4. Beware the Great Filter
If there are microbes on Venus, it could be bad news for humanity, my colleague Bryan Walsh writes...
The big picture: One theory argues the failure to find any evidence of intelligent life in the galaxy — humans aside — indicates there may be some kind of cosmic filter that ends most life at some stage of development.
- If the Venus discovery indicates basic life might be common, it's more likely that such a filter would come later in a species' lifespan — perhaps when they've reached the technological level of human beings.
Be smart: The Venus discovery has potential implications for a cosmic question physicist Enrico Fermi asked in a Los Alamos cafeteria in 1950: Where is everybody?
- The Fermi Paradox identified the apparent contradiction between the sheer size and age of the galaxy — with plenty of room and time for life to arise — and the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial civilizations.
Context: Robin Hanson, an economist at George Washington University, had one possible answer: the Great Filter.
- Hanson theorized in an essay in 1998 that some fact or force prevents extraterrestrial life from developing to the point where it could become an intelligent civilization capable of making contact in some way with humans.
- As long as there was no evidence of even the most basic forms of life elsewhere, it was reasonable to think that the universe might simply be hostile to life outside of a uniquely fortunate planet like Earth.
- But if Monday's discovery does indeed mean that basic life can arise even in seemingly uncongenial environments like Venus — and yet we continue to see no evidence of intelligent civilizations — it points to the possibility that a Great Filter might exist further up the chain of evolution, perhaps even where humanity is now.
Yes, but: As the history of Earth shows, a lot has to go right between the establishment of microbes and an intelligent species like humans, so it's possible such a filter could exist somewhere between those stages.
The bottom line: Given how beset humanity is with natural and human-made existential risks, it's not good if the Great Filter lies in front of us.
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