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Could E.T. Call Home?

In this essay, I am not addressing the question of whether there might be colonies of simple organisms elsewhere in the universe, but rather whether there are creatures capable of a two-way “conversation” with us. Two giants of modern evolutionary biology, Ernst Mayr and George Gaylord Simpson, arrived independently at the conclusion that the prospect of such an interchange is extremely unlikely. Ernst Mayr has written that no fewer than six of the eight conditions to be met for success in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence are highly improbable.Ernst Mayr, "Can SETI Succeed? Not Likely," Bioastronomy News, Vol. 7 (1995).When these improbabilities are combined, the prospects for successful contact seem even more remote. G. G. Simpson’s essay “The Non-Prevalence of Humanoids”George Gaylord Simpson, "The Non-prevalence of humanoids," in This View of Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).makes many similar arguments. For example:

Even in planetary histories different from ours might not some quite different and yet comparably intelligent beings - humanoids in a broader sense - have evolved? Obviously these are questions that cannot be answered categorically. ...(But) The factors that have determined the appearance of man have been so extremely special, so very long continued, so incredibly intricate that I have been able hardly to hint at them here, Indeed they are far from all being known, and everything we learn seems to make them even more appallingly unique. If human origins were indeed inevitable under the precise conditions of our actual history, that makes the more nearly impossible such an occurrence anywhere else. I therefore think it extremely unlikely that anything enough like us for real communication of thought exists anywhere in our accessible universe.

What makes evolutionary biologists so much less credulous than others in this debate? Probably the most important reason is that a great many educated persons, including many scientists not trained in biology, harbor a deep misconception about the meaning of evolution. Most believe that “progress and improvement through time” is an inevitable outcome of the origin of life and its evolution. Each succeeding generation, having been successful in the “survival of the fittest” is now measurably advanced over its ancestors. But such “progress” implies that there is a plan unfolding through time, leading to more and more perfected forms, and not the action of selection on different genetic combinations that we actually observe.Frederick Crews, "The New Attack on Evolution," The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLVIII (15), October 4, 2001 (parts I and II).Darwin himself was concerned about the conflation of “progress” and “evolution” in his day. Partly due to the writings of Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus, early ideas about evolution already implied improved development over time, a meaning in common usage today, for example, in phrases such as “the evolution of Formula 1 racing cars from the horseless carriage.” Darwin avoided the connotation-loaded “evolution,” coining instead more specific, scientific terms like “natural selection” and “descent with modification.”

Darwin was very aware that his bleak, mechanistic interpretation of evolution might cause an uproar in the Christian church. Many historians of science have inferred that Darwin delayed publication of his ideas for many years - rushing into print only after he received a letter from A. R. Wallace that briefly outlined Darwin’s central argument. And, just as Darwin feared, materialistic and theistic explanations of life were at sharp odds from the beginning.

Just as important as “progress” in this controversy is the “argument from design,” eloquently described by the eighteenth century theologian, William Paley.William Paley, Natural Theology; or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity. Collected from the Appearances of Nature (London, F. Faulder, 1802; Oxford: J. Vincent, 1828 [2nd edition]).His argument, in brief, was that the astonishingly intricate wonders of the world could not possibly have been the result of mere chance; instead one had to assume a cosmic “watchmaker.” This argument continues to be invoked to the present day, supported by “proofs” that complex organs such as the eye could not have come about by chance alone. Richard Dawkins, in The Blind Watchmaker,Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New Yor k: W. W. Nort on & Co. , 1986). offers a sensitive but devastating rebuttal against “design” in evolution. In this position he joins a distinguished group of biologists like Mayr, Simpson, and countless others who critiqued the works of Lecomte de Nouy and Teilhard de Chardin, who were convinced that there was a plan and a final goal to evolution and whose conviction attracted many followers.

On the basis of the geological record, evolutionary biologists consider that the history of life on earth is exactly that: history - not a series of predictable outcomes. Natural selection, the engine driving evolution, is a blind, uncaring, unpredictable process. G. G. Simpson famously characterized evolution as following a “zigzag opportunistic course.” As continental masses break up and recombine, as cosmic objects smash into earth, as continental glaciers appear, and as deserts become tropical forests, many adaptive niches disappear while novel ones are created. Besides these geological and climatological events, there is also the ever-changing web of potential death and competition from parasites, predators, and other species contending for one’s ecological niche. Which populations will succeed in these races is utterly unpredictable. Indeed, it is often one of the least typical organisms in a transformed environment that adventitiously has the wherewithal to take advantage of the opportunities that are created by new circumstances - hence the “zigs and zags” in the fossil record. Far from being predictable events, these changed circumstances often lead to quirky results, and with no plan to follow, sometimes to extraordinarily “inefficient” or “fragile” new forms; if evolutionary processes emerged to help species survive over time, they have made an extraordinary botch of the matter. Paleontologists report that more than 99% of earth’s species have gone extinct. Ernst Mayr estimates that there have been more than a billion species in earth’s history, perhaps many more. Out of that huge number only one, Homo sapiens, developed the ability to create civilizations. And among those 25 or so civilizations, only one attained the technology to take advantage of the electromagnetic spectrum. The ability to transmit and receive signals from afar seems to have sprung from a very unlikely series of events.

Contributed by: Dr. Irven DeVore

Cosmic Questions

Are We Alone? Topic Index
Not Likely

Could E.T. Call Home?

Is there other Life in the Universe?
Chance, Competition, and Catastrophe
The Rise and Near Extinction of Early Primates
The Improbable Path to Advanced Intelligence
The Origins of Human Intelligence
The Hominid Lineage


Irven DeVore

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Is There Intelligent Life Elsewhere in the Universe?
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