Why Earth’s History Appears So Miraculous

A person holds a globe against a background of Earths hit by meteors, crumbling, and colliding with rockets.

Here is a brief recap of Peter Brannen’s recent piece in the Atlantic: “Why Earth’s History Appears So Miraculous: The strange, cosmic reason our evolutionary path will look ever luckier the longer we survive.

Brannen begins by introducing us to the observer selection effect. (An observation selection effect exists when some property of a thing is correlated with the observer existing in the first place. For example, if intelligence hadn’t evolved, we wouldn’t exist, and couldn’t evaluate the probability of intelligence evolving.) The question Brannen asks is whether this bias applies to our planet.

If you consider all the existential threats our planets faced: “It’s something of a miracle that life on our planet has been left to evolve without fatal interruption for billions of years.” Of course, if we had been wiped out we wouldn’t be here to contemplate our existence. Thus, as a result of the selection effect, we probably underestimate the observed frequencies of cataclysmic events. And this means that “our forecasts about the future could be blinded by our necessarily lucky past.”

As Anders Sandberg, a senior research fellow at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute says:

Maybe the universe is super dangerous and Earth-like planets are destroyed at a very high rate, but if the universe is big enough, then when observers do show up on some very, very rare planets, they’ll look at the record of meteor impacts and disasters and say, ‘The universe looks pretty safe!’ But the problem is, of course, that their existence depends on them being very, very lucky. They’re actually living in an unsafe universe and next Tuesday they might get a very nasty surprise.

Perhaps this explains the Fermi paradox too. The reason we find no evidence of alien life is because there are no (or few) aliens that have survived and we exist only due to unimaginable good luck.

Consider, for example, that so far we haven’t destroyed ourselves with nuclear weapons. This may lead us to believe that nuclear war is unlikely, but if we take observer selection effects into account we’ll realize that the fact that we’re still here tells us little about our chances for future survival. Nuclear annihilation may be virtually certain but in a big enough universe some civilizations avoid extinction for a long time. We may seem safe but more likely we’ve just been lucky. (In fact, we’ve come close to destroying ourselves with nuclear weapons multiple times. Our planet is just the one where Stanislav Petrov didn’t push the button.)

Extending this insight further, the observer selection effect may explain why the universe hasn’t succumbed to vacuum decay or some other catastrophe. We exist so we think such a scenario is unlikely, but that’s because we’re in a universe that has survived. The situation gets even stranger if you consider the “many worlds” multiverse. As the cosmologist, Anthony Aguirre states:

… suppose the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is right … So, one of the two versions of us ceases to exist, but do we actually notice that? So one of us keeps going on just as if nothing happened. Arguably, from moment to moment, I can’t rule out that five minutes ago the other version of us died. There’s no way for me to say that. So there’s an interesting, troubling question as to whether these things could be happening all the time and we just don’t even notice it.

All I can say is that the mind boggles at such suggestions. When confronted with possible implications of multiple realities my mind recoils.

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2 thoughts on “Why Earth’s History Appears So Miraculous

  1. That final quote, from Anthony Aguirre, explains why I am inclined to assume our individual immortality (a hypothesis that will prove increasingly solid with every day I remain conscious past my 120th birthday).
    This belief drives my retirement goals of 1) having the resources available to live off an annuity in retirement near an Alcor facility, and 2) using a life insurance policy to freeze and store my head at said facility when I am declared legally dead.
    My life has meaning as long as I am progressing toward that goal — which means childless, low-risk, simple living to age 65 (2036).
    Even if I make it to retirement without major mishap, there may be an unpleasant period of advanced biological decay (inevitable, for SOME future versions of me) but I will hopefully meet those challenges bravely, knowing that my further future is likely to be transcendent.
    If not tomorrow, then the day after. Or the day after that. Or …

  2. I’ve been meaning to add a comment to this for some time, but my schedule has prevented me until now.

    My observation is that the “luck factor” appears a number of times in our history. My understanding of the origin of life leads me to believe that it was highly probable that single-celled life would form, and that it would evolve into large multi-cellular creatures. I draw the line, however, at the rise of intelligent life. My readings into human evolution suggest that a great deal of luck was involved in getting to the hominids.

    One book I read (whose title I cannot recall) explained the process in detail and offered the hypothesis that the trick lay in a fortuitous cycling of wet and dry periods in Eastern Africa over the last million years. This appears to have driven hominids to alternate between coping with two different kinds of environments, which in turn forced cultural plasticity upon them that ultimately required a considerable amount of intelligence to manage. If anybody wants to follow up on it, I can dig it out of my library.

    The biggest stroke of luck, however, was the Bronze Age Collapse that, for complicated reasons, led to the rise of Greek civilization, which was profoundly different in structure from anything previous. That in turn led to the development of rationalism, logic, science, technology, the Industrial Revolution, and video games.

    Ironically enough, rationalism was just easy enough that SOME humans could handle it, but hard enough that MOST humans couldn’t handle it. Those rational few drove us to technological heights that the rest of us cannot manage, ensuring our ultimate destruction.

    Are you starting to get tired of my relentless drumbeat of pessimism? See https://www.teeshirtpalace.com/products/grumpy-for-president-cat-by-the-mountain-t-shirt

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