[extropy-chat] When did intelligence first emerge in the universe?

George Dvorsky 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 
to entertain.

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 
solar power).

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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