Selection Is Coming

I wrote:

Barkow seems to assume that alien styles are largely determined by the specific biological environments in which particular alien species originally evolved. This … makes far less sense for aliens who are a million or a billion years more advanced [than us].

Barkow responded:

Actually, no. Evolutionary change is a product of differential reproduction and so can be relatively rapid or glacial – when something works very well,  then there are no selection pressures to change it. Sharks have been around for 450 million years, after all. Our own species appears to have changed our basic psychology minimally if at all. … It is not time that changes a species, it is selection pressures, differential reproduction. Could extraterrestrials choose to change their evolved psychology, using some form of eugenics? Sure, but if they are like us then the last thing they will seek is fundamental change. … If our species is still around in a million or so years, … I bet their lives will still revolve around sex and status and the complex symbolic paths we follow to achieve these goals. Advanced technology means that a species need no longer be selected by environmental pressures – it can adapt the environment to themselves, not the other way around. But why would it occur to extraterrestrials or ourselves to change their core psychology in any fundamental manner?

On my “sexual reproduction is quite unlikely to last”:

Why would extraterrestrials choose to alter their core psychology, so that their offspring, their successors, would be aliens to them?

On my “advanced aliens are physically similar across the universe”:

If they evolved at the bottom of an ocean they will not be physically similar to air breathers, and if their gravity is very high they will be a lot lower to the ground than extraterrestrials that evolved on a relatively low gravity environment.

On my “very good at making their friendship or hostility appropriately context-dependent”:

In many human cultures, age is associated with wisdom. … [Hanson] projects it onto our extraterrestrials – because they are very old they should be wise. Sorry, it does not follow.

Yes of course it is not time that directly causes most evolution; it is a changed environment. But that includes changed tech, and I can’t imagine that Barkow doesn’t envision overwhelming gains in our abilities over the next millions or billions of years. The biological life we see now is intricately and finely adapted to the techs it has for moving, hitting, shielding, assembling, disassembling, detecting, signaling, computing, talking, threatening, and coordinating. Since all of these techs will greatly improve, surely creatures well adapted to them would also greatly change. 

For example, in a million years there probably won’t be oceans or air, or even planets, unless that happens to be the best way to arrange all those atoms. In a billion years there may not even be a galaxy as we know it. Better tech for detecting, talking, and coordinating would give better-adapted social behavior, which could look to us like “wisdom.” Yes, the ancient process of sexual recombination of DNA to evolve our designs has been too slow to allow much redesign of human psychology during last ten thousand years of rapid cultural and technological change. But new technologies of assembly and design should allow for far faster evolution. And a billion years is a very long time.

This Barkow claim seems the key to our disagreement:

Advanced technology means that a species need no longer be selected by environmental pressures – it can adapt the environment to themselves, not the other way around.

The limited abilities so far of individual creatures to change their local environments haven’t prevented strong selection pressures on them. And even when each creature has far broader control, this won’t prevent selection from favoring creatures who better use their controls to survive and reproduce. No, what is required to stop selection is very broad and strong coordination. As I wrote:

Yes it is possible that a particular group of aliens will somehow take collective and complete control over all local evolution early in their history, and thereby forever retain their early styles. … Such collective control requires quite advanced coordination abilities. … Anything less than complete control of evolution would not end evolution; it would instead create a new environment for adaptation.

My guess is that even when this happens, it will only be after a great degree of adaptation to post-biological possibilities. So even then adaptation to advanced technology should be useful in predicting their behaviors.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • SETI, METI and the paradox of extraterrestrial life: is there a libertarian perspective? by David Brin

    David Brin criticizes the possibly reckless turn in recent SETI research. He also speculates on what the great silence may say about human societies. It may not be such a good idea to go about shouting to the cosmos - not when we have so little idea of what may be out there.

    That said, Brin speculates on the nature of any intelligent life we are likely to meet. He notes that our scientific and technological society is very unusual when compared to societies of the past: It is, he says, diamond-shaped, with relatively few at either the bottom or the top, and with a broad equality of social station, rights, and even wealth in the middle. Maintaining such a society is hard work, and one reason we seem to be alone in the universe may simply be that very few alien civilizations have escaped from feudalism or something like it.

Response Essays

  • Should Earth Shut the Hell Up? by Robin Hanson

    Robin Hanson runs a cost-benefit analysis on our use of very loud radar signals. He finds that if there is even a small probability of a hostile civilization hearing us, then the risks are not worth the rewards. This conclusion holds up under fairly severe assumptions, and it grows much firmer as we consider our likely technological developments in the near future. Astronomy, moreover, is advancing rapidly, and it will likely tell us much more about the probability of existence and the nature of extraterrestrial life. When it does, we may have a better idea of the wisdom of sending out very loud radio signals. In the meantime, he concludes that yes, humanity should indeed shut the hell up.

  • Extraterrestrial Evolutionary Psychology by Jerome H. Barkow

    We have few tools at our disposal to learn about intelligent extraterrestrials - if they even exist. But one relatively powerful tool is evolutionary psychology. Jerome H. Barkow reviews some findings from terrestrial evolutionary psychology and considers their implications for alien life. We will learn a lot if we can discover what aliens find sexy, he claims - because sexual selection has overwhelmingly influenced terrestrial animals, including ourselves.

    We will also learn a great deal by observing aliens’ predation history, their group cooperation, and their genetic transmission of culturally favored traits. Of course, these observations will have to wait for first contact. Barkow concludes by agreeing with Robin Hanson - until we know more, humanity should probably keep relatively quiet.

  • The Importance of Active SETI by Douglas Vakoch

    Douglas Vakoch argues that active SETI is not to be feared: If highly advanced civilizations exist out there, they will have highly advanced radio detection equipment. If they are anywhere near us, then they will have known about us for decades. Messaging them can do no more harm than what we have already done, and it may do us a great deal of good, particularly if these civilizations are waiting for us to make the first move, and if messaging them directly is the signal they need to initiate contact.

The Conversation