Suppose for the moment that one is a science fiction writer. Suppose further that one desires a universe in which intelligence is fairly common and interstellar travel is possible. Suppose that, for compelling plot reasons, one wants humans to be the first species to develop interstellar flight. What, then, could keep all those other beings confined to their home worlds?
Here are options, presented in order of internal to external.
The easiest method, of course, is that while our Hypothetical Aliens—Hypotheticals for short!—are just as bright as we are, a glance at human prehistory suggests that there is no particular reason to think we were fated to go down the technological path that we did. Sure, the last ten thousand years have seen breakneck technological development, but that’s just a minute portion of a long history. Anatomically modern humans date back 300,000 years. The last ten thousand years have been highly atypical even for our sort of human. Other human species appear to have come and gone without ever venturing out of the hunter-gatherer niche. Perhaps the development of agriculture was a wildly unlikely fluke.
Humans were lucky enough to be surrounded by plants that could be cultivated and animals that could be domesticated. However, most plants and animals remain wild. It’s easy enough to imagine Hypotheticals in ecosystems entirely lacking in agriculture and domestication-appropriate species, which could well be a significant handicap in developing technologically sophisticated civilizations.
We can even speculate that our Hypotheticals are a bit more intrinsically anti-social than humans. We may think that humans are exceedingly violent, but in fact we’re pretty good at tolerating each other. We think nothing of cramming a couple of hundred humans onto an airplane. We expect for all of them to arrive alive and unharmed. Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics suggests that a few hundred unrestrained adult chimpanzees on a plane might well fail the “all alive and unharmed” test.
On the grand scale, chimpanzees are not all that different from us: ants make primates seem like saints when it comes to unrestrained violent impulses aimed at other communities. Hand a human an H-bomb and they can refrain from using it for decades at a time. Would that be true for intelligent ants? Would they even be able to cooperate on the community level long enough to acquire nukes?
Humans are also fortunate that cultural continuity between generations is possible. Consider, for example, salmon. Once they spawn, they die. If there were such a thing as an intelligent salmon, each generation would have to start from scratch. Even if work-arounds were possible (like a caste of teachers who forgo reproduction so that they can live long enough to educate the kids), that probably wouldn’t be enough to allow complex societies.
What if the Hypotheticals don’t have hands or similar gripping appendages? The utility of hands cannot be understated. Other species also can use beak, claw, or trunk, but they aren’t as dexterous as human hands. Nor can they safely be used to manipulate anything sharp or poisonous. The average lifespan of a crow chemist encountering fluorine for the first time cannot be all that long.
Environment counts. Humans have been lucky to find abundant resources in places they could reach and in forms they could exploit. Result: increasing sophisticated resource extraction. That was in no way inevitable. For example, ninety percent of today’s coal beds date from the Carboniferous and Permian periods, which represent one fiftieth of Earth’s history. Had geology played out a little differently, our coal resources might have been far more meager than they were, greatly impeding industrial development. One could easily imagine a world whose geology is broadly Earthlike but deficient in easily exploitable resources.
Should inconsiderate geology prove insufficient, consider that most of the Earth is covered in oceans. Imagine the bright Hypotheticals confined to an ocean. Entire pathways of development, particularly those involving fire, would be far more difficult for aquatic Hypotheticals. It’s even worse for Hypotheticals who hail from frigid ocean worlds like Europa. Not only is the ocean ten times deeper than Earth’s ocean, not only do exotic ices pave the ocean floor, making access to heavier elements harder…but the universe is on the other side of a layer of surface ice. All humans needed to start developing astronomy was to look up. Hypotheticals on a frozen-over Europa would find the task much harder.
Lastly: Self-extinction. All we need for our imaginary, plot-driven purposes is for most intelligent species to go extinct stumbling over the first steps to space-age technology. Thus when humans venture out, they’ll find only young and low-tech species.
Of course, this is nothing like a comprehensive list. No doubt you can think of other scenarios that would explain why humans would be the first to travel the stars. Feel free to mention them in comments below.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, is eligible to be nominated again this year, and is surprisingly flammable.