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: brilliant.org/IsaacArthur. 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, IsaacArthur.net, 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!