Our theme for the month of March is “monsters.”
Alien life almost definitely exists. Whether in the form of microbes or Type III civilizations, it is reasonable to expect that somewhere, over the course of nearly fourteen billion years, on a planet or moon orbiting one of the hundreds of billions of stars that make up each of the hundreds of billions of galaxies, abiogenesis—the origin of life—has occurred.
One of the most intriguing concepts in astrobiology is the Great Filter. Basically, this theory suggests that a filter exists somewhere in the evolution of life, a barrier which is functionally impossible to overcome. But one fascinating detail remains unanswered: what is the filter? It might be abiogenesis itself or the ability to use tools or the development of nuclear weapons or the colonization of other planets. We can’t identify the filter, so we don’t know whether we’ve passed it—if we’re among the impossible few, or even alone, in the universe—or haven’t yet reached the absolute limits of life.
Entire genres are dedicated to the fantastical possibilities of intelligent alien life. The alternative is harrowing: what if we are, truly, alone? What if we are the only meaningful thing in the universe, the only life it has ever breathed?
While life on earth dates back around 3.5–3.8 billion years, human life—what we might call intelligent life, if we ignore some delightful observations about dolphins and crows—has only had about 315,000 years to develop. Humanity has made remarkable achievements over that time: language, construction, cuisine, literature, technology, art, transportation, celebration.
During recent centuries, however, humans have forcefully committed grievous attacks against ourselves and our home. The systematic destruction of natural habitats, overproduction of gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane, aggressive consumption of endangered and mistreated species, resistance to anti-capitalist systems like mutual aid, and development of nuclear weapons have severely damaged our planet and its populations.
Changes to the climate (like rising sea levels, desertification, and freshwater scarcity), along with climate disasters (like fires, flooding, and storms), pose the most severe risks to our planet’s poorest countries and populations. Damage to ecosystems, both directly by human hands and indirectly through climate change, could endanger or extinguish a significant percentage of species, especially those in the most acutely affected regions.
We also threaten life in ways independent from sheer ecological ruin. Over 13,000 nuclear weapons are deployed and stockpiled worldwide, and even a “minor” or “local” nuclear conflict between two nations could have devastating effects on global food supply. Unregulated development of artificial intelligence (AI) is already exacerbating injustice in the carceral state, and some of the most prominent minds in modern physics and computing have flagged the potential for “existential risk” from AI.
While humanity has built itself to incredible heights over 315,000 years, the threats to life on earth are increasing in quantity, scope, and imminence. If we haven’t crossed the Great Filter, we might be on its precipice, another civilization screaming for companionship during its last cosmic hours before falling into silent extinction. If we have crossed it, though—if nobody is out there, thriving in another corner of space—then we are the most monstrous thing in the universe, the engineers of a slow genocide against the only life to ever exist.