Book Review — Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique (Part 4)

[ I'm reviewing this book because I liked it, but also for a larger reason which will become evident here, and in the weeks ahead. ]

[ Also, in case you missed it: Part 1Part 2  — Part 3 ]

Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique by John Gribbin

What’s So Special About Us?

When you think about it, just our one solar system alone is evidence of the rarity of our type of life. Out of the presumed trillion or so objects orbiting the Sun (counting the planets, asteroids, the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud), only one of those objects managed to produce living things (as far as we know). Lifelessness is the rule, life the extreme exception.

But then again, out of that unlikely sample, one out of trillions, the one we know of produced not just life but intelligent life. Even discounting the Observer Effect – however unlikely it is, we’re here to observe it because we’re here to observe it – you have to wonder.

Yet Gribben believes – and argues convincingly – that life, including intelligent life, is unlikely.

It is not possible to quantify all of the steps in the chain of circumstances that has led to our existence, no matter how much fans of the Drake equation might wish to do so. But is it clear that the probability of many, if not most, steps in the chain is small. Planets are common – but not Earth-like planets. Life is likely to emerge in the oceans of an Earth-like planet – but it is unlikely to evolve into complex multicellular creatures. And so on. You may feel that I err on the side of pessimism. But however optimistically you assess the odds of arriving at something like Troodon or a South American monkey, the final nail in the coffin of the hope that intelligent creatures like ourselves might be common in the Milky Way lies in the string of coincidences that, putting it simplistically, turned a monkey into a man. It required, simultaneously, ice over both North and South poles, a variety of climate zones, the geological changes that produced the East African Rift system, and a planet with just enough wobble to produce the Milankovitch Ice Age rhythms! We are a very unlikely species.

On the last two pages of the book, under the subhead “No Second Chance,” Gribben concludes with a sobering point: Our current civilization grew up on coal, oil and minerals, the deposits of which were close to the surface and easy to get to. But that happy state of energy affairs – usable fuel, easy to get to – is no longer the case. BP’s catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 is an indicator of how far and how deep we’re having to go now to get petroleum.

If we drop the ball on civilization, if we suffer one of those SF-scenario crashes from which we expect to dig ourselves out in story-book fashion and go on to that glorious future we all like to imagine … we will have little or no fuel to build up to even our current level of technology. (How many cars and planes and ships do you think we’ll have, how many steel foundries, how many glass factories, how many publishing houses and printing plants, how many electrical generators and computer manufacturers will be fueled by … what, wood? How about zero?)

So not only might we be the only intelligent life in the galaxy, but this — this right here and now — might be our only shot at civilization.

The indomitable human spirit is ever with us, but so is the spirit of The Cold Equations.

The counterpoint to this book — to me, science fiction fan and gomer-level-futurist — is only a feeling. I have some things I want to believe.

But then again — to me, skeptic and atheist familiar with desires of the heart that must stand the test of actual evidence — I can’t let myself get too optimistic about the “truth” of my own hopeful passions.

They’re out there somewhere, I want to believe. Except I have no evidence of that, only hope. The evidence I do have is that they’re not out there.

No, the evidence doesn’t rule them out. But all the arguments that “they” might exist, that we’ll find them, that they’ll talk to us, or just that we can take comfort in the belief that they’re out there doing all the good, wise things we can’t seem to do — being civilized, ending war, solving the problems of energy and population, moving out into space — is hemmed into a very tiny corner by what we DO know.

The possibility of intelligent aliens somewhere out there appears vanishingly small. The fact that we want to believe in it, or that it’s common sense that, hey, if we’re here, they’ve got to be out there somewhere, is not as convincing as it once was.

And if the best argument we’ve got is that in our very large galaxy (or an infinite universe, if you want to go for the big one), it’s inconceivable that life hasn’t happened somewhere, somewhen, may do no more than justify our own possibly-one-of-a-kind existence.

Overall, I rate this book “Oh Shit, Yeah.”

I feel that I haven’t done it justice in this review, however lengthy. And I’m aware that the book’s argument – We Are Alone – is not a popular one. Not something we’re comfortable with. But it IS an argument worth hearing. If you’re like me, it will tip your philosophical axis, at least briefly, and set you thinking about certain other uncomfortable, but probably necessary things.

Read it. Buy it, get it from the library, whatever. And really think about what it means that life on Planet Earth might be a happy aberration from the norm. That intelligent life on Earth is a fantastic, incredible, unlikely-as-all-goddam-hell accident that may not have occurred elsewhere.

Here ends the review.

Here starts some of my own impressions brought about in the reading of it. Don’t blame Gribben for any of what comes next:

Here we are on Planet Earth, possibly the only intelligence in existence, anywhere, ever – and as far as we know, that’s exactly the case, right?

But … dayyum, kids.

What we’ve done with this unimaginable gift is … just this. What you see around you. Yes, we’re happy with the computers and the vaccines, the venti mocha lattes and the sports cars. We’re happy with all the loud, bright, fun stuff all around us. It helps us ignore the pit of ugliness and ignorance in which we enjoy them.

Wait … Ugliness? Ignorance?


Point: We allow our fellow humans to starve. To death. Right here and now.

Point: We can shoot down children in the street, and feel like something good happened, or at least that it wasn’t all that bad. That we can afford to ignore that it happened.

Point: We kill whales and mountain gorillas for meat. We kill bears and tigers for entertainment. Or we allow it to happen.

Point: We can allow our neighbors to stone to death or murder young women who are guilty of no crime greater than falling in love, or having sex, or even being raped.

Point: We demand that people caring for the sick and disabled be tested and approved by society for their qualifications, but we assume that equally helpless (and infinitely more impressionable) babies should be thrown into the care of people, sometimes other children, even, with zero qualifications. Worse, we even fight against educating those will-be mommies and daddies, or providing them with the tools to not have children.

Point: We’re actually using up the “bounty” of the oceans, casually destroying entire species, and then switching to others, because hey, we’ll eat damned near anything, and fuck it, nobody’s really keeping track.

Point: We have guys walking around who started a recent war that killed hundreds of thousands of people, for no reason other than that they could profit off the sale of weapons and such. They continue rich and influential, cosseted and guarded, even fawned over by the media, when they should more properly be lined up and shot, in public, by a selection of victims’ family members.

Point: We have FOX News, and similar “entertainments,” convinced as we are  that Freedom of Speech is broad enough that we must-must-must defend it, even for those who have deliberately built — consciously engineered — a massive organization to lie to us, put fear into us, confuse and dishearten us, who slap the very idea of that freedom in the face, all so they can make good money at it.

Point: We spend more on killing and imprisoning people than on educating them.

Yeah, THAT ugliness and ignorance. Meanwhile …

We might be the one. The only. The never-before and never-after intelligent life in the galaxy. Or the universe.

It’s time we stopped defining “intelligent life” to axiomatically mean “us.”

We need to define it as all the somethings we imagine it might mean. All those things it should mean. The stories about the wise, wonderful aliens, the glistening civilizations that we imagining them walking and flying around in, it’s time we stopped putting that off on imagined intelligent aliens and started expecting it of ourselves.

Uh … NOW would be a good time.

Susan K. Perry Reviews My Book!
Book Review: Alone in the Universe: Why Our Planet Is Unique (Part 2)
The Book of Good Living: How to Avoid Being Killed By A Train
Beta Culture: Being Grownups on Planet Earth
  • ‘Tis Himself

    That intelligent life is rare is a possibility. However pretty well every other claim about the uniqueness of the Earth has been shot down. The Earth isn’t the center of the solar system, the galaxy or the universe. There are many more planets than the ones circling the Sun. But I have trouble believing that life hasn’t happened on all the trillions of worlds circling trillions of stars in the billions of galaxies in the universe.

    I haven’t read Gribbin’s book I have looked at the Hubble Ultra Deepfield.

  • jamessweet

    I call bullshit on this:

    the string of coincidences that, putting it simplistically, turned a monkey into a man. It required, simultaneously, ice over both North and South poles, a variety of climate zones, the geological changes that produced the East African Rift system, and a planet with just enough wobble to produce the Milankovitch Ice Age rhythms! We are a very unlikely species.

    Um, maybe. We really don’t know what the triggering was for “turning a monkey into a man”. There are lots of hypotheses out there, but we just aren’t certain. And anyway, even if we buy Gribben’s narrative here (a unique one, if I’m not mistaken) it’s not at all clear which of those details of the narrative were necessary for intelligent life vs. necessary for life that happened to be exactly like us.

    To take sort of a silly example… there’s a lot of coincidences that went into us having five digits, but is that important for developing intelligent life? I think it’s probably a fair conjecture that you need a species with something similar to hands in order to develop a technological civilization — arguably that is a big part of what is holding the dolphins back — and if you had too few or too many digits, that could be a problem. But is five a magic number? Is it really “anything between four and nine inclusive”? Could a technological civilization develop with only three? Who knows!

    I do agree with this though:

    Our current civilization grew up on coal, oil and minerals, the deposits of which were close to the surface and easy to get to. But that happy state of energy affairs – usable fuel, easy to get to – is no longer the case…If we drop the ball on civilization…we will have little or no fuel to build up to even our current level of technology.

    In fact, although it pains me to say so, I consider it perfectly plausible that the typical lifetime of a post-industrial civilization such as ours is only a thousand years or so. I’m not betting money either way, but it would not surprise me if intelligent species typically burn out their planets and then either a) go extinct or b) revert to their pre-technological state due to a lack of resources within 500-2000 years of discovering how to exploit fossil fuels. Let’s hope this is not the case, but… the development of intelligence could be to life what a supernova is to a star: A last brief flare of brilliance as the unimaginable forces destroy it from the inside-out. Fingers crossed this is dead wrong…

    No, the evidence doesn’t rule them out. But all the arguments that “they” might exist, that we’ll find them, that they’ll talk to us, or just that we can take comfort in the belief that they’re out there doing all the good, wise things we can’t seem to do — being civilized, ending war, solving the problems of energy and population, moving out into space — is hemmed into a very tiny corner by what we DO know.

    Heh, so many propositions here. Taking them one at a time:

    “‘They’ might exist” — seems like a virtual certainty, at least if we branch out into the universe. Maybe not in the galaxy, though even then… it’s a big place!

    “That we’ll find them” — probably not. As previously mentioned, it’s a big place. Really big! Maybe radio contact… but even then, it would take quite the stroke of luck. See my comments on previous posts in this series.

    “That they’ll talk to us” — More than simply establishing each other’s existence might be impossible. Imagine trying to learn the language of an undiscovered Amazon tribe, except you can’t actually visit them, you can only exchange notes with them, and each note takes 50-100 years round trip. (I’m being extremely generous here — I’d bet my life savings there is no intelligent life within 25-50 light years, but I’m thinking that’s the minimum radius where they just might escape detection and we wouldn’t notice) Would we ever learn to communicate with them? Now imagine it’s not a tribe of humans from the Amazon, but a race of hyper-intelligent dolphins in the ocean. But you still have that century-long lag time in communicating. Now it’s beyond hopeless! And yet, making contact with beings from another planet, the situation is even worse.

    “we can take comfort in the belief that they’re out there doing all the good, wise things we can’t seem to do — being civilized, ending war, solving the problems of energy and population, moving out into space” — Why would we think that? Why do we automatically assume we are the Fuckups of the Galaxy? The universe has shown itself to be a cruel, uncaring place. We, alone among any other corner of the universe we have explored, have somehow developed the capacity to at least sometimes sort of give a shit, and not always want to be cruel. Maybe we are the ones doing all the good, wise things that no other civilizations can seem to do! Maybe the virtual end of slavery was a fluke — maybe most civilizations keep slavery as an institution right up until they burn out all the fossil fuels on their planet and go extinct.

    We don’t need to exercise Gribben-level skepticism to be wary of the notion that there are aliens out there who have solved all their problems and ended war and such. We simply have to go with the null hypothesis that we are unremarkable in the universe — included our cruelty, our brutality, our boorishness, our short-sightedness. It could be completely typical.

    • David Evans

      I agree it’s credible that we will “drop the ball” on energy sources, but I don’t think it was inevitable. If nuclear fission had been discovered in a time of peace, it might have been seen as primarily a solution to our energy problems rather than as a weapon. Then we might have gone for safer designs of uranium reactor, followed by those using thorium. That would give us a breathing space in which to perfect fusion, or solar power satellites.

      This presumes, of course, that decisions were not made primarily in the short-term interest of fossil fuel suppliers. For that we might need to have been a different species.

    • Max Udargo

      All I can say is I’m surprised at the amazing amount of puddle logic on display here. Yes, of course our galaxy, solar system, and planet have long and unique histories. And, yes, life on Earth has evolved in certain specific ways in response to a series of cosmic accidents and random cataclysms unique to our corner of the universe. And, yes, life as we know it on this planet wouldn’t and couldn’t exist in the forms it does if history had been different and the environment to which life was evolving in response had been different.

      But so what? That doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be life on this planet, or even intelligent life, unless you’re arguing that the only possible way for intelligent life to exist is for it to be manifested through savannah-dwelling great apes. Does anybody actually believe that? Is one of the assumptions here that an alien planet will never harbor an advanced civilization unless it has monkeys, a balmy savannah, rift systems, and “Milankovitch Ice Age rhythms?”

      Why couldn’t a planet covered in water produce intelligent life? Heck, I’ve always assumed that if there are interstellar star ships zooming around out there, most of them are probably filled with water rather than some mixture of gases. I’d expect our first contact to be with something that looked more like a glowering octopus than a skinny ape.

      • Pieter-Jan van der Veld

        There is one problem with water, it does not go on so well with fire. A waterdwelling sapiens being will have a problem with discovering fire. No fire means no metallurgy, means no technological advanced civilization. Not that I think technological civilization can not be water based. On this planet we have the crab and the octopus, two water dwelling species with organs that can serve to manupilate their surrounding and with an limited ability to stay outside the water. Still, any water dwelling sapiens being will have a huge obstacle to overcome before the can start building space ships.

        • Max Udargo

          Again, I have to accuse you of puddle logic. Because our technology developed along a certain path as a result of our evolutionary history as apes wandering the earth doesn’t mean that this path is the only path. Use a little imagination!

          There are heat sources in the ocean, including hydrothermal vents and molten lava erupting from fissures. These can produce temperatures high enough to melt some metals. An open flame isn’t the only source of heat. A cephalopodian smelting plant might be very different from a simian smelting plant, but it’s not impossible. It would just be found at the end of a different technological path.

          And, long before they set out to explore space, our hypothetical aliens will have to conquer the gas above the surface of the ocean, just as we did. Part of their technological path would no doubt be platforms floating on the surface of their ocean, where they could build metallurgical facilities if necessary.

          I suspect that if an organism evolves intellectually to the point where it has an impulse to solve problems by building things, there’s no stopping it from there. Until something wipes out that species, it’s going to keep advancing technologically, if maybe in fits and starts and with the occasional dark age setting it back a few hundred years. Deprive it of resources and it will find other resources. Set unique obstacles in its way and it will find its own unique solutions.

          Of course, even those assumptions assume a lot about the nature of our hypothetical aliens. And an octopus, after all, is a human relative and fellow denizen of our planet. He’s no alien at all.

          We have to make a real effort to escape the gravitational well of our natural assumptions about life and intelligence. As one simple and obvious example, imagine how different would be the intellect of an alien being that was autotrophic. Think about how much our thinking, desires, emotions, and drives are shaped by the ugly, inescapable reality of heterotrophy, and by us I mean both apes and octopuses.

          In this vast universe, the possibilities are virtually endless, and one thing we know is that once life gets its slimy grip on a rock, it’s very hard to shake off, and the next thing you know life is getting into everything, every nook and cranny. We don’t know how rare life is, but we know it’s a stubborn stain that’s hard to get out.

          • Pieter-Jan van der Veld

            “Hydrothermal vents and molten lava erupting from fissures”, hum.. Nice, I like it. Still, this will be a solution for deep sea life. Sometimes I speculate about extra-terrestrial sapiens life, including water dwellers. I have used a little bit of imagination, but had not thought about hydrothermal vents. I speculated that, being unable to manipulate fire, a water dweller could chose the path of taking domestication to unexpected heights, shaping their fellow live forms according to their needs, not by genetic engineering but by selective breeding and a lot of time.

      • Pieter-Jan van der Veld

        I agree with your remark about puddle logic.

  • jimbaerg

    “if we suffer one of those SF-scenario crashes”

    I think in such an event the metal in trash heaps, steel reinforced concrete, abandoned machinery from the crashed civilization etc. would be a workable substitute for the rich ore bodies that are now mined out. At least during the early phases of recovery, when needs are small compared to present use. Any surviving records about science & technology would be a big help.

    A harder problem would be energy for the rising technological civilization. Maybe hydro would suffice since by the assumption of the crash, population is much lower. However, it would be a major help for recovery if civilization stumbles to have a lot of Integral Fast Reactors &/or LFTRs around to provide energy to the recovering civilization. Of course these would be a big help in preventing stumbles in the first place.

    See also:

    & if you can find the paper
    “The Age of Substitutablility” by Goeller & Weinber
    it has some interesting ideas on maintaining high tech civilization indefinitely

  • dopper0189

    I’m now a bigger believer in the theory that life is rarer than we thought even 30 years ago. The metallurgy of stars is a real issue, there is a “0″ shaped band around the galaxy that planets would most likely form in. Planets most likely aren’t as common in the whole galaxy, reducing the occurrence of planet bearing stars in our galaxy. Also our type of stable solar system seems to be rarer than we knew even 10 years ago. 70% of solar systems we find have planets in elliptical orbits. When a planet travels in this type of trajectory the freezing/cooling effect would most likely play absolute havoc on atmospheres, oceans, and complex chemical reactions, reducing the chances of life. Elliptical orbits are NOT an example of “favorability bias” (meaning we find more of them because they are easier to find).

    I admit planets in tight orbits around their stars are an example of “favorability bias” because closer orbits with shorter period are easier to find with either the wobble or transit methods. But even in our solar system Jupiter was once closer to the Sun than it is now, luckily it migrated outwards or else we (the Earth) may have been sucked in to orbiting it in a very tight solar orbit. Our solar system’s stable, roundish, well-spaced orbits seem much rarer (at least from the 200 other ones we have found).

    Also about half of all stars are part of binary or multiple star systems — the gravitational and radiation perils that would pose shouldn’t be under-estimated.

    Now add the 4% chance the article estimates of a axial stable, non-wobbly, tectonically active, wet planet to those odds. The Drake equation updated with new evidence suggest there are only 100-200 other intelligent species in the Milky Way, not the 10,000 we thought in the early 1990s. Probability. Because of the metallurgical element band, also says they are distributed in an “0″ shape around the galactic core, not scattered randomly about. It will be much harder to find them because of this.

  • Michael Fisher

    From Wiki:- In 1974, Gribbin published, along with Stephen Plagemann, a book titled The Jupiter Effect, that predicted that the alignment of the planets in quadrant on one side of the Sun on March 10, 1982 would cause gravitational effects that would trigger earthquakes in the San Andreas fault, wiping out Los Angeles and its suburbs.

    Gribbin was man [& scientist] enough to repudiate his own theory in the July 17, 1980, issue of New Scientist magazine, stating that he had been “too clever by half”. I enjoyed this series as ‘food for thought’, but I doubt that we can [yet] put our thinking far enough outside our ape heritage to meaningfully evaluate the necessary conditions for life to thrive elsewhere.

    What really is the likelihood of alien complex life that can manipulate matter & produce interstellar radio or laser or gravity wave or [something unknown to us] transmissions? What unwarranted assumptions have we built into our estimates due to our planet-based, multicellular & oxygen-breathing bias? Can organic intelligent complexity be achieved without a cell architecture?

    It seems likely that stars swap material [such as comets] & if we observe clusters of stars for long enough we might see that there’s an interstellar biological ecosystem. Perhaps we will come to think of interstellar space as like our oceans ~ full of life at all scales, but most of the action being at the mindless microscopic level. If that is the case it might only take 10′s of millions of years for a new star system to be thoroughly ‘infested’ with life. I think we should junk our manned space program & start a serious robot survey of our solar system ~ millions of one-shot mini-robots. I think there will be a few big surprises lurking out there in the cold & dark.

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