Primitive Aliens

Primitive Aliens

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This episode is sponsored by Audible One day, an alien ship may arrive here on Earth, and whether they come in peace or to enslave us, it would seem like civilization as we know it would be over. So what should we do if the situation is reversed and we find a planet inhabited by primitive aliens? So welcome to another sci-fi Sunday here on SFIA where we take some time to examine a popular concepts in science fiction and ask how realistic they are, and today’s topic, Primitive Aliens, struck me as an appropriate topic after our recent looks at surveying exoplanets and sending probes and explorers to them. Probably one of the most common themes of science fiction is an advanced civilization showing up to conquer us or enlighten us or whatever, and whether their intent is benevolent or malevolent, and whether the net result is positive or negative, humanity is changed forever by that meeting. Needless to say, we have a lot of history to draw on, warning us of possible mistakes that civilizations can make when meeting each other. Those are not limited to when one of those civilizations has a large advantage in technology or numbers, nor is it universally one sided, but an awful lot of science fiction deals with the pioneering of new worlds that’s drawing inspiration from various colonial scenarios in our own history, probably the American Wild West being the biggest.

As a result, there is a lot of Cowboys and Indians style interactions of humans and aliens, so ethical discussions about how to interact with indigenous alien civilizations, or if we even should, are common in science fiction, probably most famously, the Prime Directive of Non-Interference from Star Trek. We’re not here today to discuss the morality of prior human conduct with each other, which has been a mixture of noble and despicable for all of human history. Rather this episode wants to look at the topic from a bit more of a practical standpoint today.

Now, ‘Practical’ is often a euphemism for blatantly ignoring all sorts of bad behavior, both leading up to a situation, and for managing the existing dumpster-fire that one has inherited and been entrenched in. With that in mind, I’m going to be very intentional to not draw conclusions about right and wrong action on the various sci-fi examples and hypothetical scenarios which we’ll discuss today. One thing that doesn’t happen much in sci-fi, when meeting aliens who are less advanced than our intrepid explorers, is for them to appear in next week’s episode or for us to get an update a couple generations later.

So, we’re not seeing the various corpse piles left behind by an accidental disease transmission, or the many hospital rooms now helping the primitive natives recover from once lethal diseases, or them borrowing your technology or simply being inspired to seek those answers by your visit. It also doesn’t show their ambassador showing up centuries later to slap our ambassador on behalf the millions who died from a disease which we could have prevented with our technology, or by starvation, that our farming techniques could have saved, or that died from the brutal war of conquest launched by whichever tribe we first made contact with, whom now has a technological edge. In short, it is going to be a mess, and it is still going to be a mess even if your explorers have orders never to be seen by primitive alien natives at any cost, nor tamper with their civilization, because even ignoring the fact that they might view us as indifferent snobs who left them to die when they find out centuries later about the galaxy, if you are living in a civilization that values personal freedom and knowledge, you’re not really in a position to keep others from visiting those primitive planets. Where Star Trek is concerned, an important point that often comes up is essentially to acknowledge that not everyone is in Starfleet, indeed, proportionally it would seem like a smaller percentage than are in modern militaries or police.

Do the discoveries of the USS Enterprise and other ships get reported to the public? Do they get primitive worlds redacted? If so, on what legal ground? So, what’s stopping folks from reading about the big discovery by Starfleet and deciding to go to that new planet and enlighten the natives about Jesus, Darwin, Mohammed or Buddha? You might be able to keep the outright con artists away from a world by threat to prosecute them and take their earnings, but true believers are usually a lot more sanguine about risking their own neck. Whether that’s about giving the natives hypothetical eternal salvation or medicine and other technologies, you’ll have folks willing to try. As I said back in our episode Smug Aliens, “Died savings millions” is a pretty good epitaph to have on your tomb, and that’s assuming your apparently enlightened society is not only willing to do a big planetary quarantine for untold centuries but also willing to use lethal force to stop folks entering or to execute those that snuck in. Which is likely to be seen by those aliens as executing a visitor from heaven who sought to help them. Not really a good public relations move.

Plus, it is based on an implicit assumption there that you’re doing them a favor by keeping others away from them and I think that’s a bit of a blanket assumption, especially when taken to extremes like saying it’s not your place to divert an asteroid that was going to whack some inhabited planet. Personally I’d argue that relationships are always a bit messy, be it family, friends, or neighboring civilizations, and the right path is openness, honesty, respect, and offers to help when they ask, and not necessarily when you think it best, and to encourage them to reply in kind, with the goal of a long term mutually beneficial friendship. Though that’s just my opinion and could be very wrong. So, generally it isn’t about if we should or shouldn’t interfere in more primitive societies, because from a practical standpoint, it would seem more likely that someone will, and we either want to get in there first, or to have plans for handling it.

Which is not going to be a simple solution that you can come up with and implement in Act 4 of this week’s episode, especially given the time lags involved in space travel in the absence of FTL - faster than light options. Imagine someone went and gave the aliens a cure for a plague that was ravishing them, and a few decades later you find out about it, and a few more decades later, you’ve got a ship there to investigate and you find a whole bunch of statues to that person on one continent and a whole civilization there devoted to spreading their new nation to every other part of their planet, just as they did to this continent in the last generation or so. It’s a new empire, built on many high-minded principles picked up from their Visitor’s off-the-cuff comments, many of which were quotes of other respected humans like Lincoln and Churchill, and after that visitor’s death, they decided to venerate that visitor and spread the idea of democracy and that exploiting and murdering weaker people is wrong. They are true believers and the areas they govern are definitely enjoying higher standards of living and basic human rights, or alien rights, but at the same time, they flat-out conquered their whole continent and can be pretty heavy-handed in their administration. Plus, there’s a fair amount of corruption, bribery, and double-standards at a practical level. There’s a classic Star Trek episode “A Piece of the Action” where Kirk and crew find a world built by mobsters inspired by a book on Chicago Mobs a previous starship accidentally left behind a century before with the primitive aliens, which is a fun examination of this concept.

This seems like a plausible enough scenario and we can’t really land there and tell them the prior Visitor was a wicked person – they probably don’t want to hear that, even if it is true – and if we say we need to fix the Visitor’s tampering, their leader might point out that all of his authority comes from the assumption that their Visitor was right, so he can’t make any decisions to reverse that, as its predicated on him having that authority to act on his people’s behalf. He also might then hand us a gun and a shovel and ask if we’d like to go kill the estimated 50 million of his citizens that the Visitor’s guidance and technologies saved from illness and starvation, or to go dig up and resurrect the 5 million soldiers and civilians who died on all sides of the various wars of unification. Also, they’ve been sending explorers and representatives to other parts of their world to make contact and he’d like to know if we’re planning to scuttle those ships, or the other ones he plans to send even if those first ones get sunk, or the fleets he plans to send to conquer the world, or those bits of it which don't cheerfully join them. So, practically speaking, there’s not much we can do to erase the past interference and now we have to decide if we’re going to help the natives of those other continents to defend themselves from conquest or just to bug out. Or maybe we will sink that fleet.

Critically though, there’s really no reverse option generations after the event, and in a non-FTL universe, that’s what you’ve got as your hurdle. Now, one solution to this is to put observers in local space, maintaining a quarantine once we discover an inhabited planet, who can act quickly and also actively prevent tampering by other visitors. This has some problems too, because we have to ask, who is watching the watchers? And we are talking about prolonged timelines here. We might trust John and Jane to watch over the planet and not set themselves up as interventionists or god-kings, but what about their great-great-great-grandchildren? Or even John and Jane, if nigh-immortal via technology, as they might mutate in perspective over time, and we are talking about potentially millions of years of watchdogging. Even an AI designed for watching over worlds is not necessarily a fix. If it isn’t at least human-smart, it is liable to be fooled by anything smarter that comes to challenge it as the watchdog.

If it is human-smart or smarter, it’s open to Perverse Instantiation, which is basically where something finds a way to twist the rules to let it do what it wants. In simplest form, you tell a child they are not to have any of the cookies in the cookie jar, and that they aren’t to take any out, and so they either break the jar or tip it over so that gravity removes the cookies for them. They have technically followed the rules, but perverted them to achieve the goal the rules sought to prevent.

Again, this is called Perverse Instantiation. And even if you get that AI right, one whose core nature is being the watchdog, so that it genuinely wants to protect that world and will not sway in its behavior, how many guns are you giving it? Because there’s no guarantee your civilization is still going to want to uphold quarantines set hundreds or even thousands of years ago, let alone hundreds of thousands of years ago by some nation that represents them no better than some minor tribal chieftain in the Fertile Crescent before even the days of the Scorpion King is going to represent all of us nowadays, for all that he might be the common ancestor to more than 90% of us. Is your watchdog going to fire on a fleet coming in that has signed orders from your democratically elected leadership under the banner of the same nation that built it? What about its successor state if that empire crumbled? If tomorrow we found a Roman Legionnaire frozen like Captain America who we could bring back, who does he take orders from? There’s a ton of places that claim to be the proper successors of the old Empire after all, all of which are going to seem pretty alien to him. But, speaking of aliens, it would seem pretty likely that if you found one intelligent civilization while exploring space, primitive or not, that there’ll be some others, and some might be spacefaring. They might show up to talk to those natives. Does our watchdog shoot them too? If not, then why not? Why is their interference okay? Does this make a loophole for folks at home to hire alien mercenaries to bypass the watchdog? One problem with non-interventionist concepts in science fiction is that they tend to assume it’s fine to interfere inside your own species or culture but not in others’ ones, especially those less powerful than your own.

But we probably shouldn’t be assuming humanity will really qualify as a species in a few millennia or that we would be the only intelligent agencies coming out of Earth and its daughter colonies. I’m not really sure how the prime directive would handle finding a colony of humans who had gone primitive themselves and genetically engineered themselves to be half-dolphin or centaurs, but, if instead of engineering themselves into hybrids, some scientist had simply made intelligent dolphins with hands, or a centaur, and left them on some planet or megastructure, should we act differently to them? Does the prime directive apply to the scientists but not the hybrids? If so, why? If not, why for them but not for aliens? In Orson Scott Card’s classic novel, Speaker for the Dead, we see a humanity limited by light speed travel that’s colonized hundreds of worlds a few thousand years in our future. But before we colonized any, we encountered aliens who sought to invade us. We repelled the attack and eventually invaded them and wiped them out. Humanity felt terrible guilt about that and so, when thousands of years later, they finally encounter another alien species, a primitive one, they limit themselves to a tiny colony contained inside a fenced-in area on that planet, whilst maintaining policies of minimal contact with, and no intervention or technology handouts given to this newly-discovered primitive species, called the Piggies. But, one of the folks studying them breaks the rules and gives them various technologies.

When a follow up basically comes to try to set things right, their argument is that they want spaceships too. That they don’t want to wait while humanity settles every world around them, so that they are stuck with just one world while we fill up every system in that region of the galaxy. No star empire for the Piggies, maybe just a few token worlds given, assuming humanity doesn’t change its mind and take their world too. They argue that we had no right to show them this greater universe and then snatch it from them, that, in many ways, the policy toward primitive aliens is designed to keep them weak and not a threat, and the protagonist of the tale agrees and helps them get star flight.

Wonderful book by the way, but it does raise the point that, if a civilization opts for non-intervention for that reason, is it in the wrong? If some ancient alien civilization had arrived on the galactic scene a billion years ago, millions of years before anyone else, and colonized everything but inhabited star systems with animal life on them, do we have any real moral authority to chastise them for not leaving us room to colonize? If so, then, if they had left us a few hundred systems, nearby to us, or left roughly half the galaxy uncolonized, in pockets around such worlds, is that enough? If not, what is? Are we in the wrong not to be leaving space for future intelligent racoons or dolphins or elephants to colonize? Should we be building them megastructure habitats for them to dominate and evolve intelligence in? And again, this episode isn’t really aiming to determine what’s most moral here, in theory we could also be contemplating indirectly assisting other species by deciding that active genocide on primitive aliens was ethical as it saves lives down the road. Seem despicable but contemplate it in the context of the acid-drooling xenomorphs from the Alien franchise, who will rapaciously grow on the galactic stage by laying eggs inside every sentient creature. Or maybe they are a slow-growing race and encounter one that’s much faster to expand than others. If so, do they have a moral duty to force slower or limited growth to leave room for slower growing or future species? And on the other side of that, who put them in charge except by ‘might makes right’? Is that the basis for their morality? And what’s wrong with that faster growing group taking on dead worlds and making them life-bearing? But, just as important to the entire conversation is, what we mean by ‘primitive’. All of our working assumptions around non-interference are built off humans interacting with other humans, and whatever minor differences various human civilizations had with each other genetically when they first met, they don’t seem to have represented a basic difference in intelligence or basic emotions and judgment. At least during known history, it is possible that some prehistoric or even pre-homo sapien interactions, like with Neanderthals, did involve huge differences in IQ or some mutant clade that was born inherently sociopathic or something.

Otherwise though, we just know that practically any human during recorded history, on any continent or in any era could have been easily raised from birth in the modern world and would be practically indistinguishable from anyone around nowadays. That probably would not be true of proto-humans, which presumably would include the folks who presumably discovered fire around a million years ago and maybe even 2. Evidence is pretty limited, so, we can hardly speak with certainty about if Homo Erectus discovered fire and which of their descendant sub-species and cousins also had it, nor about how smart they were. Brain size is basically the only information we’ve got, and that doesn’t actually mean that much, especially when talking about how they would fare at learning language, or at understanding modern social interactions, and technology or math. So it is entirely possible a proto-human, even from way back when fire was new, could be abducted as a baby by time machine, and raised to function fine in modern society, or not, insufficient information. Same notion, you might actually find aliens who were way smarter than us in many regards but still hadn’t mastered fire, and not just in the context of them being ocean-dwellers.

That might even be true of proto-humans, and Neanderthals are thought to have had slightly bigger brains than we do nowadays. They might have been nearly identical to us, or smarter than us, or seemed like idiot-savants in some areas. Again, brain size doesn’t mean that much – whale brains can get about six times bigger than humans and the tree shrew has a brain that’s fully 10% of its body mass. Alien brains are likely to be very different in form and function and also let’s not ignore that cybernetics and genetic engineering could be brought into play.

And this is all in the context of humans and our relations so close that we could probably have interbred with them. You could easily have some alien squid species that engages in sibling cannibalism and isolated its existence shortly after hatching, that could barely comprehend the point of language but could also solve a Rubik’s Cube in three seconds. It doesn’t really get communication – it's not hostile, but it flees if anyone approaches it that’s bigger than it, and generally tries to eat anything smaller if it’s hungry.

Sitting in its tank watching us fiddle with primitive tools and technology, it figures them out ridiculously early and easily. Now, we’ve often talked about if it is ethical to help species that are as smart as us but confined to water worlds, where discovering fire and thus other technologies is very hard. This particular type of Uplifting - Technological Uplifting – is the one usually under discussion in science fiction and a favorite topic of mine with my friend and fellow science youtuber, John Michael Godier. However, here we are looking at possibly needing one of the other two types of uplifting – biological and mental, or neurological. Normally, that’s giving a dolphin hands so it can work with technology or giving a chimpanzee or dog a bigger brain so it can understand them.

Here though, the alien squid needs no bigger brain, it’s a genius at math and science and it’s quite capable of manipulating tools, better than us, it just has no social skills, lacks the inherent wiring for them, and its brain doesn’t have the plasticity for that. When we start talking about tinkering in this fashion too, we also want to keep in mind that fire with humans is thought to have gone through some stages, at some point being opportunistic and occasional, then becoming habitual, and eventually obligate, which is to say, unable to survive without it. We used fire and slowly came to need it. And that’s not limited just to fire or even just to technology.

Humans are necessarily social, and of our critters that are born unable to survive on their own and need parental care, which is presumably why you don’t see much sibling cannibalism or super-big litters, broods, or clutches in such critters. But, we should not assume that the mammalian architecture with its slow maturity and its parental dependence, is necessary for a big brain. Let’s say that our alien squid is a real case and some time in the twenty-something century we discover this critter, maybe in the subsurface seas of Europa, maybe around some water world orbiting an alien sun. An interesting conundrum gets raised here.

Our xeno psychologist points out that the creature isn’t in any way evil but it has no parental or familiar bond. It lacks any real concept of empathy, so while it finds us interesting, and would miss us if we disappeared as a way to satisfy its curiosity, it would also find it interesting to see us tortured to death. And would feel the same about its own kind.

So, anything we teach it is not going to get shared, unless we rewire it to have such tendencies. One person suggests that, since humanity now has technology to achieve biological immortality, this wouldn’t be too hard to adapt to the squid, or maybe it is naturally is immortal, so it could potentially get our knowledge and keep it indefinitely and indeed, we could teach more of them. We don’t necessarily have to look at primitive aliens as a species, personal relationships and individual actions are as morally valid for them as they are between humans presumably. So, you could adopt the squid, or adopt a primitive alien that was a Neanderthal analog that was left abandoned to die, and raise it as your own. Admittedly, in many cases, that might raise a hazy line between a child and a pet. Another researcher points out that we could tweak this squid, and maybe a few others, to have that parental and fraternal bond and social desires, but that if we did, since they breed at a ferocious rate, laying thousands of eggs that grow to maturity in a couple years, they would be emotionally ruined by trying to save all their thousands of spawn, and if not, be overwhelmed trying to expand fast enough to support them.

So too, we would potentially be dealing a fatal blow to humanity as they might be far better and more motivated at galactic expansion than we and soon render us a relative micronation reliant on their goodwill for continued existence. Stephen Baxter plays with a similar concept in his Manifold trilogy. This obviously opens up a whole host of ethical problems too, including if it is an act of genocide to kill the genetically tinkered with version who has been given those traits by a rogue member of your team. Maybe it is not genocide but simply an act of murder, or maybe not even that? But, when it comes to primitive, this is what we need to be keeping in mind. Odds are not really good that some pre-technological or low technology alien we encounter is going to be an analogy for cavemen or neolithic tribes, as we have seen in science fiction so often. And I don’t mean that they don’t look and dress like human hunter-gatherers except for some makeup and forehead prosthetics for an episode of a show, being entirely non-humanoid in physiology.

Rather, that they’d be alien of mind, like that squid, whose biology and neurology is just not compatible with our worldview. Unless maybe it is, if we work hard enough to find a way. Especially if we’re talking about a protracted period of primitivism, which is likely to be the case. Now, humanity spent around a million years with fire before it got around to using it for pottery or metallurgy, so we want to be careful with what we mean by ‘protracted’. Our squid critter probably would never evolve advanced technology because, as smart as it is, it has no easy biological route to socializing and without that, it wouldn’t seem likely that any real retention and improvement of technology is going to occur. It might be that they slowly evolve enormous intellects just because they’ve been stuck as non-technological primitives for a billion years.

You could also have another species where the wiring was such that the traits for creativity and invention tended to be badly connected to social or survival traits. The brain architecture for the one, uses circuit paths that the other would, so to speak. Aristotle said “There is no great genius without a touch of madness”, and that might not be true of alien minds, either because their geniuses had very big touches of madness or the reverse, they were smart but not eccentric or out of the box. Sharp as a razor but no knack for innovation. Being born to a water world isn’t the only way you could get brains but no technology, or brains but with a hard limit physiologically on getting smarter in one or more fashions.

Your brain just can’t expand further because your heart can’t spare the blood, for instance, or like humans, our heads are a bit too big for safe births. One last notion to close out on though. When dealing with primitive aliens and trying to figure out when, where and how to interact with them, it is important to keep in mind that their very existence implies other intelligent aliens exist. It’s probably a good idea to assume that, if you found one species you beat into space, that there’s likely another who beat you. Maybe they believed in letting other civilizations be and are watching to see what we do, maybe they’ll be judging us.

Maybe they died off rather than colonizing the whole galaxy – which might imply that almost all technological civilizations ultimately do too. If that’s the case, you are doing the primitive aliens no favors by handing them a technological time bomb – a concept we’ll be examining next month. One other scenario though.

If we’re contemplating some stealthy ancient alien observers hanging around a world to observe and protect them or study them or whichever, and if we’re also considering the idea that technology itself might be a trap, then maybe they are not primitive aliens but post-technological techno-primitives. What we see is not scattered tribes on their way to technology but after they already had it. Maybe some faction of their civilization decided to jump off the technology train or maybe they’re just so genetically and cybernetically tweaked that all outward signs of technology are unnecessary, they can eat anything and are immune to illness and aging and just very smart, strong and fast, so they don’t need the outward technology, but they might still have it or have some members of their society who do, but keep it hidden. In all of these cases, it’s an even better reason to be cautious and contemplative about the practical and ethical concerns of interacting with another civilization, and to exercise good judgment, as otherwise, you or your whole civilization might end up getting judged themselves. As an upside, maybe that’s why we haven’t conclusively heard from any alien civilizations ourselves.

So it's time again for our Audible Audiobook of the Month and we definitely have some good ones to pick from for today’s topic. We already mentioned Orson Scott Card’s classic, Speaker for the Dead, and Stephen Baxter’s Manifold series, and there are so many other great novels on the topic of Humanity interacting with less advanced civilizations or vice-versa, but perhaps the greatest is from David Brin, the astronomer and novelist who wrote the Uplift Series, in which we see an intergalactic civilization of many sapient races who have all been around for billions of years, each successively uplifting other species to technology and acting as their patron, for which their entire civilization is indentured for 100,000 years as repayment. A process that has gone since the near mythical progenitors that started it 2 billions years before humanity arrives on the scene having uplifted itself, and chimpanzees and dolphins, much to the irritation of the older civilizations. It’s an amazing series spanning many novels and showing not only scientific realism but also deep philosophical and ethical discussions, all of which are hallmarks of David Brin’s writing and why I’m glad to give him our SFIA Audible AudioBook of the Month for a second time, and for his first novel, Sundiver, which started the Uplift Series off in 1980! Brin has been a prolific writer of science and science fiction for decades and been an inspiration not only for this show but countless other artists, with his works appearing in print and on the silver screen, and all of his novels are available on Audible, as are the other authors we mentioned today.

Audible has thousands of audiobooks available and literally centuries worth of content for you to pick from, and more being added every day faster than you could listen to all of it. But they don’t just have audiobooks, they also have many excellent podcasts, such as Science & Futurism with Isaac Arthur, where we have every single episode on Youtube, plus several audio-only exclusives I’ve made over the years. That’s just some of the great content in the Audible Plus Catalog, which also has sleep & meditation tracks available, as well as guided fitness programs for getting into shape this summer, and Audible Original’s like Impact Winter, from the folks who brought you Pacific Rim and the Walking Dead. The whole Audible Plus Catalog full of free books and other content, comes as a bonus when you join Audible, in addition to your usual 1 free audiobook each month and big member discounts on additional ones, and as always, new members can try Audible for free for the first month, just go to, or text isaac to 500-500.

So next week we’ll continue our month-long tale of galactic colonization with a look at seeking to escape to Extragalactic Sanctuaries on July 14th, and we’ll see just how enormous a challenge that can be and what almost incomprehensible resources those hunting for you might have at their fingertips. Then we’ll return to the Fermi Paradox to ask where all these enormous habitats and megastructures we discuss on the show might be and what their apparent absence indicates about the Universe. After that we’ll look at two of the most mysterious things in our Universe, Black Holes and Dark Matter, and if dark matter might be black holes. Then we’ll close July out with our Monthly Livestream Q&A on Sunday, July 31st, at 4 pm Eastern Time.

If you want alerts when those and other episodes come out, don’t forget to subscribe to the channel and hit the notifications bell. And if you enjoyed today’s episode, and would like help support future episodes, please visit our website, Isaac, for ways to donate, or become a show patron over at Patreon. Those and other options, like our awesome social media forums for discussing futuristic concepts, can be found in the links in the description. Until next time, thanks for watching, and have a great week!

2022-07-12 06:04

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