Why Aren’t There Aliens? Why We Might Be Doomed

At this point in human history, technology has advanced far enough for us to see far beyond our solar system. We have the ability to classify various different types of planets throughout the universe, and we have identified that there are trillions of earth-like planets in the portion of the universe we have observed so far, which could potentially sustain life. In fact, after observing such a large portion of our universe much of the scientific community believes that the conditions under which life on earth developed are so common in other solar systems that it is shocking that we haven’t discovered any evidence of any extraterrestrial life so far. The time it takes for life to evolve from single-cell organisms to where humanity is today is relatively short in terms of the total amount of time the universe has existed. This means that random pockets of life springing up in the universe should rapidly attain the means to expand outward from their home planet, so even if an alien civilization originated too far away for us to observe, it’s colonies or exploratory craft or its light/radio/radiation signals should have propagated throughout the universe and been observable to us by now. In summary, humanity should have detected some evidence of extraterrestrial life by now, and it’s extremely statistically improbable that we haven’t. This strange absence of extraterrestrial life is called the Fermi Paradox.

The concept that we should have found some sort of evidence of at least microbial extraterrestrial life so far but haven’t, leads to two possible conclusions. Firstly, this lack of evidence of extraterrestrial life supports creationism. Perhaps we haven’t found what we should have found by now because we were created by a higher being, and that higher being created us alone.

The second (and much more dire) conclusion the Fermi Paradox might lead you to is an idea called the Great Filter. The theory of the Great Filter asserts that the reason we have not yet observed evidence of extraterrestrial life is because there is some unavoidable barrier to civilizations expanding beyond their home planet. Before civilizations can expand at exponential rates throughout the galaxy and spread their influence, some unavoidable and impassable barrier –a Great Filter– stops them. Since many unique and diverse pockets of life should have developed throughout the universe by now, they must have all been either contained or destroyed by this Great Filter. Perhaps once each of these civilizations discovered nuclear fission all of their civilizations were independently destroyed by nuclear war. Perhaps once a civilization gets far enough down the road of mechanizing their means of production, they invent sentient artificial intelligence which takes over their world. Maybe the Great Filter is some problem we aren’t yet advanced enough to foresee. Whatever the barrier that prevents these alien civilizations from developing far enough to propagate throughout the universe is, it has been 100% successful so far (otherwise the planet Earth would have been under the control the first alien civilization to spread across the universe, long ago). Essentially, since there isn’t a widespread galactic civilization now, there must be some Great Filter that makes becoming a galactic civilization impossible.

This leaves two possibilities for humanity. Firstly, perhaps we have already passed the Great Filter. For example, perhaps the Great Filter was Industrialization, and by becoming an industrialized civilization humanity has become the first pocket of life in the universe to pass through the Great Filter, and we will become the first civilization of galactic explorers.

But the other possibility is that we have yet to develop far enough to be contained or destroyed by the Great Filter. This would be unfortunate, because humanity has developed far enough that we will be spreading into the rest of our galaxy relatively soon, so if we haven’t already passed the Great Filter, we must be just about to hit it.

One possibility (and the reason you just read 600 words of astronomy and biology in an econ blog) is that economics is the Great Filter. Any species motivated to spread over its entire home planet and feel the need to expand beyond its home planet, as we are about to do, must be inherently competitive. It will have out-competed all the other life on its planet, and if it was to expand beyond its planet it will have beat out the other life on its planet using intelligence (rather than simply being a world-dominating fungus or disease, or being a perfectly evolved predator).

This competitive trait is the basis of our economic system. Capitalism (which seems to have beat out other economic paradigms for now) is inherently competitive and relies on the greed of each consumer to act in their own best interest. But, Capitalism incentivises monopolies to form, and for them to replace living labor with dead labor. Mechanizing production lowers costs for the firm, but once all firms have completely mechanized their production process (and once service-based firms have autonomized their services), their will be no jobs. There is a lot of debate over what exactly the endgame of capitalism is, but it doesn’t look like cooperation or charity will be involved. Consolidation of resources to an increasingly small portion of the population can only lead to conflict.

My theory is that this problem may be the Great Filter. Competitive motivations and greed were necessary for humanity to out-compete other life on earth, but the systematically incentivised competitiveness that is ingrained in our capitalist society might also limit us to focusing on short term resource accumulation, instead of long term stability and cohesion. Perhaps in order to pass through the Great Filter and become a galactic civilization, the beings of Earth have to be the first pocket of life that is collaborative enough to focus on long term, multigenerational stability. The problem is our economic structure doesn’t incentivise that. But, capitalism isn’t the only economic structure around. An economy based on Central Planning might be cohesive enough to distribute resources equally, but the competitive nature humanity harnessed to earn its spot at the top of the food chain would never permit a successful Central Planning economy. In the end, our competitiveness and the greed of the richest members of society might be what dooms us; the barrier to becoming a galactic civilization might be this unavoidable cycle of necessary but ultimately limiting competitiveness.


A YouTube video explaining the Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjtOGPJ0URM

An article explaining the Fermi Paradox: https://www.space.com/25325-fermi-paradox.html

About David Shireman

David is a third year economics major at the University of Puget Sound.

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