Coexistence with Aliens

Coexistence with Aliens

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Good Afternoon and welcome to an extra edition of  Scifi Sunday featuring our 4-part Coexistence with   Aliens series originally recorded and produced for  Nebula in 2019 and 20, and has never before been   seen on Youtube or any of our other platforms. As  channel regulars know, we had our end of the month   Livestream Q&A scheduled for next weekend, then  had to reschedule it to this weekend, May 21st,   so I could co-host the International  Space Development Conference.   However I’ve just had a minor surgery on my  nose and tongue and as you can probably tell,   my voice is still recovering and not ready for  an hour of live Q&A. Fortunately our 4-part   Coexistence with Alien series has a combined run  time of just over an hour, so it seemed a great   replacement, and will cover a number of ways we  might coexist with aliens, beginning with Alien   Xenopsychology in part 1, and moving on to look  at trade, war, and alliance in parts 2, 3, and 4.   And without further ado,  let’s get started!   How do you greet an alien visitor and insure   you don’t create an interstellar  diplomatic incident, or worse?   The Universe is an immense and ancient place,  filled with billions of trillions of stars,   many of which may have hosted life and have  given rise to civilizations. If that’s so,   they seem a quiet bunch thus far, but presumably  there would come a time when we’d talk to them   and interact with them and eventually,  hopefully, come to coexist with them.  

Of course coexistence is a vague term, it might  mean ignoring each other or going to war, it might   mean trade, friendship or alliances, and we’ll  examine those aspects throughout this series.   It’s fun to contemplate meeting and  getting to know alien civilizations,   but from a realistic standpoint the  level of cooperation and friendship,   and even romantic love that we see in science  fiction is probably not too realistic and we’ll be   looking at ‘why not?’ along with how such efforts  at coexistence might go, from the physiological   to cosmological, and today the psychological. It’s easy to look at humanity’s past and the   meetings of our scattered tribes and use  them as an analogy, but fundamentally all   humans have a fairly shared psychology arising  largely from a near-identical physiology. Yet   even there we see many differences arising from  different traditions of each place and time,   things which do not cross cultural boundaries.  Unlike most animals, human behavior is far more  

learned and this can give rise to major  alterations in behavior and life focus.   How much different is a mind evolved under an  alien sun, one that might not even use the same   core biology? Let’s consider a hypothetical case,  a species that was nearly the same as us in every   way, except their biology tended to breakdown, in  a very short window of time. Everybody died at 72,   plus or minus a year at most, barring accident  or illness. Consider the huge impact that would   tend to have on their view of death. They might  break their whole lives into very precise periods,  

say 6 life phases of 12 years each, child  till 12, young adult till 24, and so on,   get married in your 24th year, never marry anyone  more than a year older or younger than you since   you’d be guaranteed to see the one outlive the  other. They might be ultra-regimented about time   and calendar and obsessed about not wasting  time or being late, just from that one minor   thing. They might abhor any efforts at medicine  to extend life beyond that, viewing it as cheating   fate or stealing from future generations.  All from that one minor difference with us.   And it would be beyond peculiar for us to  meet anyone that like us in mind or body.   Think how different a civilization would be  if their children reached physical maturity   in just 2 or 3 years, more in keeping with other  mammals of human size. Would such a species be   very likely to develop concepts like marriage or  children going to school or close family ties?   Something as minor as being monochromatic in  vision, just seeing the world in black and white,   or having much larger ears that could rotate  like a cats to detect sound directions better   could hugely impact their development  of language or art or day to day life.  

On the other end of things, we don’t know that  DNA is the only way to do carbon-based life,   there are after all more than a dozen other  amino acids we use besides the 4 in DNA and RNA,   which uses 4 too, but swaps out thymine for uracil  and is single stranded rather than double. There   are also far more amino acids than we use. And  that’s even assuming you have to use amino acids   for your biological construction blueprints,  or that life even needs to be carbon based.   Something silicon based might evolve natural  semiconductors that served as nerves and   neurons. They might be small and short-lived  but think exceedingly fast, experiencing very   long subjective lifespans of millennia packed  into mere months. Similarly, humans are in  

many ways a colony organism, we contain as many  bacteria as human cells in our bodies, and most   of the latter are simple blood cells. Our other  cells run on mitochondria as a power source and   those are basically a symbiotic life form living  inside us. We could see brains develop from more   overtly colonial organisms, like a neural network  composed of insects or microorganisms in a hive   that simply replicated neurons by their day to day  motion and actions. Alastair Reynolds contemplates  

such a mind, a glacier as a brain, whose neurons  are composed of little worms burrowing around   that glacier, in his short story Glacial. Such a mind might exist for millennia while   experiencing only days of time as you and I would  view it, counting actual days as eyeblinks and   years as breaths. It would also seem to be without  any means of controlling the world around it,   and its senses might be composed only  of light and temperature changes.   So too, day length and year length are big  factors in how we behave, and many worlds   with life might be tidally locked to their  Sun, as we expect for many red dwarf stars,   the most common type of star. Those would  experience perpetual light on one side and   perpetual dark on the other, or have years  of mere weeks around such small stars or many   years around brighter and shorter lived stars. In this respect, the very notion of anything  

approaching human psychology being possessed  by aliens seems almost ridiculous. And yet,   for all those differences there are some traits we  could expect to be very common if not universal.   In the 1995 science fiction novel “The Killing  Star”, the authors suggest three such rules we’d   expect to be true of all intelligent aliens: Rule 1. The Aliens will believe their survival  

is more important than our survival. Rule 2. Wimps don't become top dogs.   Rule 3. Aliens will assume that the  first two rules apply to us as well.   Or to clarify, whether or not they are  friendly folks who’d give you the shirt   off their back or so hostile they try  to wipe out all other life, they will   still place their own existence above yours, as  evolution will instill a survival imperative,   it’s pretty much what it does. It also doesn’t  produce wimps and they don’t get to be dominant   over their planet to explore the galaxy beyond  if they are. They’re not likely to be physically   fragile but even if they are, they’ll be beyond  deadly in the overall sense, same as humans are.  

Humans stand at the apex of a 4 billion year  deep corpse pile, and everything else still   alive and kicking in the modern era of this  world is a sophisticated survival machine too.   So any aliens we meet are likely to  be the same as us in this regard,   very good at surviving and in a way that lets  them control their world, not just hide, flee,   or defend from threats but proactively deal  with them. They will also assume everyone they   meet out in the galaxy probably will be too. Exceptions to that ought to be rare at best,   an example might be that glacier-mind I  mentioned or some monoculture world where   some single algae brain developed across  the whole planet. Though even that is very   dubious for becoming intelligent let alone  technological as there’s no predator-prey   cycles driving improvements and adaptations to  adaptations. No biological arms race, as it were,  

pushing you toward higher intelligence. Also, even if you have such intelligence,   it doesn’t necessarily result in technology  or civilizations. Those 3 rules of “The   Killing Star” can probably be added to with “Any  technological civilization must possess and value   curiosity” and “Civilizations can only arise where  social behavior and cooperation are common”.   As we looked at in our Rare Intelligence and  Rare Technology episodes, it wouldn’t seem very   plausible you could develop advanced technology  without critters who were willing and able to   work together a lot, and who could specialize  in various tasks. A blacksmith can’t eat coal   or iron ore and needs to be able to trust his  neighbors to provide those to him and give or   trade him food and other things for his work,  so he can focus on being a good blacksmith.   What’s more, this is likely to also require at  least some acceptance of different worldviews.  

Our work shapes our thinking on life and our day  to day approach to life, a farmer and blacksmith   will inevitably have different outlooks in life  and need to be able to coexist in spite of those.   You also can only create and innovate  with not just a curious mind but a certain   tolerance of such curious folks playing  around with new and strange concepts.   You can also only develop civilizations with  a capacity for long range foresight and a   willingness to sacrifice for the future,  to invest effort into planting crops you   won’t eat for a year or raise apprentices in  your craft who won’t be skilled for years.   Which strongly implies any such civilization is  going to have concepts like friendship, diplomacy,   family, self-sacrifice, tolerance,  curiosity, a value for knowledge,   and a notion of risk-taking and long-term  planning. Or close analogies there too.  

If you encounter an alien ship, you can  assume they don’t want to be blown up,   that they will be curious about  you, that they will be willing   to take at least some small risk to  satisfy their curiosity and so on.   They’ll be ready to defend themselves and quite  good at it, but they’ll also have an idea that   not everyone thinks quite like them and a basic  willingness to tolerate that, even if it might be   much less tolerant than we are. There should be  at least some basic potential for conversation.   There may be exceptions, we can almost always  contrive some scenario that would result in a   species lacking these traits, but they are likely  to be the exception not the norm. And again,  

you don’t want to assume this manifests  itself in a very human way. Their concept   of tolerance might be so narrow the worst and  most oppressive orthodoxies of human history   might call them narrow-minded. They might be  curious but ultra-cautious compared to us,   so that every new technology or cultural change  gets proofed and pondered by committees over   centuries, or they might be so anarchic that they  barely hold together as a cohesive civilization,   or are hyper-aggressive or are aggressive but  just aren’t very violent by nature to their own.   Humans have a reputation among humans as  being rather cruel compared to animals,   though I’m never clear why, we aren’t the only  critters that kill our own, not even vaguely,   and we do work with other animals, often keeping  them as pets and effective family members,   not something too common in the animal kingdom.  That might be a rarity among aliens too, though  

it might not be, our capacity for doing that,  keepings cats and dogs around for vermin control   and others as livestock or work animals was a  big factor in how our civilization was shaped and   maybe even in allowing a civilization to emerge. It is worth noting that we can get along quite   well with other mammals, many of whom are millions  of generations removed from us biologically and   psychologically. An alien is even further removed  from us biologically, less our kin than a tree   is or the Ebola Virus, so that may be an even  bigger gap to cover in coexistence with them,   but they also might be much closer to us  psychologically than a cat or dog too,   just from those shared traits probably necessary  to become a technological civilization.   Of course that might still result in an overall  massive gap, and also only covers civilizations,   as opposed to trying to make contact with some  sentient tree on another world. We also can’t   assume brain architecture is even vaguely the  same. We use a species survival tactic of few  

young, and heavy time and resource investment into  those young, as mammals and especially as humans,   since it takes decades to create a fully developed  human in mind and body. A species which was born   able to survive on its own and simply kept  growing in size and brain complexity as it   aged wouldn’t necessarily need anything like a  family structure or a small number of offspring.   They might be born in packs of thousands of  eggs and on average only one of them even got   to human toddler levels. That sort of thing  might make a species that was very nice to   adults but viewed newborn children as little  more than a nuisance. It is worth noting that   human women are born with several million eggs  and human men will produce billions of sperm   over their lifetime, and we generally don’t  place any value on those as individuals.   Now it probably wouldn’t be hard to convince such  aliens that casually shooting one of our kids,   of which we have few, was not a proper  response if one entered a room causing   antics and irritating that alien, but that sort  of thing can have wider effects too. They might  

regard small colonies growing on border worlds  as fair game and not even get why we objected   when they burned one to the ground and started  colonizing it themselves, and be outraged that we   even sent them a note complaining about it, all  while being very polite and sincerely friendly   to us in every other way, freely sharing  technology and offering favorable trade.   It’s hard to even consider what some  other biologies might produce, you might   get creatures who had distributed brains around  their skin and communicated by licking, gnawing,   or consuming each others brain matter, and ate  your ambassador then sent you an angry note   about how unfriendly and uncommunicative  he was. Or who were more of hive mind,   maybe even a cross-species one, and  just didn’t get why you were offended   they killed some of your explorers or absorbed  one of your colonies into their collective.  

We see something like that in Orson Scott Card’s  classic Ender’s Game novel and the sequels. There   we get offered various levels of otherness, or  alien, based off Norse terms. The Utlanning,   or Otherlander, who would be basically  be human but of a neighboring place,   the easiest one to communicate with. Then we have the Framling, the stranger  

we recognize as human but of another world, or  perhaps time, like speaking to someone from, say,   an ancient hunter-gather tribe. Then the first  true alien, the Raman, someone we consider human   but of a different species, arguably the way  most aliens in science fiction are portrayed   to us as, and would probably include anything  we’d regard as a technological civilization.   Then the Varelse, the true alien,  which includes all the animals,   for with whom no conversation is possible. They  live, but we cannot guess what purposes or causes   make them act. They might be intelligent, they  might be self-aware, but we cannot know it,  

or do not know it yet. That intelligent glacier  example from earlier might be such a case.   Card also offers us the Djur, a marauding and  unreasoning threat, which might be something   like a self-replicating probe that simply tears  everything in its path apart for no clear reason.   As we continue the series, and try to look at  major methods of coexistence, from trade to war,   we’ll try to contemplate how we might deal with  examples of each for now. For the moment though,   the big thing to keep in mind is that while  aliens might overlap with us in many respects,   like being reasonable and curious, so that  communication and shared goals may often   be possible, they will be different. Each such  species will need a totally different approach  

and often many different ones for the same species  as they splinter and diverge among the stars.   Fundamentally an alien mind  is exactly that… alien.   In the future we may meet alien civilizations. If  so, we’ll have a lot of new ideas and challenges   to ponder, and doubtless one of those  will be how to make some money off them.   In our previous episode in the series, Coexistence  with Aliens: Xenopsychology, we looked at some of   the difficulties we might have establishing  a basic understanding of what motivates an   alien civilization and of what we might expect to  have in common with them too. We noted there that   they’d generally have the same basic biological  impulses as us and the other sophisticated life   forms on Earth, such as a desire to survive  individually or as a species, and that   they’d have developed some skill at doing so. We also noted that they’d probably be curious  

by nature and social critters like us, since  those might be prerequisites for developing a   technological civilization, but that’s less  certain and also pretty broad. For them,   social skills and friendships and family might  be anything from some insect like hive mind to   some loose agreement not to murder each other at  certain times and places designated for mating,   trade, and storytelling, but to otherwise go  ahead and fall on each other at the slightest   sign of weakness or opportunity like normal. It doesn’t really have to be sane or pleasant by   our standards, it just has to produce a plausible  scenario in which a species could be intelligent   and not go extinct while developing advanced  technology. They presumably need things from   each other though and that implies that beyond  a basic curiosity and social capacity, they   have to have some concept for trade and exchange. Which of course is our focus for today.  

First we need to ask what we might actually trade  or exchange with them. And Second, if their notion   of exchanging things is going to be even vaguely  compatible with our concept of trade, or for   that matter if our current concepts of trade and  economics will apply to us in the future either.   It’s a popular notion, probably best known from  Star Trek, that in the future we might not have   money, though I tend to be rather skeptical about  that and we discussed why in our Post-Scarcity   series. However, same as we generally don’t pay  for air or sunlight or buy water or dirt the  

same way we do most widgets, some things might  be so abundant in the future they just really   aren’t for sale except in atypical cases. There’s  some precedent for that, most of us on the older   side remember when local phone calls were free  and long distance calls were quite expensive,   and people had to call collect if they didn’t  have quarters for the payphone or were borrowing   someone’s phone because their car broke down and  they needed to knock on someone’s door and beg to   make a call. Needless to say those days are gone,  you just don’t pay for phone calls the same way.   So there might be many things like that in  the future, effectively as free as sunlight.   Amusingly, sunlight might become something  you have to buy or rent if we shift over to   a solar economy, especially a true solar  economy, a Dyson Sphere or Dyson Swarm,   a collection of solar panels or space  habitats that fully englobes a star,   offering a billion times the energy and  potential living area that Earth has.   We often assume this is the ultimate fate of any  star system colonized by us or another intelligent   species, and indeed one of the reasons I’m  often skeptical about us encountering any   alien civilizations is that nobody seems to be  building these Dyson Swarms everywhere, as we’d   tend to expect, and that expectation is what we  call the Dyson Dilemma of the Fermi Paradox.  

Such structures take a lot of raw material  to build too, especially if you want big   artificial living habitats rather than  thin solar panels, and acquiring that raw   material might be a big source of trade in the  future, potentially even between solar systems.   Even if humanity continues to operate using  money,, that doesn’t mean an alien species   would. A hive mind doesn’t need money to operate  anymore than you or I do, when dealing only with   ourselves. My hand rarely demands payment from  my brain for services rendered, nor does my brain   send out bills for consultation fees or analysis  to my nose, eyes, or ears. All of my parts just   do their jobs according to their ability and  take resources according to their needs.   So too, a hive mind or similarly networked  intelligence might not have any notion for trade.  

In Orson Scott Card’s classic Ender’s Game, the  Buggers innocently did terrible things to humans   because they didn't comprehend non-hive minds  and hence didn't understand how their actions,   such as tearing living people to pieces, would be  understood. So it’s unlikely the hive would easily   understand the concept of “others” let alone the  possibility of exchanging resources with others.   But it will have a notion of supply and exchange,  as it knows its components need various things,   likely often not the same things, and it  probably knows what investment is too. A   hive mind that does farming still knows it  needs to save some seeds to plant next year   and that if it wants to grow trees for lumber, or  giant alien mushrooms, it needs to invest effort   into it and harvest it at the optimal time. That’s another thing we’d expect would probably  

be universal to intelligent aliens, a concept  of patience and investment or sacrifice for the   future, delayed gratification, to reap a bigger  reward later. They’ll also need some concept of   risk management, because they’ll have crops  burned or blown down or diseased or so on.   But still fertilizing its crops  and feeding its foodstock animals   might be a hive minds nearest concept to  trade, and that might not be a basis for   forming mutually satisfactory trade relations. If it’s not a hive mind they’re likely to have   some greater notion of give and take, to form a  sounder basis of trade. It’s also rather debatable   if you could ever have a singular linked hive  mind over a single planet, let alone interstellar   distances without some means of faster than  light travel or communication, which would imply   that other than maybe a few scattered worlds or  systems where such a hive mind species might have   developed, everybody moving and shaking around  the galaxy ought to have a notion of trade.   Of course, that might be rather coercive or  piratic too. “Give us what we want or we’ll  

beat you up and take it anyway” is a fairly  time-honored means of exchange in Earth’s   own history, so we should assume it’s plausible  in spacefaring civilizations too, and of course   this series isn’t just interested in space  faring civilizations, just aliens in general,   so we might want to be trading with some  planet-bound hive mind or world of thugs.   Especially since trade is pretty ambiguous. For  such a thug-empire, ‘give us what we want or else’   is still trade, even if we’d normally call that  tribute or taxation. If we opened communication   with such a species and sent them offers of trade,  we might assume the long delay was them trying to   figure out our language when it was really just  them being confused and afraid of some trap,   wondering why we just sent them an  inventory of stuff for them to take.  

This brings us back though to asking what  kind of stuff they’d actually want. I mean   if someone comes and raids your village and  demands you give them everything you’ve got,   it’s implied they mean everything they consider  valuable. They’re not really interested in   hauling back the dirt from your farm fields  or the air and sunlight hitting those fields.  

Space travel is not cheap, especially interstellar  travel, and what would be economical to move   between stars would vary a lot on not just  what you value but what you can economically   transport home. By default your best interstellar  trade commodity is likely to be information,   as that can be sent at light speed fairly  cheaply even over galactic distances.   But what sort of information? When we discuss  interstellar trade between human colonies we   can take for granted that transmissions would  include everything from valuable science and   device schematics to letters from old friends and  family to arts and entertainment. Aliens might  

have some interest in our art, but they might not,  and even if they do its likely to be mostly for   novelty value. Though to be fair, in high-tech  post-scarcity civilizations, novelty is likely   to be one of the more precious commodities. Two roughly technologically equal civilizations   probably would have a lot of science to share,  but if they’re not fairly on par, odds are one   of them wants that science from the other and  not vice-versa. Ancient Human Civilizations have   plenty of knowledge we’d value, but their opinions  on math and science are certainly not among those.   A lot of technology wouldn’t be very interesting  either, in terms of day-to-day devices, you don’t   care about the newest model of smartphone  if you’re a species that has no eyeballs or   communicates by directing scented gases at one  another from any of their various orifices.   I personally would not be surprised if  aliens, or future human civilizations,   were pretty prone to hoarding and collecting  like some hyper-intelligent packrat,   so there could easily be a massive trade in random  knick-knacks and junk between civilizations. One  

amusing constraint of advanced civilizations under  known physics is that they mostly are limited by   getting rid of waste heat of their civilizations  so they can keep tons of stuff lying around just   so long as it doesn’t require a lot of power  and produce a lot waste heat to store it.   Planets might slowly turn into many layers of  dimly lit catacombs stuffed full of millions   of years worth of collected antiquities  because they don’t need to destroy them   and are kind of attached to them, but  they might be fine with trading them,   they just don’t like throwing them in the garbage.  Same as many a hoarder nowadays might be horrified   to throw anything out, even a broken flyswatter  in case they need a spare handle one day,   but is all too content to sell, trade, loan,  or gift even valuable things to others.  

It’s an interesting reversal of the  piratic or thug approach to trade,   aliens who aren’t demanding stuff by coercion but  happily dumping treasures on you just to get them   out of their attic and basement without feeling  like they were destroying something precious.   Humorous notion but not necessarily unrealistic  either. Many cities are overflowing with historic   buildings that they can’t bring themselves to  condemn and knock over, and are often glad when   someone buys it while agreeing to maintain  its historic nature or even when some random   storm or fire knocks the thing over. Odds are pretty good another common   trait of advanced civilization will be  a tendency to build stuff, value it,   and like to maintain it and feel bad when it gets  junked. If anything, especially if they are able   to technologically extend their own lives, there’s  probably a tendency for civilizations to get more   obsessed with building projects, grand works or  art or monuments, and trying to maintain them.  

Throw in potentially high-tech ultra-durable  materials or self-repairing structures and   long-colonized regions of the galaxy might start  looking like some sort of hybrid of a museum,   yard sale, and trash dump, full of alien traders  just waiting to unload priceless memorabilia on   any young new species they think might give it  a good home and free up some space for them.   Of course what each species values, and is able  to trade, will depend on their psychology and   technology rather heavily, but some things might  be fairly universal, especially if everyone’s been   trading for a while and technology and  science has gotten fairly evenly spread   everywhere and stagnated on progress. It  is after all entirely possible that all the   major science and mysteries of the Universe  get solved by each species before they even   hit the galactic stage or not long after, so that  there isn’t anything new to discover or invent.   Such being the case, there’s presumably  still a good trade available in information,   but again they really might not have much interest  in other species’ art or entertainment or history   or news and current events. Or they might have  some but not really enough for major trade.   What about manufactured goods? Well especially  as things like 3D printing improve, you’d not   expect interstellar trade of manufactured  goods to have much of a niche. Ditto stuff  

like food or luxury wines or crops,  they’d be quite capable of replicating   any planet’s specific lighting and climate, so  if they wanted Oak or Cherry wood from Earth,   because they like building from our  trees rather than giant alien mushrooms,   they’d just get the botanical data and some  genetic samples, of that plant and any other   organisms critical to growing it correctly,  build a rotating habitat whose interior   replicated good Earth forestland, and grow their  own rather than ship lumber across the stars.   Of course you could have a luxury market,  and quite a big one, for ‘authentic goods’,   but probably not enough to support a major and  robust interstellar trade network on its own.   That mostly just leaves us raw materials. However,  while science fiction loves to come up with weird   substances found only here or there, strange  minerals or elements unique to some planet   or star system, the Universe, while an awesome  and huge place, is actually pretty boring and   monotonous in that regard. While no two systems  would ever have identical levels of abundance or   concentration of any given element, or mineral,  there really wouldn’t be many places that would   be particularly short of any given raw material,  and no one would likely have anything unique.   However, that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t  be interstellar trade of raw materials.  

While at first stuff like ingots of iron or  tanks of hydrogen might seem ridiculous things   to ship between stars, being abundant pretty much  everywhere, this may still be an area of large   demand. For any empire into very big projects or  growing their civilization around their homeworld   or hub systems, there’s no such thing as enough.  And even static civilizations might be interested   in just storing raw materials for the long haul,  as you can never recycle with perfect efficiency   and they might be contemplating trying to  stockpile enough to last for trillions of years,   or even longer, as we’ve discussed in our  Civilizations at the End of Time series.  

It’s impossible to guess what might be  wanted in trade between civilizations,   and it would doubtless change from  civilization to civilization and even   inside each such civilization as they changed  with time and had new interests or needs,   but it does seem like there would probably  be a desire and understanding of trade and   exchange for most civilizations, so if we ever  do run into any alien civilizations, we might   be able to establish trade. Giving them what  they want and getting what we want in return.   Though of course, they might figure it’s easier  and cheaper to take it by force. And so might   we. So we’ll contemplate the notion of going  to war with aliens in our next episode.   Can the enemy of my enemy be an  alien friend? What if my enemy is   human? We tend   to think of “coexistence” as peaceful  coexistence. But there’s no getting around  

that war and conflict are parts of coexisting with  others. If you invade a neighbor’s territory to   seize a piece of it, you need a plan for what  relationship you want to have with them after   they acknowledge the territory as now yours.  And if you outright conquer your neighbor,   now you’re really in the thick of coexisting  with them. Conflict is also often the driving   force for separate groups to unify into a  coalition or nation, either through their   shared suffering as conquered subjects or their  teaming up to defend against such an effort.  

So we can’t ignore the topic when discussing  how we might interact with aliens should we   ever meet any. And we need to ask ourselves  how we’d defend against an alien threat,   or if we even could, as well as why such  conflicts might occur and how they’d be fought.   If an alien armada showed up on our doorstep  tomorrow we would be crushed like ants. The sorts   of energy levels needed to move even a single  small ship at even fairly slow interstellar speeds   exceeds those we see in atomic weapons. True  interstellar vessels that can reach high fractions   of light speed and carry thousands of crew or  colonists or soldiers can literally throw their   garbage out of their ship before slowing down  and watch it devastate an unprotected planet.  

Of course, that’s only in the here and now,  and while we tend to assume conflicts will be   pretty one-sided between stellar empires, as one  would always be older and presumably bigger and   more high-tech, that’s not necessarily so. While  such a head start, possibly being on the galactic   stage millions of years before anyone else, would  mean you had an overwhelming advantage in numbers,   that’s only true if you’re not only colonizing  everything, but staying unified as you do it.   Outside of science fiction, where  faster than light travel is ubiquitous,   we have no reason to think anyone will  ever crack the light speed barrier. So   keeping together a cohesive empire of all your  colonies is a dubious proposition at best, even   just those around the nearest neighboring stars. We also shouldn’t assume technology and science   is just some endless quest, always another  major and mind-bending new discovery to find   that itself spawns two more mysteries needing  to be solved, like some sort of Mystery Hydra   or fractal with ever-lower levels. It’s poetic to  say the Universe is a place of infinite wonders,  

but all indications thus far is that it runs  on fairly set and mundane rules. It’s entirely   possible most civilizations figure out all  those physical laws long before journeying out   from their homeworld in force, and have started  plateauing out on technological advancement.   Assuming that all to be the case, alien  civilizations might very well discover they   have parity in both technology and numbers  in a conflict. Even really big empires,   very loosely bound together, can really only  maneuver so many systems worth of forces into   a combat theater in any useful timeline, so  that they might be at a stalemate even with a   single-system empire just because they’re big but  really slow to move and have a lot of territory   and borders to cover in all three dimensions. Which is hardly to say wars would be on even  

footing, just that it likely wouldn’t always be  a totally one-sided thing, or that there aren’t   other players in the game who might intervene.  If you encounter one alien civilization,   you can’t assume they’re the only ones out there.  By statistical approximation, if two species pop   up within a certain distance of each other, then  in a volume one-hundred times wider, you’d expect   a million other civilizations to have emerged. Unless of course the one you met had killed all   the others already and you’re just meeting the  front edge of their annihilation and expansion   wave, but it would be a bit bizarre for us to  encounter that. After all, in all the billions   of years it might have originated from, it  would be improbable to reach us just now,   during the relatively short phase humans have had  technology. Particularly considering the galactic  

conquest approach is probably only really  available to one of the earlier species that   emerged with that intent, who presumably emerged  very long ago if millions of civilizations have   been arising at random since the early days of  life-viable planets forming. It’s hard to go   on a genocidal warpath if you’re surrounded on  all sides by thousands of older civilizations.   So odds are there would be a lot of other species  out there, or splinters of an original species   that diverged from each other a lot and may  not share goals anymore. Such being the case,   you potentially have allies, or at least  enemies of enemies, who might be willing to   share technology or even join into alliance with  you, which will be our topic in the next episode.   All of which means that if there is a war,  it’s likely to be either insanely one-sided   or actually fairly even, or at least close enough  that fighting is plausible rather than futile.  

Which raises the question of what you’re fighting  over and how you’re fighting. We’ve discussed some   of the basic tactics and challenges, as well as  weapons, of space warfare in our space warfare   and futuristic weapons episodes, if you want the  details. However, it’s important to contemplate   the kind of scales that would likely be involved.  If you’re fighting over resources between star   systems, it means you’re getting low on those  resources at home, or at least can foresee   a day when that will happen urgently enough  that you’re willing to go to war over it.  

In science fiction we often see single ships of a  size with aircraft carriers fighting other ships,   and nowadays with better and cheaper CGI, we  might see fleets of hundreds of such vessels   duking it out. If you’re low on resources though,  in a solar system, and on a war path, it’s fairly   plausible you’ve devoted something like 1% of your  raw materials and production to making ships.   Now even ignoring harvesting metals  from your own sun via Starlifting,   where around 99% of the metal will be, we might  assume just about every system has about Earth’s   Mass of raw materials lying around available  for exploitation, and if we assumed the ships   were made out of iron, well there’s over  a billion, trillion tons of Iron in Earth   alone. An aircraft carrier masses about 100,000  tons, so if you were turning 1% of that billion,   trillion tons of iron into warships of that  size, then a system fleet would be composed   of 100 trillions such ships. Each one of  which would be quite capable of whacking  

modern Earth all on its own, even without  much in the way of advanced technology.   Automated construction with drones is  likely something we’ll have fairly soon,   indeed arguably already do, and it alters the  usual paradigms of conflicts and colonization,   since you start getting access to virtually  infinite manpower and production, limited only   by your energy supply and raw materials, which is  your own Sun and everything orbiting it. Normally   we have problems turning more than a few percent  of our economy and population to warfighting   capacity for any sustained period, hence my  suggesting 1% of resources for ships. But if your   robots are doing all the building and dying that  could easily be 99% of your economy, and you might   be able to sustain the fight for centuries. Which is handy, as without faster than light   travel, that tends to be the minimum timescale  even for wars with the nearest neighboring star   system. It also means you don’t necessarily  have to be around very long as a civilization  

to be armed to the teeth. Humans can double their  numbers very quickly if we need to, and if we just   did that at full speed, every generation, say 4 a  century, then in 32 generations or 800 years, we’d   already have numbers enough to fill up a Dyson  Swarm, being a fully Kardashev-2 civilization   of tens of billions of billions of people, an  Earth’s worth of people for every person alive   on Earth now. Amusingly all while our first colony  ships were barely reaching those stars nearest   us in our tiny little sphere of the galaxy. But machines can presumably replicate far faster,   and a civilization like ours, if we managed  to get even fairly simple self-replicating   machines – and I’d be shocked if we finished the  century out without them – could scale up far,   far faster. Indeed your limitation is mostly  heat, as your little machines would generate  

a lot of it while gorging on moons and planets  to build themselves and other things, and you   can only do that so fast without producing such  high temperatures that you’d melt your robots.   Regardless, it means some new player on the  galactic stage is probably already able to   throw billions of warships into a conflict  before they’ve colonized even one other star.   Now you might think you don’t need all those ships  since you could just send a single tiny one with   some self-replicators to the fringe of an enemy  system and build your armada there and then, but   beyond stealth being very problematic in space, it  rather ignores that the target system presumably   has this exact same ability, and you’re on their  turf, where they already have a pretty big armada,   control of all the resources, and probably  have listening devices and outposts all over.   Though you might get some bizarre  conflicts between self-replicating   machines more akin to viruses and immune systems,  or computer viruses and cybersecurity systems.   There’s also another paradigm-shift massive  automation offers. For the most part,   wars have become a bit less common and full-scale  conflicts even more so because our weapons are   way more destructive and our civilizations  way more complicated. In a primitive era,  

you could attack someone, kill them, and take  their land, which was pretty much the only   item of value for core production. In the more modern era, wars aren’t   super-profitable because most of the goodies  are constructs, like factories and manufactured   goods and digital media and skyscrapers and  so on, all of which are much more fragile   than a million acres of farm and forestland.  Alternatively you also have advanced weapons,   like nukes or plagues, able to decimate such  things as forests or farmlands, while utterly   obliterating those things we especially  value now, delicate manufactured items and   the trained workforce able to produce them. It’s probably a bit cynical to suggest it,  

but our modern era of relative peace, where  a vastly smaller percentage of the population   dies from warfare than any other time we know  of, is probably as much due to modern warfare   making conquest fairly unprofitable as us growing  more ethical and enlightened. We do tend to assume   future civilizations would be more peaceful too,  for both of those reasons, they’ve gotten wiser   and they’ve developed way nastier weapons. However, again, if you’ve got automated   construction and most of your fighting is done by  semi-intelligent machines, you might instead see   an uptick in warfare. You don’t really care if an  engagement left half your fleet smashed to molten   wreckage just so long as you won, because your  robots will start grabbing that wreckage and the   enemy’s wreckage and rebuilding from it. Though  such a repair cycle will always see a lot of loss,  

stuff too scattered or vaporized to easily  recover and reuse, so you’re not likely to   be entirely blasé about it either. On the other hand, I chose the term   ‘semi-intelligent machines’ with some care,  as while smarter is better for a battle drone,   in general, it opens up the door to things like  machine rebellions, or internal rebellions when   people start asking how ethical it is to be  using sentient artificial intelligences to   do all your dying for you. Though one shouldn’t  assume most of the elements would be that smart,   you might have some equivalent of a carrier or  command and control ship that was the only thing   in the conflict with real brains, either  artificial or crewed by regular people,   though that’s a pretty blurry distinction as we’ve  often discussed on the show. Such folks might also  

have copies of their minds stored elsewhere,  as backups, and be less worried about dying.   It’s kind of hard to guess what folks would  be fighting over besides raw materials,   where it wasn’t just genocide in mind,  but the usual array of ideological or   economic motivations would probably still apply,  modified and adapted to those folks. Weapons-wise,   you’ve got all sorts of nasty options like  relativistic kill missiles or Nicoll-Dyson   Beams on top all sorts of smart weapons,  self-replicators, digital viruses, and so on.   It also means you probably want all those billions  or trillions of ships per system as you want to be   spread throughout that system, even well into  deep space, to minimize your chance of being   wiped out in one shot, and also to have all your  engagements way out at the edge of the system.  

If you’ve got a trillion ships or space fortresses  scattered around your Oort Cloud, say a mere   light-month out from your Sun, then each would  still be a few million kilometers apart from each   other, rather larger than the Earth-Moon volume,  which is a lot of space to patrol and watch, and   they’d be spread out to more like interplanetary  distances if you were expanding that bubble to   just be the midway point between neighboring  stars, the de facto border between systems.   This though is our last note for the day, borders.  Space is mostly empty and while you likely would   have outposts and colonies tucked into every  mountain-sized icy rock floating around your   Oort Cloud, as we discussed in colonizing the Oort  Cloud, your core system is still going to be the   tiny little volume composed of everything within  maybe a light day of your star, itself millions   of times bigger than the habitable zone of most  systems and what science fiction usually treats   as the inhabited region of space. Yet for all that  it’s bigger, a light day of volume is around a   billionth the volume of space a system might  claim if just using the midway point between   stars as the borders. You want to be scattered out  there in that bigger volume with your defenses to   ensure the conflict stays way away from the core  bubble near the star, but this might be treated   as something like International Waters, especially  as stars move relative to each other quite a lot.   Such being the case, you might not really see  much advantage in trying to go for an interstellar   empire that was a roughly spherical blob, for  all that it might let you concentrate your forces   on your edge better and cutdown on lag time,  because your individual systems are each roughly   the equivalent of house-sized objects separated  from their neighbors by many kilometers, where   the actual habitable zone containing your star and  Earth-like planets would be in some tiny closet.  

Of course this all changes if you do have FTL,  and varies a lot by what type of FTL you have,   like some wormhole network or more classic  warp drives or so on, which might result in   empires that were spread all around inside  each other and effective neighbors on the   other side of the galaxy from one another. You also probably have most of your actual   conflicts not with Aliens, but your own folks and  inside your own system, as odds are most species   will have a long history of warfare with each  other, and no special grudge with alien empires.   Indeed, you might see alliances between alien  factions even inside internal conflicts,   like Earth at War with Ganymede around  Jupiter with allies or mercenaries   from some alien realm far away. But we’ll save that for next time.   When it comes to why we might go to  war with Aliens besides outright murder   or territorial and resource acquisition  though, the options are almost limitless,   crazy as it sounds – but keeping in mind some of  the crazier things we’ve gone to war over – you   might have a species going around attacking other  civilizations for punishment for perceived mass   murder of future inidviduals because they thought  they were being inefficient with their resources.   Or because they saw a supernova and took it as  a fulfilled prophecy demanding they purge the   galaxy of every creature with iron in their blood  stream, rather than good and healthy copper, like   the hated iron demons of their local mythology. As we’ve noted before when it comes to aliens,   it would all depend on their psychology  and traditions, which will vary from each   civilization to civilization, and which  will inevitably be... alien.  

A wise man gets more use from his enemies than  a fool from his friends. - Baltasar Gracian   We know very little of aliens including whether  or not they even exist, and yet it is a topic of   constant speculation in both science and science  fiction in modern times. We have little to draw   on but our experiences and history, which do  not seem to include those from other worlds,   and yet making friendships and alliances with the  alien is not exactly a new concept for us either.   If history is any judge, an ally is  far easier to acquire than a friend,   and they’re not the same thing, much  as a rival is not necessarily an enemy,   and indeed it might be impossible to be  friends with some aliens who may not have   a true analogy for it in their culture. We focus  on Alliance today because it means someone you  

have a shared goal or goals you work together  to achieve. That should be a fairly universal   concept to any thinking creature who has any  interdependence with other thinking creatures,   probably a prerequisite for technology and  civilization, whereas friendship might not be.   It’s not simply our history that informs us  on this matter, the countless times people   have traveled to distant lands and met  strange people with alien ways. Rather,  

each of us is in many respects an island unto  ourselves and everyone we meet is strange and   different to us. Much of the rise of civilization  has been about us learning to better know one   another and from that hopefully be able to work  together and form not just alliances of mutual   benefit but true and enduring friendships. However, there’s a lot of personal skill and   shared culture that helps us do this with humans,  and it’s far harder to do that if you don’t have   those, and of course you would not with any  alien. Such creatures would not even share the   same basic human neurology with you, or the  shared biology you have with a cat or dog.   And yet, we get on quite well with our pets, who  share little in common with the human mind beyond   the basic architecture of a mammalian brain and  hormones, though the latter dominate our behavior   a great deal and while an alien would likely  have some equivalent, it would be incredibly   unlikely these were the same, unless evolution is  far more convergent than would seem plausible.  

But on the basic motivations end, as we’ve  mentioned in prior episodes, some things we   would expect to converge, at least for high-tech  civilizations. A motivation for curiosity,   personal survival, survival of one species  or kin or allies, a desire to socialize,   these we might expect to be quite common. Whatever their other motivations, ultimately that   urge for survival will take center-stage. Indeed  the other motivations probably will tie back to   it. A species in a very safe and prosperous and  stable society might be, or at least seem to be,   fairly unworried about survival as primary  motive for diplomacy to distant worlds,   but it will be there in the background. Indeed,  while their curiosity might be their most obvious  

reason for talking to us, their curiosity will  also likely have been sharpened by it being such   a vital advantage in their culture that their  culture evolved to encourage it as a life focus.   Now we have to ask, how do we help  their survival, or threaten it?   When contemplating alien civilizations there is a  tendency to assume that there’s a lot of kinship   there that would make them closer to each other  than they could ever be to us and vice-versa. Even   ignoring that most scifi authors tend to write  up aliens of galaxy-spanning ancient empires as   more behaviorally and culturally narrow in their  entirety than your typical modern human nation is,   let alone our planet, it’s not too realistic to  assume there is any sort of cultural unity in   some ancient sprawling galactic civilization  just because their ancestors, genetically or   by artifice, happen to derive from the same  tribe of clever monkeys on some single planet;   or clever squids or lizards or whichever. And clever matters, because first it means   you can diverge even faster than nature  allows, with all that augmentation and   alteration technology and on many worlds  different form your homeworld. But second,   because species of this sort should generally  tend to shift to more abstract and conceptual   approaches to life over the biological and  instinctive. When abstract concepts and philosophy  

are dominating your worldview, you might find you  have way more in common with those who share that   worldview than those who shared your world  of origin, especially if you’ve all mutated   and changed down the millions of years of galactic  colonization. Indeed there may be extraterrestrial   and post-biological pressures for evolutionary  convergence of intelligent minds or societies.   If you share a perspective that science matters  most, or art is the highest purpose, or that   commodity trading is the best competition, or so  on, then you might have more in common with people   who share that interest and share nothing like  your own DNA or cultural history. What’s more,  

while we probably shouldn’t assume aliens  civilization and our own will all inevitably   converge to some shared, reasoned, and totally  worked out grand unified theory of ethics or   ideology, there probably are only a fairly limited  number of those and you’d expect most to arise in   some flavor or another in many civilizations. Take Utilitarianism for instance, the Greatest   Good for the Greatest Number, and that actions  should be taken based on what produces the   most positive outcome. This is not exactly a  worldview you’d be shocked to see emerge from   any civilization. The same should be true for  its nominal opposition philosophy, Deontology,   the idea that you do your duty because it’s right,  regardless of the consequences or outcomes.   It would not be surprising if folks subscribing  to either belief felt they had more in common with   aliens who shared that view than their own who  shared the other view. These moral philosophies  

and the many others may take on a lot of flavors  and be more or less attractive to a given species,   but odds are they get developed or at least  contemplated as often as science or math. You   wouldn’t expect most civilizations to  not recognize those philosophies even   if they might regard one as utterly disgusting. Now of course, the greatest good for the greatest   number requires knowing what is good and who is  among that number, and that might vary massively,   not including another civilization  among those numbers needing goodness,   but critically that divergence among colonies  as they travel out to the stars should have   made them have to think on what qualifies  as a person quite a lot, and odds are they   either get very inclusive or very exclusive, so  that many beyond their genetic relatives count,   or many who are their relatives don’t count, but  probably no unification. Again, outside alliances   may be less popular but probably not outright off  the table, and often might be preferable too.  

Now why ally? Survival, of course. But that  can mean a lot of things. Alliances against   an aggressor works, in a war. Alliance to set  out rules for mutual expansion and resource use,   sure. These are common enough ideas but maybe  over-simplified a bit. What is survival to some   groups of people who might barely know or  care what world they came from originally?   What is survival to some nigh-immortal  creature who has lived millions of years?   Strictly theoretically speaking, there should be  no bar to an individual consciousness continuing   indefinitely, or a specific civilization doing so.  But light speed is not your friend for either and   as we noted last episode, while war may be common  in the future, galaxy-spanning war really isn’t   a viable approach. You just can’t maintain a  cohesive civilization, let alone individual  

identity, over galactic distances. Nor does  the universe end at the galaxy’s edge. So where   survival is concerned, for all that you’d probably  still colonize or bring resources home, and thus   want to move out from your own system in some  fashion, ultimately you are fairly limited to your   own solar system as a cohesive entity, be it a  single massive Matrioshka Brain or a civilization   operating under a shared government. You might be able to get a bit bigger,   especially if you’re importing mass and energy  home to build something like a Dyson Swarm of   Dyson Swarms or a Birch Planet, but those, even in  their largest theoretical build before literally   collapsing under their own mass, are but flyspecks  in the greater Universe. One way or another you   can’t take it all, not and remain cohesive, so  you have to deal with other people, be they of   alien origin or merely very distant cousins whose  ancestors once shared a homeworld with yours.  

Or for that matter were made by those distant  cousins, life of artificial origin can hardly   be ignored in this discussion, especially  if we’re contemplating ultra-long lived   and powerful entities, such as some  massive sentient supercomputer.   What then, is survival? You can’t wipe everyone  out, that strategy won’t work at this scale,   so you have to deal with them regardless. But  survival in the sense of just getting food and   not being killed and eaten is less a factor  for such critters anyway. Doubtless many would   consider or enact long term pacts with others with  the same goal of keeping themselves or a copy safe   in the very long term. So they might want to meet  other species and ask them

2023-05-27 00:15

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