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Is Anybody Out There?

In the early ’70s, physicist Frank Drake and astronomer Carl Sagan were urging public funding for SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligent beings. They claimed that a mere ten years of monitoring would give a 50% chance of success. It is now more than 25 years later, and we are no closer today than in 1970.

There are “cargo cults,” and then there is SETI. In a recent poll, Maclean’s magazine found that 42 percent of Canadians expect we shall discover alien civilizations within at most 50 years, and 17 percent say the aliens will look like humans. (Ottawa Citizen, Aug.12, 1999, front page: “Professor predicts first contact with aliens some time next century.”)

An “expert in future studies,” retired University of Toronto Prof. Allen Tough, quoted in the Citizen article, declares that “few events in human history will be as significant and far-reaching as contact” with space aliens, that we need to “prepare for the social and physiological impact,” that “the effect on human civilization will be profound”, aliens could be “silicon-based entities or supercomputers”, they “could help human civilization survive … provide answers to some major questions … new insights … about the origin and evolution of the universe … the meaning of life”.

Covering all bases, Prof. Tough allows that we should be prepared to find that “some of the intelligent life may be deeply alien to us. Their thinking patterns, knowledge, emotions, bodies, perception and communication may be even stranger than our strangest science-fiction images”. And to top it all, Prof. Tough believes “contact will probably be made by way of a small probe, size of a basketball or smaller … lurking around … monitoring … to get to know us or our language” and this will happen in the next century. Next century? Well, that could be next year already!

Oh sure. Has anyone ever heard of a “futurist” who correctly predicted anything important 20 or even 10 years ahead? Maybe Jules Verne was the only one to do so, and he has been dead a long time.

How likely are such startling predictions? Even if one grants a fair probability that other planets exist where conditions are favourable to life, and moreover that life may indeed have arisen on some of those planets, one is still left with the impossible problem of estimating the probability of such life having evolved and, if so, having resulted in conscious intelligent beings and, if so, having developed highly sophisticated technology and, if so, wishing to communicate, and, if so, not having become extinct before we are able to receive their signals or they ours. Other problems, such as the interpretation of alien signals as well as the length of time needed to communicate over distances of hundreds of light-years make such an enterprise perhaps the most quixotic project ever conceived.

And if these aliens are “stranger than our strangest science fiction,” it could be quite a task for even Prof. Tough to get them to convey anything meaningful to us. It’s difficult enough to imagine a familiar grasshopper or strange robot telling us anything important about the meaning of life, or helping our civilization to survive. Or is that basketball-size probe lurking somewhere trying to tell us something?

Life on earth and human intelligence are the results of billions of years of evolution. If the dinosaurs had not been wiped out by a major catastrophe some 60 million years ago, would humans be here today? According to evolutionary biologist G. G. Simpson, “the factors that have determined the appearance of man have been so special, so very long continued, and so incredibly intricate, that the chance of duplicating man on any other planet is the same as the chance that the planet and its organisms have had a history identical in all essentials with that of the earth through some billions of years. The course of evolution is not repeatable, there is no central line leading steadily, in a goal-directed way, from a protozoan to man.”

The chance of ET “looking like humans” seems vanishingly small, and other silicon-based life forms just too alien to communicate with.

Fevered speculations–will we ever find alien signals and their earthshaking effects on us–look eerily similar to the primitive cargo cult of lonely island peoples, convinced that their problems will all be solved as soon as miraculous flotsam is stranded on their beaches. Except that the chances are so gigantically worse in the case of SETI, a quest something like “pie in the sky, by and by.” Setting aside fantasizing, clear thinking cannot avoid the conclusion that there is close to zero chance of any humanoid beings out there, and even less of ever having meaningful communication with alien forms of life.

It shouldn’t be all that difficult to see that it always has and always will make the greatest sense for us, children of the earth, to admit that it is up to humans and no one else, to cherish, preserve and treasure our home in the universe, this singular, astonishing, vexing and affecting small planet we inhabit.