Are we alone in the universe? With the billions of habitable planets that exist in the cosmos, how is it that we’ve not yet seen the evidence of life beyond that of Earth? This question, also known as the Fermi Paradox, has likely been posed since the dawn of mankind, as we’ve looked to the skies in awe about what other lifeforms might exist beyond the ones confined to our own terrestrial rock – intelligent or otherwise. Much time has passed since the question was asked for the first time, yet the cognitive and technological advancements that we’ve made since then have done precious little to illuminate the answer. Perhaps instead of peering through the vast depths of space in pursuit of a solution, we might want to look down for a change, and use the only data point that we have on life in the universe to our advantage
– — here on Earth.
Every lifeform, whether a single-celled prokaryote or a multicellular macroscopic organism, is in some way or another a participant in a localized competition for resources. The reproductive nature of life requires a given environment to contain a relative abundance of materials for all its inhabitants, ensuring the multiplication of its populations and the survival of future generations. The greatest obstacles for an organism to achieve such goals are other living things that share the same objective. If inferior species are unable to contend with this harsh reality, they go extinct. This cruel nature of Darwinism and the survival of the fittest phenomenon transcends throughout all life on Earth.
As apex predators that have spread to every corner of the planet, one might argue that this universal attribute to life does not apply to humans. Yet in our current social structure, amidst a rapidly changing climate, we see just how evident the competition for resources has on the survival of billions of humans and animals alike. Today, most other animals are so utterly at our mercy that we wipe out hundreds of species a day just as an unintentional byproduct of how we like to run things. Not applying the same competitive outlook to life on a galactic scale might just be our own undoing.
Given the exponential energy growth required to evolve as a more advanced civilization, our reigns of influence will inevitably grow beyond that of Earth and the solar system, potentially encompassing our entire galaxy. The question remains as to how we should react when stumbling upon a civilization that may very well have had a similar destructive upbringing.
From a pragmatic standpoint, different alien civilizations should vary from the mild and meek to the malevolent and militaristic. The existential problem we’re facing is that when we meet others between the stars, we have no way of telling who is peaceful or aggressive,
and nor what their true intentions are. Similarly, they might not understand or trust our intentions even if we tell them that we’re friendly.
Moreover, if we did discover another civilization and they discovered us, the light years between us would mean years of communication delay. Both sides would be in a state of uncertainty, wondering if the wisest move is simply attacking, to which the only contingency of survival is the first strike advantage. War between civilizations might be just about eliminating the other to remove an existential threat to yourself. These conflicts may not be lengthy affairs, but rapid winner takes all situations
– — where the first one to shoot wins. If every civilization is an existential threat to the other, there may be only two kinds of civilizations out there: quiet ones and dead ones.
The universe should be perceived as a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter, stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside obstacles that block the path and treading without sound; even breathing is done with care. The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest there are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life—another hunter, a demon or an angel, a delicate infant or a frail old man, a fairy or a demigod—there’s only one thing he can do: place them under the crosshairs of extinction.
What should be the ultimate takeaway for humans given the potential of the dark forest hypothesis? Pump the breaks, perhaps. For the last few decades we’ve thoughtlessly launched voyager missions and electromagnetic pulses into the void in hopes of there being a recipient, however unlikely. Perhaps our curiosities should be tempered slightly, given the possibly fatal repercussions of making that elusive first contact. For the time being, it seems the best we can do is to carefully listen. Even if we see others step into a clearing and make themselves known, we should not reply right away but carefully watch them from the undergrowth.