Now, before you get too excited, there are plenty of arguments that this is wrong — but for the sake of Science Fiction let’s suspend any disbelief and take this paper by Alexei Sharov and Richard Gordon at face value.
Here’s the idea: if you apply Moore’s Law to the demonstrated exponential rise in genetic complexity over time, it suggests that life as we know it formed roughly ten billion years ago. This is significant as the current estimated age of Earth is only 4.5 billion years.
(Graph borrowed from MIT Technology Review)
This suggests all sorts of intriguing possibilities. For one, in this scenario, Panspermia is a foregone conclusion. Life did not form on Earth.
Sure this is not a new idea, but now Science Fiction as a genre has some numbers to play with. One of them is the possibility that in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, we’re not the backwards baby intelligence in a galaxy teeming with far more advanced races. We could very well be the ipso facto advanced intelligent race.
Consider this: We’ve always assumed that it takes at least 4.5 billion years for an intelligent race to develop. Now there’s evidence it might take as long as 10 billion years. Sure, we are leaving out a lot of factors, such as asteroid strikes and other mass extinction events – that you’d think would throw off the time table – but we’re not looking at that kind of physical history. We’re looking at the uniform rise in complexity of genetic material. Information. The assumption is that it somehow endures through these disasters and continues progress. After all, it somehow migrated through interstellar space through untold and unimaginable disasters – possibly the destruction and reformation of solar systems – to take root on this pretty little blue orb of ours.
And so, this theory argues, thus explains the Fermi Paradox: We’re not hearing from any other intelligent species because they’re either close to, or behind, our own sophistication. That’s why we’re not being invaded by bug-eyed-monsters, or grey hive space aliens, or multi-trunked Pachyderms from Alpha Centari. If anything, we’d be the invaders, a la James Cameron’s Avatar.
But beyond that lies the really intriguing questions:
- Where, exactly, did life begin roughly 10 billion years ago?
- Was it localized, as in a star that existed, and then perished, and the material reformed to become our current star and set of planets?
- Is it spread through our entire galaxy, which means it permeates space and seeds all other hospitable environments such as Earth?
- Are there other, wholly other alien forms of DNA-like substances which formed in a different time and frame, and that seeds other sections of the galaxy?
The premise leads to endless conjecture – which is fuel for good Science Fiction – but more importantly it gives a more solid jumping off point, as – despite the inconclusive and tenuous evidence – it’s really the best we have right now. It’s something, other than nothing. Because before this paper came out, that what there was: nothing. Wide open nothing.
This gives us something to test. Now, if we do finally find conclusive samples of life beyond planet Earth, we can see if it fits this model.
That’s what science is about.
And that is the best fuel for good Science Fiction.
Life Before Earth, Alexei A. Sharov & Richard Gordon
Moore’s Law and the Origin of Life, MIT Technology Review
XKCD Discussion Forum (lots of dissenting views)