Tuesday, 24 January 2006

Life in the universe

Interesting lecture from Stephen Hawking on evolution and life in the universe.

I was a little surprised that he asks why we don't see lots of "space tourists" if there is intelligent life in the universe. Any civilisation that can travel through space would have to be very advanced - and any advanced civilisation would have well developed rules about engaging with primitive species (us). So the absence of aliens is not a problem. I think that Carl Sagan got it right - if there is intelligent life in the universe there will be age-old protocols for communicating with new worlds.


  1. History tells us that most 'advanced' civilisations when contacting 'less advanced' civilisations have destroyed their way of life (e.g. Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals).
    I know his argument is that as we advance scientifically, we may undergoe a commensurate advance in morality and ethics, but I dont really buy that.
    I think its wishfull thinking, and that we will always be driven to some extent by our lower level brain function that we inherited from our primeval ancestors.

    Sorry to mention evolution to some of you Intelligent Designers out there. If 'GOD' is in intelligent design why is the world so full of suffering. I dont speak of suffering in terms of man but in the other animals. Even if man did not exist, the lots of animals would be to kill or be killed. The food chain ensures that you eat or be eaten alive by other animals. As we rise up the evolutionary scale the most comment element in the world is not hydrogen or as Frank Zappa said 'Stupidity' but it is Pain. So much for an intelligent designer.

  2. Billy - The Earth is a relative newcomer to the universe - there was 10 billion years of cosmic evolution before this planet appeared. So there was lots of time for power struggles before we arrived.

    Aggression is not a good long term survival strategy - intelligence is. So dominant alien species would most likely be highly intelligent - not highly aggessive.

    But mankind appears to be more aggressive than intelligent - so I fear that other civilisations will steer well clear of us until we resolve our fate one way or the other.

  3. If our brain evolves, it may add another layer or layers to the brain. However we are still stuck with our primeval core that we acquired from an earlier period.

    Are we saying that the higher intelligence will free us from our physiological restrictions (adrenalin highs when in fight or flight situations).

    If we say that a higher evolutionary intelligence will exist in the cosmos due to life starting earlier on that planet, we assume that they will not have killed themself off prior to reaching that state. As we are talking about millions and millons of years, there is a good chance that they make the same mistake as us in terms of self destruction.

  4. Billy - I'm sure in the billion of years of existence prior to Earth being formed lots of human-like civilisations came and went. But, as I say, agression is not a good long-term survival strategy. So it's likely that less aggressive intelligent life forms would win the evolutionary battle - and once they did they could ensure that aggressive life forms are carefully monitored and controlled.

    That might sound unlikely but 10 billion years is a very long time for this to be played out - and it really comes down to what survival strategy is best - aggression or intelligence. Ten billion years would ensure that the best strategy eventually comes out on top.

    I make no predictions about mankind. We appear to be more aggressive than intelligent so the liklihood is that we would be allowed to come and go in our little corner of the Cosmos. Having survived the bloodiest century in our existence, we appear to have learnt little. But the incredible rate of knowledge-acquisition that the original article describes give me some optimism.

  5. Interesting article. I have read some stuff recently which I will post.

    On a general point I doubt if higher intelligence (as we know it)does correlate with more ethical behaviour looking at our own experience. On the other hand there is a clear link between reason and emotion. For intance we are angry, aggressive for a reason and such behaviour can surely be ameliorated through reason. A case could certainly be made that advanced civilisations may achieve this. It is also debatable that our historical experience of colonisation necessitates the same response from aliens. Especially so given the advanced nature of this other world. It seems very plausible that somehow self destructive behaviour would have been brought under control to allow resources to have been committed to space travel of this magnitude.

    What would be the reason for travel? The most plausible cause that would bring this about is the end of the existing planet. For this reason I would expect that resources would be devoted to finding worlds where the conditions for life exist but for whatever reason life as we know it has not come about. This strategy would ensure that the reponse of primitive societies did not need to be faced. If there are only two planets where life could exist and one of them is nearing extinction then we might expect alien encounter. Otherwise lack of contact doesn't lead to the conclusion that others exist or not.

    I did find his thoughts on knowledge acquisition and the number of books open to challenge. My own thoughts are that the most life changing and life enhancing discoveries made by our ancestors stand up to recent discoveries. Especially when you think of the complete lack of knowledge in existence then.

    I doubt if our brains will change. I don't know if increase in brain size is necessary for increased intelligence. The size of the head can only be so big to allow the female to give birth. Otherwise births would need to be section deliveries. Would evolution bring about the redundancy of a reproductive part of the body? Seems a bit problematic. There are perhaps though better ways of using the brain - higher intelligence through the use of different neural pathways or interconnectivities. I read a book by William Golding a number of years ago. The Inheritors I think it was called. It was about the extinction of a tribe of neaderthals by more aggressive tribe of early humans. The neaderthals couldn't talk but they communicated telepathically. The early humans talked. Could the use of language have made these other possibilities redundant and could we learn these again or at least tap into them again in some form? If this was possible developments along these lines could lead to a step change in intelligence.