Fermi’s Paradox and Human Umwelt

I’ve spent a lot of time lately listening to mind-broadening podcasts. I can’t recommend highly enough checking out some of the ‘casts linked below if you like to make your brain-wiring more complex.

The most recent podcast adventure has been Rob Reid’s the After On podcast. It started as a way to visit the real-science topics in his fictional book of the same title.

There are a lot of great interviews with some try geniuses, but two struck me as oddly intertwined, despite not discussing one another. The first was Episode #8 with Stephen Webb about Fermi’s Paradox, and the second was Episode #22 with neuroscientist David Eagleman about our senses.

Stephen Webb has a great book called “Where Is Everybody?” which investigates 75 possible and plausible solutions to Fermi’s Paradox. In it, there are some hypotheses about how we’re just not looking the right way or for the right things. It outlines how we’re expecting an advanced civilization to leave some electromagnetic trace in the galaxy, and maybe we’re looking at the wrong frqeuncies. How we expect an advanced civilization to have created something like a Dyson Sphere, but we don’t see infrared radiation that we’d expect from one.

The interview with Eagleman talks about the human Umwelt and how our experiences of reality differ even from other terrestrial creatures and possibly even other humans. Even the way which we interpret the EM fields and radiation around us in often unlike other critters here on Earth do.

There’s a question often posited about something like color. We all “see” the same wavelength and call it blue. But what I see as blue may or may not actually be the same color that you see as blue. But since we’d both always label it as blue, we’d never know.

Extrapolate that to another level. Even assuming that all life experience the EM spectrum at all (which very well may not be the case), what we sense and how we sense it could be vastly different. If a civilization evolved to communicate via an organ that transmits and receives microwaves the way we transmit and receive sound, they aren’t going to use microwaves to push data around their planet; it would be tremendously noisy.

And this is even assuming that they not only sense the EM spectrum, but that their sense function remotely the same as our own. Birds and cows “feel” magnetism, some creatures “sense” electrical fields (some humans can “hear” electricity – I often have this sensation, though less so now than in the 80s when EM sources weren’t as well shielded), and some creatures develop the ability to produce visible light in biomes where visible light isn’t typically sense by other creatures which allow a sort of secret messaging. Here on Earth we all (so far as I’m aware) experience the world through EM, but even so it’s a vast array of “how”. And it’s entirely plausible that some terrestrial creatures sense things that we don’t. We know some methods of that: direct sensing pheromones and biochemical, sensing scent as a core method of building their world (ticks), et cetera. But how many don’t we know of?

In the end, we have expectations about intelligent life elsewhere in the universe that are very human centric. But just as we found that the solar system is not geocentric, and that the universe is not heliocentric, we are likely to learn that intelligent life is not homocentric.

Food for thought… we may look forever and not find our next door neighbors in the galaxy simply because our Umwelt and theirs are incompatible.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.