When discussing SETI and the Fermi Paradox the focus tends to be on distance. The idea that an alien civilisation could exist in relative proximity to earth enough that we could detect them. So far we have not found anything. However, there is another aspect to the potential existence of exo-civilizations; that they may be relatively common in the history of the Milky Way. However, we do not exist at the same time as they do. Either that they existed far in the past, or will exist far in the future.
The first possibility is that there was once someone else here, but are no longer. Either through self-destruction, destruction at the hands of another exo-civilization or cataclysmic event. Alternatively, even unforeseen ways a highly technological civilisation could just up and disappear. A civilisation like this is possible. It is because the Milky Way has been able to form planets far longer than our solar system has existed. The current oldest exoplanet we know of comes in at about 12.7 billion years.
Whether exoplanets that formed early in the Milky Way’s history could have the right composition to be Earth-like and produce a civilisation is up for debate. However, it is at least hypothetically possible. Moreover, such a civilisation, even though extinct, may have left artefacts or at least evidence of their former existence that we might detect as we explore the galaxy.
However, it is also possible that we are early in the curve in that Humanity might be among the earliest civilisations present in the Milky Way. There are some reasons this could be, dealing mainly in unanswered scientific questions. Is life easy to start chemically? We do not know yet. Does life develop complexity very slowly? Earth suggests it does, but again, we do not know. What conditions have to be present for intelligent life to arise? Are those familiar or rare? There are arguments that they are probably rare.
As a result, we may be early in the game. The solution to the Fermi Paradox shows that we are among the earliest to arise. We are one of the First Civilizations in the Universe. However, this brings up another possibility. If time is critical, then will civilisations become more prevalent in the Milky Way as time goes on?
The universe is still relatively young; it could last for immense amounts of time moreover, while its period of star and planet formation will eventually come to an end. It is chocked full of some very long-lived types of stars that will be here billions of years after our sun goes red giant, with more stars yet to form. These long-lived stars, the red and orange dwarfs, could allow for environments that can allow life to evolve for much more extended periods than we had here on earth.
One way this can happen is uplifting. Here we, or someone else, upgrade a natural species. Either from earth or one we might find in space to be smarter. If not that, more biologically suited to leave their home planet. An example here would be a water world. Where aquatic life might be intelligent, but might be trapped by their conditions and physiology and rendered incapable of harnessing fire, or for that matter building rockets. This could also be relevant here on earth. If we survive for hundreds of thousands, or millions of years longer, evolution on this world could move towards other intelligent species arising here.
A good example would be the dolphins; there is some thinking that they are not that far behind us as far as evolving intelligence goes and that earth in the distant future might be home to two intelligent civilisations, though one might not be capable of developing the technology. Would we help them out? Alternatively, would someone come by and help us out. It is always possible. We are already asking this question of ourselves, that biology is inferior to technology and that we might someday transcend biology to become a machine civilisation. We are not sure we’d ever really do that or not. However, what if it were forced onto us, similar to perhaps the Borg or The Reapers from Mass Effect? What if we were not first, and out there somewhere lurks a far older civilisation, perhaps one made up of machines?
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