Interstellar civilization may not be out there because it already destroyed itself – and so might we.
Last week, scientists announced the discovery of Kepler-186f, a planet 492 light years away in the Cygnus constellation. Kepler-186f is special because it marks the first planet almost exactly the same size as Earth orbiting in the “habitable zone” – the distance from a star in which we might expect liquid water, and perhaps life.
What did not make the news, however, is that this discovery also slightly increases how much credence we give to the possibility of near-term human extinction. This because of a concept known as the Great Filter.
The Great Filter is an argument that attempts to resolve the Fermi Paradox: why have we not found aliens, despite the existence of hundreds of billions of solar systems in our galactic neighborhood in which life might evolve? As the namesake physicist Enrico Fermi noted, it seems rather extraordinary that not a single extraterrestrial signal or engineering project has been detected (UFO conspiracy theorists notwithstanding).
This apparent absence of thriving extraterrestrial civilizations suggests that at least one of the steps from humble planet to interstellar civilization is exceedingly unlikely. The absence could be caused because either intelligent life is extremely rare or intelligent life has a tendency to go extinct. This bottleneck for the emergence of alien civilizations from any one of the many billions of planets is referred to as the Great Filter.
Are We Alone?
What exactly is causing this bottleneck has been the subject of debate for more than 50 years. Explanations could include a paucity of Earth-like planets or self-replicating molecules. Other possibilities could be an improbable jump from simple prokaryotic life (cells without specialized parts) to more complex eukaryotic life – after all, this transition took well over a billion years on Earth.
Proponents of this “Rare Earth” hypothesis also argue that the evolution of complex life requires an exceedingly large number of perfect conditions. In addition to Earth being in the habitable zone of the sun, our star must be far enough away from the galactic centre to avoid destructive radiation, our gas giants must be massive enough to sweep asteroids from Earth’s trajectory, and our unusually large moon stabilizes the axial tilt that gives us different seasons.
These are just a few prerequisites for complex life. The emergence of symbolic language, tools and intelligence could require other such “perfect conditions” as well.
Or Is the Filter Ahead of Us?
While emergence of intelligent life could be rare, the silence could also be the result of intelligent life emerging frequently but subsequently failing to survive for long. Might every sufficiently advanced civilization stumble across a suicidal technology or unsustainable trajectory? We know that a Great Filter prevents the emergence of prosperous interstellar civilizations, but we don’t know whether or not it lies in humanity’s past or awaits us in the future.