The Fermi Paradox

If evolution really happened all over our universe, where is everybody?


Enrico Fermi (1901–1954)

In the 1950s, Nobel prizewinner and pioneer of atomic energy, Enrico Fermi, while working at Los Alamos nuclear facility in New Mexico, raised some straightforward questions: Are we the only technologically advanced civilization in the universe, and if we are not, then where are they? Why haven’t we seen any traces of extraterrestrial life such as probes or transmissions? Why haven’t we found their artifacts on Earth or in our solar system?

But it is not for the lack of searching. In 1960, astronomer Frank Drake commenced Project OZMA (named after Princess Ozma in The Wizard of Oz), the first organized search for intelligent extraterrestrial radio signals. He also developed a binary coded message system, with the idea that a picture could be obtained through a proper decryption of the codes. Drake constructed the first interstellar message ever transmitted via radio waves by our planet for the benefit of any extraterrestrial civilizations. This message is known as the Arecibo Message of November 1974. His messages have also been incorporated on the plaques on the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 missions, and on a recording that was placed aboard the Voyager spacecraft—just in case alleged aliens should happen to intercept one of these craft.

In 1995, as a result of private funding, Project Phoenix was launched and SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) had its genesis. Since then, and via 60 different projects, the SETI organization has been scanning the universe at a rate of millions of radio frequencies every second for over 50 years. And how many ETs have they caught ‘phoning home’ in that time? Zero!

The ultimate reason why so much time and money is expended on such searches is belief in evolution. If life evolved by chance here on Earth, then it must have evolved countless times given the alleged vast age of the universe. Furthermore, it is believed that at 4.6 billion years, our solar system is relatively young, about a third of the universe’s assumed age. So there could well be much older planets which might therefore have even more advanced alien races.

Oops! Sorry, neighbour … not!

Fermi (not unreasonably, based upon his evolutionary precepts) also suggested that intelligent aliens would be curious explorers just like us. In a 14-billion-year-old universe, he said, there should have been plenty of time for at least the very first advanced race to send starships to colonize planets. Even if the first colonizing expedition took a million years (assuming numerous generations of explorers), the new colony, once established, and the original civilization, could then both send out another expedition apiece to colonize other planets, doubling the number of new colonies every million years. After 10 million years, there would be 1,023 alien colonies, and after 20 million years, there would be one million. At that rate, in 40 million years, there would be one trillion civilizations. After 14 billion years, the number of alien civilizations in the universe would be tripping over each other—and this overpopulation assumes the evolution of only one race of intelligent aliens.1 The problem would be compounded further if intelligent life had independently evolved in more than one planetary system.

This is a nagging problem for those who believe in the big bang and the evolution of life on Earth. Modern space agencies admit that they have so far failed to find even the slightest signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life. As National Geographic magazine pointed out, in an interview with SETI’s senior astronomer, Seth Shostak, “He and his colleagues have never found proof [that] anyone … or anything … ‘up there’ is trying to make contact.”2

Of course agencies like SETI might argue that this is setting up a bit of a straw man. After all, the universe is a massive place. Despite looking for so many years, they might say, they’ve only scanned a fraction of the known universe.

An evolutionary prediction is waning

This failure presents a real challenge for SETI and other scientists. If the universe is billions of years older than the earth, then intelligent life has had plenty of time to evolve elsewhere. So why aren’t the airwaves filled with their communications? SETI’s Shostak suggested an answer:

“The usual assumption is they’re some sort of soft, squishy aliens like you see in the movies—just a little more advanced than we so we can find them. But the galaxy [our Milky Way] is two or three times that age [of the earth], so there are going to be some societies out there that are millions of years, maybe more, beyond ours.”

In short, Shostak believes that we may be a primitive culture trying to communicate with older, more advanced civilizations, similar to a jungle tribe that bangs on drums and is listening for return messages from yuppies who communicate with mobile phones. If this is the case, then Shostak believes it should be enough to find even the merest speck of life, past or present, on other planets.

He explains:

“If another world—[such as Mars] the next world out from the sun—is proved to have supported life, that would imply that the cosmos is drenched with living things.

We could conclude that planets with life are as common as phone poles (emphasis added).”3

But this suggestion does not satisfy Fermi’s original question. This ‘lack of ETs’ idea has become known as the Fermi paradox—in short, “Where is everybody?” Even SETI enthusiasts admit that the paradox is a difficult one to ignore, because any advanced alien race would surely have developed technology in the electromagnetic spectrum to be able to communicate effectively as humans have done, and thus, we should be picking up their communications—even if sent from distant locations millions of years ago.

The ‘power of the evolutionary paradigm’ blinds people

There is a simple answer to why we have not found (or been visited by) intelligent, sentient life that is like, or even more advanced than, humans—there is none!4 There was no big bang and no billions of years, and it is no accident that the earth occupies a special position and appears unique. It is because it was uniquely designed that way by a unique Creator God. Isaiah 45:18 reminds us:

“For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!): ‘I am the LORD, and there is no other.’”

References and notes

  1. The ET Quandary, The Canadian National Post, 8 December 2003, p. A13. Return to text.
  2. Aliens ‘Absolutely’ Exist, SETI Astronomer Believes,, 6 March 2004. Return to text.
  3. Life on Mars Is a Siren Song in the Human Drive to Know, The Australian (Features), 9 January 2004, p. 11. Return to text.
  4. Despite the huge size of the universe there are theological and Gospel implications with the idea that God may have created sentient life on other planets. See Return to text.