Is this a scientific paper by a Penn State and U.C. Berkeley astronomer, or is it a very clever pre-screenplay treatment for a cool-sounding science fiction film, disguised as a scientific paper? It is “Prior Indigenous Technological Species,” by Jason T. Wright, newly posted at arXiv.org. A treatment is movie lingo for a document describing a prospective film, used for pitching the project to studio executives. If I were an executive, I’d be tempted to give this a preliminary green light, at least as the basis for further creative discussions with the author.
Dr. Wright’s idea gives chills, and he describes it in a crisp manner. Although SETI and other efforts to discover evidence of intelligent life in the cosmos have so far failed, he suggests that we need not despair. Instead, astrobiologists and space archeologists should consider turning more of their attention to our own Solar System in search of long ago extinct, advanced indigenous aliens, including most conveniently on Venus, Mars, and Earth.
In the References section, he cites a sci-fi classic along just these lines:
Kubrick, S. (1968). 2001: A Space Odyssey. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
But the concept — researchers stumble upon evidence of ancient alien intelligence — is fairly common both in science fiction and in science-inflected fantasy and horror. H.P. Lovecraft played memorably on the theme in a novella, At the Mountains of Madness (published in 1936 in the journal Astounding Stories), which Guillermo del Toro tried to sell to studios for years, sadly without success. The premise is that scientists discover the intact remains of a malignant, eons-old alien megalopolis at the South Pole.
Neat idea, but not very realistic. As Dr. Wright points out, evidence of such “prior indigenous technological species” would have been wiped clean from the surfaces of these planets by geological and other processes. So researchers need to look harder:
Prior indigenous technological species may have existed in the Solar System. Given the signatures humanity’s technology has already imprinted on our future geological record, we might expect such a prior species on Earth to have made a similar impact. The study of the oldest rocks on Earth for technosignatures — including unnatural isotope ratios, synthetic elements, or evidence of mining — might thus be a fruitful exercise. It also may be that any such species that arose on Earth or Venus have left no trace that we can ever discover in situ.
If such a species were spacefaring or arose elsewhere, however, more opportunities for its discovery exist. It might have left more unambiguous technosignatures in the form of artifacts beneath the surface of Mars, the rocky moons and asteroids, or in orbit in the outer Solar System where they could be discoverable.
Such discoveries might occur using the tools of the burgeoning field of the archeology of space (e.g. Gorman, 2005), which includes searching for, finding, and interpreting human artifacts in space. Such work includes the rediscovery and identification of lost probes and other space-borne human artifacts either for forensic purposes (Abdrakhimov et al., 2011; Tao & Muller, 2016; Wagner et al., 2017), or even accidentally (Denisenko & Lipunov, 2013).
Perhaps more likely, imagery and subsurface radar used to study the geology of planetary surfaces might reveal traces of buried structures or other artifacts. Photometry and spectra of asteroids, comets, and Kuiper Belt Objects might reveal albedo, shape, rotational, compositional, or other anomalies because the targets host, or are, artifacts.
Of course evolution has to come into it. He speculates that while complex animal life on Earth seemingly springs into existence with the Cambrian explosion, there could have been previous “explosions,” going back deeply into the four-plus-billion year history of the planet. Except those previous species either were later destroyed or destroyed themselves:
Complex life has been common on Earth since the Cambrian “explosion” around 540 Myr ago; before this the fossil record contains only much simpler organisms, such as single-celled species and their colonies. We would then expect that any prior intelligent species to be no older than this event.
But we should perhaps keep an open mind about even this conclusion. We associate intelligence with complex life that develops a nervous system using biological mechanisms that evolved in the Cambrian explosion, but perhaps colonies of single-celled organisms were able to organize in complex ways prior to this that achieved the same effect. Alternatively, perhaps there was a prior “explosion” of biological complexity in Earth’s more distant past, farther back than the fossil record is reliable, or that produced a form of complex life that leaves little or no fossil record. A planet-wide cataclysm (perhaps the same one that extinguished our hypothetical species) might have destroyed all such prior complex life, forcing the biosphere to “start over” with the few single-celled species that survived (perhaps on a rock “lifeboat” ejected during the offending asteroid impact, Wells et al., 2003). The first generation of complex life would then be difficult to find, evidence for it existing only in the most ancient rocks, if anywhere.
This is an excellent Lovecraftian starting point. What about it as science? Well, of course it is pure speculation and storytelling. No one has found any evidence of technological species anywhere, apart from our own, as Dr. Wright conceded in a comment to Universe Today. And one might add, there is no evidence to remotely suggest they ever will.
But as we’ve noted before, while theories of intelligent design can take aliens or leave them — ID works well either way — materialism must have alien life forms, preferably intelligent ones, somewhere, sometime, dead or alive. Darwinian evolution leading up to creatures like ourselves, on Earth or elsewhere, must be a snap, given time, the right conditions, and the right ingredients. Otherwise life appears planned, and human life exceptional.
No, such biological complexity must emerge as a no-brainer, because the only obvious alternative is design by an intelligent agent. And that, under materialist premises, is forbidden. They would rather spin science fiction tales than consider that possibility.
Image: Surface of Venus, as imagined by a computer artist, via NASA-JPL [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.