ALONE IN A CROWDED UNIVERSE
While humans are unique among Earth's species, the enormous number of stars suggests that intelligent creatures like us must have evolved elsewhere in the universe. If so, why have we not been visited by their flying saucers? The insights that woodpeckers provide into the supposed inevitability of convergent evolution help us reassess the possibility that we are unique in the accessible universe as well as on Earth.
The next time you are outdoors on a clear night away from city lights, look up at the sky and get a sense of the myriads of stars. Next, find a pair of binoculars, train them on the Milky Way, and appreciate how many more stars escaped your naked eye. Then look at a photo of the Andromeda Nebula as seen through a powerful telescope to realize how enormous is the number of stars that escaped your binoculars as well.
Once all those numbers have sunk in, you will finally be ready to ask how humans could possibly be unique in the universe. How many civilizations of intelligent beings like ourselves must be out there, looking back at us? How long before we are in communication with them, before we visit them, or before we are visited?
On Earth, we certainly are unique. No other species possesses language, art, or agriculture of a complexity remotely approaching ours. No other species abuses drugs. But we have seen in the last four chapters that, for each of those human hallmarks, there are many animal precedents or even precursors. Accept for the moment the assumption that the universe contains innumerable other planets on which life evolved. Do not those considerations suggest that some other species on some other planets have also extended such widespread precursors as far as the level of our own intelligence, technical ability, and communication skills? While no other species on Earth is now wondering where else in the universe there exists intelligent life, such species must exist elsewhere. Alas, most human hallmarks lack effects detectable at a distance of many light-years. If there were creatures enjoying art or addicted to drugs on planets orbiting even the nearest stars, we would never know it. But fortunately there are two signs of intelligent beings elsewhere that might be detectable on Earth—space probes and radio signals. We ourselves are already becoming effective at sending out both, so surely other intelligent creatures have mastered the necessary skills. Where, then, are the expected flying saucers? This seems to me one of the greatest puzzles in all of science. Given the billions of stars, and given the abilities that we know did develop in our own species, we ought to be detecting flying saucers or at least radio signals. There is no question about there being billions of stars. What is there about the human species, then, that could explain the missing saucers? Could we really be unique not only on Earth, but also in the accessible universe? In this chapter I shall argue that we can obtain a fresh perspective on our uniqueness by looking carefully at some other well-known creatures here on Earth—woodpeckers!
For a long time, people have asked themselves such questions. Already around 400 BC the philosopher Metrodorus wrote, 'To consider the Earth the only populated world in an infinite space is as absurd as to assert that in an entire field sown with millet, only one grain will grow. Not until 1960, however, did scientists make a serious first attempt to find the answer, by listening (unsuccessfully) for radio transmissions from two nearby stars. In 1974 astronomers at the giant Arecibo radio telescope tried to establish an interstellar dialogue, by beaming a powerful radio signal to the star cluster M13 in the constellation Hercules. The signal described to Hercules' denizens what we earthlings look like, how many of us there are, and where the Earth is located in our solar system. Two years later the search for extraterrestrial life provided the main motivation behind the Viking missions to Mars, whose cost of about a billion dollars dwarfed all the US National Science Foundation's expenditures (since its inception) for classifying the life known to exist on Earth. More recently the US government has decided to spend a further hundred million dollars to detect radio signals from any intelligent beings who might exist outside our solar system. Several spacecraft that we launched are now heading out of our solar system, carrying sound tapes and photographic records of our civilization to inform spacelings who might be encountered.
It is easy to understand why lay people as well as biologists would consider the detection of extraterrestrial life as possibly the most exciting scientific discovery ever made. Just imagine how it would affect our self-image to find that the universe holds other intelligent creatures, with complex societies, languages, and learned cultural traditions, and capable of communicating with us. Among those of us who believe in an afterlife and an ethically concerned deity, most would agree that an afterlife awaits humans but not beetles (or even chimpanzees). Creationists believe that our species had a separate origin through divine creation. Suppose, though, that we should detect on another planet a society of seven-legged creatures more intelligent and ethical than we are, and able to converse with us, but having a radio receiver and transmitter in place of eyes and a mouth. Shall we believe that those creatures (but still not chimps) share the afterlife with us, and that they too were divinely created? Many scientists have tried to calculate the odds of there being intelligent creatures out there, somewhere. Those calculations have spawned a whole new field of science termed exobiology—the sole scientific field whose subject matter has not yet been shown to exist. Let's now consider the numbers that encourage exobiologists to believe in their subject matter. Exobiologists calculate the number of advanced technical civilizations in the universe by an equation known as the Green Bank formula, which multiplies a string of estimated numbers. Some of those numbers can be estimated with considerable confidence. There are billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars. Astronomers conclude that many stars probably have one or more planets each, and that many of those planets probably have an environment suitable for life. Biologists conclude that, where conditions suitable for life exist, life will probably evolve eventually. Multiplying all of those probabilities or numbers together, we conclude that there are likely to be billions of billions of planets supporting living creatures. Now let's estimate what fraction of those planetary biotas include intelligent beings with an advanced technical civilization, which we will define operationally as a civilization capable of interstellar radio communication. (This is a less demanding definition than flying saucer capability, since our own development suggests that interstellar radio communication will precede interstellar probes.) Two arguments suggest that that fraction may be considerable. Firstly, the sole planet where we are certain that life evolved—our own—did evolve an advanced technical civilization. We have already launched interplanetary probes. We have made progress with techniques for freezing and thawing life apd for making life from DNA—techniques relevant to preserving life as we know it for the long duration of an interstellar trip. Technical progress in recent decades has been so rapid that manned interstellar probes surely will be feasible within a few centuries at the very most, since some of our unmanned interplanetary probes are already on their way out of our solar system. However, this first argument suggesting that many planetary biotas have evolved advanced technical civilizations is not a compelling one. To use the language of statisticians, it suffers from the obvious flaw of very small sample size (how can you generalize from one case?) and very high ascertainment bias (we picked out that one case precisely because it evolved our own advanced technical civilization).
A second, stronger argument is that life on Earth is characterized by what biologists term convergent evolution. That is, seemingly whatever ecological niche or physiological adaptation you consider, many groups of creatures have 'converged by evolving independently to exploit that niche, or to acquire that adaptation. An obvious example is the independent evolution of flight by birds, bats, pterodactyls, and insects. Other spectacular cases are the independent evolution of eyes, and even of devices for electrocuting prey, by many animals. Within the past two decades, biochemists have recognized convergent evolution at the molecular level, such as the repeated evolution of similar protein-splitting enzymes or membrane-spanning proteins. It is now difficult to pick up any issue of any journal in any field of biology without encountering further examples. So common is convergent evolution of anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and behaviour that whenever biologists observe two species to be similar in some respect, one of the first questions they now ask is: did that similarity result from common ancestry or from convergence? There is nothing surprising about the seeming ubiquity of convergent evolution. If you expose millions of species for millions of years to similar selective forces, of course you can expect similar solutions to emerge time and time again. We know that there has been much convergence among species on Earth, but by the same reasoning there should also be much convergence between Earth's species and those elsewhere. Hence although radio communication is one of those things that happens to have evolved here only once so far, considerations of convergent evolution lead us to expect its evolution on some other planets as well. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica puts it, 'It is difficult to imagine life evolving on another planet without progressing towards intelligence.
That conclusion brings us back to the puzzle I mentioned earlier. If many or most stars have a planetary system, and if many of those systems include at least one planet with conditions suitable for life, and if life is likely eventually to evolve where suitable conditions exist, and if about one per cent of planets with life include an advanced technical civilization ~ then one estimates that our own galaxy alone contains about a million P^nets supporting advanced civilizations. But within only a few dozen light-years of us are several hundred stars, some (most?) of which surely have planets like ours, supporting life. Then where are all the flying saucers that we would expect? Where are the intelligent beings that should be visiting us, or at least directing radio signals at us? If intelligent beings from elsewhere had visited Earth after literate civilizations began to develop here several thousand years ago, those beings would probably have searched out the most interesting civilizations on Earth, and we would now have written records of the visit. If the visitors had arrived in the pre-literate or prehuman past, they might have colonized Earth, and we would know of it as an abrupt arrival of drastically different life forms in our fossil record. We are bombarded by Hollywood films depicting such visits, and by tabloids actually claiming them. You will see the headlines at any US supermarket checkout counter: 'Woman kidnapped by UFO', 'Flying saucer terrorizes family', and so on. But compare that pseudo-bombardment, or our expectations, with reality. The silence is deafening. Something must be wrong with the astronomers' calculations. They know what they are talking about when they estimate the number of planetary systems, and the fraction of those likely to be supporting life. I find these estimates plausible. Instead, the problem is likely to lie in the argument, based on convergent evolution, that a significant fraction of biotas will evolve advanced technical civilizations. Let's scrutinize more closely the inevitability of convergent evolution.
This brings me at last to woodpeckers. The 'woodpecker niche' is based on digging holes in live wood and on prying off pieces of bark. It is a terrific niche that offers much more food than do flying saucers or radios. Thus, we might expect convergence among many species that evolved independently to exploit the woodpecker niche. The niche provides dependable food sources in the form of insects living under bark, insects burrowing into wood, and sap. Since wood contains insects and sap all year round, occupants of the woodpecker niche would not have to migrate.
The other advantage of the woodpecker niche is that it provides a terrific place for a nest. A hole in a tree is a stable environment with relatively constant temperature and humidity, protected from wind and j rain and desiccation and temperature fluctuations, and concealed and protected from predators. Other bird species can pull off the easier feat of digging nest holes in dead wood, but there are many fewer dead trees than live trees available. Many other species nest in natural holes, but such holes too are few in number, quickly become known to predators, get reused year after year, and breed infections. Hence it is a big advantage to be able to excavate a clean new nest hole in a live tree, instead of having to use a dead tree or natural hole. Other birds often pay tribute (unsought by woodpeckers) to that advantage, by usurping woodpeckers' holes.
All these considerations mean that if we are counting on convergent evolution of radio communication, we can surely count on convergent evolution of woodpecking. Not surprisingly, woodpeckers are very successful birds. There are nearly 200 species, many of them common. They come in all sizes, from tiny birds the size of kinglets up to crow-sized species. They are widespread over most of the world, with a few exceptions that I shall mention later. They do not have to migrate in winter. Some species have even exploited their woodpecking skills to live in treeless places, excavate nest holes in the ground, and feed on ants. While the earliest known fossil woodpeckers date only from the Pliocene (about seven million years ago), molecular evidence indicates that woodpeckers evolved about fifty million years ago.
How hard is it to evolve to become a woodpecker? Two considerations seem to suggest, 'Not very hard'. Woodpeckers are not an extremely distinctive old group without close relatives, like egg-laying mammals. Instead ornithologists have agreed for a long time that their closest relatives are the honey-guides of Africa, the toucans and barbets of tropical America, and the barbets of the tropical Old World, to which woodpeckers are fairly similar except in their special adaptations for woodpecking. Woodpeckers have numerous such adaptations, but none is remotely as extraordinary as building radios, and all are readily seen as extensions of adaptations possessed by other birds. The adaptations fall into four groups.
First and most obvious are the adaptations for drilling in live wood. These include a strong, straight, chisel-like bill with a hard, horny covering at the tip; nostrils protected with feathers to keep out sawdust; a thick skull; strong head and neck muscles; a broad base of the bill, and a hinge between that base and the front of the skull, to help spread the shock of pounding; and possibly a brain/skull design like a bicycle helmet, to protect the brain from shock. I hese features for drilling in live wood can be traced to features of other birds much more easily than our radios can be traced to any primitive radios of chimpanzees. Many other birds, such as parrots, peck or bite holes in dead Wood. Some barbets can actually excavate in live wood, but they are much more, clumsier, and less neat than woodpeckers and peck from the side rather than straight. Within the woodpecker family there is a gradation of n" ing ability—from wrynecks, which cannot excavate at all, to the many Woodpeckers that drill in softer wood, to hardwood specialists like sapsuckers and the pileated woodpecker.
Another set of adaptations are those for perching vertically on bark, such as a stiff tail to press against bark as a brace, strong muscles for manipulating the tail, short legs, long curyed toes, and a pattern of moulting the tail feathers that saves the central pair of tail feathers (crucial in bracing) as the last to be moulted. The evolution of these adaptations can be traced even more easily than can the adaptations for woodpecking. Even within the woodpecker family, wrynecks and piculets do not have stiff tails for use as braces. Many birds outside the woodpecker family, including creepers and pygmy parrots, do have stiff tails that they evolved to prop themselves on bark. The third adaptation is an extremely long and extensible tongue, fully as long as our own tongue in some woodpeckers. Once a woodpecker has broken into the tunnel system of wood-dwelling insects at one point, the bird uses its tongue to lick out many branches of the system without having to drill a new hole for each branch. Some woodpeckers have barbs at the tip of the tongue to spear insects, while others have big salivary glands to catch insects by making the tongue sticky. Woodpeckers' tongues have many animal precedents, including the similarly long insect-catching tongues of frogs, anteaters, and aardvarks and the brush-like tongues of nectar-drinking lories.
Finally, woodpeckers have tough skins to withstand insect bites plus the stresses from pounding and from strong muscles. Anyone who has skinned and stuffed birds knows that some birds have much tougher skins than others. Taxidermists groan when given a pigeon, whose paper-thin skin tears almost as soon as you look at it, but smile when given a woodpecker, hawk, or parrot. While woodpeckers have many adaptations for woodpecking, most of those adaptations have also evolved convergently in other birds or animals, and the unique skull adaptations can at least be traced to precursors. You might therefore expect the whole package of woodpecking to have evolved repeatedly, with the result that there would now be many groups of large animals capable of excavating into live wood for food or nest sites. Some animal groups defined initially by distinctive ways of feeding have proved to be polyphyletic, meaning that the group is actually an unnatural one, consisting of several groups that evolved similar adaptations from different ancestors. For instance, vultures are now known, and bats and seals are suspected, to be polyphyletic. But all the classical evidence, and now the newer molecular evidence, have uncovered no hint of polyphyly for woodpeckers. Modern woodpecker are all more closely related to each other than to any non-woodpecker. Woodpecking thus appears to have evolved only once.
Picologists, the scientists who specialize in studying woodpeckers, take that conclusion for granted. On reflection, though, it is startling to the rest of us non-picologists who had convinced ourselves that woodpecking would evolve repeatedly. Could it be that other pseudo-woodpeckers did evolve, but that our surviving woodpeckers were so superior that they exterminated their unrelated competitors? For example, separate groups of mammalian carnivores evolved in South America, Australia, and the Old World. But the Old World carnivores (our cats and dogs and weasels) proved so superior that they exterminated South America's carnivorous mammals millions of years ago and are now in the process of exterminating Australia's carnivorous marsupials. Was there a similar shootout in the woodpecker niche?
Fortunately, we can test that theory. True woodpeckers do not fly far over water, with the result that they never colonized remote oceanic land masses like Australia/New Guinea (formerly joined in a single land mass), New Zealand, and Madagascar. Similarly, placental terrestrial mammals other than bats and rodents were never able to reach Australia/ New Guinea, where instead marsupials evolved good functional equivalents of moles, mice, cats, wolves, and anteaters. Evidently it was not so hard to fill those mammalian niches by convergent evolution. Let's see what happened to the woodpecker niche in Australia/New Guinea. We find there a diverse array of birds that evolved convergently to feed on or under bark, including pygmy parrots, birds of paradise, honey-eaters, Australian creepers, Australian nuthatches, ploughbills, ifritas, and flycatchers. Some of those birds have powerful bills used to dig into dead wood. Some of them have evolved elements of the woodpecker anatomical syndrome, such as stiff tails and tough skins. The species that has come the closest to filling the woodpecker niche is not a bird at all but a mammal, the striped possum, which taps on dead wood to detect insect tunnels, rips open the wood with its incisor teeth, then inserts its long tongue or very long fourth finger to pull out the insects.
However, none of these would-be woodpeckers has actually made it into the woodpecking niche. None can excavate live wood. Many are visibly inefficient; I recall seeing a black-throated honeyeater trying to hop up a tree trunk and repeatedly falling off. The ploughbill and striped possum seem to be the would-be's most effective at digging in dead Wood, but both are quite uncommon and evidently cannot make a good wving by their efforts. New Zealand's and Madagascar's pseudo-Woodpeckers are no better. In a stunning instance of convergent Solution, Madagascar's best would-be is also a mammal, a primate called the aye-aye, that operates like a striped possum except for having a very long third instead of a fourth finger. But just as in Australia/New Guinea, none of the would-be's in New Zealand or Madagascar can excavate in live wood.
Thus, in the absence of woodpeckers, many try, and none succeeds. The woodpecker niche is flagrantly vacant on those masses not reached by woodpeckers. If woodpeckers had not evolved that one time in the Americas or Old World, a terrific niche would be flagrantly vacant over the whole Earth, just as it has remained vacant in Australia/New Guinea, New Zealand, and Madagascar.
I have dwelt on woodpeckers at length to illustrate that convergence is not universal, and that not all opportunities are seized. I could have illustrated the same point with other, equally flagrant examples. The most ubiquitous opportunity available to animals is to consume plants, much of whose mass consists of cellulose. Yet no higher animal has managed to evolve a cellulose-digesting enzyme. Those animal herbivores that digest cellulose instead have to rely on microbes housed within their intestines. Among such herbivores, none comes close to achieving the efficiency of ruminants, the cud-chewing mammals exemplified by cows. To take another example that I discussed in Chapter Ten, growing your own food would seem to offer obvious advantages for animals, but the only animals to master the trick before the dawn of human agriculture 10,000 years ago were leaf-cutter ants and their relatives plus a few other insects, which cultivate fungi or domesticate aphid 'cows'.
Thus, it has proved extraordinarily difficult to evolve even such obviously valuable adaptations as woodpecking, digesting cellulose efficiently, or growing one's own food. Radios do much less for one's food needs and would seem far less likely to evolve. Are our radios a fluke, unlikely to have been duplicated on any other planet?
Consider what biology might have taught us about the inevitability of radio evolution on Earth. If radio-building were like woodpecking, some species might have evolved cerUm elements of the package or evolved them in inefficient form, although only one species managed to evolve the complete package. For instance, we might have found today that turkeys build radio transmitters but no receivers, while kangaroos build receivers but no transmitters. The fossil record might have shown dozens of now-extinct animals experimenting over the last half-billion years with metallurgy and increasingly complex electronic circuits, leading to electric toasters in the Triassic, battery-operated rat traps in the Oligocene, and finally radios in the Holocene. Fossils might have revealed 5-watt transmitters built by trilobites, 200-watt transmitters amidst bones of the last dinosaurs, and 500-watt transmitters in use by sabertooths, until humans finally upped the power output enough to be the first to broadcast into space.
But none of that happened. Neither fossils nor living animals—not even our closest living relatives, the common and pygmy chimpanzees—had even the most remote precursors of radios. It is instructive to consider the experience of the human line itself. Neither australopi-thecines nor early Homo sapiens developed radios. As recently as 150 years ago, modern Homo sapiens did not even have the concepts that would lead to radios. The first practical experiments did not begin until around 1888; it is still less than 100 years since Marconi built the first transmitter capable of broadcasting one mere mile; and we still are not sending signals targeted at other stars, though the 1974 Arecibo experiment was our first attempt.
I mentioned early in this chapter that the existence of radios on the one planet known to us seemed at first to suggest a high probability of radios evolving on other planets. In fact, closer scrutiny of Earth's history supports exactly the opposite conclusion: radios had a vanishingly low probability of evolving here. Only one of the billions of species that have existed on Earth showed any proclivities towards radios, and even it failed to do so for the first 69,999/70,000 ths of its seven-million-year history. A visitor from outer space who had come to Earth as recently as the year 1800 AD would have written off any prospects of radios being built here. You might object that I am being too stringent in looking for early precursors of radios themselves, when I should instead look just for the two qualities necessary to make radios, intelligence and mechanical dexterity. The situation there is little more encouraging. Based on the very recent evolutionary experience of our own species, we arrogantly assume intelligence and dexterity to be the best way of taking over the world, and to have evolved inevitably. Think again about that quote from the Encyclopaedia Britannica: 'It is difficult to imagine life evolving on another planet without progressing towards intelligence. Earth history again supports exactly the opposite conclusion. In reality, vanishingly tew animals on Earth have bothered with much of either intelligence or dexterity. No animal has acquired remotely as much of either as have we; those that have acquired a little of one (smart dolphins, dexterous spiders) have acquired none of the other; and the only other species to acquire a little of both (common and pygmy chimpanzees) have been rather unsuccessful. Earth's really successful species have instead been dumb and clumsy rats and beetles, who found better routes to their current c finance.
We have only still to consider the last missing variable in the Green Bank formula for calculating the likely number of civilizations capable of interstellar radio communication. That variable is the lifetime of such a civilization. The intelligence and dexterity required to build radios are useful for other purposes that have been our species' hallmark for much longer than have radios and that will be the subject of the remaining chapters in this book: purposes such as mass-killing devices and means of environmental destruction. We have become so potent at doing both that we are gradually stewing in our civilization's juices. We may not enjoy the luxury of an end by slow stewing. Half-a-dozen countries now possess the means for bringing us all to a quick end, and still other countries are eagerly seeking to acquire those means. The wisdom of some past leaders of bomb-possessing nations, or of some present leaders of bomb-seeking nations, does not encourage us to believe that there will be radios on Earth for much longer.
It was an extremely unlikely fluke that we developed radios at all, and more of a fluke that we developed them before we developed the technology that will end us in a slow stew or fast bang. While Earth's history thus offers little hope that radio civilizations exist elsewhere, it also suggests that any that might exist are short-lived.
We are very lucky that that is so. I find it mind-boggling that the astronomers now eager to spend a hundred million dollars on the search for extraterrestrial life have never thought seriously about the most obvious question: what would happen if we found it, or if it found us. The astronomers tacitly assume that we and the little green monsters would welcome each other and settle down to fascinating conversations. Here again, our own experience on Earth offers useful guidance. We have already discovered two species that are very intelligent but technically less advanced than us—the common chimpanzee and pygmy chimpanzee. Has eur response been to sit down and try to communicate with them? Of course not. Instead we shoot them, stuff them, dissect them, cut off their hands for trophies, put them on exhibit in cages, inject them with AIDS virus as a medical experiment, and destroy or take over their habitat. That response was predictable, because human explorers who discovered technically less advanced humans also regularly responded by shooting them, decimating their populations with new diseases, and destroying or taking over their habitat. Any advanced extraterrestrials who discovered us would surely treat us in the same way. Think again of those astronomers who beamed radio signals into space from Arecibo, describing Earth's location and its inhabitants. In its suicidal folly that act rivalled the folly of the last Inca emperor, Atahuallpa, who described to his gold-crazy Spanish captors the wealth of his capital and provided them with guides for the journey. If there really are any radio civilizations within listening distance of us, then for heaven's sake let's turn off our own transmitters and try to escape detection, or we are doomed.
Fortunately for us, the silence from outer space is deafening. Yes, out there are billions of galaxies with billions of stars. Out there must be some transmitters as well, but not many, and they do not last long. Probably there are no others in our galaxy, and surely none within hundreds of light-years of us. What woodpeckers teach us about flying saucers is that we are unlikely ever to see one. For practical purposes, we are unique and alone in a crowded universe. Thank God!