Fermi’s paradox is named after the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who famously asked, “Where are all the space aliens?” Whether he actually said that is unknown, but he did wonder how it is that we have yet to find any evidence of life in the universe, other than on earth. According to the Drake equation, there should be quite a few extraterrestrial civilizations that we can detect from earth. Here is a famous paper on the topic written back in the 1970’s explaining the problem.
For those interested in listening to a long discussion on the subject, this episode of the Future Strategist with Jim Miller is a good listen. He interviews Greg Cochran, who knows a great deal about the topic. This was before Greg unfortunately succumbed to the The Madness, so it is free of that stuff. Miller and Cochran go into the background of the topic and offer some possible reasons for why we have not discovered any signs of intelligent life anywhere in the known universe.
Problems like this are fun and make for great science fiction plots. The great science fiction novel The Mote in God’s Eye is about man’s first contact with an alien civilization and touches on why it took so long for humans to find aliens and vice-versa. A main topic of the book is the idea that the alien civilization has Malthusian cycles, where they eventually overpopulate their world and destroy themselves. As a result, they can never advance quite far enough to explore the universe.
The novel does not get too far into this, as it is mostly a plot devise to move the story along, but it is a possible reason for why we have not found intelligent life in the universe and why we can no longer go to the moon. That is, we have regressed due to social evolution of some sort that we don’t fully understand. It now takes ten years to build a tall building in New York City, when a century ago it took a year. We don’t build dams or bridges anymore. We can’t even maintain the ones we have now.
This is where people will say, “We could go to the moon if we really wanted to do it. It’s the government that cannot do it. Private industry could go if it was worth it.” Maybe that’s true or maybe that is just a coping strategy to mask reality. All we know is we have not been to the moon since 1972 and we lack the facilities to do it right now. Even those vaunted private explorers are struggling to do things we could do decades ago, like launch something into space and bring it back again.
Social cycle theory is not a new idea. In the 19th century, Italian sociologist and economist Vilfredo Pareto developed a theory where power in a society passes back and forth between the clever and the aggressive. Most famously, Oswald Spengler theorized that human societies are born, blossom into maturity and then, like a person, decline into old age and eventually death. Ed Dutton and Michael Woodley have built on this concept using modern studies of human intelligence.
In other words, the reason we have not been able to travel the stars is that intelligent life can never advance to that point. Our civilization lifespan prohibits us from reaching that level of technology. That does not mean there is no progress. Clearly, we have reached a higher level of technological achievement than the Romans, but there’s always a dark age to reset things. What comes after this cycle will learn a lot from us, but maybe make it as far as Mars, before the great downturn ends their run.
Current events offers some insight into why we may never meet space aliens. The panic over the virus is something new to modern society. This virus is not a threat to humanity, but it is treated as one. We know there was no panic over the Swine flu, the Asian flu, the Hong Kong flu and so on. There was no panic over the great influenza outbreak of 2017 that killed 80,000 Americans. Yet with the death toll soaring to 4,000 with the Chinese flu, America is paralyzed with fear.
It could be that when a civilization becomes sufficiently advanced, three things happen that change how it interacts with the world. One is the birth rate falls. This is something we have seen all over the world. Once a society can reliably feed its people and it reduces interpersonal violence to a certain level, total fertility rates fall. At the same time, the society feminizes. Women begin to take up positions of authority in both civil and government institutions, changing the nature of those institutions.
That’s the third thing, what we are seeing today. A society dominated by women is extremely risk averse. The focus first shifts to elevating the value of life, then to guarding the children against any potential risk. We saw this happen in the 90’s and 00’s with the millennial generation, who were sheltered from everything. Finally, the society shifts to organizing against any threat, even those that promise to merely trim a few years off the lifespan of the octogenarians.
A society that is hyper-focused on preventing even the slightest risk is not a society taking great risks to explore the stars. Maybe that’s why the cost of going back to the moon is prohibitively high. The safety precautions that would be required make the venture pointlessly expensive. The reason it takes ten years to build a building that a century ago only took a year to build, is that today’s society is risk intolerant. If just one worker gets a hangnail or stubs a toe, the cost is considered too high.
Another possibility along the same lines is that in addition to the obsession with safety, the low fertility rate simply reduces the population. This is beginning in places like Japan and Italy. In a world of growing populations, the point of technological advance is to provide for more people. In a world of shrinking populations, the point of technological advance is to protect the people. That means more automation and less actual work, which could result in physical harm to the remaining humans.
What we may be seeing is the early stages of a new social model, one imagined in science fiction a century ago. Once a species becomes sufficiently advanced, the population shrinks, but lives in greater comfort. Perhaps in time lifespans will extend so a small number of humans, cared for by automated cities, live long lives almost like children in a daycare center. A species of pampered toddlers is no going to risk it all to explore the stars and come visit earth.
Of course, the Chinese flu is a great reminder that the free flow of people means the free flow of germs, many of which are deadly to those unfamiliar with them. The Europeans expansion into the New World probably killed off 90% of the indigenous people in the Americas. No one really knows for sure, but the great weapon used against the Indians was the pathogen. Small pox and influenza have been the greatest killers spread by man in all of history.
Maybe once a species overcomes all of the problems listed above and reaches the point where it can explore the stars, it has also realized that the spread of pathogens is too high of a risk. Maybe extraterrestrials explored a few places before they could reach earth and the result was a horrific die off. Maybe the alien bug killed them or maybe their bugs killed everything they touched. As a result, they hide from us any sign of life, so we don’t make the mistake of infecting the universe.
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