What If We Are The First Civilization?

What if we actually do inhabit a Universe where life, at least complex life is unbelievably rare. So rare that in the immense dark fathoms of deep time, with near infinite real estate, intelligent life arose exactly once. Us. There is no pantheon of intergalactic minds. “We’re first” is one of the three classes of answers to the Fermi Paradox, the other two being “we’re rare” and “we’re fucked.”

Few scientists I’ve spoken to take “we’re first” answers seriously. It seems statistically unlikely; the Galaxy is filled with planets very much like ours orbiting stars very much like ours, and this planet is actually about two billion years younger than average in our galaxy, giving plenty of other places a considerable head start on developing life.

I tend to agree with that understanding but what if? What if it is not true.

What if we are the first? The first (and so oldest) aliens, the first in the time stream who will time travel or the first in the universe who will discover interstellar travel. This would explain why there have not been visitors from the future because we are the very first to invent the time machine and do that. I love author Larry Niven’s thoughts on this: If time travel is possible, the universe will keep being changed (by time-travellers) until a state is reached where time travel is never invented. That universe will not change. And we’re living in it.

It would also explain why we haven’t seen aliens, maybe it’s because WE are the first “aliens” to travel interstellar and colonize the galaxy, only to discover other species who are just a couple million or a couple of thousand years behind us.

I think people (scientists are just people who know science) tend to dismiss the “we’re first” position too easily because it seems born out of hubris, wishful thinking, dreams of exceptionalism, or religious nonsense.

I can see a more plausible scenario, goes like this:

  • Resources needed to sustain a growing population are always limited to the planet the species is on. Space exploration is great, but it will not produce the additional water, air, carbon dioxide or space needed to grow.
  • Technology consumes resources, as does population growth.
  • Societies like ours that are dedicated to growth and consumption eventually deplete their resources and vanish. That kind of conscious, then, might well be deemed an aberration, cosmically speaking.
  • That tendency is clearly due to a particular kind of “consciousness” that humans have evolved. But rather than being an unequivocally good thing, that kind of consciousness may ultimately be self-defeating.
  • Societies that thrive are those that learn to live in a mildly-adjusted “harmony” with nature–or homeostasis, really–where they are not taking more from the environment than they are giving back.
  • A population that is living in that manner (whether consciously, as we know of consciousness), or in a more automatic way, like other species on this planet) do not (or unable to) do much in the way of space exploration or technology development–and in any case they are liable to be limited to a relatively small area, given the size of the universe.
  • So there are likely to be a relatively large number of planets containing life that have never ventured out looking for others.
  • Of those that have ventured out, their “visitation possibilities” are extremely limited.
  • Any such visitation would probably be limited to say, a probe containing automated-interaction systems of some kind. The best design would probably limit the probe’s life to 1,000 years, at most. (Even were it totally self-sustaining, jungle overgrowth, earthquakes, and other natural disasters would inevitably overtake it, in time.) Or it might touch down, stay a few years, and then move on. Either way, any such contact would be fleeting and ephemeral, recorded only in myth and legend.
  • Any records of such contact would be irretrievably lost by a species such as ours, with the kind of consciousness that goes around burning each other’s libraries on the theory that if what they say is in our religious texts, they’re redundant, and if not, they’re heretical.

But let’s consider the alternatives. If intelligence is common in the Universe, we would have seen signs. Even with interstellar distances what they are, some narcissistic and evangelical civilization would have sent, at the very least, unmanned probes to other stars to bring knowledge of their existence and/or spread their knowledge and principles. There’s no reasonable counter-argument; even if most civilizations destroy themselves before they reach that stage, it is hugely unlikely that all would. Even if most civilizations prefer navel-gazing, it is hugely unlikely that all would.

So intelligence is not common (the only other possibility is that we are under some sort of pointless quarantine). It is really not hard to believe this rarity. It took more than a billion years since life evolved for intelligence to arise. Our Galaxy has roughly 100,000,000,000 stars. If only 1 in 1,000 has planets with conditions to make life possible, and life only starts in 1 out of 1,000 potential incubators, and intelligence only arises in 1 out of 1,000 cases where life starts, well, that makes 100 intelligent civilizations arising in the Galaxy at some point. Say the propensity to self-destruct or navel-gaze accounts for 95% of them (not that unlikely)–now it’s not that hard to begin that of the remaining handful we may be either the first or far enough away for expanding probes of the others to not have reached us.

What about the other 100,000,000,000 galaxies? Here, distances are so immense that almost certainly nobody would attempt to travel or communicate. We can’t know if we’re first. We know we’re rare. So if we self-destruct, it will be a real pity…

Bottom line: The probability that is life out there is enormous. That probability that it evolved technology (and still exists) is very much smaller. The probability that they are within hailing distance is smaller yet. The probability that any such “hailing” would be recognized, and then remembered, is smaller still.

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