The Long View: The Fate of Noospheres

John was an accomplished essayist. His book reviews really are long form essays inspired by the book he was reading. Often I learned things from his book reviews that weren't contained in the book he reviewed. In my mind, John exemplified the ideal of a liberal education. He had his areas of expertise, but he was not unfamiliar with most of the major currents of thought in the Western world. Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.

John wrote this essay in 1997. It exhibits many of the themes you can find in his later work. Interest in fundamental questions in science. An ability to integrate science with the liberal arts. A certain sense of humor founded in a partially cyclical view of history. A Thomistically informed sense that formal causes explain many of the interesting features of modern science.

As best I know, John was a fan of Jerry Pournelle. As as am I. Jerry Pournelle has admitted that he was influenced by cyclical theories of history, and that he is something of a Thomist. Pournelle has written books in which the survival of the human race depends upon us colonizing other worlds. You can see that kind of thinking in the Fate of Noospheres. Universal states that emerge cyclically. A narrow window in which we can spread ourselves to the stars. The propensity of man to ruin himself. John was heavily influenced by the apocalyptic [science] fiction of the 1970s.

You may notice that there is a note at the top of John's page that states that this item has been anthologized. I do not know whom John designated as the beneficiary of his estate. I think John's work should be widely read and appreciated. I think you should order the book, Apocaplyse & Future, which contains this essay and many others. I just don't know whom, if anyone, benefits from it's sale. Since John was a lawyer, I assume he took care of this. I just don't know the details.

The Fate of Noospheres:

An Essay on the Goal of History and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life


John J. Reilly

Table of Contents

Are there in fact any extraterrestrials?
Is the Earth a freak?
Evolutionary objections to intelligent life
Do intelligent species destroy themselves?
Are intelligent species imprisoned by persistent Dark Ages?
The Omega Point
Variations on the idea of a historical singularity


Fifty years ago, Enrico Fermi formulated what to many people still seems to be the definitive argument against the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life: "If they existed, they would be here." This essay argues that there is an explanation for the lack of apparent extraterrestrial intelligence other than nonexistence. I will also discuss some other explanations commonly put forward for why we would be unlikely to hear from alien civilizations, even if they did exist.

In essence, I am expanding on the hypothesis of the Jesuit paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), that the development of intelligence should be understood as a natural stage in the development of Earth's biosphere. Teilhard called this stage the development of the "noosphere," or region of mind. It is analogous to the biosphere, and so should also be understood as an ecology in which new emergent entities appear. The notion of the noosphere has undergone something of a revival in recent years, since the Internet has many of the characteristics Teilhard ascribed to this supposed theater of evolution. Though Teilhard's general theory of evolution has been criticized, perhaps rightly, for positing unnecessary vitalistic forces, nevertheless the basic outline of his model of history may tell us something important about the fate of our own noosphere, and by implication about the common fate of the noospheres of other planets.

Are there in fact any extraterrestrials?

Many other people, of course, have long claimed that not only are the extraterrestrials here, but that they have been personally assaulted by them. Putting aside the claims of UFO enthusiasts, however, the fact remains that Fermi's critique is acute. If species comparable to the human race occur at multiple times and places in the history of the universe, then they or their automata should have reached Earth a long time ago. This would be the case even if such species were very rare and interstellar travel were very difficult.

The rationale for this conclusion is simply a traditional Darwinian appeal to large numbers. That is: even evolutionary events that are vanishingly improbable at any one time become nearly inevitable if enough time is provided for them to occur. There is a large class of stars similar to Earth's sun in mass and composition, many of whose members are also billions of years older than Earth's sun. Any hypothetical planetary systems that circle these stars will be similarly older than Earth. A billion years is probably enough time to figure out how to do anything that is physically possible (certainly it is enough time for biology to do most things by accident). Sending machines between stars is physically possible, and at some point or points in the cultural history of an intelligent species, it will seem like a good thing to do. Various engineering proposals for how such exploration could be made self-sustaining by using self-replicating robots have been proposed from time to time, as have estimates of how long it would take such a process to expand across a galaxy, or even the observable universe. (The most thorough treatment of the subject with which I am familiar can be found in Barrow & Tipler's "The Anthropic Cosmological Principle.") The upshot of these analyses is usually that it would take an intelligent species a remarkably short fraction of the age of the universe to make its presence conspicuous just about everywhere.

There is no evidence that this has happened on even one occasion, however, much less the multiple occasions that would be expected if inhabited worlds were numerous. While this is a question for which the absence of evidence can never be definitive evidence of absence, still there has already been enough research to call into grave doubt the most optimistic estimates for the number of intelligent species in the universe. There are several SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) projects, which have done or are now completing large radio telescope surveys of the whole sky and of our stellar neighborhood. The results should reveal whether there is in fact any planet within hundreds of light years that is transmitting radio signals other than Earth itself. The size of the samples is large enough that a "no" answer would be significant information. (So, of course, would a "yes," in which case this essay goes into the historical file of elaborately reasoned false hypotheses.) Every day that extraterrestrials go undiscovered increases the possibility that there are none.

The problem with the mounting evidence that there are no extraterrestrials is that it should not be true. There is no good reason why intelligent life should not have arisen elsewhere than on Earth. However, there are a number of bad reasons why this should be the case.

Is the Earth a freak?

Perhaps the easiest objections to dispose of are those that argue that planets like Earth are themselves very rare. It is not hard to show that, if Earth's position from the sun were slightly different, or the surface temperature of the sun marginally higher or lower, then life on the surface of the Earth would be impossible. Similar arguments note that the gravitational pull of Earth's unusually large moon must have had an effect on the density of the atmosphere over time. Surely an otherwise similar planet without a similarly improbable companion would have an atmosphere like that of Venus.

The problem with these arguments is that they assume the factors deemed essential for life have been invariable over time. The history of the solar system is otherwise. The sun has been getting hotter throughout its lifetime, for instance, and the moon's orbit has been slowly expanding. The factors that make the Earth habitable are not independent, but affect each other. The non-mystical version of the Gaia hypothesis is almost certainly true: the atmosphere and the biosphere interact in such a way as to keep the surface temperature of the planet in a narrow band between the freezing and the boiling points of water. When conditions change in such a way as to tend to move the temperature out of this band, then the composition of the atmosphere changes to move it back. Why this happens is somewhat mysterious, but the existence of such a compensating mechanism does suggest that planets like Earth could exist within a wide range of masses and a wide range of distances from their suns.

No one argues that every planet with basic biology would necessarily go on to develop intelligent life. Speaking only with regard to the solar system, the best candidate for extraterrestrial life at this writing (July 24, 1997) is the Jovian moon Europa. This relatively small body appears to have a water ocean, in which it is easy to imagine life-forms existing like those at the volcanic vents at the bottoms of Earth's oceans. However, living as they would in lightless, aquatic conditions, it is very difficult to see why such creatures should progress further than their analogues on Earth. When we are talking about intelligent life, we are probably talking about life on fairly massive, dense bodies like the inner planets of the solar system. Any intelligent species is likely to be a land animal large enough to support an elaborate nervous system. The objections most difficult to answer, because so few of the questions involved are testable, are those which hold that animals should rarely if ever progress to tool-and-speech intelligence like that possessed by human beings.

Evolutionary objections to intelligent life

Many of the biological objections have been provided by evolutionary theorists such as Stephen Jay Gould. This approach to evolutionary history is a conscious attempt to combat the highly linear, progressive models of evolution that come to us from the nineteenth century. Gould's model of the biosphere as an expanding "sphere" of ever increasing biological diversity obviously has a lot to do with the relativist critical-literary theory that became popular in the closing decades of the 20th century. What we are really looking at is the ideology of ethnic and gender "diversity" being read into the history of the planet. If no civilization or culture is better than another, then neither is one biological lineage more central to the process of evolution than any other. Since man and peacocks, for example, both exist on Earth at the same time, this approach assumes that evolution is no more directed toward one than the other, and so that neither was more or less likely to have chanced into existence.

Scientists have to get their ideas from somewhere, so it is no objection to a scientific theory that it chimes with other notions that were abroad in the culture at the time the ideas were being conceived. Indeed, it would be odd if scientific inspiration worked any other way. What makes science different from most other human enterprises, however, is that such fashionable theories can be shown to be true or false on their merits.

Essentially, the "diversity theory" approach to the evolution of intelligence consists of reciting the details of the biological history that led to the human race in an aggrieved tone of voice, noting at every new development how improbable it was. Certain features of living organisms evolved only once, which suggests that they are hard to evolve, and so might not have evolved at all. By cataloguing these improbabilities in the biological history of the human race, some people argue that it can thereby be shown that such a sequence of accidents is highly unlikely to occur anyplace else in the universe.

Even analytically, there is something fishy about this school of thought. To some extent, the argument is a little like asserting that a pinball will stay in play forever, because any particular path it could travel to get to the hole at the bottom of the board is so unlikely. However, as we have already noted, unlikely results can nevertheless be inevitable. Furthermore, it is not at all clear that just because something happens once we may conclude that it was intrinsically unlikely to happen. To take the most glaring example, all the basic animal anatomies that exist today, indeed all that have ever existed, appeared within a remarkably short period of time about half-a-billion years ago. The reason seems to be that only so many basic structures are possible to multicellular organisms (keeping in mind that creatures as different as mice and whales can be said to have the same basic structures). There may be something about the chemistry of long molecules which dictates that many kinds of animals should have five digits, but that there should be no six-legged animals with backbones. Brian Goodwin, in his book How the Leopard Changed Its Spots, went so far as the argue that the real seat of heredity is in protein chains. Nucleic DNA may describe the structures of these chains, but actual organisms arise from the twisting and transformations they undergo for reasons of molecular geometry. If these things are in fact the case, then the structure of complex organisms is much less a matter of chance than has conventionally been assumed.

What is true for the development of individual organisms is at least as true for the development of the biosphere as a whole. A probably unanswerable objection to the hypothesis of a directionless evolutionary process was presented by Kenneth Boulding in his book, "Ecodynamics." Boulding simply noted that food chains are in fact pretty pyramidal, with height on the pyramid corresponding roughly to things like size and behavioral flexibility. The creatures that live in the pyramids are simply the incidents of evolution; in principle, and often in fact, any given lineage can move down as well as up in the food chain. Smart predators, in other words, can become the ancestors of dumb bottom feeders. The pyramid itself, however, is a structure of biological niches, of ways for organisms to make a living. Obviously, early in evolution, the pyramid will not be filled up very high, since no creature will have any great degree of sophistication. In any case, the bulk of the pyramid will always be at the bottom; it will always be "The Age of Bacteria." (For that matter, as long as the stars shine, the universe will always be in the "The Age of Hydrogen.") However, the pyramid will fill up closer and closer to the summit, simply because that is the one direction in which there is no competition. Eventually, probably within fairly narrow constraints of time, there will come a creature that can take advantage of the top niche, which is defined by language and tool use. This should be the pocket history of a myriad of worlds.

Finally, one may note that it is rarely a good idea to assume that you are unique. There is an argument against the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence which goes, roughly, that just because the chance is 50 million to one that any randomly selected person in Great Britain will be the Queen of England, this does not mean that there is no Queen of England. Earth, according to this logic, is the vanishingly rare Queen of England. The short (and maybe also the long) answer to this reasoning is that most people who think they are the Queen of England are folk who are off their anti-psychotic medication.

Let us therefore assume that there are and have been many planets in the universe roughly like Earth. Let us further assume that on all of them one or more species evolve that are roughly like human beings, in the sense that they occupy analogous ecological niches. (Under this definition, bumble bees are "like" humming birds, since they are in the same line of work. There may be comparable differences among intelligent species, but then again we may find that evolution is less imaginative than we are.) The fact that we do not observe them would then have to be explained by some historical development that prevents them from getting into space. Indeed, since our own civilization is in space to only the most limited degree, we cannot know for a fact that any civilization, ever, spreads across the universe, our own included. It might throw some light on the subject if we consider the possible scenarios under which we ourselves might remain substantially confined to Earth.

Do intelligent species destroy themselves?

A theory that had some popularity a few years ago might be called the "atomic suicide" hypothesis. The earliest instance of this proposal of which I am aware of is a story by Isaac Asimov, entitled "The Gentle Vultures." The premise was that all intelligent species are primates and that all destroy their civilizations in atomic wars a few generations after a local industrial revolution starts. The only exception is one non-aggressive species (the "gentle vultures" of the title), who travel about the universe saving the survivors of these catastrophes and incidentally doing very well by themselves. The story deals with the problem presented by the fact the human race, though just as aggressive as the rest, forestalled its destruction by chancing on the political device of the Cold War, and so threatened to escape into space.

Carl Sagan, in his later years, seemed to adopt a thesis like that of the "The Gentle Vultures." It particularly attracted him because of his hypothesis, based on his comparative study of planetary atmospheres, that a general nuclear exchange would so obscure the sun as to put not just human life but terrestrial life in general in jeopardy. This was the celebrated "nuclear winter" hypothesis. Sagan remarked that one of the things the discovery of an artificial extraterrestrial radio source would tell us is that it is in fact possible that we might survive our early nuclear era. Even so, the possibility would remain that very few species succeed in doing so. This was one of Sagan's answers to Fermi's question.

While impossible to simply dismiss, at this writing the atomic suicide hypothesis looks more and more like a period-piece. For one thing, Sagan's "nuclear winter" hypothesis has not stood up to examination. (On the other hand, it was helpful in developing estimates of the effects of asteroidal impacts, a subject that became popular at about the same time.) More generally, one may note that a persistent feature of Western culture since the late nineteenth century has been the formation of collective images of scientific apocalypses, of which nuclear war is only one example. (Pandemics have already in large part displaced nuclear war in fiction.) Now, it is quite possible that images of apocalypses may eventually occasion one. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe from our own experience that this danger is intermittent, since not all eras are apocalyptically-minded. A species would have only to create a handful of distant colonies for this class of threat to its survival to be almost entirely eliminated.

Are intelligent species imprisoned by persistent Dark Ages?

The more subtle arguments for why many species never get into space are cultural. On Earth so far, after all, only one technological civilization has appeared, and its interest in space is both recent and shaky. This suggests that such societies are "hard to evolve," or at any rate rare. Certainly the science and technology of the West are creatures of a context of religion and geography and climate that was entirely fortuitous. If man does not begin the process of colonizing space during the Western era, it is not clear that a similar opportunity will arise again.

Even within the lifetime of Western civilization, there may be only a limited window of time in which to begin the process. Space flight is a form of exploration, and we know that civilizations on Earth have generally been interested in exploration for only limited portions of their histories. If you posit a purely cyclical model of history, then it is easy to imagine a future stage in the history of the West that will be as closed and inward-looking as Ming China. It is conceivable that human history could result in a radically conservative planetary society that would freeze over and never melt. Such societies elsewhere in the universe could even be invisible to radio telescopy, if they put their communications on cable and other point-to-point technologies. The sky could be full of what are in effect prison-planets, and we would never know about them. Especially not after we joined their number.

The problem with the proposition that technological civilization is a an unlikely fluke is that, as in biology, unlikely flukes can nevertheless be inevitable flukes, if you wait long enough. For that matter, it may be that the apparently fortuitous origins of technological civilization are in fact simply a mask on a deeper determinism. Arnold Toynbee's universal model of history has been justly criticized on the details. Still, his basic insight that civilizations on Earth have appeared in "generations," each larger and more technologically capable than the last, remains perfectly valid. Cultural history, like evolutionary history, really is progressive, if by progressive you mean that emergent entities of a an increasingly superior order tend to appear as the system ages. The willingness and the ability to get into space are thus likely to be features of every world's historical process.

Toynbee's conclusion that particular civilizations usually congeal into oppressive "universal states" does nothing to alter his essentially melioristic view of history. Universal states, polities such as the Roman Empire or Han China that encompass the whole of an old civilization, are quite mortal. They last about 500 years and then collapse. Teratoidal states, such as the one satirized in George Orwell's "1984," also occur in history. They are characterized by pretentions to universality and the ambition to remake human nature. Asoka's fantastically over-policed Mauryan Empire was one example. The Soviet Union was another. Neither lasted more than a few generations. Whatever other dangers they may pose, the ability to stop history is not one of them.

So, once again, we are faced with a puzzle. Intelligent life should evolve elsewhere in the universe. There is no reason to suppose that intelligent species are particularly likely to destroy themselves or to become culturally trapped. So where the hell are they?

The obvious solution, of course, is that the colonization of the universe is not in the natural order of things. To put it another way, the life cycle of the typical noosphere does not include extensive expansion beyond its own planet. Evolution has a goal, but it can be achieved locally.

The Omega Point

Speaking only of the fate of the Earth, Teilhard believed that the noosphere would collapse into what he called the "Omega Point." He argument, essentially, is that evolution is largely a product of feedback. Not just individual organisms evolve, but whole living systems evolve as its members interact with each other. What is true of biology is even more true of culture: human history accelerates as communications become easier and horizons broaden. When the horizon has moved right around the world, that is, when there is a single world culture, then the process can proceed only by becoming more intense.

"An intensification of what?" The lack of an answer to this question is perhaps the chief conceptual problem with Teilhard's system. He spoke of "consciousness" and "complexity" rising to ever greater heights. What these things may be neither he, nor his readers, have ever been entirely sure. Teilhard himself did not seem to think that cybernetics was essential to the evolutionary process, so he was not talking about something as simple as ever faster information processing. On the other hand, he is alleged to have been interested in the possibility that psychic phenomena are be a hint of some emergent property that would transform human life at a later stage. Whatever the mechanism, Teilhard suggested that progress of this sort proceeded to an infinity in a finite length of time, an asymptotic limit perpendicular to the timeline of history that he called the "Omega Point."

Though he did not draw the analogy himself, many writers have since noted the similarity between Teilhard's eschatology and the collapse of stars above a certain mass into spacial singularities, which form astronomical "black holes." These, too, involve real infinities (at least as observed from the outside) that form in a finite length of time. Thus, we know that the concept of a singularity has relevance beyond pure mathematics.

Does it also have relevance to history? If something like this is also the goal of planetary histories, then alien civilizations would essentially disappear from the universe, probably within a few centuries of achieving a world society. Teilhard did once suggest that perhaps other worlds moved toward an Omega Point, as he believed the Earth was doing. However, he did not elaborate on the idea.

Variations on the idea of a historical singularity

Curiously, some of Teilhard's strongest critics have adopted his terminology and the general outline of his model of history. The cosmologist Frank Tipler, for instance, is a strong believer in computational artificial intelligence who therefore has no trouble describing what an "infinite mind" would be. It would be a computer that worked infinitely fast with an infinite degree of processing power. In The Physics of Immortality, he proposed that such an entity will in fact occur in the approach to a singularity at the end of the universe. Precisely why analogous entities should not occur in connection with lesser singularities is not at all clear.

While Tipler's ideas excited more comment than concurrence, there is also a class of cyber-enthusiasts called transhumanists who also equate consciousness with computation, but who hold that a "singularity" will happen locally, on Earth, at no distant date. This notion of a cyber-Omega Point is apparently well-enough known to be the object of satire. It seems to come in two flavors. There are those who argue that the singularity will remove the human race from the observable universe, after the manner of Teilhard's theory, while there are others who interpret "singularity" to mean only a point of flexion on the graph of history. The singularity then becomes the period of maximum rate of change. After it, the human race will be utterly changed, perhaps into something post-human. However, the critical period itself will probably be several years long, not a dimensionless and rather mystical point. It is interesting to note that this speculation reproduces, in all essentials, the theory propounded by the historian Henry Adams at the beginning of the 20th century (see his grimly-titled collection of essays, "The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma"). The difference is that Adams had history ending, in the sense of reaching maximum acceleration, sometime in the 1920s, whereas the transhumanists of the 1990s point to a date around the middle of the 21st century.

Adams and the transhumanists seem to be suggesting that mankind would soon accelerate to the maximum technological capacity allowed by physics and then coast forever after. A singularity in this sense would only exasperate the "where are they?" problem. Unless there is something we don't know about the difficulties of space travel, the laws of physics almost certainly allow for interstellar exploration, even if the fastest possible voyages between neighboring starts are years long. If every noosphere has a history that culminates in an Adams-like point of flexion, then they should explode into space early in their development. Again, they should be here. We should be them. Something is wrong.

The notion that the world will undergo some psychic revolution that will end history as we know it is scarcely new. Its chief expression in the 20th century was doubtless Arthur C. Clarke's novel, "Childhood's End." In that book, the advent of the Omega Point does not just end history, it blows up the planet. That book was, fundamentally, a horror story that put the worst possible interpretation on its premise. Still, something like the historical model it describes would have to be true in order to answer Fermi's question. If you accept Teilhard's view of the matter, perhaps the end of the world is not as bad as we have been led to believe.


This article appeared in the April 1998 issue of Ted Daniel's Millennial Prophecy Report

Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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