Professor Brian Cox has said it could be ‘a law of nature’ that when intelligent species get power they eventually use it to wipe themselves out – suggesting humans’ extinction could be caused by climate change or war.

The physicist, 54, told the Needs a Friend podcast: ‘It could be almost a law of nature that when an intelligent species begins to learn and therefore acquire power, that they deploy the power in a way that just wipes them out, and maybe civilisations only have a lifetime of a thousand years, or two thousand years, or ten thousand years.’

He said this could mean that intelligent life forms exist only on Earth ‘because all the other ones have been brief lights that flickered out of existence’, having already caused their own downfall.

Cox added: ‘What a tremendous shame after four billion years that we would through our own stupidity essentially remove meaning from this corner at least – this little corner of the galaxy – because we’re idiots basically.

‘If you look at the history of life on earth, we as a species are a quarter of a million years old, or something like that, 250,000-ish.

‘I’ve got a friend who’s a biologist and he studies these things, evolutionary biology, and he likes to say that in that sweep of stars that you can see in the night sky all there will be there at best is slime because slime is probably the default with life.

‘If you look at the history of life on earth, it was single-celled, just single-cell things, probably three billion years or so of the 3.8 that there’s been life on earth. So for most of it, it didn’t bother, we just sat there as slime.

‘On earth, 75% of the time or more it was just slime. It’s only in the last 500 million years that anything complex has been around, and it’s only in the last around 200,000 years or so that anything has been around with the brain capacity of anything like ours.

The physicist said: ‘What a tremendous shame after four billion years that we would through our own stupidity essentially remove meaning from this corner at least – this little corner of the galaxy – because we’re idiots basically’ Pictured: Professor Brian Cox

‘So I don’t think it’s the case that if you just wipe us off the planet then something else will suddenly be inventing iPhones and things given a few thousand years. It looks very unlikely.

‘So we look like a freak of nature, our presence on this planet.’

He added: ‘Two of my great heroes, Richard Feynman and Oppenheimer, ran the scientific bit of the Manhattan Project (inventing nuclear bombs).

‘There’s a wonderful essay by Feynman called The Value of Science, and ultimately he’s worried that the knowledge that we have acquired – science has given us, the knowledge our civilisation has – exceeds our wisdom.

‘So we have too much power for our morality and our wisdom, and our intellect can’t deal with the power that we have.

‘And so they were surprised to be around in the fifties and they were right to be surprised.

Professor Cox said: 'I've got a friend who's a biologist and he studies these things, evolutionary biology, and he likes to say that in that sweep of stars that you can see in the night sky all there will be there at best is slime because slime is probably the default with life' Pictured: MT Fuji and the Milky Way over Lake Kawaguchi

Professor Cox said: ‘I’ve got a friend who’s a biologist and he studies these things, evolutionary biology, and he likes to say that in that sweep of stars that you can see in the night sky all there will be there at best is slime because slime is probably the default with life’ Pictured: MT Fuji and the Milky Way over Lake Kawaguchi

‘That’s before the Cuban Missile Crisis.’

Speaking on the podcast ‘Needs a Friend’, he said he told world leaders discussing climate change that we could ‘mess up’ the only meaning of life from 400 billion stars and billions of light years in every direction.

He said: ‘I was asked to give a little video thing to the intro to the COP26 meeting, the climate change meeting in Glasgow. The brief was ‘you get a chance to speak to these world leaders in a little intro video, what do you want to say to them?’ ‘Ultimately I said if you think about meaning – we all ask ‘what does it mean?’ – you’re thinking about what does it mean to be alive, what does it mean to be a living thing in this massive universe.

‘Meaning, what is it? Whatever it is, it emerges from brains. It’s a property of conscious things and so if there is nothing else, there’s nowhere else in our galaxy of 400 billion suns where atoms have come together to think – which when you put it like that that’s what we are, it’s a collection of atoms that can think – then if we mess this up, if we destroy ourselves through inaction or deliberate action, then we may remove meaning from a galaxy of 400 billion stars and we may be responsible for that.

‘This might be the only place where anything thinks, for billions of light years, millions of light years, in every direction. So we have a tremendous responsibility.

‘There’s a thing called the Drake Equation. It was just an attempt to say ‘could we estimate the number of civilisations that might be present that we could communicate with in our galaxy.

‘Does life evolve, what’s the probability? At the end it’s L, which is the lifetime of a civilisation.’



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