Evolution Won’t Go Away

Robin Hanson writes that “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.”

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 – yes, our populations have physical differences and immunological differences and differences in ability to thrive at high altitude, but children adopted from one culture to another face no barriers (other than, perhaps, prejudice) from becoming native participants in their new way of life. And anthropologists like me can learn another people’s language and way of life and in a year or two start taking notes on how the themes of their gossip are similar to that of our own society. Indeed, are we really all that different from our chimpanzee relatives, from we whom we separated some five to seven million years ago? The basic emotions are clearly the same – the work of pioneers like Franz de Waal and Jane Goodall have certainly established that  chimpanzees are people, too! 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: we use our advances in biotechnology and plastic surgery to make ourselves more physically attractive, we work to make our children healthier, better competitors. If our species is still around in a million or so years, we can count on one thing: our heirs will be a lot better-looking than we are and a lot healthier. But 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? We might want to breed ourselves to be less aggressive, but would we really want our children to be, for example, defenseless obligate pacifists?

What about artificial intelligence? So long as a species controls its AI then it will simply be a tool in the service of the usual pursuits of sex and status, but what if we do indeed develop self-aware machines, with their own goals and motivations? Would they, too, be subject to a version of natural selection?  What if Ray Kurzweil is right and we are approaching the “singularity” in which our vastly augmented minds will be beyond anything  that we, whose brains remain naked, can comprehend? Well, I expect our core psychology will still be the same, but I really do not know. My goal here has been to anchor our discussion in what we know of evolutionary biology (well, what I think we know, plenty of space for disagreement here, too, of course), and a discussion of the political implications of futurological speculations would require its own issue of Cato Unbound.

Hanson also writes: “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.” Well, I agree that an advanced species will do a lot of genetic editing – we are already doing that in a small way with amniocentesis and in vitro fertilization. But why would extraterrestrials choose to alter their core psychology, so that their offspring, their successors, would be aliens to them?

Hanson continues: “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.” I don’t see how that follows: 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.

And finally, he writes, “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.” In many human cultures, age is associated with wisdom. This notion appears to be waning, in our own society, and as a senior myself I glad to see that Hanson still holds that value. Unfortunately, he projects it onto our extraterrestrials – because they are very old they should be wise. Sorry, it does not follow. Ancient xenophobes may simply have learned to be very efficient at extermination, for example.

I have much enjoyed engaging with Brin and Hanson. Where we differ is of course about what is or is not a “plausible assumption.” I have tried to anchor my arguments in my own understanding of how we ourselves evolved. At the same time, I hold that underlying all theories in sociology and political philosophy are psychological assumptions. Many social scientists do not believe this, and merrily take seriously, say, Marxian fantasies about communist futures in which envy has evaporated, or religious fantasies in which the oppressed (as Bertrand Russell pointed out long ago) are seen as morally superior to others and are expected therefore to continue to act with superior morality when they are no longer oppressed. From this perspective, any discussion of extraterrestrial behavior must begin with an exploration of their possible evolved psychology, and only then can we begin to theorize about the kinds of culture and social organization that are compatible with that psychology. Assuming that older species will be wise, or that periods of the history of our own civilization will have their counterparts in the histories of extraterrestrial societies, is unjustifiable.

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.