Extraterrestrials and Katy Perry

by Benjamin Studebaker

According to a recent story in GQ, Katy Perry (American pop star extraordinaire) believes in aliens. It would appear that her song “ET” for “extraterrestrial” speaks to a genuine article belief in foreign life forms. In our culture, belief in intelligent alien life is often treated like belief in religion–you either have it or you do not, and in either case there isn’t much evidence one can muster for either side. But I’d like to have a little fun and ponder this question. What is the most reasonable position for a person to have on the existence of aliens giving existent non-conspiratorial evidence?

So let’s begin with the standard argument for aliens stated very clearly–Perry’s own quote does the job quite well:

I look up into the stars and I imagine: How self-important are we to think that we are the only life-form? I mean, if my relationship with Obama gets any better, I’m going to ask him that question. It just hasn’t been appropriate yet.

There are two separate claims here:

  1. The size of the universe is sufficiently vast that it is statistically improbable if not impossible that life does not exist somewhere else in the universe.
  2. The government knows about this life but isn’t telling anyone.

The first claim is scientifically true–recent studies on the existence of Earth-like planets elsewhere in the universe have indicated as many as 4 billion Earth-like planets in this galaxy alone. Life would have to be extraordinarily improbable for all of those planets to remain completely empty. The current scientific evidence also suggests that abiogenesis, the process by which life emerged, began at around the time at which it became environmentally possible for life to emerge. This suggests that it is quite likely that planets capable of sustaining life have some kind of life on them. However, the nearest such planet is estimated to be 12 light years away, and this is why the second claim is problematic.

It is almost certain that there is life elsewhere in the universe, even elsewhere in the galaxy, but in order for the government to know about this life, it would need to be able to send detectable communications through space, and the government would need to be able to interpret these communications as communications. This implies not merely that there be other life, but a couple of other things:

  1. The life has to be intelligent.
  2. The life has to be able to use sophisticated tools.

The vast majority of extraterrestrial life is unlikely to meet these conditions. Consider for instance the pathway by which highly intelligent life evolved on earth. Human development required a freak extinction event–the asteroid that most likely killed the dinosaurs. Without this extinction event, there is little reason to believe that intelligent life would have developed on earth. Evolution is not a linear process proceeding toward intelligent life at any kind of regular pace. Birds, reptiles, fish, insects, and amphibians were all around 65 million years ago, but none of these varieties of animal developed advanced intelligence. Only mammals developed in this way, and dinosaurs prevented large, intelligent mammals from developing prior to the extinction event.  A Tyrannosaurus Rex could smell better than a bloodhound, see better than an eagle, crush large bones with its jaws, and outrun everything that lived near it. With those raw physical abilities, T-Rex did not need to be able to do complex math to slaughter everything around it. The apes that preceded human beings would not have stood a chance in its biosphere. Dinosaurs benefited from a warm planet that enabled the evolution of very large, physically imposing life forms. In order for smaller, smarter life forms to have the opportunity to develop, not only did the dinosaurs have to die out, but the planet needed to be colder to advantage wiliness over raw physicality. We are a product of the asteroid and the ice ages it caused.

Many of the earth-like planets are likely warm, and if they have experienced major extinction events, those events have probably transpired in a variety of different ways. There are probably many planets whose evolutionary trajectories have favored large, physically imposing animals over smarter ones. There may be more space dinosaurs out there than space civilizations, and space dinosaurs do not send out communications we could receive.

Add to this the problem of sophisticated tool use. Even if a species has raw intelligence, if that species doesn’t have the physical abilities to put that intelligence to use in ways that contribute to its technological advancement, it’s not going to be able to send out communications we could receive. Dolphins and elephants, for example, may have had the potential to develop along a similar trajectory to human beings, but they lack the necessary physical implements to get the job done–opposable thumbs capable of high-detail, sophisticated construction of tools and devices. A flipper or a foot just doesn’t cut the mustard. So even on planets in which conditions favor the evolution of more intelligent creatures, those creatures will not necessarily be equipped with the physical capacity to manifest that intelligence through complex civilization.

There’s another potential issue to consider–even if we have life forms that are intelligent and physically capable, such species may have a short window during which they might contact us in a way that we would be in a position to understand. Human beings have only been communicating via radio waves for a very short portion of our existence in evolutionary terms, and an utterly trivial period so far as space-time goes. Even a millennium is a blink of an eye to the universe, and it’s very likely that human beings will do one of two things in the next millennium:

  1. Kill ourselves or reduce ourselves to stone age technology via climate change, nuclear war, or some other as yet unknown calamity
  2. Transcend our biological forms by merging with machines via the singularity, becoming incomprehensible super-beings.

Pessimists and optimists often argue that we will do one of these two things within the next century, much less the next millennium. If intelligent species either go extinct or transcend the biological plane within a thousand years of the discovery of radio technology, it is unlikely that any two intelligent species would exist in close enough proximity to one another at the same time such that they could or would communicate with one another. Super-beings are likely disinterested in us and see us the way we see obscure bacteria, while extinct or stone age species are no longer capable of communication. While in a large enough galaxy or universe there are still undoubtedly other intelligent, physically capable species existent at a similar level of advancement in the same temporal space as us, such a species would be unable to communicate with us during that finite and fleeting temporal convergence, because extra-terrestrial communication often takes many thousands of years just to reach its intended destination, let alone allow meaningful exchange.

So in order for it to be the case that our government knew about these foreign life forms, those foreign life forms would need to meet a number of remarkable conditions:

  1. Intelligent like humans rather than brawny like dinosaurs.
  2. Mechanically sophisticated like humans rather than all fins like dolphins.
  3. Happen to be in the same 1,000 year temporal window of being both able to communicate and interested in doing so.
  4. Exist close enough to use geographically to be able to engage in that communication.

Given that it’s likely that human beings would achieve singularity before we would achieve faster than light travel, it is unlikely that these alien species would contact us by visiting us, so alien-piloted UFOs are probably fictional. There are probably lots of other life forms, but they are either much less advanced than us or much more advanced, such that they either cannot contact us or do not care to. The universe is full of dinosaurs and demigods.

The wonderful thing is that our level of scientific understanding of all of this is in its infancy. Even if what we know now points to the conclusions I’ve argued for above, what we know is subject to change.  Katy Perry’s desire for a romantic encounter with an extraterrestrial may remain largely fantastical on the best evidence we have, but she can still dream, can’t she? Yes she can: