Paul Chefurka and the Fermi Paradox

I’ve had a link from this Samadhisoft Blog to Paul Chefurka’s Blog for a long time.  I’ve always found what’s he’s written to be interesting and insightful.

Recently, he and I engaged in an on-line chat in which The Fermi paradox was mentioned.

Read this Wiki article to come up to speed on the Fermi Paradox if you are unsure about the idea.

Paul directed me to an article he’d written on The Fermi Paradox which I quite enjoyed and it inspired me to write one of my own in response.  

You will find Paul’s article is here.

My article is below.  My article will make a lot more sense to you, if you read Paul’s first.

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The Laws of thermodynamics are, indeed, an excellent base upon which to begin any chain of reasoning.

It wasn’t until I read, “Into the Cold – Energy Flow, Thermodynamics and Life” by Eric D. Scheider and Dorion Sagan, that I really ‘got’ thermodynamics.

Before that, I wondered how, in an existence where the Second Law held sway, life could manage to evolve and get more complex. I’d worked out for myself that in excess energy environments, such as on a planet near a sun, the excess energy could be stored as organization and complexity. but this book really put it all together for me.

For me, the conservation of energy idea is a deep principle. Nature rarely, if ever, does anything wasteful. I see this idea as extendable into evolution, biology and psychology. I often talk about the ‘conservation of cognitive energy’.

So, back to your treatise on Fermi’s Paradox.

I quite agree that the laws of thermodynamics will, in energy abundant situations, tend to support self-replication mechanisms and these will eventually lead to simple life.

I also agree with your Carbon-Oxygen logic. Carbon’s four bonds are a wonder among the denizens of the periodic table.

But then I think there’s a jump in your story that could be better paved with connecting logic. That is the jump from simple life (prokaryotic bacterial) to complex (eukaryotic multicellular).

Here I can highly recommend a seminal book; “Rare Earth – Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe” by Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee.

They show, pretty convincingly, that the jump from simple to complex life is a very tough jump and may be quite rare.

If we assume that the jump to complex life has occuured someplace (and obviously it has here) and that the environment there has remained stable enough for the complex life forms to advance to generalized intelligence, then I quite agree that the local environment needs to provide certain things to support their ascension to civilization. I.e., energy in the form of hydrocarbons and also easily available metallic ores.

After this point in your discussion, you move into a projection of how the newly intelligent species will learn to use carbon to power its civilization’s rise.  And you surmize that this use of carbon and the associated rise of a civilization will prove to be a fatal feedback loop for them.

I agree, my friend, but I think there’s another link in all of this that would more causally connect it all.

What I find needed here is the ‘why’.

Why would an intelligent species engage in a self-destructive pattern and continue on with it even when, apparently, it has the intelligence to see the error of its ways and the consequences thereof.

This is a subject I have been thinking about for years. And I think the answer lies in our evolutionary psychology.

Our perceptions and thoughts have not been bred for fidelity; much as we might imagine they have been. They have been bred, rather, for survival through unrelenting evolutionary selection pressures.

Thus we do not see all colors equally, for example. We see many more shades of green than we do shades of red or orange. Seeing what was in the green foliage around us was quite important for our survival. We do not have equal fidelity across the range our hearing range. We hear best in those sub-ranges most critical for our survival.

It is the same with our ability to think logically.


There is, for example, no real difference between something happening now verses something happening at another time. Nor is there a real difference between something happening here or something some miles from here. And, finally, something can be equally significant regardless of whether it is a concrete thing or an abstract idea.

And yet, unless we are cognizant of these biases and consciously train ourselves to oppose them, we will in general, as a species, react more to now vs then, more to here vs. there and more to concrete vs. abstract.

It is why we generally favor the short-term gains over the long-term consequences so many times and so irrationally.

It is why we don’t mind killing people and animals at some time in the future in a remote part of the planet due to some abstraction like our need for Palm Oil.

If you set yourself to watch for the now vs. then, here vs. there and concrete vs. abstract dichotomies, you will begin to see them in the irrationally all around you.

Consider where expressions like, “Once burned, twice shy” come from. They are born of folk observations of these same truths.

One of the most important legacies of our environmental heritage that lives on in us is what I call our biological imperatives:

The idea is that all biological forms here on earth, from very near the beginning of biological evolution until the present, share a deep inborn imperative to propagate their genes forward in time and to create and protect spaces within which their progeny can grow to maturity so that they can, in their turn, propagate their genes forward as well.

It is a strategy which has served all of biology very well up until now.

But now, one species, us, has become so powerful that we’ve broken free of all the checks and balances of the natural world.  And we’ve grown until we’ve covered the planet.

And now, with no more frontiers to conquer and no more spaces to fill, our biological imperatives driven strategies have finally, after billions of years, come to the place where its applicability has run out and a new strategy that acknowledges limits has to be implemented or we are going to self destruct and take much of the biosphere with us.

All around us, the collect ‘we’ is still trying to maximize power, sexual partners, calories, military power and etc. And virtually all of ‘us’ are still driven by our biological imperatives.

It’s not surprising.  3.5 billion years of evolution have conserved, enshrined and focused these urges in us. Realize that all those who were less driven by these urges, fell before those who were more driven. And those who survived these contests became our ancestors and, finally, they became us.

The old brain still speaks these urges to us. Hunger urges, sexual urges, urges to manage our space for our progeny and so on.

Our irrationality as a species arises largely, I think, from these biological imperative urges. And we, the supposedly rational creatures that we fancy ourselves to be, think that we’ve conquered and controlled these urges. The evidence that this is ludicrous lies littered all around us.

So, I think that if a species could somehow, through conscious intentionality, control or transcend these biological urges in itself, that species would have little trouble seeing the logic of forming a civilization with the goal of living within a sustainable footprint on its’ birth planet.

And such a species could survive indefinitely on that planet nurturing the biosphere around it and sharpening its technological prowess so that its quality of life could continue to improve even while it held its population and its the footprint constant.

And, in time, as its technology matured, it might manage to venture into the stars.

But, we haven’t heard from anyone.  And one wonders is complex life is a very rare phenomenon as per Ward and Brownlee?

And if, when life does manage this rare jump to complexity, if it then almost invariably fails to manage the next jump; the need to transcend its own biological urges?

And if, very very rarely, some planet’s biology has managed to do both jumps, then what are the chances that they are, right now, in a technological window now where we could even recognize them?

With events so rare, they could easily be, and probably are, a million years behind us or ten million ahead of us. Time is a vast and deep thing.

And with events so rare, might not they be on the other side of our galaxy or even in another?

And then there’s the speed of light.

All our science fiction authors like to posit that we’ll learn to break it. But it may be simply an absolute limit. And anyone wanting to go voyaging to the stars will have a very slow time of it.

And then there’s the question of motivation.

I’m sure we would be motivated, as we are now, to engage in such explorations.

But would the species we would be, if we learned to transcend our biological imperatives, still feel those same expansive urges?

Perhaps after seeing 100 other planets or 1000 other planets after such long and grinding sub-light speed journeys, a star faring civilization would just get ‘get over it’ and turn to some more local form of navel-gazing that we cannot even imagine now.

The Singularity Concept says that things in the not too distant future will become so very different from how we understand things now that after that point we simply won’t be able to do any meaningful extrapolations.  So, in truth, we are really quite blind to try to look forward very far.

Thanks for sharing your piece on the Fermi Paradox, Paul. It got my own juices flowing. (smile)


Dennis Gallagher

One Response to “Paul Chefurka and the Fermi Paradox”

  1. Dennis, it was a remarkable experience reading this piece. I’ve become so accustomed to thinking of myself as being alone with this understanding that it’s quite shocking to find there is someone else who has the same vision.

    You have articulated my entire train of thought, and illustrated it in ways I hadn’t thought of. You might have noticed that my writing on this is somehat sketch-like. I hit the big strokes, but don’t worry overmuch about putting flesh on the bones. You do that extremely well.

    I know of Peter Ward, but I hadn’t heard of the book you mention, “Rare Earth”. I always understood that the jump to complex life wasn’t adequately addressed in any of my work to explain how we got to where we are, but again, I didn’t worry about it much. The approach I’ve taken is along the lines of “assume this happens…” – kind of like the famous New Yorker cartoon of scientists at a blackboard where one box in a long, complex equation reads simply, “Here a miracle occurs.” I’ll check out the book – it sounds like it will fill in a gap or two.

    I agree about evolutionary imperatives. One of the cornerstones of my work is evolutionary psychology. I don’t address it in the Fermi essay, but I do in some other articles. I think you have its role exactly right.

    One piece I’d add is from evolutionary biology, that the human brain has developed a raft of special-purpose signal processing circuits that operate below the level of consciousness, like motion sensors, pattern discriminators and comparators, risk assessment calculators etc. they offload our cerebral logic circuits, but with the price that their operatiion is unconscious – a price that is extremely steep given the requirements of living in the heavily abstracted industrial environment we have created.

    Given the assumption that intelligent technological life has evolved, the big question is whether it might, “through conscious intentionality, control or transcend these biological urges.” I tend to doubt it, mostly because there would be very little evolutionary pressure to do so. I have a hard time imagining what environmental condition would favour prioritizing conscious analysis over biological reactivity. Or rather I can imagine it – we face such a situation right now – but it has happened so late in the game that there is no time for selection to make it a part of our species’ behavioural repertoire.

    I completely agree with your final reasoning about the rarity of the necessary chain of events, and the barriers raised by the times and distances involved.

    Although I was entranced by Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity concept when I was involved in computer science, I have since set it aside. My reason is largely because the assumed path toward the Singularity is being washed away by the rising flood of ecological and complex-systems catastrophes that we are facing over the next couple of decades. There isn’t enough time, and too much of the planet is not fertile ground for such an event. In fact, it’s a canonical WEIRD idea : Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Most of the planet is not WEIRD… My take on a “singularity” these days comes out of the non-dualist traditions of ancient India, and has nothing to do with the material world.

    In case you haven’t seen it, Dave Cohen has written a similar deconstruction of Fermi’s Paradox on his blog, written at almost the same time that I wrote mine. His emphasis is different, but his conclusions are largely the same:

    Thank you again for writing such a fine companion piece to my original bullet-point “essay” on the topic. One doesn’t find kindred spirits off in this corner of the realm very often!

    Warm regards,