Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Intelligent life in the universe - what if we're not the ones lagging behind but the ones paving the way?

            My son loves Doctor Who. And one of the things I’ve noticed with Doctor Who is that human beings come across as quite backward compared to the rest of the universe. It is usually the other species that are far more advanced, while humans are lagging far behind.
            That makes for good science fiction. There wouldn’t be too much you could do with a science fiction series if all other life forms in the universe were less advanced than us. It is also the situation most likely to fire people’s imaginations. If we accept there is intelligent life form out there, we want to imagine them as some superior race, filled with things we have never dreamed about.
            While watching the television series, ‘The Universe’ recently, I heard that the universe is still in its infancy. Yes, it’s been around for a very long time. But that long time is as nothing compared to how long it’s still got to go.
            And the question that immediately posed for me is, if the universe is still in its infancy, then wouldn’t any intelligent life forms around now end up being the oldest/most advanced life forms in the future? It may not be that we end up being discovered by some superior and far advanced race. Instead, we may end up being the race that searches for life forms on other planets that are not as old/advanced as us.
            This is all hypothetical of course but it should make us really think about what we do, here and now, on earth.
            In a family, younger children often copy what older children do. Therefore, parents will tell the eldest child to set a good example for his younger siblings. They have a certain responsibility because of their seniority in age. If human beings do end up being the oldest intelligent life form on earth, we need to consider what example we are setting for those species that are younger than ours?
            Another thing we should think about is how we are paving the way for those who follow after us. The forerunners of any society mould to a certain extent the people that come afterwards. Our laws, institutions and societal norms have evolved from laws, institutions and societal norms of the past. They may have been changed and improved. But the society we live in now would not be the same society if history had been different. We build on the past and the past determines our future. So if future intelligent life will be modelled on ours, what kind of life will it be?
            At this stage, you might be thinking that I’ve been watching too much Doctor Who. Quite possibly you’re right. This is definitely the kind of conversation that my young Doctor Who fan loves. But as I’ve pushed the boundaries of imagination quite a bit already, why not push it a bit more.
            Imagine a time, billions of years from now, when there are many intelligent life forms in the universe, many of them in contact with each other. In a classroom a group of young aliens are being taught the history of the universe. Some species (not earthlings) are named as the forerunners of intelligent life.
            Young Johnny - it’s a universal rule that school kids who put up their hands in class are always called Johnny, regardless of which planet they’re from - puts up his hand and says, ‘But Miss, I heard that there was a form of intelligent life called earthlings that came before them. Only they destroyed themselves.’ 
            The teacher says, ‘Nonsense, Johnny. That’s just a fairytale. There’s no evidence that intelligent life ever existed on earth.’
            Sound far-fetched? Yeah, probably. Like I said, too much Doctor Who. But far-fetched or not, it’s worth thinking about.
            Our actions here on earth do not just have consequences for here and now, but far into the future, maybe even beyond our planet. Okay, maybe not to a classroom billions of years in the future, where a little boy calls Johnny asks about the fabled ‘earthlings’. And let’s face it, it’s pretty difficult to imagine the consequences that far into the future anyway. But maybe if we start looking centuries into the future, that would be a good start.

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