10 Unsettling Possibilities Regarding Alien Life
In celebration of spooky october and an entire coming month of creepy mysterious science content here are ten unsettling possibilities regarding alien life. Number 10. There Is No One Else To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, there either is other intelligent alien life in the universe, or there isn’t and the two possibilities are equally frightening. The one thing I’ve never discussed on this channel until now is the possibility that we might actually be alone and there are no others anywhere in the universe. The odds are dramatically against this, we live in a universe that has 200 sextillion stars in it, the vast majority of which are in principle habitable.
Sun-like stars are among the most common. And that’s only within the observable universe, there could be vastly more beyond that horizon. So odds are, we are not alone.
But what if we are? What would that imply? That creates a very different world from what we currently perceive. Earth would then violate the copernican principle, and would then become the most important, priveledged place in the entire universe. Here magical chemistry happens that does not happen anywhere else in space or time, and the end result of that chemistry, us, would be the highest expression of life in the universe, and indeed would represent the universe perceiving and trying to understand itself.
Think about that for a moment, the most unlikely thing in the universe just so happens to also be the universe’s way of observing and understanding itself. That is not likely to be a coincidence. This is very different from being a random chance alien civilization among many others. This would be the ultimate in uniqueness in a universe that otherwise absolutely hates a one off.
In science, you always expect other examples and that objects like asteroids are not unique, but part of a population. This works for civilizations as well. They can be rare for sure, or common, but the idea of only one ever really stretches plausibility to the point that one must naturally ask questions about it being intentional at that point.
If that’s the case, then we live in a universe that is so large that some of it, perhaps most of it, cannot be perceived and thus is uselessly large and wasteful for the apparent intended task. The universe would then seem to be a thing borne of complete, utter madness no matter what explanation you favor. Number 9. We Live in a Universe of Machines We are an altered natural species.
A human of twenty thousand years ago was in many ways very different from us. And it’s not just our technology that sets us apart, but our collective ideas such as education, literacy and so on that all revolutionized how we think and behave versus a time where none of that existed. But most markedly is our technology of today. Over the course of my life I have seen much of the human race addict itself to a prosthetic brain, the cell phone.
What was once a method of talking to people over wires has become a font of information at your fingertips, instant communications by multiple means, and entertainment. And this trend seems likely to continue. In the coming decades we will see medical science move increasingly towards the direct incorporation of technology within the human body. This can come in forms such as brain to computer interfaces, but also things like creating artificial pancreases for diabetics that function through nanotechnological blood stream machines managing insulin levels by directly releasing it as needed.
Or how about nanotechnological weight loss, where one needn’t do a thing and the weight just melts away. There are many possibilities to be envisioned here, but we have come to a time where our constituent parts become gradually replaced as they wear out, such as with hip replacements. Eventually, this gets to the point that we transition to become, neuron by neuron gradually over time, a machine ourselves.
Imagine that, born biological, only to die as a machine. But that’s if death truly happens to machines. In that world, that which can be broken can be repaired and made to live again, or back up copies can be made for an indefinite existence of sorts. You may be gone, but your memories and everything that made you who you are is archived and can be recalled at will, or might some data be lost? To quote Frankenstein, It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being. This leads to a universe where the end result of the evolution of natural intelligence leads to the rise of machine intelligence.
If this is the natural order of things, then it may be that machine civilizations vastly outnumber biological ones. Those machine civilizations may end up spawning successive improved iterations of itself, meaning machine descends from machine and evolution asserts in a new, controlled form under the guise of evolving technology. So I ask you this, all of this would imply an original biological civilization sparking the whole thing off, but what if we found a civilization for which there was no evidence of that, rather it’s lineage appears to have been machines all the way down? Number 8. The Plea for Help Necrosignature We tend to assume that first contact with an alien civilization will come in the form of a radio signal with the intent of saying hello and offering the opportunity to say hello back with a signal of our own. But we would be doing that from a world in some trouble, where nuclear war could end civilization and mismanagement of the planet could eventually cause our outright extinction.
This has led to the question of whether civilizations in general in the universe almost invariably go extinct a short time after they develop advanced technology. This creates a dilemma as far as SETI signals go. Would we as a civilization nearing its end think it a good idea to take a chance and fire out a distress signal? Such a signal may never be heard, or its recipient too far away to help evacuate the planet, or may be disinclined to do so, but at the same time, what would we have to lose by doing that during our extinction event? This leads to the unsettling possibility that all intentional radio communication signals in the galaxy are distress calls and that if we ever detect them, we will be hearing the death throes of an alien civilization that we are powerless to help. This may happen over and over, leading to a very disturbing universe of nectrosignatures. Alien civilizations may no longer be defined by their current existence, but their extinction and what they left behind.
The Milky Way may be a cemetery full of the technological tombstones of civilizations. Number 7. Von Neumann Interference One such technological tombstone could come in the form of Von Neumann probes. These probes are envisioned to collect resources wherever they go and self-replicate. This process leads to exponential growth of the amount of probes which can then fill the galaxy with the presence of an alien civilization’s technology inside of a few million years at sub-light speeds, a blink of an eye in a universe 13.8 billion years old. But with that comes a question of motives.
Why station a probe in every star system in the galaxy? Science is a good answer to this, if you want a very complete picture of the galaxy then this would provide for as complete a picture as you can get. But this also allows for some frightening possibilities since such a probe could function as a 3d printer and produce not just copies of itself, but entire armies of vehicles that could fight a war and attack a planet. It could try to hack your computer systems from space, and even release EMPs until your civilization is reduced to a non-technological state.
The presence of a close, more advanced alien civilization is never a good thing, regardless of the intent of that civilization. They are by virtue of more advanced technology in control and can do anything they want to an inhabited planet any time they wish, which is a wholesale loss of control for that civilization even if the alien civilization is altruistic in intentions. If they are not, then it only gets worse.
Close aliens are always a bad thing, and if they’re in your atmosphere with you, then it’s the worst possible thing that can happen in any scenario. Number 6. Astrovirology Life on earth co-evolved with it’s viruses. Viruses have been with us since the start, and it’s reasonable to assume that this is the natural order.
Wherever there is life, there are viruses attacking it. But earth’s viruses are very specific things and need not merely attack cells, but it needs to attack the right kind under the right chemical conditions. While some viruses on earth can jump species, it happens under very special conditions. If you sneeze on a crocodile, it’s probably not going to get sick.
But there is a contentious idea out there that maybe under the right conditions viruses can generalize. Most researchers don’t think this is the case, but it has been advanced that on a dying world, say Mars at the time it started drying up, where if it had life members of the microbial ecosystem would have been adapting or going extinct on a huge scale during that period. That might have forced the viruses that preyed on them to evolve to become generalized in that they would have the ability to attack any cell they came across. This opens the way for dead planets to be loaded with viruses that can attack explorers and confound any attempt at colonization, and raise the risk of returning explorers infecting earth with a virus capable of wiping out most if not all life on the planet.
A scary possibility, but not a very likely one since if it were possible then the planets themselves are always sneezing on each other swapping rocks in impacts across geologic history. We would see such a thing in Mars meteorites and we don’t, and indeed probably we wouldn’t be here if it were the case. Number 5. The Overlord Civilization Looks can be deceiving. When we look out into the universe we see the great silence, there is so far no evidence that advanced alien civilizations have done much with the galaxy.
Indeed, we see nothing at all inconsistent with the processes of nature. But there are many arguments to be made about why this is, are alien civilizations simply hard to spot, do they never build giant megastructures or artificially arrange stars, and so on. But there is another option. Something or someone is stopping them all. This is the idea of the Overlord Civilization where perhaps the first civilization to arise and settle the galaxy controls it and never lets anyone get to a sufficient technological level to challenge them. They may not interfere with budding civilizations, leaving them alone or allowing them to exist, but the moment they leave their star system to colonize another world they are stopped from doing so and either reset to an earlier technological state, absorbed entirely into the greater alien civilization, or put to extinction.
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Number 4. We May Have Gotten Very Lucky The galaxy is mostly a hostile place. Much of it is a deadly vacuum dotted with giant incredibly hot balls of fusion we know as stars. Stars are known to commonly host planets, but so far, none of those planets are quite like here.
We live in a tiny bubble of habitability in a vast universe of hostility and have found no other such bubble like this one. But we have found habitability, we see ice shell moons like Europa and Enceladus where the oceans beneath could harbor life. But it’s not habitability as we know it for the most part. We have quite a selection of such moons that may hold liquid water oceans locked under the ice. But that’s not earth, at least most of it.
Other worlds that once were like earth, Venus and Mars, are both dead having not been able to sustain the conditions for liquid water long-term as earth has. And then there are questions such as whether life could have evolved on this world if we didn’t have a moon, and a host of other questions that may make our planet very special indeed and that most of the rest of the habitable planets in the galaxy aren’t anything close to as nice as this one, even if they are habitable. This leads to a number of scenarios. What of a planet like earth that is facing impending doom, such as the baking of the planet by its ever brightening host star. That lies in our own future, and there may be civilizations out there at that point and desperately doing everything they can to keep their world cool, or being evacuated from it entirely to settle someplace else.
Or water worlds with civilizations that are locked into their aquatic environment without the physiology needed to harness fire and build technology. We could live in a universe where intelligence is moderately common, but more often than not locked in and unable to leave its home world. So the question here is that if we venture into the galaxy and explore and start running into these civilizations, do we liberate them, or let nature take its course? And, how is it that we got this lucky? Number 3. They seeded Earth with Life The origins of life on earth are obscure.
It’s not clear how a non-living chemical process can evolve into life itself. While it seems likely that we’ll eventually understand this process and by proxy know if it’s a straightforward affair that must happen all over the universe, or if it’s a very rare set of circumstances where it can only seldom happen. But the idea has been floated that it may be so rare of an occurrence that some process must spread it across the universe.
This has been advanced as interstellar panspermia, where rocks can travel for eons carrying dormant life and then seed it wherever it happens to fall. But it seems unlikely that life could hold on long enough to cross interstellar distances. But where it can happen is if it’s artificially preserved and protected by an alien civilization. This could come in two ways, intentional and unintentional. The unintentional route is if an alien civilization visited early earth and accidentally infected it with their microbes, which are now our microbes.
They may have been passing through and took a look around an interesting planet that may have life developing on it, but found that it did not, but in the process accidentally deposited life on it that would someday evolve into a civilization that likes cell phones and donuts. The other option is if they did it intentionally and saw some value or imperative to spread life anywhere it could get a foothold. This is more like gardening, where you plant beans where there are no beans and voila you’ve got beans. They might plant the seed, and periodically drop in to see how it’s doing until it becomes a civilization and they make proper contact and intelligence thus pervades the universe. Or they may have gone extinct over that vast amount of time, and the life they spread is their legacy. And this leads to an odd option within SETI.
Such a civilization could have encoded a message in the DNA of life on earth. DNA is an extremely complex and extensive data storage system, so finding such an unnatural marker within it is difficult, but it is possible. Perhaps the proof of life out there was within ourselves the whole time. Number Two.
The Alien Simulation Scenario Within philosophy a question has long been posed that asks if we live in some kind of simulation rather than an actual reality. This has recently gained popularity in the form of simulation theory, the most prominent form of which is the idea of an ancestor simulation. This is where a civilization creates a simulation of it’s own past, presumably to see what the universe was once like, from a vantage point in the far future. Perhaps they wanted to experience what it is like to be fully human again, or even try to reconstruct lost parts of their own history. Some ideas even go so far as to the universe almost certainly being a simulation of this type, though I think that’s stretching things a bit. But within the simulation theory idea, there is one that is rather unsettling.
In such a universe, if left to develop, it wouldn’t just produce the civilization in question, but others as a byproduct. It would be one relevant civilization, and a bunch of other redundant ones the simulators may not even be aware of but know can hypothetically occur. Maybe this is how they study alien civilizations. But this also may explain the great silence, in that the simulators simply make only one civilization and no others are allowed to exist out of a sense of ethics.
But if that’s not the case and civilizations can arise on more than one planet, which the apparent size of the universe would allow, then we could be an unwitting byproduct living in an alien civilization’s ancestor simulation. Number One. They May Walk Among Us The biggest problem with contemplating alien life is ambiguity. At a distance of light-years, while you could reasonably say we’ve found a truly alien civilization sending us a radio signal, the more likely scenario is that it will actually be ambiguous at first.
A detection of something that could be a technosignature, but might just easily be something nature is doing. This already happens, we have odd occurrences such as KIC 8462852 or Przybylsky’s star that might be something aliens are doing, or they may be something going on in nature that we weren’t aware was possible. This problem gets worse though if the aliens are close to you. There you may never be able to prove they are truly alien, even if what appears to be an alien spacecraft lands on your lawn and something steps out and announces it’s an alien. The stumbling blocks here are many.
The first is that earth is a very dynamic world that loves to erase evidence of what’s happened on it in the past. There are entire species of animal for example that we will never know about because the circumstances needed to preserve them in the fossil record simply didn’t happen, or they are locked up in layers of rock that never gets exposed to human eyes. That leaves open a situation where a prior technological civilization could have arose here millions of years ago for which no trace exists any longer, having long ago subducted under the earth’s crust or otherwise weathered away.
While there is no indication of this, and it seems unlikely, it can’t be ruled out. That leads to the thinking that if you did find an alien artifact near earth, then you’d have much difficulty determining if it was truly of alien origin, since a prior civilization here that left the planet for space solves the time and distance problem of crossing space-time better than the notion of an alien civilization doing it. The other issue is even more speculative, but much worse.
Any alien civilization that had the technology to come here would likely have a full understanding and command of genetics. That means that they could essentially 3d print out any creature they want on demand. This could range from printing out a representative of the alien civilization for first contact, or custom creatures suited for specific environments and conditions.
And it also opens up the possibility of printing out a human entirely indistinguishable from the real thing. You could bump into an alien at the grocery store and never know it. Unlikely, but not impossible. Thanks for listening! I am futurist and science fiction author John Michael Godier currently addressing those detractors in the comments that think I’m an alien. I have no such recollection of that, though I do seem to know an awful lot about space and be sure to check out my books at your favorite online book retailer and subscribe to my channels for regular in-depth explorations into the interesting, weird and unknown aspects of this amazing universe in which we live.