Adapted Aliens

In his response to David Brin’s lead essay, Jerome Barkow surveys some possible influences on the evolution of alien culture and intelligence, as clues to the kinds of aliens we might meet:

If our extraterrestrials are in part intelligent due to sexual competition (mate choice), they may seek to impress us with works of art or simply non-functional elaboration of tools of any kind, and they are likely to appreciate our own forms of art, or at least to recognize our art as art. …

Predation can also occur at the group level. … That means that [aliens] will tend to be ethnocentric, and our communication with them should therefore emphasize our friendliness. … Suppose … their history of predation involved not competing bands of their own species but competition with a rival species (mutual culling predation). … They might well have developed an automatic, unthinking hostility to members of other intelligent species.  … [If] only those who conform get to breed … [it] would result in … genetic assimilation of culture. …

Suppose, however, that our extraterrestrials do not know whose children are whose and have no concept of parenthood. … [They] might have the transitory social inequality of our own hunting-gathering ancestors, but … without the possibility of hereditary social inequality or stratification. (more)

Barkow seems to assume that alien styles are largely determined by the specific biological environments in which particular alien species originally evolved. This might make sense for aliens who are a thousand years more advanced than humans are today. But it makes far less sense for aliens who are a million or a billion years more advanced – far more likely timescales. Given how much adaptation could have taken place over such times, we should expect to see older aliens selected far more by their final environment than their initial environment.

I think we can make some plausible forecasts about such very advanced aliens.

First, aliens who have been advanced for millions or billions of years should be very well adapted to their final physical environment. They should have pretty complete control over their physical environment, and be able to restructure it most any way they like. Since physics and basic physical resources are the same across the universe, this suggests that advanced aliens are physically similar across the universe, unless significantly different social equilibria are possible and have substantially different physical implications.

Second, it seems to me that sexual reproduction is quite unlikely to last. Today when we design software, devices, novels, and even organizations, we are almost never tempted to mix together random parts from different prior designs. Very advanced aliens should similarly design themselves deliberately, without much coin-flipping.

Of course this doesn’t mean signaling will end. For example, today when we choose a design component from a library of components we are often influenced by especially dramatic and vivid examples of use of each component. This creates a selection pressure for design components to try to be part of such vivid examples. Alien designs may be similarly influenced by dramatic demos. Such vivid examples may not be “art,” but neither also are they simply functional.

Third, very old aliens should be accustomed to very low levels of growth and innovation. After all, the rates familiar to us just can’t be sustained for millions and billions of years. As I said in response to Brin, a thousand doublings of capacity seems sufficient to give extremely advanced aliens. It seems very unlikely that we’d have much general information of use to such aliens, though we might have interesting context-specific information, such as about our fashions and the like.

Fourth, as I explained in my first response to Brin, very advanced aliens should not be either generically friendly or generically hostile to outsiders. Instead they should be very good at making their friendship or hostility appropriately context-dependent. That is, aliens should be very good at figuring out when and in what precise way being friendly or hostile will best achieve their ends. Such strategies should be far subtler than simple-minded ethnocentrism, family-loyalty, or xenophobia. Instead such aliens would ask themselves in great and careful detail, what exactly could humans eventually do to help or hurt them?

Fifth, advanced aliens should be well adapted in both means and ends. That is, not only should aliens be very good at achieving any particular end via physical and social strategies, the ends that aliens try to achieve should also be ends that help them survive and compete well. This suggests that advanced aliens will be very patient, but also very selfish regarding their key units of reproduction, and quite risk averse about key correlated threats to their existence.

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. Aliens like this should indeed have styles better predicted by their early biological environment. However, since such collective control requires quite advanced coordination abilities, aliens who achieve it will likely have undergone substantial evolution between their initial adaption to their biological environment and this time of advanced coordination.

Also, anything less than complete control of evolution would not end evolution; it would instead create a new environment for adaptation. For example, a world government created in the name of controlling change, but which actually is controlled by a majority of voters, would create a new competition to control a majority of voters. This would select for creatures who are effective at this competition.

I hope I’ve shown that it seems possible to make plausible forecasts about the styles of very advanced aliens, beyond making guesses about their initial biological environments. These guesses can help us to estimate the consequences of yelling to aliens.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.