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Abstract

Life emerged on Earth within the first quintile of its habitable window, but a technological civilization did not blossom until its last. Efforts to infer the rate of abiogenesis, based on its early emergence, are frustrated by the selection effect that if the evolution of intelligence is a slow process, then life’s early start may simply be a prerequisite to our existence, rather than useful evidence for optimism. In this work, we interpret the chronology of these two events in a Bayesian framework, extending upon previous work by considering that the evolutionary timescale is itself an unknown that needs to be jointly inferred, rather than fiducially set. We further adopt an objective Bayesian approach, such that our results would be agreed upon even by those using wildly different priors for the rates of abiogenesis and evolution—common points of contention for this problem. It is then shown that the earliest microfossil evidence for life indicates that the rate of abiogenesis is at least 2.8 times more likely to be a typically rapid process, rather than a slow one. This modest limiting Bayes factor rises to 8.7 if we accept the more disputed evidence of 13C-depleted zircon deposits [E. A. Bell, P. Boehnke, T. M. Harrison, W. L. Mao, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 112, 14518–14521 (2015)]. For intelligence evolution, it is found that a rare-intelligence scenario is slightly favored at 3:2 betting odds. Thus, if we reran Earth’s clock, one should statistically favor life to frequently reemerge, but intelligence may not be as inevitable.

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Category: Science