Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 29, Issue 4, pp 539–557 | Cite as

Evolutionary contingency and SETI revisited

  • Milan M. Ćirković


The well-known argument against the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) due to George Gaylord Simpson is re-analyzed almost half a century later, in the light of our improved understanding of preconditions for the emergence of life and intelligence brought about by the ongoing “astrobiological revolution”. Simpson’s argument has been enormously influential, in particular in biological circles, and it arguably fueled the most serious opposition to SETI programmes and their funding. I argue that both proponents and opponents of Simpson’s argument have occasionally mispresented its core content. Proponents often oversimplify it as just another consequence of biological contingency, thus leaving their position open to general arguments limiting the scope of contingency in evolution (such as the recent argument of Geerat Vermeij based on selection effects in the fossil record). They also tend to neglect that the argument has been presented as essentially atemporal, while referring to entities and processes that are likely to change over time; this has become even less justifiable as our astrobiological knowledge increased in recent years. Opponents have failed to see that the weaknesses in Simpson’s position could be removed by restructuring of the argument; I suggest one way of such restructuring, envisioned long ago in the fictional context by Stanislaw Lem. While no firm consensus has emerged on the validity of Simpson’s argument so far, I suggest that, contrary to the original motivation, today it is less an anti-SETI argument, and more an astrobiological research programme. In this research programme, SETI could be generalized into a platform for testing some of the deepest assumptions about evolutionary continuity and the relative role of contingency versus convergence on unprecedented spatial and temporal scales.


Biological complexity Evolutionary theory Contingency Convergence Astrobiology Extraterrestrial intelligence 



It is a pleasure to thank the editor, Kim Sterelny, for his kind help, encouragement, and dilligent work in improving previous versions of this manuscript. Two anonymous referees are acknowledged for important suggestions and criticisms. Detailed comments of Biljana Stojković, Ivan Almár, and Daniel Kostić have been extremely helpful in sharpening the focus of the paper and clarifying key controversial points. I wish to thank  Anders Sandberg, Branislav Vukotić, Nick Bostrom, Slobodan Popović, Nikola Tucić, Slobodan Perović, Ivana Kojadinović, Katarina Atanacković, Karl Schroeder, Aleksandar Obradović, Jelena Andrejić, Dušica Božović, Momčilo Jovanović, Goran Milovanović, Eva Kamerer, Dušan Indjić, Zona Kostić, George Dvorsky, Zoran Knežević, Jacob Haqq-Misra, the late Robert Bradbury, and the late Branislav Šimpraga for many pleasant and useful discussions on the topics related to the subject matter of this study. This is an opportunity to thank KoBSON Consortium of Serbian libraries, which enabled at least partial overcoming of the gap in obtaining the scientific literature during the tragic 1990s. This research has been supported by the Ministry of Education and Science of the Republic of Serbia through the project ON176021.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Astronomical Observatory of BelgradeBelgradeSerbia
  2. 2.Future of Humanity Institute, Faculty of PhilosophyUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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