Why We Haven’t Met Any Aliens

Big Idea / by Geoffrey Miller /

A radical explanation for a conundrum about extraterrestrial life, and what it means for the future of humanity.

The story goes like this: Sometime in the 1940s, Enrico Fermi was talking about the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence with some other physicists. They were impressed that life had evolved quickly and progressively on Earth. They figured our galaxy holds about 100 billion stars, and that an intelligent, exponentially-reproducing species could colonize the galaxy in just a few million years. They reasoned that extraterrestrial intelligence should be common by now. Fermi listened patiently, then asked, simply, “So, where is everybody?” That is, if extraterrestrial intelligence is common, why haven’t we met any bright aliens yet? This conundrum became known as Fermi’s Paradox.

Since then, the Paradox has become ever more baffling. Paleontology has shown that organic life evolved quickly after the Earth’s surface cooled and became life-hospitable. Given simple life forms, evolution shows progressive trends toward larger bodies, brains, and social complexity. Evolutionary psychology has revealed several credible paths from simpler social minds to human-level creative intelligence. So evolving intelligence seems likely, given a propitious habitat—and astronomers think such habitats are common. Moreover, at least 150 extrasolar planets have been identified in the last few years, suggesting that life-hospitable planets orbit most stars. Yet 40 years of intensive searching for extraterrestrial intelligence have yielded nothing: no radio signals, no credible spacecraft sightings, no close encounters of any kind.

It looks, then, as if we can answer Fermi in two ways. Perhaps our current science over-estimates the likelihood of extraterrestrial intelligence evolving. Or, perhaps evolved technical intelligence has some deep tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating. After Hiroshima, some suggested that any aliens bright enough to make colonizing space ships would be bright enough to make thermonuclear bombs, and would use them on each other sooner or later. Maybe extraterrestrial intelligence always blows itself up. Indeed, Fermi’s Paradox became, for a while, a cautionary tale about Cold War geopolitics.

I suggest a different, even darker solution to the Paradox. Basically, I think the aliens don’t blow themselves up; they just get addicted to computer games. They forget to send radio signals or colonize space because they’re too busy with runaway consumerism and virtual-reality narcissism. They don’t need Sentinels to enslave them in a Matrix; they do it to themselves, just as we are doing today. Once they turn inwards to chase their shiny pennies of pleasure, they lose the cosmic plot. They become like a self-stimulating rat, pressing a bar to deliver electricity to its brain’s ventral tegmental area, which stimulates its nucleus accumbens to release dopamine, which feels…ever so good.

The fundamental problem is that an evolved mind must pay attention to indirect cues of biological fitness, rather than tracking fitness itself. This was a key insight of evolutionary psychology in the early 1990s; although evolution favors brains that tend to maximize fitness (as measured by numbers of great-grandkids), no brain has capacity enough to do so under every possible circumstance. Evolution simply could never have anticipated the novel environments, such as modern society, that our social primate would come to inhabit. That would be a computationally intractable problem, even for the new IBM Blue Gene/L supercomputer that runs 280 trillion operations per second. Even long-term weather prediction is easy when compared to fitness prediction. As a result, brains must evolve short-cuts: fitness-promoting tricks, cons, recipes and heuristics that work, on average, under ancestrally normal conditions.

The result is that we don’t seek reproductive success directly; we seek tasty foods that have tended to promote survival, and luscious mates who have tended to produce bright, healthy babies. The modern result? Fast food and pornography. Technology is fairly good at controlling external reality to promote real biological fitness, but it’s even better at delivering fake fitness—subjective cues of survival and reproduction without the real-world effects. Having real friends is so much more effort than watching Friends. Actually colonizing the galaxy would be so much harder than pretending to have done it when filming Star Wars or Serenity. The business of humanity has become entertainment, and entertainment is the business of feeding fake fitness cues to our brains.

Fitness-faking technology tends to evolve much faster than our psychological resistance to it. With the invention of the printing press, people read more and have fewer kids. (Only a few curmudgeons lament this.) With the invention of Xbox 360, people would rather play a high-resolution virtual ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong than be a perfect-resolution real human. Teens today must find their way through a carnival of addictively fitness-faking entertainment products: iPods, DVDs, TiVo, Sirius Satellite Radio, Motorola cellphones, the Spice channel, EverQuest, instant messaging, MDMA, BC bud. The traditional staples of physical, mental and social development—athletics, homework, dating—are neglected. The few young people with the self-control to pursue the meritocratic path often get distracted at the last minute. Take, for example, the MIT graduates who apply to do computer game design for Electronics Arts, rather than rocket science for NASA.

Around 1900, most inventions concerned physical reality: cars, airplanes, Zeppelins, electric lights, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, bras, zippers. In 2005, most inventions concern virtual entertainment—the top 10 patent-recipients were IBM, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Matsushita, Samsung, Micron Technology, Intel, Hitachi, Toshiba and Fujitsu—not Boeing, Toyota or Victoria’s Secret. We have already shifted from a reality economy to a virtual economy, from physics to psychology as the value-driver and resource-allocator. We are already disappearing up our own brainstems. Our neurons over-stimulate each other, promiscuously, as our sperm and eggs decay, unused. Freud’s pleasure principle triumphs over the reality principle. Today we narrow-cast human-interest stories to each other, rather than broadcasting messages of universal peace and progress to other star systems.

Maybe the bright aliens did the same. I suspect that a certain period of fitness-faking narcissism is inevitable after any intelligent life evolves. This is the Great Temptation for any technological species—to shape their subjective reality to provide the cues of survival and reproductive success without the substance. Most bright alien species probably go extinct gradually, allocating more time and resources to their pleasures, and less to their children. They eventually die out when the game behind all games—the Game of Life—says “Game Over; you are out of lives and you forgot to reproduce.”

Heritable variation in personality might allow some lineages to resist the Great Temptation and last longer. Some individuals and families may start with an “irrational” Luddite abhorrence of entertainment technology, and they may evolve ever more self-control, conscientiousness and pragmatism. They will evolve a horror of virtual entertainment, psychoactive drugs and contraception. They will stress the values of hard work, delayed gratifica tion, child-rearing and environmental stewardship. They will combine the family values of the religious right with the sustainability values of the Greenpeace left. Their concerns about the Game of Life will baffle the political pollsters who only understand the rhetoric of status and power, individual and society, rights and duties, good and evil, us and them.

This, too, may be happening already. Christian and Muslim fundamentalists and anti-consumerism activists already understand exactly what the Great Temptation is, and how to avoid it. They insulate themselves from our creative-class dreamworlds and our EverQuest economics. They wait patiently for our fitness-faking narcissism to go extinct. Those practical-minded breeders will inherit the Earth as like-minded aliens may have inherited a few other planets. When they finally achieve contact, it will not be a meeting of novel-readers and game-players. It will be a meeting of dead-serious super-parents who congratulate each other on surviving not just the Bomb, but the Xbox.     

Geoffrey Miller is an assistant professor in the department of psychology at University of New Mexico and author of The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature.

Front page image courtesy of Jeff Kubina.

Originally published April 30, 2006

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