[extropy-chat] When did intelligence first emerge in the universe?
george at betterhumans.com
Thu Jun 22 20:58:20 UTC 2006
[I recently posted this on my blog. Feedback welcomed, hoping in
particular that my math is ok]
When did intelligence first emerge in the universe?
By George Dvorsky
Here’s a question that has a direct bearing on both the Drake Equation
and the Fermi Paradox: at what point during the universe’s history did
it become first capable of supporting life? More important to the SETI
discussion, however, is determining the earliest point at which a
radio-capable or Singularity era intelligence could have emerged. My
initial suspicion is that the conditions to support intelligence life
have been established for quite some time now – a conclusion that will
only reinforce the Fermi quandary rather than diminish it.
A lot of hand waving goes on when people dismiss the Fermi Paradox. The
fact that the universe isn’t already teeming with ETI’s and machine
intelligences is more disturbing than most people realize. One such
person is Ray Kurzweil who believes that we are the first (or among the
very first) intelligences in the universe to approach the Singularity. I
find this absurdly improbable, but it’s an hypothesis that I’m willing
For the sake of this discussion, let’s set aside Ward and Brownlee’s
Rare Earth hypothesis and invoke the self-sampling assumption about our
conditions here on Earth. We can heretofore assume that the
circumstances on Earth are extremely typical in regards to how life
emerges and evolves.
According to cosmologist Charles Lineweaver's estimates, planets started
forming 9.1 billion years ago. Obviously, radio-communicating or
pre-Singularity intelligences didn't emerge overnight. So, how long does
that take? Using the Earth as an example we can come up with a rough idea.
Life on Earth first emerged about 600 million years after its formation
(that’s awfully quick – a strike against the Rare Earth hypothesis, I
would say). Consequently, given similar conditions in other parts of the
universe, I’d say that life could not have arisen any earlier than
8.5Gyr ago. What I’d be interested to know is, in what way, if any, were
planets and solar systems different 8.5Gyr ago as compared to those
which formed 4.57Gyr ago (which is when the Earth formed)? Would any of
those differences negate or retard the processes of life?
The next factor to look at is the complexification of life. On Earth, it
took RNA/DNA about 3.7Gyr to get to the point where it was able to
express complex land dwelling organisms. This is the time when, about
220 million years ago, that dinosaurs emerged. It’s conceivable that
hominid-type creatures and their attendant civilizations could have
emerged around this time instead of super-predator dinosaurs. Let's work
with this assumption.
Now, I suppose we should account for the mass extinction events that
characterized the early phases of Earth. Given the short period of time
in which it’s taken Homo sapiens to emerge from beast to virtual cyborg
(less than 2 million years), it’s safe to say that the high frequency of
mass extinctions wouldn’t have been a factor.
That said, NEO impacts and other mass extinction events have been the
cause of drastic evolutionary re-starts, but have decreased in frequency
over the course of our solar system’s history. The solar system is
stabilizing. A fair question to ask is, were mass extinction events
necessary for the emergence of intelligence life, and if so, why?
Given the length of time required to go from the ignition of life
through to complex life, the earliest that civilizations could have
emerged on Earth is 220 million years ago. I'm going to conclude that
natural selection requires 3.7Gyr before it can express creatures that
are morphologically sophisticated enough to resemble humans. As an
interesting aside, that doesn’t necessarily suggest that organisms could
have evolved the cognitive capacity of humans at that time. For all we
know, the mammalian brain requires the 200 million years of evolution
and accumulated/refined DNA data to get to the sophistication it has
today. I’ll admit, however, that that’s a stretch; time-to-evolve is not
a fixed rate and is largely dictated by the severity of environmental
Using the 3.7Gyr metric, the earliest that complex humanoid life could
have emerged in our universe is 4.72Gyr ago. That figure does not negate
the Fermi Paradox. Given the potential emergence of intelligent life in
our galaxy around that time, and given Fermi’s estimate that an ETI
could colonize the galaxy within 10 million years, our galaxy could have
been colonized nearly 500 times over by now.
Let’s try to whittle the figure down even further. Assuming that an
advanced civ could have emerged on earth 220 million years ago, what
would they have used to fuel their industrial revolution? Working under
the assumption that fossil fuels are a necessary prerequisite for an
industrial revolution to occur, how many years of accumulated biomass is
required? By the same token, how much biomass is required to get to the
Today, considering the threat of peak oil, we don’t know the answer to
that question ourselves. We know that human civilization had enough to
get to an industrialized phase of existence, but we don't actually know
if we have enough energy to get to the Singularity (although I'm
inclined to believe that we do).
Let’s assume here, however, that we have enough energy to make it. Vast
forests of clubmosses (lycopods), horsetails, and tree ferns started to
cover the land 300 million years ago – biomass that decayed and
eventually formed coal and oil. Let’s use that as our metric for the
time required to establish energy needs. That knocks our figure of
3.7Gyr down to 3.4Gyr – barely a dent.
I’m making an assumption, here – that the presence of oil and coal are a
necessary condition for the emerge of radio-capable and pre-Singularity
intelligences. I remember getting into a discussion with Eliezer
Yudkowsky about this a number of years ago who begged to differ. He
essentially claimed that 'where there’s a will there’s a way,'
particular given long enough time frames (I think he used the example of
I’m still unconvinced and would argue that fossil fuels are absolutely
necessary. I'm going to use that in our calculation to push back the
emergence of complex civs in the universe from 4.72Gyr ago to 4.42Gyr ago.
There are undoubtedly a plethora of factors I’m either omitting or
exaggerating. The exact conditions required for the emergence of
human-like intelligences may be more complex than it appears, and the
universe may only be intelliphillic at this unique time (a violation of
the Copernican Principle, I know, but one that should be considered; is
the universe entering a phase transition?).
Formalizing my argument about when intelligences could first emerge in
the universe, I'm going to use this as a starting equation:
[y.a. planets formed (P)] – [years it takes for life to emerge (L)] –
[years it takes for DNA to become hominid-expressible (H)] – [years it
takes to accumulate required biomass for energy (E)] = [y.a.
radio-capable civs first emerged in the galaxy (A)]
P – L – H – E = A
Using my figures (in Gigayears):
9.1 – 0.6 – 3.78 – 0.3 = 4.42Gyr
So, it’s conceivable that Singularities and outward galactic expansions
could have happened as long as 4.42 billion years ago. This is still an
immense amount of time, keeping the Fermi problem deeply relevant.
So, where is everybody?
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