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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Multicellular yeast and aliens

Tyler Cowen sees bad news in an experiment that showed it's not that hard for yeast to develop from single-celled organisms to multicellular ones. Cowen:
It suggests that “the filter” lies ahead of us rather than behind us.  The difficulties of producing multi-cellular organisms have been one of the main responses to the Fermi Paradox (“where are they?”).  If it’s not so hard after all, there must be some other obstacle to lots of self-reproducing von Neumann probes.
Maybe, but among the many possible answers to the "where are they" question are ones that put "the filter behind us": that single-cell life is extremely hard to get started in the first place, or that intelligence might not necessarily follow multicellularity. Of course, there's also the possibility that civilizations blow themselves up -- or let their government-funded health plans run amok.

UPDATE: The Atlantic has a fascinating interview with philosopher-of-physics Tim Maudlin that happens to veer into this topic, and Maudlin says something along the lines of what I said, albeit in a considerably smarter way:
I will make one comment about these kinds of arguments which seems to me to somehow have eluded everyone. When people make these probabilistic equations, like the Drake Equation, which you're familiar with -- they introduce variables for the frequency of earth-like planets, for the evolution of life on those planets, and so on. The question remains as to how often, after life evolves, you'll have intelligent life capable of making technology. What people haven't seemed to notice is that on earth, of all the billions of species that have evolved, only one has developed intelligence to the level of producing technology. Which means that kind of intelligence is really not very useful. It's not actually, in the general case, of much evolutionary value. We tend to think, because we love to think of ourselves, human beings, as the top of the evolutionary ladder, that the intelligence we have, that makes us human beings, is the thing that all of evolution is striving toward. But what we know is that that's not true. Obviously it doesn't matter that much if you're a beetle, that you be really smart. If it were, evolution would have produced much more intelligent beetles. We have no empirical data to suggest that there's a high probability that evolution on another planet would lead to technological intelligence. There is just too much we don't know.

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