The Chain of Accidents and the Rule of Law: The Role of Contingency and Necessity in the Evolution of Higher Intelligence

By Shermer, Michael | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The Chain of Accidents and the Rule of Law: The Role of Contingency and Necessity in the Evolution of Higher Intelligence


Shermer, Michael, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


HUMANS ARE PATTERN-SEEKING, STORY-telling animals. We look for and find patterns in our world and in our lives, then weave narratives around those patterns to bring them to life and give them meaning. Such is the stuff of which myth, religion, history, and science are made. Sometimes the patterns we find represent reality--DNA as the basis of heredity or the fossil record as the history of life. Sometimes the patterns are imposed by our minds--the face on Mars or the image of the Virgin Mary on a window. The difficulty lies in distinguishing which patterns are true and which are false, and the essential tension pits skepticism against credulity as we struggle to determine the nature of reality.

That tension is at the forefront of the debate over how likely or unlikely the evolution of intelligent life is, particularly a culture-generating, language-producing, technology-using form of intelligent life such as ours. Evolutionary theorists are interested in the question because it taps into the relative roles of chance and law in nature and natural history. Astronomers and astrobiologists are interested in the question because it cuts to the heart of how likely or unlikely it is that we will find life on other planets or make contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence.

Does the pattern of life's history and nature's laws indicate that our existence was preordained from the beginning, or does the pattern indicate that we are the product of chance events and random occurrences? (1) That is, is our existence a necessity--it could not have been otherwise? Or is our existence a contingency--it need not have been? A coarse-grained look at the question finds scientists roughly divided between astrobiologists and SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial intelligence) astronomers who tend to be optimistic, estimating a relatively high probability of intelligent life evolving in the cosmos (or re-evolving in an earthbound thought experiment), and biologists and evolutionary theorists who tend to be pessimistic, estimating a relatively low probability of intelligent life evolving elsewhere (or re-evolving here). Since the question cannot be answered by a laboratory experiment, we must turn to sciences that attempt to answer it indirectly, such as those employed by SETI scientists and evolutionary theorists.

The SETI Optimists

Astrobiologists and SETI astronomers base their optimism on numbers that they plug into the well known Drake equation, proposed in 1961 by the radio astronomer Frank Drake for estimating the number of technological civilizations that reside in our galaxy:

N = R[f.sub.p][n.sub.e][f.sub.l][f.sub.i][f.sub.c]L

Where N = the number of communicative civilizations, R = the rate of star formation in the galley per year, [f.sub.p] = the fraction of those stars with planets, [n.sub.e] = the number of earthlike planets per solar system, [f.sub.l] = the fraction of planets with life, [f.sub.i] = the fraction of planets with intelligent life, [f.sub.c] = the fraction of planets with communicating technology, L = the lifetime of communicating civilizations. (2)

Although we have a fairly good idea of the rate of stellar formation, and we are confident that a significant number of these stars have planets, it is too soon to estimate the rate of formation of earth-like planets because the technology is not yet available to detect planets smaller than Jupiter-size behemoths. In the SETI literature, a figure of 10% is often used, that is, in a galaxy of 100 billion stars, there should be 10 billion sun-like stars, one billion earth-like planets, 100 million planets with life, 10 million planets with intelligent life, and one million planets with intelligent life capable of radio technology. (3)

Although most SETI astronomers are realistic about the accuracy of such estimates, I was puzzled to encounter numerous caveats about L, the lifetime of technological civilizations, such as this one from SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak: "The lack of precision in determining these parameters pales in comparison to our ignorance of L. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Chain of Accidents and the Rule of Law: The Role of Contingency and Necessity in the Evolution of Higher Intelligence
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.