'The laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness': are intelligent ETs out there?

'The laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness': are intelligent ETs out there?
A 2014 depiction of the James Webb Space Telescope, Wikimedia Commons

We are living it totally crazy times, and if you don’t think so, you haven’t been paying attention. For the first time in modern history, it is no longer fringe to believe in UFOs. Unidentified Flying Objects that move in ways that seem to be leagues beyond today’s technology have been captured on video by military agencies and released by the U.S. government. Whether these UFOs are spacecraft manned with extraterrestrials or just shockingly advanced military technology is an open question. There’s also the possibility that the videos are not what they appear—that they are capturing something in some sort of way that creates a visual illusion. Whatever explanation you favor, it is safe to say that you are in no position to claim any certainty in the matter. And if you are betting on aliens, you are not a fool. The physics displayed by the supposed craft in the videos released by the U.S. government defy explanation.

In this article, I don’t intend to convince anyone that the videos show aliens. I’m going to make an argument that I can back up with well-established science, which suggests that intelligent life is not all that rare in the universe, and from that fact, let the reader make up their mind about whether or not they think ETs are among us. Whatever you decide, you will come away with a new understanding of the universe and our place in it. The saga of cosmic evolution is a story of intelligent beings inevitably becoming gods, or at least sentient agents with god-like powers. This evolutionary trajectory has nothing to do with anything supernatural—it is a product of natural processes that create a tendency toward higher complexity.

Richard Dawkins, a god among evolutionary theorists, atheists, and skeptics—most famous for his 1976 classic The Selfish Gene, which revolutionized evolutionary biology—was recently asked “Do you think there’s intelligent life out there in the universe?” by MIT podcast host Lex Friedman. His answer might surprise you.

“Well, if we accept that there’s intelligent life here, and we accept that the number of planets in the universe is gigantic—10^22 stars have been estimated—it seems to me highly likely that there is not only life in the universe elsewhere, but also intelligent life. If you deny that then you’re committed to the view that the things that happened on this planet are staggeringly improbable; I mean ludicrously, off the charts, improbable. And I don’t think it’s that improbable.”

In other words, there are about 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, and about 2 trillion galaxies in the observable universe, by today’s rough estimates. Either we are not alone, or we are unfathomably lucky to be here. But what if life were not a happy accident, and instead a regularity of nature that inevitably follows from the laws of physics on all those planets with the right chemical ingredients? Not an anomaly, but a natural manifestation of a universe that organizes itself to create complexity and consciousness?

Let’s get back to Richard Dawkins’ argument that intelligent life is almost certainly out there:

“…there are really two steps: the origin of life, which is probably fairly improbable, and then the subsequent evolution to intelligent life, which is also probably fairly improbable. So the juxtaposition of those two, you could say is pretty improbable, but not 10^22-improbable.”

According to Dawkins, there are so many planets out there that the improbable becomes probable. But in this article we are going to explain why life’s emergence and subsequent evolution toward intelligence was inevitable rather than improbable, not just here on Earth, but on all planets with the right planetary conditions. Basically, if the planet is sufficiently Earth-like it will produce complex adaptive systems (i.e., organisms), which will form a biosphere that produces increasingly complex and intelligent agents. Why?

Because once you have a reproducing system that can evolve through Darwinian evolution, it’s just a matter of time before the biosphere generates an intelligent species with a collective intelligence capable of producing science and technology. In response to Lex Friedman’s question, “Do you think evolution would also be a force on the alien planet as well?” Dawkins remarked:

“I’ve stuck my neck out and said that ever if we ever do discover life elsewhere, it will be Darwinian life, in the sense that it will work by some kind of natural selection; the non-random survival of randomly-generated codes.”

In an article titled Darwin’s Aliens, published in the International Journal of Astrobiology, the authors argue that extraterrestrials would likely evolve through natural selection to be highly complex and intelligent, as Dawkins suggests. Now we are going to learn why new theoretical work is providing support for that idea.

To explain why life and intelligence emerge inevitably given Earth-like conditions, we must understand the role that energy flows play in organizing non-living matter into organic computing machinery with sentience. In other words, evolution toward conscious creatures of increasing intelligence was destined to emerge in a universe that is always increasing in complexity.

Inevitable Life

Until recently, most scientists believed that the origin of life was such an unlikely event, requiring the “chance assembly” of so many molecules, that it would be unlikely to have occurred anywhere else in the universe. The Nobel Prize-winning French biologist Jacques Monod poetically summed up this view in his influential book Chance and Necessity, published in 1970, when he said, “The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty.” It was his passionate and uncompromising belief that “The universe was not pregnant with life.”

However, another 20th century Nobel Laureate, the biologist Christian de Duve, challenged this view, arguing that the universe was indeed pregnant with life, going as far as to say that biology seems to have been “written into the fabric of the universe.”

De Duve was in good company. Carl Sagan, the most famous astronomer of the 20th century, also thought that life was a probable phenomenon in those places where conditions are ripe for life, writing:

“The origin of life must be a highly probably affair. As soon as conditions permit, up it pops!”

Indeed, the planet Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and life is now estimated to be about 4 billion years old. It arose only 100 million years or so after the Earth’s surface cooled enough to support life. That’s a blink of an eye in cosmic time.

So what does it mean exactly to say that life was inevitable rather than improbable? It means that when you have the right thermodynamic conditions—thermodynamics is the science of energy flow—energy moving through a system will organize inanimate matter with the ingredients for organic chemistry into animate matter, or biology.

“The origin of life must be a highly probably affair. As soon as conditions permit, up it pops!”

Indeed, the planet Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and life is now estimated to be about 4 billion years old. It arose only 100 million years or so after the Earth’s surface cooled enough to support life. That’s a blink of an eye in cosmic time.

So what does it mean exactly to say that life was inevitable rather than improbable? It means that when you have the right thermodynamic conditions—thermodynamics is the science of energy flow—energy moving through a system will organize inanimate matter with the ingredients for organic chemistry into animate matter, or biology.

How exactly does energy flowing through molecules organize those atoms into a complex adaptive system that can reproduce itself? Whenever there is a process that turns a simple system into something complex, we can suspect that some form of Darwinian evolution is at play. Dissipative adaptation is the newly-discovered process by which molecules assemble themselves when they are driven to interact by a flow of energy. Although this mechanism was described conceptually by Harold Morowitz many decades earlier, Jeremy England of MIT gave it a mathematical description and devised simulation studies that would serve as a proof of concept. To put it another way, the molecules of organic chemistry self-organize when sufficient energy is flowing through the system. Given enough time, a self-maintaining chemical system emerges that can copy itself. While there are many details that remain a mystery, the basic mechanisms underlying the origin of life have been illuminated by origin-of-life researchers.

According to the theories of England, Morowitz, and Smith, the emergence of life in the energetic conditions of the early Earth should be about as surprising as water flowing downhill. If you have the right ingredients, life emerging is not improbable but inevitable. So, when we ask how common is basic life in the universe, we must ask how many Earth-like planets are out there. Depending on what exact factors are critical—such as size, distance from a star, and molecular makeup—there are billions to trillions of them.

So alien life is almost certainly out there, and while it is obviously not present on the majority of planets—at least not anywhere near us—it is presumably not rare either. While it may be too far for us to see with current technology, the cosmos could be teeming with life. Given its inevitability, you could say we live in a “pro-life universe.”

“If life in its abundance were bound to arise, not as an incalculably improbable accident, but as an expected fulfillment of the natural order,” writes origins-of-life pioneer Stuart Kauffman of the Santa Fe Institute, “then we truly are at home in the universe.”

While this changes how we think about life—it is not accidental but a natural manifestation of the “cosmic code”—it would be quite disappointing if only single-celled life were out there. Bacteria are not going to produce anything interesting, like culture and technology. So the real question of interest is whether intelligent life is out there.

Well, extraterrestrial enthusiasts are in luck, because there are good reasons to believe that with biospheres like the one we inhabit, the eventual emergence of general intelligence may be just as inevitable as basic biology.

Inevitable Intelligence

If intelligence is not an unlikely phenomenon, but a natural manifestation of a universal tendency for complexity to arise and grow without bound where conditions permit, then we can expect intelligence elsewhere in the cosmos.

Those who have taken an evolution course in high school or college know that all species are not evolving toward higher complexity or intelligence. Sharks and crocodiles are well-known examples of species that haven’t changed in any significant way over many millions of years of evolution by natural selection. In fact, fish that have migrated to caves have been known to lose their eyes over evolutionary time, becoming simpler. This fact clearly illustrates that not all organisms, or even the majority, are growing more complex through evolution. If a genetic mutation simplifies the design of a creature, and that simplified design increases their ability to survive—their ‘fitness’—then that simpler form will be ‘selected’ by nature. In other words, they will get to live on and reproduce.

It would appear that evolution does not make species increasingly complex or intelligent per se, but simply well-adapted to whatever environment they habit. Some ecological ‘niches’ present a great variety of challenges that must be adapted to, while others present hardly any. As a result, some organisms become more complex while some barely evolve at all.

Some scientists, like the famous 20th century evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, have interpreted this to mean that evolution does not create any inherent drive toward higher complexity and intelligence, but this is a mistake. While evolution certainly does not drive every species to become increasingly complex, it does continually create new species, and over evolutionary time, will produce increasingly complex species.As the great sociobiologist E.O. Wilson explained in his 1992 book The Diversity of Life, there is a self-reinforcing tendency for ecosystems to create new niches and new species.

Not only that, the need to adapt to an increasingly complex environment will systematically increase the complexity of the most complex species through what is known as an “evolutionary arms race,” which is a name for a competitive struggle that ratchets up intelligence. For example, humans in complex urban societies, like the tech hub in Silicon Valley, are competing with each other for jobs that require high intelligence and flexible or adaptive thinking. This selection pressure has been around to some degree since homo sapiens emerged, and when civilization emerged, the need for complex problem-solvers exploded.

A similar idea is the “Red Queen Hypothesis,” which says that for the most intelligent species in a biosphere, simply persisting requires a continual increase in intelligence. Members of such a species must constantly adapt, evolve, and reproduce just to maintain their existence, due to a competitive, ever-evolving environment. The name, proposed by the evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen in 1973, comes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. After Alice complains of running for a very long time and going nowhere, the Queen responds, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.” In other words, some species must evolve to become increasingly complex just to stay in the game of existence. With evolutionary arms races happening constantly, it should not be surprising that increasingly intelligent species emerge over time as a result of blind and mechanical evolutionary processes.

Inevitable Expansion

The other major mechanism of complexity and intelligence increase is known as an “evolutionary transition,” which has also been called a “metasystem transition.” These terms typically refer to events where organisms come together, through cooperative evolution, to form a larger organism—a superorganism that has a collective intelligence that is greater than the intelligence of any of its members.

One such transition occurred when single-celled organisms formed a multicellular organism. Another occurred when multicellular organisms came together to form societies. Ant colonies are a popular example, but human civilization is another, although we don’t typically think of the global population of humans as forming a superorganism. But what we are collectively is a global brain, in which humans and their devices and AIs form something like a neural network that spans the planet. The body of the superorganism that supports the global brain is the entire biosphere, and the processes of life make up its physiology.

What’s the next stage in the evolution of the global superorganism? Well, depending on how far the organism metaphor applies, the biosphere’s next step would be self-replication. What would this look like at the level of a biosphere? If we colonize Mars, that would be the biosphere reproducing! When intelligent life terraforms a new planet, it will create a copy of its biosphere, and because the new planet will have different properties than the planet of origin, there will be replication with variation. These planets may compete economically and for new territory in space, or they may cooperate to form a new superorganism—perhaps one of galactic proportions, given enough time.

“I do believe that the laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness,” says one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, Christof Koch, who was trained as a physicist.

“The rise of sentient life within time’s wide circuit was inevitable. Teilhard de Chardin is correct in his view that islands within the universe—if not the whole cosmos—are evolving toward ever-greater complexity and self-knowledge.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit priest and paleontologist who wrote a truly prophetic book about the progressive nature of biological and technological evolution called The Phenomenon of Man, published after his death in 1955 because the Catholic Church considered it heresy. This book, written two decades earlier, predicted the emergence of what Teilhard de Chardin called a “noosphere”—a word he used to describe a state in which humans form a global mind as a result of communication technology (“noos” is Greek for mind). Due to the predictive power of his theory of progressive evolution, called the Omega Point theory, Teilhard was able to foresee the creation of the Internet even before the digital computer was invented. An omega point is a state of optimal complexity that an evolving biosphere tends to move in the direction of, due to what physicists call an “attractor.”

The great inventor Nikola Tesla also predicted strangely specific details about the future based on his idea that humans on Earth are forming a global brain:

“When wireless is perfectly applied the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain, which in fact it is…. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”

Despite the appearance of having some kind of psychic ability to see into the future, these men simply understood the continual and accelerating increase in complexity and intelligence that results from continual biological, culture, and technological evolution.

While the success of our specific civilization is in no way guaranteed, it appears that there’s a natural tendency for biospheres being pushed by flows of solar energy toward greater organization to grow increasingly complex and intelligent. Adaptive complexity—which is what life really is—doesn’t just grow more computationally powerfully over time, it also becomes harder to kill or restrain. This is the magic of a self-correcting biosphere—by learning from its mistakes, a complex adaptive system actually becomes more powerful from everything that doesn’t eliminate it completely. So, the inevitable growth of complexity and the spread of life in the cosmos is not driven by some supernatural or conscious cosmic force; it is a learning process that creates knowledge which allows sentient systems to resist the natural tendency toward decay or disorder described by the second law of thermodynamics.

David Deutsch, father of the field of quantum computing and the leading advocate for the “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, is very clear about the open-ended nature of evolution: “This process need never come to an end. There are no inherent limits to the growth of knowledge and progress.”

As long as there is usable energy to extract somewhere out there in the universe, intelligence can continue to spread through the cosmos, converting the inanimate matter of the universe into the living network. Through the process of complexity increase, the inanimate universe begins to wake up and experience the fruits of its own creation. Carl Sagan famously said, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself,” and that poetic statement now rests on a firm scientific foundation.

Coming back to our original question: what have we learned about the likelihood of aliens in the universe? They almost certainly exist, and some of these aliens are almost certainly intelligent. Of course, the Fermi paradox remains: if intelligent life is out there, why haven’t we seen any traces of it. Well, space is a big place, and it may take a long time to get here. Our tools for detecting them may also be too primitive. So, we may just be early to the game—ETs may be on their way here right now, coming at us from a distant galaxy at near the speed of life. Of course, that is, if they aren’t already among us, keeping themselves undetected as they study our weird and seemingly self-destructive society in an attempt to better understand the nature of life.

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist and a science journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyAzarian. His new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity is available for pre-order now.

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