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Are Habitable Exoplanets Bad News For Humanity? 608

An anonymous reader writes "The discovery of Kepler-186f last week has dusted off an interesting theory regarding the fate of humanity and the link between that fate and the possibility of life on other planets. Known as the The Great Filter, this theory attempts to answer the Fermi Paradox (why we haven't found other complex life forms anywhere in our vast galaxy) by introducing the idea of an evolutionary bottleneck which would make the emergence of a life form capable of interstellar colonization statistically rare. As scientists gear up to search for life on Kepler-186f, some people are wondering if humanity has already gone through The Great Filter and miraculously survived or if it's still on our horizon and may lead to our extinction."
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Are Habitable Exoplanets Bad News For Humanity?

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  • by gweihir ( 88907 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @05:50PM (#46836267)

    But the way the human race is behaving currently, getting off this dirtball in any meaningful way seems exceedingly unlikely.

    • Heh. Well, you can take man from nature, but you can't take the nature out of man.

    • by Aereus ( 1042228 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:09PM (#46836433)

      The biggest issue I see happening is, we've used up all of the "easy resources" on the planet. So if for some reason we have some kind of global conflict that significantly sets back civilization/technology, we may lose our chance of ever exploring space.

      Trying to rebuild our industrial technology back up from scratch when the required resources are gone, require advanced processing, or the rest is now 5 miles deep; might make it impossible in any meaningful timeframe.

      • by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:22PM (#46836523)
        We haven't created or destroyed any elements. We just use them, or modify the chemicals they are in. If we need them (and have dug them all up), we can't mine them from the ground, but we can mine them from the landfills and buildings, like some are doing with copper now. Materials are more easy, not less easy.
        • by blippo ( 158203 )

          I think we have lost a fair amount of Helium though.

          Selling the surplus of Helium at a discount seems to be unusually shortsighted since that's more or less what's left on earth and the alternative is to mine it from space somehow.

        • by CrimsonAvenger ( 580665 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:42PM (#46836709)

          If we need them (and have dug them all up), we can't mine them from the ground, but we can mine them from the landfills and buildings, like some are doing with copper now.

          It should be noted that as recently as WW2, Italy was "mining" the slag heaps from Roman-era iron mines. It had more iron in it than any remaining, easily accessible ore bodies in Italy.

        • The problem is that getting those elements back requires energy in most cases. The exact elements that the grand parent was referring to are the ones that allow us to get started producing energy with which to do useful things. Sure, all the elements for oil still exist, but the actual oil doesn't, and to get the oil, we need energy.

      • Actually any follow on civilization would find vast quantities of highly processed resources all over the place, locations we currently call cities. Even a widespread nuclear war would still leave large amounts of steel, copper and aluminum sitting around for exploitation.
        • All of it highly radioactive. Yummy.

          • Yes, just like Hiroshima and Nagasaki are radioactive hell holes. Unless we're using dirty bombs, most cities/ruins will be completely safe 10-20 years after the balloon goes up. Plus, not every city will be nuked
      • The biggest issue I see happening is, we've used up all of the "easy resources" on the planet.

        Except for those that conservative groups don't want you to use. ;-)

    • by smaddox ( 928261 )

      Agreed. Just look at the progression of so called civilization. The US's economy is becoming more and more of a service economy. Entertainment is becoming a larger and larger fraction of the GDP. I don't see how a species can hope to survive the next catastrophe when people are more interested in living hedonistic lives. As soon as people start to really feel the pressure of finite resources, war and eventual nuclear holocaust seem inevitable. It wouldn't take very many H-bombs to screw up the global climat

    • by Intrepid imaginaut ( 1970940 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:39PM (#46836679)

      In a mere couple of thousand years we've managed to move from "indoor plumbing lolwut" for most of the planet to space flight and fast cheap intercontinental travel. I'd say we're doing pretty well.

      As for the great filter, one need only look at the number of mass extinctions that have occurred naturally. Even should the conditions for life as we know it be relatively common (as in life capable of interstellar exploration, not just subsisting under fifty kilometers of ice), the odds of intelligent life arising might be a tiny fraction of that. There could be an enormous array of variables in play, maybe local galactic conditions have only recently matured sufficiently to allow life to exist. Maybe we could simply be freak occurrences. Maybe nobody has managed to figure out FTL travel and they'll get round to us in a few millennia. Maybe nobody's got listening posts within the couple of light years it takes for our radio noise to peter out.

      Am I saying the Drake Equation is almost certainly full of shit? Why yes I am.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by kheldan ( 1460303 )
      You're far too kind. By the way the human race is behaving currently, we don't deserve to get off this dirtball anytime soon. For fuck's sake, look at us! We hurt and kill each other for stupid reasons. We have entire cultures that consider women (and others!) to be less than a human being. We have assholes who attack, seriously (and profoundly!) injure and kill little girls because they have the audacity to want to learn how to read and write. We haven't proven we can adequately care for the environment of
    • by Grog6 ( 85859 )

      There seems to be more overall effort into the obstruction of further progress, than to encourage it.

      If we don't get off the planet, there will be an extinction eventually; either an asteroid or a "terrible mistake".

      Either way, dispersal is really the only option in the long run.

      If it weren't for the politicians, we would have had more moon missions, and the Shuttle wouldn't have turned out to be the clusterfuck it turned out to be.
      (If you were along for the ride, the shuttle program was supposed to be comp

  • Fermi paradox (Score:5, Insightful)

    by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Thursday April 24, 2014 @05:53PM (#46836283) Homepage Journal

    answer: Space is really big.

    A race could have populate half the galaxy's out there and we still wouldn't know.

    • by tomhath ( 637240 )
      Millions of races could have (and probably did) come into existence and gone extinct since the beginning of the Universe. Life on Earth has only been able to do more than look up at the stars for an extremely short time.
    • by erice ( 13380 )

      answer: Space is really big.

      A race could have populate half the galaxy's out there and we still wouldn't know.

      Space is big but time is also vast. A civilization that build Von Neumann machines could occupy the entire galaxy is half a million years, even with travel at rather slow speeds. []

      And such a civilization could have arisen any time in last billion years.

      • Re:Fermi paradox (Score:5, Insightful)

        by geekoid ( 135745 ) <dadinportland&yahoo,com> on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:29PM (#46836587) Homepage Journal

        Because they aren't possible? becasue they have populated the other half of the galaxy? becasue they don't need to grow that fast? becasue they have all been wiped out be a variety of event. Specifically wiped out faster then they can be built?

        It's like getting a thimble of water from the ocean and asking "where are all the fish?"

      • one tenth lightspeed is not slow at all, and in fact more likely to get a vessel destroyed as contact with the smallest pebble would be disaster. And Von Neumon starships have even more obstacles to their existence than life itself; it's one thing to have a creature with muscles and digestive system, another for a machine with a fusion motor in its butt needing tons of helium-3 or deuterium

      • by Firethorn ( 177587 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @07:06PM (#46836935) Homepage Journal

        Life itself is the 'original' Von Neumann machines...

        My theory on it is a bit different: If you posit that travel is indeed restricted to 'slow' speeds, IE 1-2% of light speed, and that habitable planets are rare enough that they're quite far apart, you run into that travel between solar systems with habitable planets can take sufficient time for significant amounts of evolution to take place.

        Summary: By the time the generation ship manages to reach the new system, it's significantly likely to have evolved to be more suited to live in space, not a planet. At which point it concentrates on colonizing the asteroid belt and such, not bothering with the planet that so interested their ancestors.

        Alternatively: We're becoming more and more concerned with conservation today. If this is a common function of intelligent life, our system could have been identified as a potential life-evolving one millions and millions of years ago and declared a nature preserve or something, in the hope that something like us would evolve.

    • From TFA:

      The absence could be because intelligent life is extremely rare, or because intelligent life has a tendency to go extinct.

      EVERYTHING that does not get off the planet it is currently occupying goes extinct. Planets die. Suns die.

      Getting off the planet (and out of the solar system) is difficult because space is so HUGE.

      The "paradox" depends upon a the assumption that a race COULD successfully colonize another solar system before they died / their planet died / their sun died.

      Maybe that is possible. B

      • They don't even have to do it before their planet/sun dies, so long as they leave before their planet/sun dies.

      • by Kjella ( 173770 )

        Our one example hasn't really been around for very long though, all estimates of the Sun's life cycle indicates Earth should remain habitable for another billion years or more. Where were we even a thousand years ago? It doesn't matter if the technology isn't ready until 3014, it's still a blink of an eye on the time scales we're talking here. And there's already semi-realistic craft designs like Project Orion that'll take hundreds of years to reach the next star, not tens of thousands. Unless the world goe

    • Exactly. We can barely detect planets never mind any kind of starship or technological civilization.

  • Maybe it's just us (Score:5, Insightful)

    by idontgno ( 624372 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @05:53PM (#46836289) Journal

    Maybe the inhabitants of those other planets aren't ravening imperialist douchebags. In that case, I'm liking our odds.

    Consider Jack Handey's observation:

    I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world because they'd never expect it.

    --Jack Handey, Deep Thoughts

  • Maybe we're just the first to develop? Or simply faster than light travel hasn't been invented.
    • by Animats ( 122034 )

      Maybe we're just the first to develop?

      Unlikely. As stellar evolution goes, ours is one of the later stars.

      • Maybe we're just the first to develop?

        Unlikely. As stellar evolution goes, ours is one of the later stars.

        Yes but many of those earlier stars and solar systems didn't have the same complexity of elements
        which may be necessary for life. It's possible only 3rd or 4th generation stars, etc... support life.
        I also read recently that someone calculated the age of our dna based on a certain metric
        and their number came out older than earth's age. If this is true then it gives credibility to the
        panspermia theory. Another interesting observation based on the big bang is that the universe went
        thru a brief period of tim

      • Re:First? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:39PM (#46836675)
        Ours is not one of the early-generation stars, but life as we know it requires some trace heavy metals, so complex organism require later generation stars (so that the older stars can generate heavy elements and nova them out). So we are a young system, but could be the oldest capable of life as we know it.
  • by werepants ( 1912634 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:07PM (#46836405)

    If Kepler-186f is teeming with intelligent life, then that would be really bad news for humanity because it would push back the Great Filter’s position further into the technological stages of a civilization’s development. This would imply that catastrophe awaits both us and our extraterrestrial companions.

    No it wouldn't, because then Fermi's Paradox is solved - Fermi's Paradox exists because we Earthicans are, by all appearances thus far, the only life that exists, intelligent or otherwise. If the first exoplanet we manage to check harbors intelligent life, then it would suggest that there is a lot of intelligent life out there, and it is just effing hard to communicate and travel over interstellar distances.

    • Another scenario would be that they are using types of communication that are unbeknownst to us, be it Neutrinos or some sort of "subspace" FTL communication.
    • It wouldn't change the paradox at all. It would just strengthen the idea of the "great filter" or whatever, that basically states the *reason* for the paradox isn't because we are unique. Instead, the reason is because something filters out practically every species before they are able to colonize past their planet. So if Kepler-186f were to be "teeming with intelligent life" then we'd most likely be observing them before they have been filtered out (killed off) by something.

      The link to the great filter

  • I like to think that, given enough time, every species in the universe lives just long enough to create an artificial intelligence capable of exterminating that species.
  • A civilization would be quite hard to detect. The best chance is probably radio emissions, but even that has a fairly short practical limit. And it's noteworthy that our emissions are dropping today, as we increasinly use the spectrum for low-power digital systems rather than analogue "scream at the top of your lungs" broadcasts. It wouldn't be too far-fetched to imagine that we'd be effectively silent in another couple of generations, as we push toward more effective transmission technologies.

    We could prob

    • by geekoid ( 135745 )

      "but even that has a fairly short practical limit."
      nope. Any signal that has ever broadcast anywhere and has had time to get here can be picked up, you just need a big enough antenna.

      I did some research, and in order to pick up a TV level signal 100 light years away, we could built an antenna the size of Rhode Island in space.

      That sound big, but if you could it out of small piece you can send and it can attach itself, we could do it for not much money every year. The great thing is we could just keep adding

  • I think we'll evolve into either Eloi or Morlocks. You're either the cattle or the meat eater.

  • by the eric conspiracy ( 20178 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:15PM (#46836483)

    The idea that Homo Sapiens is a form of intelligent life is ludicrous.

    The proof that the Universe is inhabited by intelligent life is that it has not contacted us.


  • Most of our energy right now comes from old stores of energy which we have been extremely lucky to find, and which will either run out, or become too dangerous to use due to resource exhaustion.

    Our behaviour can not cope without scarcity. Look at Australian aboriginal people. Placed in an environment with relatively low scarcity, their culture collapsed. In the next hundred years automation will push large parts of our populations out of work. There will still be food and shelter for them, but will those pe

    • Our behaviour can not cope without scarcity.

      Nonsense. People often become nonviolent in societies that one, have adequate amounts of food, two, have adequate amounts of water, and three perceive themselves as isolated from attack. For example, the Tahitian men, the Minoan men on Crete, and the Central Malaysian Semai were nonviolent during the period in their history when all three of these conditions prevailed.

  • by ( 919212 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:28PM (#46836585)
    The basic problem with the Fermi Paradox is this, we don't really have a technology we ourselves would reliably use to communicate between stars, thus the fact that we can't find alien civilizations using a technology we wouldn't use proves nothing. Arguably the whole radio search is a waste of time since we have no reason to believe we will find anything, indeed we have one reason to believe we won't! For all we know, there could be lots of miniature alien probes all over our solar system right now, or maybe they communicate with wormholes, or it is impractical to communicate long distances, or who knows? Basically, we really don't even know what we are looking for in the first place, so the Paradox falls on it's face for lack of information.
    • Not to mention that even if they were in the solar system they wouldn't necessarily be in a form we'd recognise as life. The premise of the Fermi Paradox seems very simplistic to me, as if aliens would just turn up in flying saucers and be humanoids. You only need to look at how diverse life is on one single planet to imagine how utterly different an alien could be to us.

    • It's not about communicating with other civilizations, or even about directly observing them. Life could very well be different from us, but unless it thrives in dark matter, we should be able to observe the side effects of any civilization that has had enough time to explore the galaxy. Stuff like dyson spheres, etc.. More importantly, any such civilization would have eventually come to our little neighborhood and done things like harvest out planets.

      The reason that's even on the table is because the ti

      • ??? What are we looking for exactly? What effects on the galaxy do you mean? Why would they harvest our planet, to take the materials where exactly and at what cost? This is my point, we don't event understand what we are looking for.
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:29PM (#46836589) Homepage

    There's about 5,000 years of recorded human history. But there's only about 200 years of industrial civilization. It's been just about 200 years since the first time a paying customer got on a train and went someplace. Think of that as the beginning of large-scale deployment of powered technology.

    It wasn't until the middle of the 20th century that human activities started making a big dent in planetary resources. By now, we've extracted and used most of the easy-to-get resources. There's argument over how long it will take to run through what's left, but it's not centuries, and certainly not millennia. More difficult and sparser resources can be extracted, but that's a diminishing-returns thing.

    It's quite possible that high-power technological civilization only has a lifespan of a few hundred years before the planet is used up. We might be saved by the Next Big Thing in high-power technology, but there hasn't been a major new energy source in 50 years. Nobody can get fusion to work, and fission is riskier than expected.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Nidi62 ( 1525137 )
      Which is why space travel is important, especially colonization. Think of it this way: a herd of animals lives in an area with plenty of food and water. Now, after a while, the food and water starts to dry up. Does the herd just sit around and wait to die, or does it venture out into other areas, expanding its territory. Essentially it is a natural process, and the only hope humanity has of any significantly long term existence.
  • What if by the time a race has evolved sufficiently that they have mastered all technology, they simply enter another dimension to escape being destroyed by their star's death?

    Physics seems to be saying there could be as many as 11 dimensions, possibly more.

    Maybe you only need to exist at right-angles to this one to escape any devastation coming and maybe then energy/resource needs become a non-issue.

    No need to exit the solar system then and you're effectively undetectable...

  • by MetricT ( 128876 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @06:51PM (#46836799)

    We've seen fossils of simple (prokaryotic, bacterial) life that are at least 3.8 billion years old. Basically the instant it became possible for single-cell life to exist, it did. That suggests that simple life is *easy*.

    It took evolution roughly a billion years to produce eukaryotic life, suggesting that step is hard. It also took 2 billion more years to produce a eukaryotic lifeform capable of space flight, suggesting that step is also hard.

    The sun is predicted to make life on earth impossible in roughly ~1 billion years. An oops anywhere earlier in the process, and evolution wouldn't have had time to recover. We're lucky to exist.

    So my suspicion is that the universe is relatively teeming with simple life anywhere it is possible (there are tentative signs that there *might* be life on Mars and possibly Titan too) but complex life is much rarer, rare enough that it's not surprised we haven't found any yet.

    Also, wanting to communicate and explore is inherently a human desire, and whatever neo-human-cyber-whatever descendants emerge from the Singularity might not have the same desires. And I can predict their desires much more accurately than I could an aliens.

    • We've seen fossils of simple (prokaryotic, bacterial) life that are at least 3.8 billion years old. Basically the instant it became possible for single-cell life to exist, it did. That suggests that simple life is *easy*.

      It took evolution roughly a billion years to produce eukaryotic life, suggesting that step is hard. It also took 2 billion more years to produce a eukaryotic lifeform capable of space flight, suggesting that step is also hard.

      Since we only have one data point, all of this is basically a guess though. Maybe it doesn't take a billion years to produce eukaryotic life - maybe it's really quite fast, but the conditions just weren't right for a long time and that held it back. Get another planet with more suitable conditions and you might be talking millions instead of billions of years. My point is that we just don't know because we don't have enough data to tell the difference between low probability and high probability events.

  • by crunchygranola ( 1954152 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @08:07PM (#46837367)

    The core of the Fermi Paradox is that there does not appear to be any basic physical limitation that would prevent an intelligent civilization from colonizing the entire galaxy in much less than a 100 million years - yet there is no case that can yet be made that Earth is anything like a boundary case of the "earliest possible biosphere". It is not a solution to the Fermi Paradox to postulate reasons why one intelligent species or another might fail to do so, it has to apply to every one of them since one outlier would go on to colonize the galaxy.

    I think part of the resolution of the paradox is the implicit notion common to us humans that our form of tool-using symbolic-communicating intelligence is some sense "inevitable" and will arise given enough time. Yet observing the evolution of the large animals on Earth does not give any reason for thinking this is some sort of normal progression. The Great Apes, very similar to hominids, have not shown any trend toward evolving larger brains since the hominid-ape split 7 million years ago. No general trend toward developing human style intelligence is evident anywhere. The emerging story of hominid development is that a long series of lucky accidents seems to have been necessary to bring it about.

    Human-style intelligence may be extremely unlikely to evolve at all.

  • by jafac ( 1449 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @08:10PM (#46837385) Homepage

    Even if the "Great Filter" exists; even if it were 99.999% effective at wiping out civilizations, that would still mean there have been billions of years, for billions of civilizations to arise, and of those billions, perhaps tens of thousands survived to colonize space.

    This is why I believe in the Zoo Hypothesis.

    • by asmkm22 ( 1902712 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @10:36PM (#46838127)

      If you read about the "great filter" then you'd find out that the big question isn't what that filter is, but WHERE it takes place. Is it the step from single-cell to multi-cell organism? Is it the rise of special intelligence? Part of the warning with the great filter idea, is that since there seems to be no observable evidence (directly or indirectly) of any other species progressing past the point we are at, it stands to reason that the "filter" could in fact be very close at hand, either through some social thing like nuclear war, or something else like a nearby exploding supernova.

      So either we have already passed the filter in one of the many earlier stages in our history, or it is yet to come. If it's yet to come, that's something we should be concerned about.

  • by ImprovOmega ( 744717 ) on Thursday April 24, 2014 @08:17PM (#46837445)

    In good sci-fi literature we see this come up again and again in many hypothetical scenarios. Ian Douglas answers the Fermi Paradox by positing a future where a galaxy-spanning race of hyper-darwinist xenophobes mercilessly wipe out any space faring "other" race much to humanity's horror when they stumble across ruins, relics, and artifacts left by other races.

    In the Crystal Spheres by David Brin we see a future where all intelligent life is closed off from habitable worlds until they themselves become space faring, and humanity is among the first to reach the stars.

    In To Outlive Eternity by Poul Anderson we see a possible scenario in which humans are first by design.

    Peter F. Hamilton takes us through another possibility in the Night's Dawn Trilogy where intelligent life is fairly rare and what there is out there doesn't really have an interest in "lesser" forms.

    In all, we won't know for sure for a long while yet, but I think there are some good possibilities out there. And until we actually do make contact or prove ourselves to be alone, good sci-fi keeps us company in the meantime =)

"Mach was the greatest intellectual fraud in the last ten years." "What about X?" "I said `intellectual'." ;login, 9/1990