Brett: Now, that’s one argument, and we have to be humble in the face of uncertainty here because no one knows. But I want to give an argument that rarely gets any air time.
The argument is that we are alone.
The argument has nothing to do with astronomy; it has everything to do with biology. The argument goes like this: Look at planet Earth and look at the number of species not only that exist right now—millions of them—but also the number of species that have ever existed on planet Earth, which is hundreds of millions.
Life arose something like three and a half billion years ago, and for about two and a half billion years there was nothing but bacteria. So life apparently doesn’t have much impetus to evolve quickly beyond bacteria; it just remains as simple as possible.
A lot of people have this misconceived idea that Darwin really did away with—the idea that evolution has a direction in mind. You see these pictures of evolution that appear in high school textbooks of the monkey that’s hobbling around on all fours; then he’s hunched over; and then eventually he is standing up and holding a briefcase, as if this is what evolution had in mind. It only seems to be what evolution had in mind in retrospect, by looking backward.
There’s an American academic, Charley Lineweaver, who calls this the “Planet of the Apes” hypothesis—as in, if you remove the humans from a planet, the apes would naturally evolve to fill the intelligence niche.
He said you could imagine another situation where you’re an elephant that is able to think about themself. They reflect on the length of their trunk, and they look back through biological evolution and see that trunks get ever shorter. So what they conclude is, “Ah, evolution has been geared towards making ever-longer trunks. That’s what evolution is all about.”
Of course, we can see that that’s ridiculous. It just happens to be the case that this creature called the elephant has evolved and it’s got this long trunk, but the length of the trunk doesn’t appear to be a convergent feature of evolution.
A convergent feature of evolution is a feature that exists within biological entities that has arisen again and again, independently. Wings are my favorite example. Fish have wings of a certain kind. There are flying fish. Butterflies have wings, so we’ve got them in insects. They arose in mammals as well, with flying foxes and certain kinds of possums. And, of course, birds and dinosaurs had wings as well.
Independently, in all these species, the wings keep arising. So do eyes, and so do organs for sound.
Now let’s think about the capacity to do mathematics or to build radio telescopes—in other words, to be an intelligent, creative species. How many times has that arisen in the geological history of the Earth? In one species and one species alone.
Can we conclude on that basis that, therefore, it’s inevitable that intelligent species will arise? If you were to repeat the experiment by sprinkling a few bacteria around all the bio-friendly planets that exist throughout the universe, would you be guaranteed to get an entity like us?