In his famous lecture, “Life in the Universe”, Stephen Hawking asks: “What are the chances that we will encounter some alien form of life, as we explore the galaxy?” If the argument about the time scale for the appearance of life on Earth is correct, Hawking says “there ought to be many other stars, whose planets have life on them.
Some of these stellar systems could have formed 5 billion years before the Earth. So why is the galaxy not crawling with self-designing mechanical or biological life forms?”
Why hasn’t the Earth been visited, and even colonized? Hawking asks. “I discount suggestions that UFO’s contain beings from outer space. I think any visits by aliens, would be much more obvious, and probably also, much more unpleasant.”
Hawking continues: “What is the explanation of why we have not been visited? One possibility is that the argument, about the appearance of life on Earth, is wrong. Maybe the probability of life spontaneously appearing is so low, that Earth is the only planet in the galaxy, or in the observable universe, in which it happened. Another possibility is that there was a reasonable probability of forming self reproducing systems, like cells, but that most of these forms of life did not evolve intelligence.”
We are used to thinking of intelligent life, as an inevitable consequence of evolution, Hawking emphasized, but it is more likely that evolution is a random process, with intelligence as only one of a large number of possible outcomes.
Intelligence, Hawking believes contrary to our human-centric existence, may not have any long-term survival value. In comparison the microbial world, will live on, even if all other life on Earth is wiped out by our actions. Hawking’s main insight is that intelligence was an unlikely development for life on Earth, from the chronology of evolution: “It took a very long time, two and a half billion years, to go from single cells to multi-cell beings, which are a necessary precursor to intelligence. This is a good fraction of the total time available, before the Sun blows up. So it would be consistent with the hypothesis, that the probability for life to develop intelligence, is low. In this case, we might expect to find many other life forms in the galaxy, but we are unlikely to find intelligent life.”
Another possibility is that there is a reasonable probability for life to form, and to evolve to intelligent beings, but at some point in their technological development “the system becomes unstable, and the intelligent life destroys itself. This would be a very pessimistic conclusion. I very much hope it isn’t true.”
Hawking prefers another possibility: that there are other forms of intelligent life out there, but that we have been overlooked. If we should pick up signals from alien civilizations, Hawking warns,”we should have be wary of answering back, until we have evolved” a bit further. Meeting a more advanced civilization, at our present stage,’ Hawking says “might be a bit like the original inhabitants of America meeting Columbus. I don’t think they were better off for it.”