Belligerent Aliens

Belligerent Aliens

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This episode brought to you by Brilliant. In the future, as we journey out to distant   stars, we may encounter aliens that are  warlike and aggressive. On the other hand,   when contemplating humanity’s past, that might  be the pot calling the kettle black.   Today we’ll be continuing our long running  Alien Civilization series by looking at the   concept of Belligerent Aliens, and as the title  implies we’ll be examining hypothetical alien   civilizations like the Klingons from Star Trek  who all seem to go around with their jaw out and   eyes blazing looking for a fight. The ones who  seem easily offended and utterly undiplomatic.   However, we’re also be examining what’s sometimes  called the Biologist View and the Historian’s Take   on the Fermi Paradox, the big question of  where all the aliens are, that we explored   a bit last month in our Scifi Sunday episode  on Sentient Planets and World Consciousnesses.  

In that we commented that the default perspective  of Biologists on the Fermi Paradox tended   to be the Hart Conjecture – named for Michael  Hart, the gentleman who coined the term Fermi   Paradox – that biological origins incline  species to expansionism and belligerence,   and so we’d expect most civilizations to reach  and colonize space to share that tendency,   thus such civilizations are probably pretty  rare or else the galaxy would be colonized.   But the key notion for today is  that biology tilts to belligerence,   and also we get the Historian’s default  view, that Technology implies Belligerence,   and that all of history is a battle with the  status quo, creating new technologies to fight   your environment and fate itself, an inherently  belligerent view. Or so the reasoning goes.   So both of those perspectives incline  us to assume we would meet folks out in   space who are aggressive, though aggression and  belligerence are both fairly relative concepts.  

Aggressively scouting space and  colonizing empty systems peacefully   is very different then attacking other folks  colonies and nature does not just encourage   belligerence. Indeed in higher lifeforms it often  encourages heavy cooperation and with humans even   cross-species cooperation like our relationships  with any number of farm animals or pets.   Which brings up the third perspective, the  Physicist Perspective or Sagan Perspective,   that any civilization we meet in space  must be fairly enlightened and peaceful,   because the science they have is so advanced to  permit journeying through space that it implies   access to destructive technologies that make an  atomic bomb look mundane. You either have mastered  

your destructive impulses by then or your species  is done for. Of course mastering your destructive   impulses might just mean you’re very good at being  destructive, just very careful when you are.   Incidentally, while these are called the  Biologist, Historian, and Physicist views   on the Fermi Paradox, I’ve never noticed any  particular consensus among the academics of   those fields for those perspectives. I’m  a physicist for instance, and one for whom   Carl Sagan is an obvious role model, and yet I  decidedly tilt more to the Biologist Perspective,   not the Sagan Physicist Perspective. Intelligent  life is probably quite rare, because if it wasn’t,   the universe would already be teeming over in  life. But there’s a lot of truth to that Sagan  

viewpoint, if you have weapons that can sterilize  whole planets, you need to have come up with some   way of managing that or you won’t be around to  colonize the stars, except maybe the ashes of   your planet flying out at interstellar speeds  from the exploded remains of your homeworld.   So in that respect a war-like species more  aggressive than humans would seem improbable,   no Klingons in space, and indeed Sagan’s  viewpoint was very influenced by the Cold War   and he and many others figured humanity as-is  was too violent to survive to the stars,   let alone a Klingon Empire, and they were  an analogy for the Cold War in Star Trek.   I didn’t agree at the time, and while we would  be fools to ignore concerns over weapons of mass   destruction or other technological  ways we might obliterate ourselves,   I don’t think planet-ravaging nuclear war  was ever very likely and I don’t think most   folks worry about it these days the way  they did when I was a kid. Nonetheless,   it would seem really hard for a belligerent alien  race to exist without wiping themselves out.  

We’ll define a Belligerent Alien Race today as  one significantly more belligerent than humans.   Now is this justified? Well, kinda.   First, as is often the case in science  fiction we have a lot of tropes and   cliches in play and folks like the Klingons  are what are often called a Planet of Hats,   a world where all the inhabitants share some  single defining characteristic. In this case   the Proud Warrior Race, which also includes the  Kree from Marvel Comics, as well as the Shi’ar,   though I don’t think they’ve made a debut in the  MCU yet. There’s the Sontarans from Doctor Who,   and of course the Daleks and Cybermen are  decidedly Belligerent Aliens if not specifically   the Proud Warrior Race. We have the Green  Martians from the classic John Carter of Mars,  

who never voluntarily were unarmed, the Idarans  and the Affront of Iain M. Banks Culture Novels,   the Kzinti from Larry Niven’s  Ringworld and Known Space novels,   the Mandalorians, Chiss, and Wookies from  Star Wars, and countless other examples.   Other Planet of Hats examples that would count  as Belligerent would be the Hutts of Star Wars,   the giant and ancient slug creatures who make up  Gangster and Criminal overlords of that setting,   or the Muuns, the Bankers, who colonize no  other worlds but aggressively loan money   for the expansions of others and get a share of  that investment. Which is a good reminder that   belligerence, aggression, and expansion can come  in many forms. The Ferengi of Star Trek are every   bit as aggressive as the Klingons, Romulans, or  Borg, and each of these in different flavors.   Now we tend to lampoon scifi and fantasy  franchises for these planets of hats and with   good cause, it tends to be lazy writing and the  sort of stereotyping that makes everyone assume   all Americans are cowboys or a thousand  other stereotypes for every culture that   are often even less flattering. Of course they  often have some halfway sane basis in fact,  

and its not like its unusual for folks in  the states to emulate that iconic cowboy   appearance or behavior in some fashion. We  don’t need everyone to be a cowboy any more   than other countries need their folks to serve  as knights or samurai or legionnaires or hunters,   but they often remain idealized figures for  us and a post-scarcity advanced civilization   can probably get away with having  99% of its population being soldiers,   and indeed all grizzled veterans of ten thousand  battles from the advantages of virtual reality.   It's also worth remembering there isn’t anything  stopping people from multi-classing, so to speak,   just because everyone was a soldier doesn’t mean  they aren’t also lawyers, scientists, doctors,   poets, merchants, and so on. Heck I’m a war  veteran and spent the better part of a decade  

as a soldier. I’m also a scientist and a teacher  and a public official. Indeed for a lot of human   history, being a soldier was a job almost every  military age male performed at some point or was   expected to be able to, and dominant professions  aren’t uncommon either. For most of human history   if you visited a civilization more than half of  its people would have called themselves a farmer,   or a hunter, or a gatherer. These often  had a hundred flavors and sub-categories,  

like a wheat farmer, but then so does soldiering. The Sagan Perspective posits that a civilization   capable of traveling to new worlds also is  capable of destroying them, and that’s very valid,   based on known science and why here on SFIA we  say there’s no such thing as an unarmed spaceship.   That’s the first rule of warfare when it  comes to space naval engagements, bigger   engines means bigger guns. If a ship can outrun  you, it also probably doesn’t need to runaway.   A spaceship engine capable of traveling  to new worlds carries energies in it   that dwarf a nuclear bomb. However in  this same vein of thought we need to  

acknowledge that such civilizations probably  also have radical life extension technology,   mind augmentation, virtual reality, and advanced  teaching methods. Those aren’t prerequisites   of getting to another world like that powerful  spaceship is, but those technologies will likely   be ours before a human foot sets down on an alien  world around an alien sun for the first time.   Such being the case, the ‘typical human’ in  a spacefaring era and thus the typical alien   in one should be assumed to be potentially vastly  more skilled than you or I. There is a chance that   AI and superior automation might make everyone a  lazy dolt lounging in virtual utopias while robots   wait hand and foot on the drooling morons they’ve  become, but then they probably aren’t doing much   colonizing and exploring either – though their  robots might be and they might be belligerent too.  

But let’s assume whoever we encounter in space  comes from a civilization that does have those   technologies that we will likely develop at least  a little bit in this century. So the random alien   farmer or merchant or scientist you meet might  be a warrior too, indeed its entirely likely   they will be some badass genetically modified,  mind-augmented cyborg who’s had centuries to   learn skills but probably only needs days to  master what would take us decades to learn.   The other end of that is that while a culture  might be very diverse in its interests,   the parts foreigners and aliens encounter might  tilt heavily in certain directions. Your explorers  

may run a wide spectrum of personal interests and  behaviors, but they probably all share a tendency   to curiosity and risk-taking. Your border posts,  garrisons, and fleets probably have a martial   culture and your roving merchants, your rogue  traders on the outskirts of your civilization,   probably have some common behaviors that are  not your cultural norm either. And given the   time lag of space travel, this may be all another  civilizations knows of you for centuries, these   folks on your outer edge whose behavior is an  outlier. Possibly even your pirates and exiles.   It's probably worth noting though, getting back  to the notion that we would expect aggression   and belligerence to be universal present  if not necessarily dialed up to 11,   that I’m not familiar with any extant  culture on Earth with no martial past.  

Even some strongly pacifist groups  like the Amish are very much   influenced in that by their past, emerging  from a region that was no stranger to war.   The basic notion often in play with the Sagan  Perspective is that civilizations have given up   their violent origins and that’s entirely possible  I suppose. My normal complaints about this in   scifi is either that they seem to have discarded  any concept for aggression – which can be entirely   peaceful – and often look down in disgust on  humanity for not having abandoned violence yet.  

Which strikes me as weird, if you’re defining  someone as young and primitive for still doing   something you used to do long ago, spitting  on them over it would be like trashing old   human cultures for a ton of primitive or barbaric  practices common back then but since abandoned,   usually by reason and explanation  of why its bad and unnecessary.   What we really wouldn’t expect civilizations  to do, for all that it is common in scifi,   is to ignore their primitive neighbors. They may  limit their involvement out of a version of the   Star Trek Prime Directive against interference,  they may try to avoid being too interventionist   or even missionary, but they won’t ignore them. And this is coming back to that wider meaning of  

belligerence summed up in that conclusion  that “Technology implies belligerence”   because the pursuit of technology is a  rejection of status quo and fatalism.   Folks can debate if concepts like Free Will or  Good and Evil and Right and Wrong really exist,   or if we even exist or if anything we do really  matters, but don’t expect those to be debates   alien civilizations have anymore than we do, which  is to say mostly academic ones. This isn’t to say   they would think they had everything right, but  cultures that don’t believe they have an inside   track on what’s right and don’t encourage folks  to think their actions matter don’t prosper.  

There was an article in Forbes a few years back  titled “8 Traits That Are Scientifically Proven   To Predict Future Success”, and the first two  came as no surprise to me, they were a capacity   for delayed gratification and conscientiousness,  two notoriously accurate benchmarks for success.   But the third one surprised me for a moment  then seemed like a ‘no-duh’ right afterward,   and that was a belief in free will and  that they had a capacity to choose and   be in control of their life. And I have a heck of  time imagining how a civilization could last long   if at the very least its decision-makers didn’t  believe they were in control or that they should   be. It’s certainly a point one can debate but  this is the notion really encapsulated in that  

concept of technology implying belligerence. You only seek to master your environment and   invent technology because you want to wrestle  fate, you’re not content to die of disease or   from bad weather or locusts taking your crops.  Indeed, you only have crops because some of   your ancestors stopped being content with what  naturally grew and began cultivating and storing,   delaying gratification of eating an animal or seed  now in favor of growing them to herds and fields.   Now a civilization might abandon that mindset  down the road but it’s the one they should be   starting off with when they start off to the  stars, and given light lag and divergence,   all their various colonies should be their own  growing and evolving seeds sprouting in the face   of new worlds and challenges. And also probably  lauding those folks who were their explorers,   conquerors, inventors, and so on,  their folks who were belligerent.  

I mean honestly, take 10 random famous historical  figures or your own list of role models and ask if   they had that quality, and one realizes that even  pacifist figures like Ghandi or Martin Luther King   Jr were both very belligerent individuals, they  were absolutely not content with the status quo   and believed they could change it and fought to  do so, they just didn’t use or encourage violence.   Honestly it's hard to envision a figure folks  thought of as inspirational or heroic or a   role model whose personal philosophy was  “Nothing matters, nothing is worth doing,   no behavior or state is worth aspiring to,  aspiration itself is foolish”. And even folks   who tend to publicly take one of those views were  usually railing against it, not glad it was so.   Such being the case, we aren’t really  expecting alien civilizations not to have   that style of belligerence, even if they’re  not specifically warlike and combative.  

So we’re shifting back and forth today from  saying belligerence is challenging fate   and its other more common meaning of being  willing to pick fights with other people,   but it's an acknowledgement that at a  grand cultural level there’s some overlap.   The vicious genocidal Daleks of Doctor Who, the  Conquering Assimilationist Borg of Star Trek,   the Megalomaniacal Dark Lords of the Sith of Star  Wars, or the Parasitic Warlord Goa’uld of Stargate   are all belligerent and all think they’re  in control. Even when such groups say they   are fated to win or have a grand destiny  it's an assumption their actions matter   and that change is good, not the Status Quo. However these groups are all pretty monstrous   and one might say that if that’s belligerence,  we want nothing of it. Better to go extinct as  

a species than to turn into some malevolent swarm  ravaging all before us. Fundamentally though we’re   talking about it as a motivating force, rather  than the various ethics and morals that are meant   to restrain or shape or focus it. Even limiting  ourselves to a warlike type of belligerence   doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the bad guys –  they could just be a group that was more prone to   violent solutions to problems. The bad guys are  on the loose attacking the galaxy and they show   up with a fleet to fight back while other might  still be trying to negotiate, and circumstances   dependent that may have been premature  escalation by them or blind disbelief and   appeasement by those seeking to negotiate, akin  to Neville Chamberlain prior to World War 2.  

There’s a famous quote from Mayor Salvor Hardin  in Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series,   “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent”  which somewhat ironically perhaps was written   during World War 2, that sounds very  good but maybe isn’t the best advice,   your mileage may vary, but few would deny that  whether or not violence is a good solution, even   in self-defense, it is a solution folks often tend  to turn to even when they probably should not,   and I think most of us would agree on that. However, we need to step back and ask,   in the context of aliens and  biology, why we agree with that,   and if aliens would? Why is a violent solution wrong?   Or more kindly, wrong except in self-defense  or maybe not the ideal first option.   Because an alien might look at someone misbehaving  and think killing them made perfect sense.  

Now we need to keep in mind  that in a post-biological setup   a species might have pretty different factors in  play and stuff like death might not mean anything,   or the same thing, same as how a warrior  culture might exist and be full of veterans   simply because they have very good simulations and  virtual reality. Their culture also might believe   in a great afterlife for warriors and think  killing their enemies was doing them a favor.   Indeed this might be literally true if they  harvested and uploaded their victims' brains.   In nature though, unrestrained violence isn’t  usually an option inside a species for dealing   with problems. If every Klingon gets into a fight  about once a month that leads to a fatal stabbing   about 1 time in 12 or once a year, from adulthood  onward, of say 18, then that means by 19, half of   them dead, they have a half-life thereafter  of a year and only a quarter remain at 20,   only an eighth at 21, and by age 30, only 1 in  4096 survive, just 250 out of every million who   turned 18. And keep in mind that would only mean  the average 30 year old had slain a dozen foes,  

not exactly epic warrior status. Only  about 1 in 16 million would make it to 42,   having slain 2 dozen foes, and only 1 in 69  billion would make it to the ripe old age of 54.   Now that actually might be doable under certain  biology. Humans are not the norm in that we take   more than a dozen years to mature and rarely  have multiple births and usually have a few   years between those. We tend to assume that’s the  norm for aliens but why would it be? Indeed we do  

sometimes hypothesize that human’s having that  pair of traits, low fertility and long maturity,   is part of the reason we have technology and  civilization but the argument isn’t particularly   strong let alone ironclad, we may cover it in more  detail in a future Fermi Paradox episode though.   Long Maturity may not even be needed  for a big brain and intelligence,   and we can’t rule out insect hive levels  of reproduction in intelligent animals.   And a species that followed that 1 year adult  half-life in males, but not in women and children,   and was not monogamous and was pretty  fertile really could sustain that death rate.   And we can’t assume our style of reproduction  and genders either, they might be a creature   that divided amoeba like and ‘killing someone’ was  basically where you stabbed them in the brain and   caused the critter to split into two new critters  missing much of their prior memories and opinions.  

In a weird case like that the norm for parenthood  might be seen as going out and murdering someone   you disagreed with so you could raise the  two children that they split apart into.   Such a culture is likely to have  some very weird views on violence.   The other problem is birth control. Humans don’t  breed very quickly and take a long time to mature,   so we can’t afford to be losing people  left and right to accidents and disputes,   hence the tribe sees violence, especially violence  leading to death of a tribe member, as a bad thing   by and large. It has to and presumably this is  true for anything following our basic pattern,   low births, long maturity. However, every species  will grow in numbers because of technology. They  

would have evolved to be producing enough of  themselves through birth and maturation to   exceed those who died, at a minimum replacement  numbers and indeed more so because they can’t   go migrate to new ecosystems and expand territory  and tribe numbers without some occasional surplus.   With technology though, with that belligerence  toward nature, comes fewer deaths to accidents,   fewer deaths to starvation or disease or anything  else early technology can help out with a bit.   Thus numbers grow because they’re  not dying as soon on average.   This is a critical problem for a species that was,  say, prone to having more kids than humans that   matured faster than humans and which were pretty  physically tough too. Your default Klingon or  

alien warrior race. They might be pretty big into  fighting and killing each other to climb the ranks   but that actually might be a childhood or  young adult behavior, culling the herd,   and you could easily imagine them having  expressions like “If you’re not willing   to even fight for your own place and status, how  could we ever trust you to fight for the tribe’s?”   which in certain circumstances might resonate as  well or better than “If you’re willing to kill one   of our own just to advance yourself, how could  we ever trust you with the fate of our tribe?”   From a naturalist perspective the tribe would  tend to trust those whose activities were seen   to improve the tribe’s status, which depends  on way too many specific circumstances.   All we can really say is that their belligerence  needs to be restrained in some fashion or   fashions that prevent them self-obliterating, and  which also permit them to maintain their overall   numbers and infrastructure. So they can’t be  trashing their own cities while fighting either.   There’s an example in the novel Horus Rising by  Dan Abnett that comes to mind. This is from a  

book series and setting whose motto is “In the  grim darkness of the future there is only war”   and is where we get the term ‘grimdark’ from,  so its probable no surprise the example comes   from the soldier-protagonist, Captain Loken,  relating to a story collector how they once   encountered a species that was so warlike  it had designated certain spots or arenas   as the only place they could fight. Thus  when the humans showed up to invade,   their warriors all gathered in those arenas  expecting battle, and Loken’s commander,   the titular Horus, opted to bomb those  arenas rather than go land troops there.   So a civilization needs some rules restraining  their belligerence but obviously needs to beware   encountering those who choose not to follow those  rules themselves. And we could mock the arena   example except that when you think about it, from  a strategic perspective, any such rules are going   to need to be a bit arbitrary and the best way to  win is always going to be to break those rules, so   we often need those indoctrinated in pretty hard  and we can also note that Scorched Earth tactics   and Total War – nominally what happens when both  teams choose to ignore those rules – mostly only   happens when there’s just those two teams, not  a lot of internal factions vying for power and   outside third-parties who might jump in  to hurt the side that broke the rules.   I think then we could conclude that it is very  likely you would have civilizations with somewhat   arbitrary rules for what was fair in war, but  probably weren’t blindly obedient to those rules   to the point of suicide, and also that they would  have notions for escalation and de-escalation of   conflicts, and diplomacy and arbitration. Though  these might look a lot different from our own   views of them with various aliens, and of course  they might not extend such fair play options to   other aliens. At the same time if they have a  history of fighting, it probably means they have  

a history of fighting each other, man’s most  dangerous predator being other men after all,   and if they are still around it probably  means they have also developed notions like   tolerance for the alien among them to minimize  fights or durations and severity of fights.   They also would presumably realize that if they  arose in the galaxy and started encountering other   civilizations, it would strongly imply they will  eventually wander into one much older and tougher   than them who it might be nice not to go to war  with, that is the first rule of warfare after all,   never pick a fight with someone bigger  than you, and those older tougher aliens   were probably in a position to have seen all  your previous interactions with other aliens,   if you tried to work with them or just  tried to wipe them out or conquer them.   So let’s bring this episode in for a  landing, much like an alien invasion fleet.   Obviously if we are using that broadest meaning  of belligerence, the one implied by pursuing   technology, then belligerence is probably a good  thing but if we’re limiting it to warlike, then we   can say that they have to have some restraints  built in against self-destructive behavior.   However we can’t say what those will be  universally, they are just too variable   to their specific biology and civilization. So I don’t think we could say that the Sagan   Perspective was right in assuming advanced  civilizations roaming the stars were all peaceful,   that in the cheerful brightness  of the future there is only peace,   but it would seem like to live among the  stars, utilizing the power of the stars,   you need to have at least some restraint on  any violent and belligerent tendencies, or   your saga in the galaxy, your space opera, will be  a very short one. Hopefully our own is not.  

So to celebrate the newest adaptation of the  classic Dune series to the Big Screen we did   an episode on Folding Space this past weekend,  and we got to discussing topology, one of the   more fascinating areas of geometry and math,  and along with game theory it is one of those   topics that’s pretty important to understanding  cosmology or guessing at alien behavior, and it   is amazing how often mathematics is crucial to our  understanding of the unknown, and also to simple   daily real world tasks. It’s a common refrain  that learning algebra or geometry or calculus   is pointless because you won’t use them much, but  I can assure you that much like learning to read,   once you know them and get practiced with  them, you will find daily uses for higher math.   Just like any tool, you won’t know when to use it  until you’re experienced and comfortable with it,   once you do though, you see its use everywhere. Of course first you do have to learn to use those   tools right which means learning to use them in  intuitive and handson fashion, not memorizing or   regurgitating facts for a test, and our friends  over at Brilliant focus on doing just that,   by embracing interactivity and feedback for  handson and intuitive learning. Now Brilliant   has always focused on interactivity, but earlier  this year, Brilliant upped the interactivity on   their platform to a whole new level, like with  their newly updated Geometry Fundamentals Course,   and they continue adding in more and  more interactivity to all their courses.   It's never too late to start learning something  new, and math and science are no exceptions to   that, and Brilliant can help. Brilliant  is an interactive STEM-learning platform  

that assists you in learning concepts by  visualizing them and interacting with them,   which is hands-down, the best way to learn. On Brilliant you can just pick a course you’re   interested in and get started, be it the basics  or advanced. If you get stuck or make a mistake   you can read the explanations to find out more and  learn at your own pace. Knowing and understanding   Math, Science, and Computer Science unlocks  whole new worlds, and if you’d like to start   your journey to them, you can try out Brilliant  for free and get 20% off a year of STEM learning,   click the link in the description down below  or visit:   So that will wrap us up for today but we will  be back next week for Thanksgiving to discuss   the concern that focusing on space exploration  might imperil us handling problems back here   on Earth, as we look at how Space Colonization can  save Earth. Then we will wrap up November with our  

Monthly Livestream Q&A on Sunday, November 28th  at 4 pm Eastern Time. December will start off   with a look at how miniaturization and digital  mind uploading can impact the Fermi Paradox,   and we will follow that up with a look at Upcoming  Advances in Material Science on December 9th.   Now if you want to make sure you get  notified when those episodes come out,   make sure subscribe to the channel, and if you  enjoyed the episode, don’t forget to hit the like   button and share it with others. If you’d like to  help support future episodes, you can donate to   us on Patreon, or our website,,  and patreon and our website are linked in the   episode description below, along with all of our  various social media forums where you can get   updates and chat with others about the concepts  in the episodes and many other futuristic ideas.  

Until next time, thanks for  watching, and have a great week!

2021-11-19 19:15

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