About this Issue
The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence - SETI - has so far come up dry. Yet it remains a cultural touchstone and a fertile ground for speculation. In no area is this speculation more important, perhaps, than in what SETI might tell us about social organizations and the sorts of values and practices we might need to make it to the stars.
But should we be going to the stars - or talking to them - in the first place? Some prominent voices have suggested that aliens are likely to be hostile or uninterested in cooperation. They point out, with much evidence in support, that first contacts on earth have often gone badly. Other commentators think we might really be alone in the universe. And still others regard the whole affair as almost literally pie in the sky: Why not fix problems down here on earth first?
Even without any evidence of intelligent extra-terrestrial life, these are provocative questions. They will take on new urgency, however, if a signal is ever detected. Who should respond? What should they say? What if they say something wrong? But then - how can we stop them?
Our lead essayist this month is David Brin, a celebrated futurist, social theorist, and science fiction writer. In an essay that’s both complex and challenging, he suggests that we should think very carefully before we try to communicate with the heavens, and certainly before we respond to any actual signal. He also suggests that certain social forms, including feudalism and other strictly hierarchical forms of organization, have done much throughout human history to hold back our scientific and technological progress. It may be the case that other societies, on other planets, are suffering similarly. The open and anti-hierarchical society may be the key to humanity reaching the stars.
Responding to him will be Professor Robin Hanson of George Mason University, Professor Douglas Vakoch of the SETI Institute, and Professor Jerome H. Barkow of Dalhousie University.
SETI, METI and the paradox of extraterrestrial life: is there a libertarian perspective?
1.0 Where Is Everybody?
Call it the Great Silence  or maybe the “Fermi Paradox.” Despite early, optimistic forecasts that we would soon find signs of alien beings beyond Earth, five decades of SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence have been fruitless. We are unaware of clear evidence for the existence of aliens or their works.
Of course, that situation might change tomorrow. And yet, for now, the puzzle is both daunting and profound. Theories that attempt to explain the Great Silence – the absence of signals or observable artifacts – are sometimes called “fermis” for short. Some fermis are chillingly plausible; others seem just short of impossible. Each has been pushed, at one time or another, by someone (or many) with lots of ego invested: “this is why we haven’t met anyone yet!” My role, for thirty years, has been to catalogue these hypotheses – more than a hundred, to date. They generally involve suppressing the estimated value of one or another factor in an expanded Drake Equation.
Those who have watched Cosmos or dozens of other science shows have at least seen it. Let N = the number of technological civilizations currently in the galaxy. Then,
N = R P n(e) f(1) f(i) f(c) L
Where R is the average rate of production of suitable stars, approximately one per year. P is the fraction of solitary stars that have planets (Recent science has allowed us to set that fraction at near one.) Other factors include n(e), the number of planets supporting liquid water and other life-ingredients, per suitable star; f(1), the fraction of these congenial planets on which life actually occurs; f(i), the fraction of these on which “intelligence” appears; f(c), the fraction of intelligent species that attain technological civilizations, and L, the average lifespan of each species.
In classic form, the Drake Equation doesn’t correlate with any observable. You must massage it, asking “what should we see?” It is also short several factors. A modified version  lets us estimate the number of technological species that ought to be currently visible to us. And, since we know of no aliens (so far), that output number must be set at one (representing lonely humanity) and the factors adjusted accordingly.
As Michael Hart, then Jones and Finney pointed out, this quandary grows more difficult if we accept the possibility of interstellar colonization – either by biological sapients or by self-replicating probes. So we add a factor for colonization-expansion speed V(i) (which some disputants set at zero). An expanded version must also include detectability cross sections, A(i), because many fermi hypotheses posit reasons why aliens might be difficult to notice. We also need L(i,c), the average duration/lifetime of each colonized site.
As Michael Michaud put it in Contact With Alien Civilizations: “[Dr. Frank] Drake admitted that the negative results… do imply that there are no large numbers of civilizations transmitting at many frequencies, at least not lately.” Something has kept the prevalence and visibility of ETCs below our threshold of observation.
Another term for this is the “Great Filter.” Some effect that spans galactic distancesappears to be filtering the number of observable, advanced ETCs down to a level where their failure to be noticed can be explained away with the common saying among SETI folk: “Be patient. We just haven’t found them yet.”
1.1 Picking apart the likely “Fermi” explanations.
“Uniqueness” proponents – stretching from Hart to Ward and Brownlee  – tend to pick one or another of the factors on the left side of the Drake Equation to suppress. These are factors having to do with the origination of species like ourselves. For example: stable planets with liquid water on the surface may be rare, or such worlds may develop life with less alacrity than apparently happened on Earth, or other living worlds may experience catastrophes at much higher rates. We live in a golden age for studying these factors.
Even more interesting is the emotional driver in the Uniqueness Camp – a desire to believe that whatever is suppressing the numbers must lie behind us. “The Great Filter” that keeps Galactic ETCs rare or unobservable is something unique about the path that brought us here, and therefore we can now look ahead to a pitfall-free destiny, filling a mostly-empty cosmos with our descendants. Those who at first appeared pessimistic are – for the most part – sunny and cheerful fellows.
1.2 Right-Handed Explanations
The opposite effect can be seen in members of the classic SETI community. Clinging to the original estimates of Carl Sagan and others, for high values of f(l), f(i), f(c) etc., they want to believe that life and intelligence and emergent tech-ETCs are abundant. But that leaves them with a Great Silence to explain. And they do that by suppressing factors on the right side of the Drake Equation.
For example, Sagan famously posited that humanity must grow up or else annihilate itself via nuclear winter. One could always update that failure mode: nanotech plagues, runaway synthetic biology, rebellious AI, take your pick. He generalized that all those other species out there who passed through a similar phase, and who did not cure themselves of aggressive tendencies, would wipe themselves out. Sagan’s political and moral motives were clear, but this approach also provided a filter to reduce Drake Equation outputs.
By picking variables on the right side of the equation, such as the average lifespan of newly fledged techno-species, or their speed of aggressive expansion, SETI optimists could model a level of sparseness of detectable ETCs to match any cosmic haystack result and still say: “any day now we’ll find ‘em.” Ironically, by presuming that ETC numbers are winnowed by death and failure, and by the difficulty of travel and colonization, it would seem that the “optimists” in SETI are not as sunny of disposition as many in the uniqueness crowd.
2.0 METI: Meddling in the Experiment
One must feel sympathy for SETI-ists. They have devoted lifetimes to a project that always drew ridicule from one side and fervent fandom from the other, not a situation conducive to detachment. SETI is forever plagued by financial problems, depending upon unpredictable spates of largesse from donors such as billionaire Paul Allen, or upon infrastructural support from hard-pressed universities.
Even as new, SETI-specific telescopes and sophisticated signal processing systems come on line, there is another pressure – the beating of time. Each better instrumentality sifts the cosmic haystack for the proverbial needle ten or a hundred times better than the ones that came before it. Great! But the refrain “any day now” starts to ring hollow and the ongoing silence grows frustrating, even daunting.
Under those conditions, it is perhaps understandable that a temptation would grow to poke at the experiment. If ET is keeping quiet, then should we be the ones to speak up? To shout into the cosmos? To cry “Yoohoo!” and provoke the conversation into being? To send Messages to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligences, or engage in METI?
While some in the community of radio astronomers have drifted toward a scientific sin – poking-at-the-experiment – others (including this writer) have objected to this new, untidy, and presumptuously tendentious endeavor. [Author’s note: an expanded version of this paper, referenced below, explores the “fermis” and background of METI in more detail.]
2.1 The SETI Protocols.
During the early nineties, a sober effort was made to develop guidelines for any First Contact event – resulting in the First and Second SETI Protocols. These set down:
(1) what principles should guide astronomers and other participants amid the hectic period during and following an actual SETI “hit.”
(2) whether, how, and when to transmit de novo messages – wholly of our own volition – far more obtrusive than the 1974 Arecibo signal.
I served along with chairman Michael Michaud (a retired senior U.S. diplomat) and former NASA SETI director John Billingham, on the committee assigned to draft these documents. The First Protocol (concerning behavior in the event of a verified SETI detection) has been adopted as a guideline by most of the scholarly communities that turn big radio telescopes skyward. It is widely accepted as a consensus agreement on best practices. [11-12].
The First Protocol contains an injunction against anyone peremptorily responding to a discovered alien signal, before appropriate international consultations have taken place. And, while that loose term is left undefined, any sensible adult would recognize what the clause means. That no one should impudently arrogate a right to speak for all of humanity – or initiate a first contact event that could have major repercussions upon billions of other people – before there has been at least a serious attempt to pose the matter for discussion before as many of humanity’s brightest intellects as practical, from a wide range of relevant disciplines, holding a very public conversation about what to do next.
All of these imperatives are still deeply believed by the “dissidents” in the SETI community who object to METI, who included Billingham, Michaud, and this author, who resigned from SETI-related committees and commissions in protest over what we deem to be the precipitate, unscientific and unprofessional behavior.
Alas, in recent years there has been a fad to “beam messages at ET” – everything from rock n’ roll to Doritos ads, rather unlikely to reach their targets… plus some far more serious attempts using planetary radar beams at Arecibo and the Evpatoria dish in the Crimea. In not a single case was the spirit or letter of the SETI Protocols followed, allowing a public conversation and reciprocal argument to penetrate the rationalizations of those who would eagerly alter human destiny, blithe in their assumptions about the nature of unknown alien societies, assuring us all “Don’t worry. We have it under control.”
2.2 The overwhelming urge to meddle
One complaint about METI is that if everyone else out there is being quiet, maybe it’s because they know something we don’t know. The notion that we should make assumptions about a benign cosmos and start hollering, when others who are presumably older, wiser, and vastly more powerful are evidently refraining… this would seem preposterous and at least face a steep burden of proof.
Alexander Zaitsev – one of those who have performed METI “experiments” using powerful planetary radar dishes – crafted a response to this assertion, one that while perhaps weird has the virtue of originality. He says that any nearby ETCs are perforce – by reason of their silence – cowards who must be coaxed into opening up. Zaitsev even suggests a new Drake Equation factor f(m) for the low fraction of technological species who have a “clear and non-paranoid consciousness sufficiently courageous to engage in deliberate interstellar transmissions,” and thus he concludes that we, as the new (and presumably courageous) kids on the block, are behooved to do the coaxing [13-14].
Ironic juxtapositions abound. During the USSR era, Soviet dogma insisted that any advanced ETC would automatically be both altruistic and socialist. Since then, Russian and European SETI-ists have dropped the “socialist” portion, while retaining belief in automatic harmlessness on the part of any advanced race. Although reconciling altruistic with cowardly and paranoid may seem awkward to some, it appears to have been no problem for Zaitsev. Indeed, let me avow that it is conceivable that we, as the descendants of gregarious-omnivorous apes, might indeed possess some traits of personality that make us inherently more outgoing than average. More on that later.
This is just one of many hypotheses and counter-arguments that have spilled back and forth. Indeed, the only unfortunate thing is that the debate has taken place in such tight clusters, instead of the broad, eclectic and internationally public discussions that such a topic deserves, and that would doubtless fascinate tens of millions.
This is not the place for a complete “j’accuse” indictment against METI and its fellow travelers. We dissidents have laid out our case of objections elsewhere. My own public protest, perhaps the most colorful [15-16], followed years in which – successively – each of us grew frustrated with secretive and arrogant practices.
It appears to us dissenters that the psychology behind this shift is frustration. It happens to all scientists, now and then, when the experiment obstinately refuses to comply with passionately yearned-for results. The temptation to meddle, to poke, to prod and holler is understandable, even if giving in to it is unforgivable. Especially in the manner that it has taken place in SETI.
As citizens of an emerging worldwide, technological civilization, we have begun coming to terms with a valuable new branch of science called Risk Analysis. While our power as a species increases, we keep uncovering ways that both nature and our own actions might bring grief, death, and destruction. The history of our planet is riddled with extinctions and/or first-contact disasters. We can now see that Carl Sagan was right in one respect – that a new and rash sapient race is capable of meting calamity upon itself or the planet that nurtured it. This dreadful realization of our power should not daunt us from moving forward! But it behooves us to study the methods of foresight, anticipation, and maturity, weighing plausible risks and ranking them along a scale that takes into account both their estimated probabilities and the potential severity of their outcomes.
Some METI supporters interpret our call for substantial, eclectic, broadly inclusive prior consultations before METI as an effort to muzzle our planet forever. Dr. Seth Shostak has asserted that such consultations can only have one outcome, permanent repression of free enquiry in an important field of science. He stated: “Even if the odds of a devastating reaction are long, those consequences could be lethal, and therefore there is no acceptable level of risk.” Whereupon he concludes that any such open discussion would inherently be disposed to extend a METI moratorium forever.
This strikes home in personal ways. My own nonfiction exploration of transparency, openness, and accountability – The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? – won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association for promoting open discourse as a fundamental element of our social and technological compact. I note this only to show that I am deeply aware of the scenario that Dr. Shostak has raised.
To be clear, the scientific rigor mortis that he describes is certainly a danger to be considered and countered, if we are to move forward. (It is also major topic in my novel Existence.) But many fields have already begun adapting ways to meet this challenge, blending reasonable caution and responsibility with determination not to let science be imprisoned by fear. For example the genetic sciences held a moratorium for risk study in the 1990s – the “Asilomar Process” – that resulted in dozens of new and universally adopted safety procedures that made us all far more secure… and that scientific groups swiftly got used to – measures that wound up impeding science hardly an iota.
SETI should do likewise. What is certain is that refusal to discuss the matter in broad exchanges, involving the widest array of specialties plus the public, is the surest sign of intellectual dishonesty, even cowardice.
3.0 A libertarian perspective
Many aspects of the SETI/METI debate bear on our personal beliefs about the nature of intelligent beings including their rights, obligations, and potentials in the context of a much, much larger scope of space and time.
For example, would our favorite models of “human nature,” including the importance of individuality, apply equally to a sapient race descended – say – from pack carnivores, like wolves? Or solitary hunters, like tigers? Or solipsistic omnivores (bears), or herd herbivores? Or ants?
Even among the heirs of omnivorous, gregarious apes, we humans have come in a wide variety of types and organized ourselves in colorfully different societies… though some patterns seem to have persisted. For example, a vast majority of human groups that achieved agriculture and metals quickly organized themselves into pyramid-shaped hierarchies, in which narrow clades of noble-owners and priests lorded it over ignorant and impoverished masses below. Moreover, those ruling classes made it their top priority to preserve dominance, suppressing merit competition and mobility, ensuring that status would be inherited. The Darwinian selection drivers behind this trend are obvious. Any gang who picked up swords might get to steal other men’s women and wheat, ensuring their own reproductive success. We are all descended from the harems that those successful bandit-aristocrats collected – and the harems that their sons employed, unearned by any effort, accomplishment, or merit.
Is feudalism the “natural” social order? Among cultures that were not hunter-gatherers, it certainly dominated over virtually all of historical time, and probably it was fiercely practiced before that. It appears to be a self-reinforcing “attractor state” in which technology (e.g. metal weaponry) empowers any cabal of the strong to exert power over large numbers of their peers. The same underlying pattern appeared in kingdoms, theocracies or Soviet commissar castes. Hence: is the feudal pyramid obligate and permanent? Are we, perhaps, only living through a brief exception to a pervasive pattern? More generally, might the same Darwinian attractor apply elsewhere across the galaxy, wherever intelligence arises?
Ubiquitous feudalism could indeed cripple many a promising species. Certainly, if one looks at pyramid-shaped societies on Earth, it appears that the lords’ reproductive success was purchased at the price of scientific stagnation, rigid repression, and miserably awful statecraft. If so, then we have a plausible and compelling “fermi” or hypothesis for the absence of ETCs: the feudal attractor state is so successful that most species fall into an endless condition of stultified stagnation. Fearful of destabilizing effects, ruling castes never allow spaceflight, let alone exploration - by radio or in person – of the stars.
Fortunately, this classic social pyramid, while by far the most common human pattern, is not the only one. Across the last two centuries we have experimented with a different attractor model – one that is diamond-shaped, with an empowered middle that both outnumbers the poor and is unafraid of the rich. In the Enlightenment Experiment, arenas like markets, democracy, science, courts, and sports successfully harness regulated competitiveness to create tsunamis of wealth and free exploration, while also allowing and encouraging countless opportunities for willing cooperation. The resulting society roils and froths. It may seem chaotic, especially for those who dream of simple, perfect utopias. But inarguably it has outperformed – in just two centuries – all of the preceding feudal pyramids… combined.
The advantages of this experimental process – unleashed human creativity, social mobility and industrious fecundity – come with one major drawback: the diamond pattern is inherently unstable. In every generation, fresh waves of cheaters attempt to compress or manipulate the diamond back into the shape of a classic pyramid. These pressures are never absent, though their surface excuses shift with astonishing incantatory agility.
Indeed, failure to grapple with the implications of this perpetual threat to competitive creativity is perhaps the greatest flaw in modern libertarianism. Anyone who claims that competitive arenas can remain effective without carefully negotiated regulation to suppress cheating should try this experiment: set up a sports league without rules, in which the strongest players are free to unite in a single team, if they so choose. (To make the experiment perfect, establish it without even laws against violence and murder: think Rollerball.) Now generalize that approach to all realms of human endeavor and recognize it as the pervasive pattern of all human history.
When the strong can side with the strong against the less-strong, you quickly get cartels and monopolies, then inherited ruling castes, and the old cycle is re-established. It is being attempted as we speak. What emerges is a primary truth about our vastlyproductive, competitive, wealth and freedom-generating arenas – markets, democracy, science and so on – that they are not “natural” but instead carefully and brilliantly designed machines, built in order to overcome what is natural – the human propensity for cheating.
This notion is not new. Adam Smith’s version of libertarianism has always aimed to maximize competitive output by keeping power dispersed while fostering new competitors from below. It is a pragmatic, engineering approach to encouraging competition, contrasting sharply, I would argue, against the more recent, quasi-religious version of libertarian ethos – one that declares all regulation inherently and automatically evil and that “market laws are laws of nature.” Tell that to the would-be entrepreneurs who were repressed in Imperial China, or ancient Rome, or Persia, Meso-America or almost any other pyramid of power in humanity’s stifled past.
3.1 Libertarian implications of the Great Silence.
These implications are profound and worrisome. If humans can (with great struggle) just barely keep going this alternative attractor state – the vibrant and churning diamond-shaped social pattern, with its arenas of regulated competition – then what are the odds that it has successfully emerged elsewhere, across the galaxy, where sapience did not arise out of gregarious-egalitarian apes?
Sure, pyramids and diamonds are not the only two possible types of societies, even on Earth, and many others may flourish out there, across the galaxy. Indeed, we Earthlings may try others – though if they are freely competitive-cooperative, then they will be subsets of the diamond.
In fact, this hypothesis – that alien races might also be trapped by a cultural attractor state of feudal stagnation – is only one of what I deem to be the “top ten” hypotheses for the Fermi Paradox. Others loom just as high… and are discussed elsewhere.
Suffice it to conclude – for this article, in this community of discussion – that we need a wider perspective than we are ever shown by Rand or Rothbard or Marx… or even Adam Smith. Simplistic and formulaic dogmas may be personally satisfying – they let us dismiss our political opponents as 100% wrong, instead of the mere 90% that might offer us some food for thought and room for negotiation. But in fact, such sanctimoniously satisfying purity is an impairment when you take in a larger picture. We are, after all, barely above cavemen, feeling our way out of a chasm of ignorance. What are the odds that you, right now, are the acme of all understanding, whose incantations are perfectly better than the incantations that were fervently believed by followers of Thoth, or Baal… or Keynes or Hayek?
We are only likely to make it if we exhibit – constantly – the agility and willingness to re-evaluate that are hallmarks of our band of clever, gregarious apes. That is, when we are at our best. Simplistic dogmas are for insects. Only if we deal with complexity will we gain access to those baubles overhead that we’ve started to relish, with rising eagerness and ambitious greed.
An earlier version of this article was first prepared for a debate at the Royal Society in 2010. A longer version, with treatment of other possible “fermis,” was compiled for the Journal of the British Interplanetary Soc. Vol 67, No 01 (January 2014).
Professor Steven Dick’s Life on Other Worlds: The 20th-Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate (Cambridge University Press 2001) covers much of the history of these concepts during the latest human lifetime. For a tour of the concepts going back in time, see M.J. Crowe’s The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900: The Idea of a Plurality of Worlds fro Kant to Lowell (Cambridge University Press 1986). Another book that covers the general field is Contact With Alien Civilizations (Copernicus Books, 2007), by former senior U.S. diplomat Michael Michaud.
Extraterrestrial Civilizations, edited by Thomas B.H. Kuiper and David Brin, (American Association of Physics Teachers, 1989) is a reprint book that offers some of the classic papers in the field ranging from SETI enthusiasts like Sagan, Drake Cocconi and Morrison to early uniqueness proponents (e.g. Hart) and appraisals of interstellar travel and migration by Forward, Finney and Jones and by Oliver.
1. Brin, G.D., “The Great Silence - the Controversy Concerning Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life” Brin, G.D., Quarterly Journal of Royal Astronomical Society, fall 1983, v.24, pp283-309.
2. Wesson, Paul, “Cosmology, extraterrestrial intelligence, and a resolution of the Fermi-Hart paradox,” Royal Astronomical Society, Quarterly Journal 31: 161– 170, 1990.
3. Hart, M., “An Explanation for the Absence of Extraterrestrials on Earth”, Royal Astronomical Society, Quarterly Journal, 16, 128-135, 1975.
4. Finney, B.R. and Jones, E.M., 1985 Fermi’s Questions, University of California Press, 1985.
5. Kuiper, T. & Brin, G.D. Extraterrestrial Civilizations, 1989 American Association of Physics Teachers.
6. Hanson, R. 1998 “The Great Filter, Are We Almost Past It?”
7. Ward, P. & Brownlee, D., Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe, Springer 2003.
8. Benford, G., Benford J. & Benford D., “Searching for Cost Optimized Interstellar Beacon”, Astrobiology, 10 4, 490-498, 2010.
9. Brin, G.D., “An Open Letter to Alien Lurkers,” 1996.
10. Brin, G. D., Existence, Tor Books 2012.
11. Billingham, J., “A Decision Process for Examining the Possibility of Sending Communications to Extraterrestrial Civilizations,” 1996.
12. Brin, G.D., “SETI: A collection of introductions,” 2004.
13. Zaitsev, A., “Sending and Searching for Interstellar Messages,” Acta Astronautica 63, 614-617, 2007.
14. Zaitsev, A, “The Drake Equation: Adding a METI Factor” by Dr. Alexander Zaitsev, 2005.
15. Brin, G.D., “A Contrarian Perspective on Altruism: The Dangers of First Contact,” in Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Paul Shuch ed., pp 429-449 2011.
16. Oakley, B. 2012. Pathological Altruism, Oxford University Press, USA 23. Brin, G.D., “Shouting at the Cosmos,” 2006.
17. Michaud, M. “Ten Decisions that could Shake the World” Space Policy 19, pp.131-136, 2003.
Should Earth Shut the Hell Up?
Should humanity shout to the galaxy “We are here!”? Some key considerations:
1. Since we humans recently acquired our ability to shout, aliens that hear our shouts should be far older and more advanced than us. Think thousands or millions of years, not decades. We would lose any fight, and while we might learn much from them, they can learn little from us.
2. We are unsure of alien friendliness. Most might be friendly, or most might be unfriendly. It just takes one friend to send us useful information, but it just takes one enemy to destroy us.
3. Unless aliens are so ubiquitous that UFO reports are plausible, a response from aliens would take decades at least, and might take millennia or more.
4. If aliens are near enough for us to get a response within centuries, then there are at least thousands of them out there that could yell or otherwise make themselves visible. But all of them instead seem to keep quiet and hide. That seems worrisome.
5. If aliens are instead far away, then by the time any response gets here we will be extinct, or will have already learned most of what aliens could teach us. So in this case prospects for trading useful information are poor. But they might still see us as a competitive threat and try to neutralize us.
I agree with Brin; these considerations seem to make a strong, if not overwhelming, case for not yelling on purpose yet. Since we’d have to wait long for either gains or losses, and since aliens being quiet on purpose seems worrisome, then without a good reason to think aliens are quite friendly, we should wait and learn more before yelling. Astronomy is, after all, making rapid progress.
If the case for keeping quiet is plausibly strong, the case for not letting each group decide this for themselves seems overwhelming. Such decisions have global consequences. If there is opinion variation on alien friendliness, and if anyone is free to shout, then those with the most positive opinions are most likely to shout, to the plausible regret of those with median opinions. If global governance makes sense for anything, it makes sense for this.
Some say that we can’t control yells to aliens (Harrison 2014). But far fewer people can yell loudly to aliens than can add CO2 to our atmosphere. If global control of CO2 emissions is possible, controlling yells to aliens is also possible.
David Brin did, however, neglect to mention one key consideration:
6. Earth has in fact been yelling to aliens, but accidentally, such as by radar that probes planets, asteroids, and comets. Such radar is very loud, even if noticeable to any one alien for only a brief moment. Though there are disagreements on the right metric (Benford et. al. 2010), by one measure accidental yells have reached roughly a million times more possible aliens than have purposeful yells (Zaitsev 2008).
By this measure, our loudest yells come from the Arecibo radar in Puerto Rico, when used to probe asteroids and the like. It can be heard over most of our Milky Way galaxy by any one-kilometer wide antenna pointed straight at Earth for a year. The USAF PAVE military radar also yells loudly, reaching about one tenth as many possible aliens as Arecibo (Haqq-Misra et. al. 2013). (Note that ordinary radio, television, and telecommunications signals are much quieter.)
It seems that we should also worry about accidental yells, in addition to purposeful yells. Yes, some use this risk comparison as a reductio argument to excuse purposeful yells. For example:
There are some people, [Seth Shostak] acknowledges, who might worry that broadcasting “The Day the Earth Stood Still” could be inimical to our interests. He added, “I think that if these people are truly worried about such things, they might best begin by shutting down the radar at the local airport.” (Overbye 2008)
But I say: let’s reverse the reductio, and consider seriously if our accidental yells are worth the risk.
As an economist, let me try to offer an original insight: we can use the amounts that we spend on accidental yells to help guess the yell risk that we should tolerate. At least we can if we make two simple assumptions:
1. We couldn’t get much more net value out of radar sending if we spent more on it.
2. We do not now consider the risk of alerting aliens in our radar sending cost vs. value calculations.
For example, the Arecibo radar costs about $10 million per year to run, and it spends about 2% of its time in send mode. Since world income is about $85 trillion per year, we thus spend about two parts per billion of world income on the Arecibo radar in send mode. From this we might crudely estimate the net value we get from Arecibo sending to be somewhere in the ballpark of a few parts per billion of the total value the world gets each year from continuing to exist, and not being destroyed by aliens.
Actually, this number is probably an overestimate. Yes, we get more value from Arecibo than we spend on it, but this added value should be much less for the last few dollars we spend (perhaps only 20% more). After all, what we learn via radar can be learned in other ways, even if at a higher cost. And the ratio of the value the world gets from not being exterminated to world income is probably big (a factor of two or more).
Thus if the world were in a steady state of income and radar cost and sending, we might estimate that continued indefinite use of the Arecibo radar in send mode at current levels is a bad deal if, over the long run, such use increases the chance of our being destroyed by aliens by even one in a billion. (Unless there are huge chances of nice aliens giving huge gains.) That seems to me a pretty high bar; can anyone really assure us that this risk is below this threshold?
It gets worse. As the world gets richer, we are likely to continue to spend a similar fraction of world income on radar sending. But improving technology combined with increased spending on radar sending should result in more powerful radar signals, which must increase the chance that aliens hear our accidental yells. So even if our current level of yelling produces an acceptable risk of alien extermination, that level will continue to rise, and so should eventually rise to problematic levels.
Thus even if accidental yells are not a problem today, they should eventually become a problem. So we may as well start now to think about how to manage this risk. And just as we can’t trust each group that yells on purpose to decide if their yelling is worth the risk they impose on the rest of us, we also can’t trust planetary scientists or military strategists to decide if the value they produce via accidental yells is worth the risks they impose. All such parties are plausibly biased by selfish career interests.
A key relevant factor in these analyses is the fraction of aliens who are friendly. And as an economist I’m disturbed to see that a consensus apparently arose among many in this area that aliens must be overwhelmingly friendly (Harrison 2014). Most conventional social scientists I know would find this view quite implausible; they see most conflict as deeply intractable. Why is this kind-aliens view then so common?
My guess: non-social-scientists have believed modern cultural propaganda claims that our dominant cultures today have a vast moral superiority over most other cultures through history. Our media have long suggested that conflictual behaviors like greed, theft, aggression, revenge, violence, war, destruction of nature, and population growth pressures all result from “backward” mindsets from “backward” cultures. This propaganda naturally suggests that very advanced aliens must have long since eliminated such conflict. Communist SETI researchers similarly assumed aliens to be communist.
Part of the mistake here is to model behavior via a simple one-dimensional “aggression” parameter. Yes, over time violence has fallen, but we advance in part by learning to more finely condition our behavior on context. We pick fewer pointless fights, but we also more quickly take advantage of those who can’t fight back (Pfeffer 2010). Think of academics who are cordial among equals, but unfairly referee papers from rivals who can’t much retaliate. Aliens who treat their equals well may still treat humans badly.
So, bottom line: we should cut way back on accidental yelling to aliens, such as via Arecibo radar sending, if continuing at current rates would over the long run bring even a one in a billion chance of alerting aliens to come destroy us. And even if this chance is now below one in a billion, it will rise with time and eventually force us to cut back. So let’s start now to estimate such risks, and adapt our behavior accordingly.
Gregory Benford, James Benford, and Dominic Benford (2010) Searching for Cost-Optimized Interstellar Beacons. Astrobiology 10(5):491-498.
Jacob Haqq-Misra, Michael W. Busch, Sanjoy M. Som, Seth D. Baum (2013) The benefits and harm of transmitting into space. Space Policy 29:40-48.
Albert Harrison (2014) Speaking For Earth: Projecting Cultural Values Across Deep Space and Time, in ed. Douglas Vakoch, Archeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication 175-190, June 1.
Dennis Overbye (2008) One Alien to Another: A Broadcast to the Stars. New York Times, December 11.
Jeffrey Pfeffer, (2010) Power: Why Some People Have It—and Others Don’t, HarperCollins, September 14.
Alexander L. Zaitsev (2008) Detection Probability of Terrestrial Radio Signals By A Hostile Super-Civilization. Journal of Radio Electronics 5.
Extraterrestrial Evolutionary Psychology
“Many aspects of the SETI/METI debate bear on our personal beliefs about the nature of intelligent beings,” writes David Brin, and this is certainly true. He goes on to ask whether “our favorite models of ‘human nature,’ including the importance of individuality, apply equally to a sapient race descended – say – from pack carnivores, like wolves? Or solitary hunters, like tigers?” So far so good. But then he leaps into a premature discussion of whether our extraterrestrials will be libertarians, and whether they will be organized in a feudal-type society or a diamond-shaped one. My response will explain why his invoking Darwin is a good beginning, but that we need a lot more Darwin before we can explore extraterrestrial social-political organization. The ideas below are based on and expanded from my previous discussions of what kinds of extraterrestrial intelligences are at least scientifically possible and perhaps even likely (Barkow 2000, 2013).
Any species we can communicate with obviously has a high technology. That fact implies that it is a social, cooperative species with some form of cultural capacity. “Culture” refers to a vast information pool that is socially transmitted both within and between generations, with knowledge generally accumulating over time. A solitary, non-cultural species, no matter how intelligent its individuals, is highly unlikely to accumulate the knowledge needed to devise the technology that enables interstellar communication. (And why would a member of such a species be interested in interstellar communication, anyway?)
How did we evolve our own cultural capacity? Many species have considerable intelligence and engage in much social learning (e.g., chimpanzees, elephants), but only our line has evolved anything like human-level capability. There must have been amplifying processes, during our evolution, which led to our intelligence and reliance on culture. Two important intelligence/culture amplifiers for our species would have involved sex and predation.
By “sex” I mean sexual selection or mate choice. Extraterrestrials are very likely to have two sexes for technical reasons that space limitations prevent me from discussing here. But see Barkow (2000). Species typically evolve some traits not primarily because they help the individual adapt to the local environment but because they increase the odds of mating with a “good genes” individual. The peacock’s feathers are an accurate indicator of health and therefore of good genes, and they attract the female of the species. The antlers of the male elk permit it to compete for dominance with other males, with the winners gaining sexual access to fertile females. Offspring resemble their parents, as Darwin taught, so these traits come to typify the species in question. For humans, research has shown that both females and males tend to prefer sexual partners with intelligence and skills (along with other characteristics, of course). Presumably, during our evolutionary history, traits that made potential mates more attractive included the ability to learn readily from others and to acquire and improve upon the social and technological skills needed for gathering and hunting, food preparation, child care, sociality, and for creating the implements necessary for these activities. These attractive people would have had more surviving offspring than the unattractive (the stupid, the uncooperative, the unskilled). If ever we communicate with extraterrestrials, we will learn a lot if we can discover what they find sexy.
The evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller (2000) has argued that art, literature, large vocabulary, sports, and just about any domain in which we compete in terms of a standard of excellence, are all ways in which we show off our “good genes” to potential mates. So 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 is another amplifying process that would have contributed to our evolution. Predation involves culling. Individuals with certain traits – or who lack certain traits – are removed from the evolutionary line, because death prevents reproduction. Predation can be a reciprocal process in which, say, the owl culls the local rabbit population of individuals who are poor at freezing and hiding, while the rabbits in effect cull (by starvation) those owls with poor eyesight or who cannot detect small movements. During our own evolution, ancestral humans probably culled each other, destroying individuals in rival kin groups or bands. Those poor in cooperating with their fellows (say, on raiding sorties) or who could not readily learn subsistence or defensive/offensive skills or how to care for children and infants were less likely than were others to leave descendants. (Of course, the successful were also more attractive sexually than were those who barely survived.)
Predation can also occur at the group level, especially when the groups are groups of kin. Our capacity for ethnocentrism and the alacrity with which we split into antagonistic in-groups and out-groups suggest (in a somewhat circular manner) that groups with the genetic capacity to create and transmit more effective culture and cooperation were the ones that defeated their rivals and became our ancestors. Suppose our extraterrestrials also evolved in this manner, at least in part. That means that they will tend to be ethnocentric, and our communication with them should therefore emphasize our friendliness.
But suppose, instead, that their history of predation involved not competing bands of their own species but competition with a rival species (mutual culling predation). Their intelligence and cultural capacity would be heavy on defense and offense. Worse, they might well have developed an automatic, unthinking hostility to members of other intelligent species. They would be obligate xenophobes who would consider peace with aliens insanity. Their version of SETI could involve a search for enemies! Proactively sending messages to them could be highly dangerous. We would be well-advised to provide no information about our physical form in order to have the option of convincing our listeners that we are members of their own species.
The evolutionary psychology of a species must affect its sociology and political organization. For example, think of our communicating with an ancient species in which only those who conform get to breed, only those who readily learn to behave properly get to procreate, while the nonconformists are neutered or even killed. This enduring eugenics policy would result in a process called the genetic assimilation of culture. Eventually, individuals would almost automatically learn their culture and the behaviors expected of them, and the result would be a society that changed only very slowly (and would be vulnerable to unanticipated environmental change, but that is another story). They could even be considered genetic libertarians because they would have little need of external pressures to make them behave “properly” – acting otherwise would be literally unthinkable. They would not need much in the way of government regulation, and police would be unnecessary.
Here is another example of the importance of evolved psychology for social/political structure. A powerful aspect of our psychology is that we want more for our own children than we do for the children of others. In the small-scale, largely hunting-gathering societies in which we evolved, other people would “level” – act against – any single individual who tried to dominate others. Moreover, there was no way in which high rank could be hereditary, no way to leave superior hunting or leadership or story-telling abilities to one’s own children alone. All this changed once we developed agriculture and herding and now had goods that could be accumulated and passed on to our own children and no one else’s. Now we could and did develop massive social inequality, as Brin points out.
Suppose, however, that our extraterrestrials do not know whose children are whose and have no concept of parenthood. Perhaps the young hatch independently like frogs and insects, and only at the second or third developmental stages do they begin social learning. The resulting society might have the transitory social inequality of our own hunting-gathering ancestors, but it could hardly develop feudalism. The species’ evolutionary psychology would produce a sociology unfamiliar to us, one without the possibility of hereditary social inequality or stratification.
Before we can address issues of extraterrestrials and social-political organization and philosophy, we need to unleash the evolutionary anthropologists and the behavioral ecologists and ask them to delimit the evolutionary psychologies we could find out there. Only then will we be ready to think about the sociologies and politics that beings with such psychologies could develop.
Finally, should we “shut the hell up”? Yes. The thought experiment suggests that there could be dangerous xenophobes out there, so I must agree with Robin Hanson. If we must yell we should be very, very careful about what we say, what we reveal, and how we present ourselves. Sending out non-representational art would probably be the safest message.
Barkow, Jerome H. (2000). Do Extraterrestrials Have Sex (and Intelligence)? In Dori LeCroy & Peter Moller (Eds.), Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Reproductive Behavior (Vol. 907, pp. 164-181). New York: Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
Barkow, Jerome H. (2013). Eliciting Altruism While Avoiding Xenophobia: A Thought Experiment. In Douglas A. Vakoch (Ed.), Extraterrestrial Altruism: Evolution and Ethics in the Cosmos. New York: Springer.
Miller, Geoffrey. (2000). The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped Human Nature. New York: Doubleday.
The Importance of Active SETI
A central assumption of traditional SETI listening projects is that extraterrestrials are beaming intentional signals in our direction, in an effort to make contact. We humans, the less advanced civilization, are given the easier task of searching, while the older extraterrestrials take the burden of transmitting. This assumption provides the rationale for conducting exclusively passive SETI projects, rather than also engaging in active SETI—transmitting messages of our own to other possible civilizations—a practice also called Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI).
But suppose this assumption is wrong. Suppose that to make contact, we need to take the initiative. In the following essay, I suggest we should do just that and in the process systematically test the hypothesis that extraterrestrial intelligence may be more widespread than we typically imagine. As a result, we may increase the chances that first contact will lead to mutual comprehension.
Why would we assume that extraterrestrial civilizations are older than we are? Because it’s a prerequisite to make contact at all. Humans have had the radio technology to communicate at interstellar distances for less than a century. In the thirteen-billion-year history of the galaxy, it would be wildly improbable that their first century of communication and ours would coincide. The only way we will make contact is if they have been around much longer than we have.
If they are older, they are likely to have made contact with other extraterrestrials before us. Again, it’s a numbers game. If they make contact with us this early in our development as a technological civilization, they’ve probably done it with other civilizations before.
What does that gain us? Prior contact should give them an advantage in creating messages that we would find meaningful. Perhaps they’ve discovered that every civilization savvy enough to wield a radio telescope is also familiar with prime numbers or the periodic table of elements. And so they may tap into a cosmic Rosetta Stone through the universal language of math and science.
But it may not be so simple. Yes, stars and planets and biological organisms are made of atoms, no matter where you live in the Milky Way. But the manner in which an alien civilization represents its knowledge—even of something as universal as chemistry—may be radically different from our own.
Having been through this cosmic encounter process before, they should be better at it than we are. But will they be good enough? Will they anticipate that we are creatures who rely heavily on vision? Will they really be able to anticipate just how rudimentary our understanding of math and science is, when compared to their much longer-lived culture?
Or can we make a faster path toward mutual comprehension by telling them how we understand the universe? If much older, more experienced extraterrestrials are better at creating intelligible messages than we are, then they should also be better at comprehending our messages.
The critical question, then, is which of the following combinations yields the greatest chance for mutual comprehension:
First, a more advanced civilization attempting to understand the message from a less advanced civilization, or
Second, a less advanced civilization attempting to understand the message from a more advanced civilization?
If mutual comprehension is best attained when older civilizations try to understand younger civilizations, we would benefit by diversifying our search strategy to include active SETI. At a minimum it would take years or decades to receive a reply from an extraterrestrial civilization, but if the alternative is not being able to decode any messages we receive, mutual comprehension may necessitate our taking the initiative to transmit.
For Whose Benefit?
The Draft Declaration of Principles Concerning Sending Communications to Extraterrestrial Intelligence, developed within the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) SETI Committee, stresses the benefits of an interstellar exchange for humans, rather than for our interlocutors: “The content of such a message should reflect a careful concern for the broad interests and wellbeing of Humanity….” This Draft Declaration says nothing about benefitting the extraterrestrials. While many have pondered the advantages of humankind joining the “Galactic Club” of other civilizations, no one has suggested we should pay our dues—or even apply. Through active SETI, we would do both.
Launching an active SETI program would signal our maturation as a species, as we guide our search strategies by both cosmocentric and intergenerational ethics. Such an approach would take into account the welfare of contemporary humans, as well as the extraterrestrial civilizations that may receive our messages and the far future humans who may get a reply.
Some have reasoned that the older extraterrestrial civilizations should take on the burden of transmitting, while our younger, human civilization should only listen. Whether or not older civilizations should take this responsibility, it is not clear that they will. Arguably, younger civilizations have more to gain from interstellar exchanges, so they might be expected to invest more to establish contact. Diversifying our search strategies by including active SETI may increase our long-term success, even measured solely in the benefit to humanity.
A Galactic Zoo
But is it dangerous to transmit? Would our efforts to be good galactic neighbors lead to the destruction of humankind, inviting an alien invasion? Any civilization with the capacity to travel to Earth would outstrip us technologically. If extraterrestrials could muster the resources to traverse interstellar distances, they would already know we’re here. Consider the pattern of growth we’ve seen in radio telescopes since the 1930s. If we extrapolate that growth no more than three centuries, we have radio technology capable of detecting Earth’s TV leakage at a distance of 500 light years (Shostak 2013).
But if they already know we’re here, why engage in active SETI? One possibility is the “Zoo Hypothesis,” which posits that extraterrestrials may know of our existence, but they have kept quiet, not wanting to interfere with our development as a civilization (Ball 1973). Some versions of this hypothesis would give slim hope for a response to intentional transmissions, whatever their contents. If the goal of extraterrestrials is to ensure Earth remains a pristine laboratory that they can study without external interference, we might well expect no response, because engaging with us would destroy their experiment.
Even under such a “Laboratory Hypothesis,” however, there might be ways to elicit a reply. One might imagine extraterrestrial research protocols that require silence if only undirected leakage radiation were detected, but that would authorize a reply to intentional efforts to make contact.
David Brin’s lead essay reviews the contentious issue of whether the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) SETI Committee should call for international discussions prior to any active SETI transmissions. Since the 1990s the same committee has championed a protocol that guides activities following the detection of extraterrestrial intelligence. A fundamental principle of that early work was that in the event of a detection, there should be no reply prior to international consultation. So when discussions nearly two decades later turned to the question of transmissions from Earth de novo, rather than in response to the detection of another civilization, why was there reluctance—or rather, outright opposition—to including a comparable clause?
For anyone involved in the flurry of emails, there were impassioned pleas both for and against mandatory international discussions. The case in favor of consultation seems obvious: the impact of a transmission from Earth could have such profound impact that at a minimum, it deserves significant prior discussion. Why, then, did this call for international discussion fail to gain the support of the majority of the members of this committee on three separate votes?
One reason, as Brin has noted, was the lack of clarity about exactly what international discussion entails. Does this mean that there should be no intentional transmissions from Earth without endorsement of some international body, such as the United Nations? If so, this could be a cause for concern—not because anyone objected to such discussions happening, but because of the difficulty of gaining the attention of major policy and scientific organizations, especially before we have evidence that extraterrestrial intelligence exists. Would the Secretary General of the UN encourage the General Assembly to debate the wisdom of a reply from Earth, if someday SETI scientists detect a signal from afar? Perhaps. But would active SETI make it on the agenda of the General Assembly now, even before we know that life exists beyond Earth—especially when there are no ongoing transmission projects underway? Much, much less likely. So if this is what international consultation means, serious advocates of active SETI might be skittish. It’s not that international discussion at the highest level is irrelevant—but it’s very hard to achieve.
Others, I suspect, voted against adding a prohibition on transmissions on pragmatic grounds. The first protocol, outlining best practices following a signal detection, was drafted by the SETI scientists actually conducting searches. In the first iteration of this document, the scientists themselves were the signatories. That is, those signing the document were declaring what they, personally, would do in the event that they detected a signal. In the case of de novo transmissions from Earth, the guidelines were being drafted by those not directly involved in Active SETI projects.
Brin might well argue that the above objections are missing the point: that there are many reasonable definitions of international consultation, even prior to signal detection, and that the SETI Committee has the right, perhaps even the obligation, to take a stand toward best practices in SETI, even if the committee doesn’t have a capacity to enforce a ban on transmissions.
My goal is not to defend those who opposed adding a clause asking for international discussion before de novo transmissions. Admittedly, I cannot know what went through the mind of each of the 45 members of the committee as they decided how to vote. But we are left with the fact that a committee with a longstanding commitment to science policy discussions, a body of the International Academy of Astronautics, repeatedly decided not to incorporate a call for international discussions prior to de novo transmissions. And if a body with this level of commitment to SETI does not make this topic a priority, who will?
I would contend that any organization, or any individual scientist, who plans to mount an active SETI project has an obligation to foster such international discussion, even if no other international bodies will take the lead. When other international bodies are willing to participate, all the better. But a failure to gain a forum for discussion through existing scientific and policy organizations does not relieve would-be practitioners of active SETI of the obligation of fostering those discussions themselves.
What would such international discussion, fostered by organizations involved in SETI, look like in practice? Let me give two examples, both of them addressing the content of any messages that may someday be transmitted.
Last month the SETI Institute hosted a workshop called “Communicating Across the Cosmos,” which brought together a broad-based, interdisciplinary group of specialists. Over the course of two days, speakers from six countries came together to grapple with the question, “How can we make ourselves understood by other civilizations in the galaxy?” Participants represented such diverse disciplines as history, philosophy, psychology, art, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, chemistry, astronomy, engineering, mathematics, journalism, and artificial intelligence. To ensure that these discussions could reach a wider audience, within a day of each presentation, a video of the talk and ensuing discussion was placed on the SETI Institute’s YouTube channel, freely available for anyone to view.
While international discussions of leading scholars is one important element, it’s also critical to engage the broader public. In that spirit, in 2009 the SETI Institute launched a web-based project called “Earth Speaks,” which asks people to submit the sort of messages they would want to send to an extraterrestrial civilization. To date, people from over seventy countries around the world have submitted text messages, pictures, and sound files. For the past five years, the SETI Institute has had a place where anyone, at any time, can provide input about what they would want to say. It is not a project that promises people that their messages will be transmitted, but only that their input will help inform future discussions about how we would want to present ourselves to another world (Vakoch et al. 2013).
When to Begin?
We should begin a sustained program in active SETI at this stage of the development of SETI for two reasons. First, if the objective of active SETI is to get a response from extraterrestrials for future generations of humans, then the longer we wait to begin transmitting, the longer future generations of humans will need to wait to start listening for replies.
Second, there will always be a certain arbitrariness in deciding when to begin, just as there was an arbitrariness in deciding to conduct the first passive SETI experiment, Project Ozma, over a half century ago. In retrospect, we might argue that Ozma was absurd, searching for radio transmissions from only two nearby stars, one frequency at a time. It would have made more sense, some might argue, to wait to start until astronomers could search a million or more channels, surveying thousands or millions of stars.
There are two problems with this line of reasoning. First, as far as anyone knew at the time, it was conceivable that intelligent life is so prevalent in the cosmos that almost all star systems are populated, transmitting at the selected frequency. We now know, thousands of times over, that is not the case. But that was a distinct possibility in 1960, disproved only by conducting the experiment. It’s now time to carry out an analogous active SETI project to test a similarly circumscribed hypothesis: that extraterrestrial civilizations are plentiful and ready to respond, if only we will send an intentional signal of our interest in making contact.
For a more in-depth treatment of the arguments in this essay, see Vakoch, Douglas A. “Asymmetry in Active SETI: A case for transmissions from Earth.” Acta Astronautica 68.3 (2011): 476-488.
Vakoch, Douglas A., Timothy A. Lower, Britton A. Niles, Katrina A. Rast, and Christopher DeCou. “What should we say to extraterrestrial intelligence?: An analysis of responses to ‘Earth Speaks’.” Acta Astronautica 86 (2013): 136-148.
“Trust Me, I Know Exactly What’s Out There!”
I congratulate Doug Vakoch on offering up what may be the first cogent argument for METI, or active SETI. It fails, but not without – for the first time - at least offering some logic.
“If mutual comprehension is best attained when older civilizations try to understand younger civilizations, we would benefit by diversifying our search strategy to include active SETI.”
To summarize: Doug asserts that, since light speed slows the conversation, each leg of the back-and-forth conversation should be efficient. Older/wiser and more experienced ETCs would do the heavy lifting by deciphering the clumsy contact messages of neophytes like us, offering a higher likelihood of first-round comprehension than if we had to try deciphering them. I believe that’s a fair paraphrasing.
Without doubt, this is better than the pro-METI argument of Russia’s Alexander Zaitsev, who claims that the Great Silence means advanced aliens are simultaneously both altruistically harmless and “cowards,” refraining from contact out of unreasonable fear. Zaitsev then asserts that we neos are behooved to be the calming, nurturing voices, easing the fears of those who are vastly older and more powerful than us. Gosh.
Doug’s argument is also better than the one offered by Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute – that any extensive and worldwide discussion of the pros and cons of messaging would automatically result in a worldwide ban on all broadcasts into deep space, censoring Earth forever. (My response: if we were that kind of people, we would not deserve contact!)
On this occasion, Dr. Vakoch does give a nod to the classic METI justification: that the “horses have already left the barn” and that Earth civilization has already revealed itself, so why not just go ahead and shout? In fact, it has been repeatedly shown that this is not so – that it would take prodigious and dedicated efforts by super-races to detect Earth’s non-coherent radio, even during our noisiest decade, the 1980s. But that argument is hypocritical, anyway, since METI proponents clearly and openly want to change something with their yoohoo messages. If the horses are gone, why are they so eager to open the barn door?
In contrast to those older, specious stances, Doug at least offers the logical assertion that we might save one leg of the first back-and-forth of messages with another civilization – in which each leg might take a hundred years or more. If those others out there got our brave “hello” asap, and used their great experience to interpret, they might then reply to us with a savvy and gracefully skilled greeting.
Having thus paraphrased Doug’s argument, with some appreciation of its logic, I must (alas) respond with – “baloney.”
1. Doug’s cycle time effect is improved far more if the advanced Elder races provide beacon tutorials, as Frank Drake and Carl Sagan originally expected, giving the neo-species at least a chance to figure it out. Those beacons would have saved far more back and forth time! They also would be far cheaper for advanced ETCs than our little METI yoohoos are, to us.
Even if we humans are too stupid to interpret their equivalent of Sesame Street, it would give us both a welcome safety encouragement and a target to aim our METI responses. But there are no such beacons. Failure to detect any is the one null SETI result that is already definitive, disproving that early, optimistic, Drake-Sagan expectation.
2. Advanced ETCs (AETC) would not even have to make beacons! An AETC need only send occasional “pings” at all the nearby systems that have planets with non-equilibrium atmospheres. Such pings could say: “We are here. We are here. Answer when ready. And even if you don’t grasp the embedded message of gifts, do respond. We’ll handle the decipherment.”
What either a ping or a beacon proclaims is “the universe is at least somewhat safe. See? We are exposing our position. When you are ready, send us something and we’ll respond.”
Hence, clever as it is, Doug’s logic collapses. AETCs should still do the heavy lifting. Their failure to do so has implications that are huge to anyone but a zealot. If powerful and advanced races are silent, the lead hypotheses must be either: they are absent… or they are keeping quiet ‘cause they know something we don’t know.
3) There are many categories of the “Zoo Hypothesis,” and Dr. Vakoch conflates several. But let’s drill down to just one. Doug says: “One might imagine extraterrestrial research protocols that require silence if only undirected leakage radiation were detected, but that would authorize a reply to intentional efforts to make contact.”
Indeed, one can imagine that. In fact, I worked out this scenario, in some depth, in a novel called Existence. Professor Allen Tough’s Invitation to ETI program also took steps to demonstrate assertive intentionality toward any lurking/observing aliens, via our Web and comms networks, which, according to Doug’s scenario, are being monitored. Hence no need to beam a blaring radio yoohoo.
Nor were these the only examples of humans assertively demanding the equivalent of a Galactic Federation application form. I have done it on radio shows, countless times! I’ve also put out a plea for attention from alien lawyers and do-gooder NGOs, asserting our rights under whatever “galactic law” might prevail, out there. All to no avail! (See www.ieti.org… and my specific, context driven message to alien lurkers, at: http://www.ieti.org/articles/brin.htm)
No, Doug’s assertion experiment has already been tried. If they are already watching and listening, they’ve heard the words, and they are refusing the plea.
4) One of Doug’s points is disingenuous. He dismisses the Second SETI Protocol’s call for pre-discussion before de-novo transmissions from Earth. “Why, then, did this call for international discussion fail to gain the support of the majority of the members of this committee on three separate votes?”
The answer is simple. It did get support from the majority on varied SETI commissions, for quite some time. I served on the drafting committees and such a call for pre-discussions was a part of the Second Protocol for more than ten years. It was only removed at a series of rigged, Potemkin “meetings” that were packed by later METI zealots with the skill of Tammany Hall. The chief result was to disgust dozens of colleagues, making us realize that we cannot trust these “discussions” to a tiny, inward-looking coterie of true believers and fans who have no interest in multiple points of view.
Doug demands to know details about the pre-discussions that Michaud, Billingham, Benford, Hawking, Messerschmidt and so many others have asked for. Again, how silly. We have deliberately avoided demanding anything specific because it is clear what “eclectic and extended and open” means, and we’d accept a wide variety of negotiated fora, so long as the process included a wide variety of human sages from the full range of relevant disciplines. For example, experts on past first contact encounters between human societies, or when whole regions of Earth encountered each other biologically, as when the Isthmus of Panama suddenly connected North and South America. These are pertinent topics, about which the tiny coterie of a dozen radio astronomers and their fans know nothing at all.
What has become clear is how obstinately determined the METI zealots are to avoid public pre-discussion before a rapt and fascinated international viewership. They do not want SETI matters discussed in venues they do not control.
Fortunately, there are wiser heads. One of the great lights of SETI – Dr. Jill Tarter – led in formulating a coming 90 minute debate at the 2015 AAAS meeting – in San Jose in February. Though far too brief, that session will at least have time to air the basic situation before a fairly wide audience. But what’s needed is a venue for astronomers, biologists, ethologists, ethicists, and many other realms of human sagacity to truly thrash this out in the detail it deserves, with input from humanity as a whole. Ideally, televised so that everything can be absorbed and cogitated by millions.
Indeed, what could be more fun? What discussion could possibly do more to set into perspective humanity’s many squabbles and crises, letting us look at the Big Picture, for a refreshing change?
Isn’t there something kind of creepy and suspicious about a cult that seeks to evade such an intellectual feast, so basic and wonderful and wise? Instead, they want to wager all of humanity’s destiny upon a handful of arm-waved suppositions and assumptions, bandied by maybe a couple of dozen devotees who are so certain that their logic trumps any other.
One thing is clear. We who have resigned from all the SETI commissions, in protest over the highhanded hijacking of a field of science, are not going to be mollified by a couple of tightly controlled “meetings” at the SETI Institute, whose conclusions will be foregone.
What we have before us is a matter for humanity. Indeed, I can well imagine aliens deeming this to be one of many tests that maturing newcomers should pass! A test of whether we have the wisdom to at least talk things over and compare notes among ourselves, before letting a teensy tribe of enthusiasts declare: “trust me! I know exactly what’s going on, out there!”
Nothing Much to Say
I could say more but I don’t think I would be saying anything new or problem-solving. I am just surprised that people should have such very strong personal opinions on a topic that, by its very nature, involves what can only be informed guesswork. It would be strange, given all the unknowns, if all those who have thought deeply about this matter should come to the same conclusions. I can’t help but keep in mind that there are both dangers and opportunities facing our species which are a lot more likely than extraterrestrials intervening in our affairs.
Pascal’s Alien Wager
We seem to be 3-1 here on the key issue of yelling to aliens, with Vakoch opposing the rest of us. So I’ll make this one comment here on this subject, and then turn my attention to topics where I disagree with Brin and Barkow.
In the ordinary Pascal’s wager, God is said to greatly reward those who believe in him and do what he favors. The rewards are so huge that even those who assign only a small chance to God existing are wise to try to make themselves believe.
A standard response is to point out that a great many different Gods might exist, each of whom favor different actions. If you have little idea of which Gods exist or of what acts they favor, then there is little point in taking their rewards into account. You might as well just ignore them.
Douglas Vakoch seems to me to suggest an aliens version of Pascal’s Wager. He suggests that aliens might be near and already know we are here, but refuse to talk to us until we send the first message. But once we do talk first, they’ll send us lots of useful info. So even if we think the chances are slim that any aliens are around, the rewards would be so huge that we might as well take the chance.
The standard response mentioned above to the ordinary Pascal’s Wager also seems appropriate for this variation - there are many other possible kinds of aliens. For example, there may be aliens who will only shower us with valuable info if we show ourselves to be rational by keeping quiet for a long while before yelling. Or maybe there are aliens with a strong sense of status who will destroy us for being uppity by speaking louder than our status justifies.
Surely it is not enough to simply point out the possibility of good outcomes from yelling. We must also consider the relative chances and values of good and bad outcomes. Regarding a choice to yell on purpose, there are two key relevant parameters: a value ratio, and a chance ratio.
The value ratio divides the loss we would suffer if exterminated by aliens by the gain we would achieve if friendly aliens were to send us helpful info. I’d guess this ratio is at least one thousand. The probability ratio divides the chance that yelling induces an alien to send helpful info by the chance that yelling induces an alien to destroy us. I’d guess this ratio is less than one hundred.
If we can neglect our cost or value regarding the yelling process, then we need only compare these ratios. If the value ratio is larger than the chance ratio, yelling is a bad idea. If the value ratio is smaller than the chance ratio, yelling is a good idea. Since I estimate the value ratio to be larger than the chance ratio, I estimate yelling to be a bad idea. If you disagree with me, I want to hear your best estimates for these ratios.
To those who think aliens must already know we are here, consider a three-parameter family of possible aliens. Aliens could vary by distance, by listening intensity, and by listening luck. Aliens that are closer, listen intensely, and are lucky already know about us. But aliens that are distant, listen little, and are unlucky do not.
While there are aliens in this parameter space who must already know we are here, or who will know when our signals reach them, there are also points in this space holding aliens who would not know of us if we did not yell. So it all comes down the the distribution of aliens over this parameter space. About which we are substantially uncertain. So I can’t see how one could plausibly be confident that no aliens would learn of us via our yelling.
Slow Growth Is Plenty Fast
1. We probably shouldn’t send messages out to aliens now on purpose, and more surely we shouldn’t let each group decide for themselves whether to send.
2. The lack of visible aliens may be explained in part via a strong tendency of all societies to become “feudal,” with elites “suppressing merit competition and mobility, ensuring that status would be inherited” and resulting in “scientific stagnation.”
In my first response, I agreed with Brin on his first point. In this response, I disagree with Brin on his second point.
It is true that before a few hundred years ago wealth and status were often inherited, that most people lived near a subsistence level, and that rates of innovation were low. Today, in contrast, rates of innovation are high, and median incomes are well above subsistence level. This change is called the “industrial revolution,” and it was indeed a good thing.
Brin wants to blame low income and innovation rates before the industrial revolution on elites suppressing merit competition and science. But there is a huge literature on the causes of the industrial revolution, and while there is plenty of disagreement, I’m not aware of anyone who puts stopping elites from suppressing merit competition near the top of their list of plausible causes of the industrial revolution. (My favorite guess: new networks of experts talking.)
While Brin sees inequality as the main obstacle to innovation, in fact today inequality promotes innovation in important ways. This is because most innovation today happens within for-profit firms, and private for-profit firms put a lot more effort into innovation than do public for-profit firms. Compared to publicly traded firms, privately owned firms invest a 2.5 times larger fraction of their assets, and are 3.5 times more responsive to changes in investment opportunities. Yet private firms cannot exist without great wealth concentration; they are usually owned by fewer than three shareholders, and 83% are managed by the controlling shareholder (Asker et. al. 2011).
Furthermore, the modern world doesn’t actually seem to have much less inheritance of wealth and status than did the ancient world. The detailed work of Greg Clark finds very similar degrees of long-term inheritance around the world today and across history. Specifically Clark finds that the intergenerational correlation of social status remains in the range of 0.7 to 0.8 across all these societies: medieval England, modern England, pre-industrial Sweden, modern Sweden, the United States, Quing and Communist China, Meiji and modern Japan, and Chile (Clark 2014).
But these are only relatively minor criticisms of Brin’s view. My stronger criticism is that the world before the industrial revolution did innovate. Yes, the rate of innovation then was much less than today, but it was still plenty fast enough to create very advanced civilizations within cosmologically short times.
We have so far had three eras of growth: forager, farmer, and industry. During the forager era, the number of foragers doubled about every quarter million years. During the farming era the number of farmers doubled about every thousand years. And during our industry era our economy has doubled about every fifteen years (Hanson 2000). In all three eras, growth was primarily caused by innovation. (In prior eras, population tracked economic growth and income remained near subsistence levels because populations could grow faster than did the economy.)
A thousand doublings of the economy seems plenty to create a very advanced civilization. After all, that would give a factor of ten to the power of three hundred increase in economic capacity, and there are only roughly ten to the eighty atoms in the visible universe. Yes, at our current industry rates of growth, we’d produce that much growth in only fifteen thousand years, while at farmer rates of growth it would take a million years.
But a million years is still only a small blip of cosmological time. It is even plausible for a civilization to reach very advanced levels while growing at the much slower forager rate. While a civilization growing at forager rates would take a quarter billion years to grow a thousand factors of two, the universe is thirteen billion years old, and our planet is four billion. So there has been plenty of time for very slow growing aliens to become very advanced.
Thus aliens tending to fall into cultures and institutions that discourage innovation is just not by itself a plausible explanation for the “great silence” of a universe without noisy advanced aliens. Even vastly lower rates of innovation are plenty enough to create very advanced aliens over cosmological times.
Perhaps one could have more success if one combined this slow-growth hypothesis with another hypothesis about very short time windows in which civilizations had to grow before something killed them off. But even then, I’m skeptical that wealth inequality matters much for rates of innovation.
John Asker, Joan Farre-Mensa, Alexander Ljungqvist (2011) Comparing the Investment Behavior of Public and Private Firms, NBER Working Paper No. 17394, September.
Gregory Clark (2014) The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility, Princeton University Press, February 23.
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.
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.
Selection Is Coming
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].
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.