of itself plus it creates waste (energy and material). Life is essentially anti-entropy. Reverse thermodynamics. (Well, not really — it just shifts entropy around, but it does that in interesting and useful ways.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I tend to think our best hope for Mars is to find fossilized ancient life. For current life, I’m a bit more optimistic for one of the (apparently numerous) underground oceans in the solar system. I doubt we’ll find complex life though.

        Totally agree that finding life would be mind blowing. I actually wonder if we’re not likely to find something that we’ll end up debating whether or not it actually *is* life, similar to the debate about viruses. I suspect alien life might challenge our preconceived notions about it.

        Along those lines, my favorite definition of life is anything that reproduces and evolves, “replication with variation” as some put it. This means I’m firmly in the camp that sees viruses as life.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Sorry, yes, in asking about Mars, I was referring to the chances of finding fossils. I’m reaching a point of starting to wonder and won’t be surprised if we find nothing. It won’t surprise me if we find no signs of life (past or present) anywhere in the solar system.

        But I hope we do find it. That does more to resolve the question than not finding it. The Black Swans problem. Finding a black swan would be great!

        What’s been going through my mind is that: [A] we’ve been studying Mars for a while now; [B] If life was going to evolve in the solar system, Mars seems the most likely after Earth.

        I know we’ve only barely scratched the surface of Mars (literally now), but I’m wondering how deep one has to look at any “dead” planet to discover it once had life.

        Here’s my scenario: Humanity kills itself off — a virus, say — within a few thousand. Around a million — sudden core cool down — the Earth’s magnetic shield dissipates, the atmosphere is stripped away, the seas boil off, and the Earth turns into a version of Mars.

        A million years later alien explorers show up and send down rovers to examine the Earth. How long would it take — how deeply buried would our signs be — before the explorers realized the planet was once lush?

        You can frame it from different times in our evolution. If multi-cell life (and just that) had gotten established and flourished, how obvious would it be? Chalk beds are fossils. Oil is proof of ancient plant life.

        How deeply does life mark a world, and how deeply do you have to dig to find it after a million years?

        Regarding a definition of life. Both the ones we’ve mentioned admit Von Neumann machines with a self-improvement ability. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that.

        Viruses do test a definition! They really fuzz the line between “living entity” and “machine” (and they lower the complexity bar). Although, from a physicalist point of view, even humans are machines, so there’s really no distinction. How do you feel about machines being life?

        “How do you define life?” may be one of those questions that depends entirely on your definitions and point of view. Maybe there is no objective answer.

      • Steve Morris

        “How do you define life?” The guy in the street would probably define life as naturally occurring, not synthetic like a Von Neumann machine. Yet Craig Ventner’s synthetic DNA-based organisms look like life, and if one escaped into the environment and mingled with other lifeforms, then a Pandora’s box would be opened and nothing would ever be “natural” or “synthetic” again.

        I find that definitions that are intended to classify things always tend to fall apart when subjected to scrutiny. There always seem to be exceptions. We end up like Victorian gentlemen putting things into boxes and attaching labels to them in the belief that we’re doing science.

        If we find DNA-based lifeforms, we’ll know we’ve found life. If we find something else, who knows what kinds of arguments will arise?

        On another aside, I would be extremely unsurprised if we found life on Mars or anywhere else in the Solar System. I expect that we’ll find it sooner or later, and it will turn out to be widespread across the galaxy. Some time in the future, we’ll be collecting aliens just like astronomers are currently collecting exoplanets.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        @Steve Right! Try to pigeonhole a complex topic and find out how many exceptions to your rules you find. “Life” ends up being an abbreviation for a given way of looking at it. Maybe a little like the question, “What is art?”

        With art and life, it’s interesting to me to explore different ways of seeing the meaning of a thing, especially a complex thing. It’s like looking at a physical object from different points of view — you never know what you’ll notice.

        As to finding it elsewhere, I should maybe clarify I wouldn’t be surprised by finding life in the solar system either. I’m not laying down any bets on either side.

        If we find it, a lot of us can finally exhale. At least a little.

        The mischievous part of me hopes we don’t just for the amusement value. The more no signs of life are found, the more it’ll be like the supersymmetry situation, which is much further along the “nothing found so far” curve. The reasoning for why nothing is found starts to become a little desperate.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        In the case of Mars, it might depend on how long geological activity, with its constant resurfacing, continued after the last life. If it went on for billions of years, then it seems like most signs would have been wiped out. We could still find fossils of it in sparse locations where there are old rocks still on the surface. Even Earth, with its ongoing geological activity, has locations like that. It’s how we know about early life. It’s also worth noting that Martian life, if it existed, probably never had a chance to become very sophisticated. Its window would have been brief, geologically speaking.

        Most Earth life is predicted to die out in a billion years or so from the increasing heat of the sun. But as far as I know, the geological activity will continue. There might not be much obvious signs of previous life after another billion or so years. Of course, in the case of Earth, it’s supposed to end up like Venus, which will likely eradicate any other signs that manage to eek through.

        All that said, I’m agnostic on whether we will find life in the solar system. (Although I hope we do too!) It seems like whether or not we do will tell us something about how likely life is to arise under the right conditions. I tend to think it’s early start on Earth raises the probability that it is likely to arise under those conditions, but with a sample of one, we can’t rule out that Earth wasn’t a freak occurrence.

        I do think the definition of life is a philosophical matter. It’s basically whatever processes we want to include in the “life” category.

        On machines and life, I think life is a type of machine. As I perceive it, all life organisms are machines, but not all machines are life. Some people predict that all life will eventually be machine life, but that phrase implies metal robots to me. I think a better way of saying it is that, eventually, all life will be engineered life (squishy or otherwise), tailored to whatever environment it needs to operate in.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I never really thought about it, but you’re right. Mars has been like it is about four billion years, so any life that evolved there didn’t have long. If it did evolve, it couldn’t keep up with changing conditions (maybe life isn’t quite as persistent and hardy as we think).

        How long does the chemical signature of life byproducts remain? Does life leave permanent traces — chemistry that can’t have been created in planet formation? Stuff to look into some day.

        The more Earth does look like a freak occurrence the more some part of me just sits and grins and watches all the discomfort (like multi-verses and whatnot). I keep expecting that great discovery that shuts the door, but so far it’s still ajar (albeit, perhaps, not wide open). 🐱

        Looks like we’re all on the same page vis-a-vis defining life. I think it was a TEDx talk where I heard the suggestion that silicon crystalline life might have a hard time believing humans actually could think given their heads are filled with meat. Or maybe it was Archie Bunker that said that…

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        On silicon life’s attitude toward meat life, you’ve almost certainly read this already, but just in case…

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Ha! I can’t recall ever having seen it. It’s cute. Wouldn’t surprise me if it was the source of the comment in that TEDx talk.

        (I think you know my feelings on the coherence of the idea of unrecognizable intelligence. 🙂 )

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