Thursday, April 29, 2010

Here comes the debate over the other kind of aliens...

Alert!  There's a 60% chance I will be on LARRY KING LIVE (CNN) Friday at 9 ET (6 PT) in a rushed-together debate about “aliens” with Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute and the actor Dan Aykroyd....

 ...all in response to a flurry of interest that’s been stirred by Stephen Hawking's new Discovery Channel show.  Specifically, his lead-in episode about extraterrestrials, wherein he recommended against our calling attention to ourselves. (He made it look pretty dire!)

This happened in a sudden whirl. Larry King's people contacted me just hours ago and I must rush to a studio on my way to the airport, before flying right off to keynote an investor conference in Las Vegas, talking about "our economic future." (Yes, I get spread thinner, by the day.)

Okay, I’ll offer a hurried little riff here, about Hawking and aliens, with added contributions by and about Paul Davies, Robin Hanson and others. (Please excuse the first draft quality and lack of participation in the comments section.)

In his show (a while before he rooted for my alma mater, Caltech, to “win the Superbowl”), Professor Hawking said that aliens are almost certainly out there and that Earthlings had better beware. Instead of seeking them out, humanity should be doing all it that can to avoid any contact. His simple reasoning? All living creatures inherently use resources to the limits of their ability, inventing new aims, desires and ambitions to suit their next level of power. If they wanted to use our solar system, for some super project, our complaints would be like an ant colony protesting the laying of a parking lot.

Want an irony?  I am actually a moderate on this issue (as I am regarding Transparency).  My top aim, in these recent arguments, has been pretty basic; I want more discussion. And for arrogant fools to stop blaring into space “on our behalf” without at least offering the rest of us the courtesy of first openly consulting top people in history, biology, anthropology - and guys like Hawking - in an honest and eclectic way.  Their refusal to do this constitutes just about the most conceited and indefensible behavior by scientists that I have ever seen.

Now, everybody and his cousin appears to have an opinion about aliens. In fact, I know almost nobody who seems willing to wait and entertain a wide variety of hypotheses, in this “field without a subject matter.”  It seems that the very lack of data makes people more sure of their imagined scenario, rather than less. And more convinced that those who disagree are dunderheads.

Davies+-+The+Eerie+SilenceRenowned science philosopher Paul Davies has weighed in with a new book, The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, which seems a bit of a take off my own classic “The Great Silence” paper -- (still the only overall review-survey that has ever attempted to cover more than 100+ hypotheses that are out there, to explain our loneliness in the universe.)  Alas, Paul seems never to have heard of that paper, or most of the hypotheses in question -- he cites me only as a grouch toward METI (“message to ET.”)  And, while I have long admired Paul’s work and consider him to be quite amazing, I feel he got a bit lazy with this one.

Space Law scholar Nicholas Szabo is much harsher on him than I am, I’m afraid:

“Paul Davies’s arguments are pretty lame, and possibly quite disturbing; for example saying:  "Just because we go around wiping out our competitors doesn’t mean aliens would do the same."  But that doesn't mean they wouldn't, either. The example of life on earth is all we have to go on, and life on earth is Darwinian.”
Szabo continues: “Davies also says: "A civilization that has endured for millions of years would have overcome any aggressive tendencies"  But I (Szabo) find that utopian nonsense. By the same reasoning humans should have "overcome any aggressive tendencies" that chimpanzees have.  Davies adds: "By comparison, humans would quite likely be considered dangerous warmongers, posing a possible menace to our galactic neighbors in centuries to come. If so, then ET may act to eliminate the threat..." 

Um, so much for their peacefulness.  George Mason University economist and philosopher Robin Hanson responds:

”Many species here on Earth have endured for millions of years while retaining “aggressive” tendencies, and even very “mildly” bellicose aliens, ones who would only exterminate us if they could make a plausible case that we might pose a future menace, should still be of great concern to us.  I sure don’t want to be exterminated “just in case.”  Wouldn’t it make more sense to shut up until either we don’t look so menacing, or until we are strong enough to defend ourselves?”  (See Robin’s extensive response.)

 Another quotation from Szabo:

“Davies continues: "...if we didn’t mend our violent ways. Ironically, the greatest danger from an alien encounter may be ourselves." In other words, ETI really does pose a threat after all, but it's our own fault, so we shouldn't (we are presumably left to conclude) try to protect ourselves from this threat beyond taking a profound moral lesson from this flight of imagination and mending our own ways.

This "reasoning" from splendidly fashionable PC attitudes combined with his own imputation of human psychology to imaginary entities leads to a rather grotesquely self-loathing conclusion: Davies puts humans on trial against aliens he has conjured up from his imagination and find the humans guilty and deserving of genocide. Fortunately, we have much better reasons to try to be more peaceful than the conjectured attitudes of hypothetical ETI. A good start to achieving human peace would be to withdraw moral support from people who hate their fellow human beings.”

While I react less pungently than Szabo... and in fact see a bit of merit in Paul’s point... it remains rather tiresome for the reflex to always be to assume that aliens will automatically be more elevated than us. (Yer, willing to judge and crush us, rather than help us get better.)

In fact, out of sheer ornery contrariness and a habitual wish to avoid limits on thinking, I'm tempted to wonder if humanity may be among the MOST pleasant sapient races in the galaxy! 

Just imagine a high tech species descended from solitary stalking carnivores, like tigers, or loner infanticides, like bears, or pack carnivores, or paranoid herd herbivores, or mammoth harem-keepers like elephant seals. We come from tribes of long-lived, relatively patient and contemplative, reciprocal-grooming, gregarious apes, whose male female differences are relatively small...

...all traits that mitigate toward some degree of otherness-empathy, which may not happen very often, across the stars.  And STILL we are violent MoFo's!

CollapseFurthermore, suppose we concede the common SETI talking point that aliens “would have to have learned to avoid much war, given the destructive power of advanced weaponry.” Hm, well, maybe.  But is the only way to avoid armageddon massive racial reprogramming to pacifism?  A FAR more likely way for aliens to stop war and save themselves from self-destruction is the method implicitly commended by Jared Diamond, in his book COLLAPSE: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed..


The creation of a perfectly stable and perfectly repressive oligarchy that protects itself by maintaining a rigid status quo.

And yes, that kind of stable hegemony can become internally "peaceful" as in Ming China... and more-briefly in many other human cultures.  And yet, a perfect, control-freak autarchy ain't exactly utopian by our terms, or altruistic. Moreover, it remains capable of violence, especially when it sees something outside of itself that it may not like.

Oh, but the most frustrating thing is this.  When people leap to their own “pat” explanations for the Great Silence, sighing that “of course” the answer is this and such, and then dismissing all contrary views as foolish, they are cheating themselves, and the rest of us, out of what could be the most fascinating and wondrously open-ended argument/discussion of all time! 
A marvelous set-to that juggles every science, every bit of history and biology and astronomy and... well everything!  It is the great puzzle of who we are, how we may be different, or the same as those mysterious others, out there.

THAT is what makes me sad, when nearly everybody in this field leaps so quickly -- on almost zero evidence -- to say “of course the answer is....”  I am, above all, a lover of the greatest enlightenment invention -- argument... and its accompanying virtues, curiosity, experimentation, reciprocal accountability, and even the aching joy of being forced, now and then, to admit “Okay, you got me, that time.  I may have been wrong.”

-------- David Brin ----

PS… See more articles on SETI and METI,
as well as my more extensive explanation of this fight over prudent caution in wagering the future of humanity. 


David Brin said...

people can email questions to larry king

... or comments (praise?) after it's over!

Jonathan S. said...

Actually, the works of Larry Niven do offer some consideration of dangerous aliens.

The kzinti, in the Known Space stories, are descended from pack-hunting plains-cat-equivalents; their reaction to encountering other sentient species is to judge a) how useful they are as slaves, and b) how tasty they are. (Although personally, I think the kzinti aren't nearly as dangerous as the puppeteers - at least a kzin who dislikes you is going to be open about threatening you; a puppeteer may just trash your credit rating, sell your secrets to your worst enemy, and/or convince another alien species to sell your planet's enemy an overwhelming technological advantage against you.)

There are also the Moties, in one of Niven's "guest spots" in Jerry Pournelle's CoDominium/Empire of Man universe, who could not escape their own solar system. Their breeding cycles made peace impossible for long; fortunately, they had managed to colonize various bodies in space, so when warfare destroyed civilization on Mote Prime, the civilizations of the Trojan-point asteroids or the distant comets could carry on...

David McCabe said...

I don't want to spoil it, but Mary Doria Russel's The Sparrow included urbane but dangerous aliens descended from predators. It's a good read, by the way. The literature people decided it wasn't SF, reclassified it as a Serious Literary Work. Fine way to keep the genre down, if that was the goal.

David McCabe said...

Good luck if you get on the show!

Jhartek said...

I hadn't heard that The Sparrow was accepted by the literary mainstream; that's somewhat interesting. I thought that it was a good example of thoughtful, if not mind-blowing, science fiction. I wonder if it was deemed acceptable as literature because it dealt with religion extensively...

Tom Crowl said...

I'll be watching and hope the discussion takes place! (with Larry King you never know since events like the oil spill, Goldman Sachs revelations, etc. can always take a sudden front seat).

You're right. It's an iffy question and likely both cases are possible...

In other words, there may well be both Borg and Federation mentalities going on out there.

In my brief post:
The Problem in Scaling Altruism: Where's the Intelligent Life?

(btw, I include a link to your paper "The Great Silence" for a much more complete and detailed discussion of this whole issue than the single idea I'm discussing in my brief post)

I posit that the altruism scaling problem will be a common one facing any intelligent species arising on an earthlike planet.

See here for some brief thoughts on why that might be:

The Foundations of Authoritarianism

How would hunter-gatherers run the world? (pssst... They Do!)

This is because cognitive limits do have a connection to physical size and hence the Dunbar's Number issue will recur.

As much as I loved the Niven "Kzinti" stories, it seems unlikely that a highly technical society could develop without substantial co-operation drives.

And to make it off the home planet some resolution would have to be made regarding the 'in-group' vs. 'out-group' ruthlessness which is (not really paradoxically) a by-product of biological altruism.

The Ming dynasty comparison is important since it does suggest that hegemony or authoritarianism may be a viable long-term strategy for a civilization...

BUT!!! (and I believe this is an important 'but')

That level of hegemony may only be possible where the technical and cultural level allows sufficient social and informational isolation... as contrasted to the 'establishment's' level of vulnerability.

That fewer and fewer can do more and more damage as a civilization becomes more technically advanced seems to suggest that hegemony may be a difficult facade to maintain.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Hmm... Might not get to watch it live, but I'll be looking for it online afterward, at the very least.

As for aliens and the silence... I suspect that one of the most likely reasons why we haven't heard anything and haven't encountered anyone is that inter-stellar travel and communication is very, very hard, and very, very expensive. The fastest spacecraft we've built so far goes, what, 30km/sec? Even with an average speed a hundred times that, it would take 300 years to get to the Centauri star system. Interstellar radio communication is less challenging, but don't we have trouble picking up light reflected by planets in neighboring systems? How powerful of a signal would you need to generate for our level of receiver tech could pick it up, even if the signal was pointed directly at us? (Could that be why we haven't heard anything? Maybe we're surrounded by a rich network of interstellar radio channels, but haven't heard anything because none of our neighbors have pointed their transmitters at us yet?)

I hope that's not the case, though, that interstellar travel, or even communication, is so difficult to achieve that even highly-advance civilizations far beyond our own are trapped in their own solar systems... It would be a rather disappointing and frustrating, even hellish universe, if we could see all the vast wonders of the universe for billions of lightyears in all directions, and never touch any of it...

Or maybe interstellar travel/communication isn't so difficult/expensive that it is impossible, but still too difficult/expensive to make any kind of real interstellar shipping far more costly than any gains in resources? No interstellar pillagers, because it would cost more to mount a pillaging expedition and bring resources back than the gain of the resources brought back. Information would be the main commodity, then, and perhaps we haven't made contact with anyone yet simply because we're not interesting enough yet (and because we're broadcasting all our cultural information into space for anyone to pick up for free)?

Personally, I'd much rather prefer something along the lines of Star Trek, where regular interstellar travel is relatively easy with sufficiently advanced tech, but not so easy that we're crossing the galaxy in hours.

Unknown said...

The Milky Way galaxy is about 100000 light years across. If we have practical interstellar travel within the next few thousand years, colonize other star systems, and from there set out anew at an average of 1% lightspeed, we'll be all over the galaxy in about ten million years.

Ten million years ago in evolutionary time, we had life, chordates, mammals, primates, great apes, and were all the way to the direct ancestors of humans and chimps.

My position is that we may be the only intelligent life within a tractable communication distance because of the anthropic principle: If we weren't the first, our planet would already be colonized by aliens, which would make it really hard for intelligence or civilization to evolve natively.

Unknown said...

^^ More concisely, I think the first species to civilization wins all.

Acacia H. said...

Or maybe we're the first civilization to successfully look nuclear Armageddon in the eye and take a step back. We still have more than enough nukes to eliminate all life on the planet but we managed to find a means of living with each other instead of using these weapons on each other.

The scarier option is that even as nuclear bombs are currently the biggest and nastiest weapons we have, there are even nastier weapons out there that we've not yet created... and which can do even worse things. Perhaps other species suffered from a biological weapon gone awry, or out-of-control nanotechnology, or even had something so simple as an Extinction Event wipe them out before they got off planet.

Even if they did get off-planet, having 99.9% of your population wiped out could make surviving in as harsh of an environment as outer space difficult. Thus these species are busy doing their very best to survive. They've not been able to reach beyond their own solar systems.

We may have been lucky. And part of that luck may actually be due to our Moon, which has helped shelter us from a lot of interstellar debris that could cause some real problems. How many worlds have sizable moons that are in stable orbits and which exist in the habitable zone of a star? We may have rolled the dice and won the jackpot... while everything on this side of the Milky Way galaxy (not hidden by the galactic bulge) just hasn't been able to succeed.

And life itself may be commonplace. But life is not the question. Intelligent life that is able to speak out and be heard... that is the question. Intelligence and the ability to effectively use that intelligence... that is not so easy. Dolphins, for instance, show clear signs of intelligence. But they lack the ability to utilize that intelligence on an industrial scale. The inability to effectively manipulate things makes intelligence and sentience into novelties. Unless you believe in such things as telekinesis and telepathy. ^^

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

P.S. - The other possibility, of course, is that intelligent life did reach out into the stars already. And found the galaxy to be lonely... so they finally died out, before humanity evolved.

P.P.S. - An interesting thing to consider also is the twin myths of the Fae Folk... and of Aliens. The Sidhe are described similar to Greys. Both "abduct" humans and do strange things (experiments). It may be that aliens exist and are here... and that they've been meddling with humanity for thousands of years. We only remember them in our mythology.

ZarPaulus said...

Incidentally I wrote about how different alien species might react to us categorized by diet:

Essentially herbivores would be most dangerous and carnivores would be most likely to leave us alone (food that can shoot back is too much trouble).

Ilithi Dragon said...

How do you guys think the lifespan of a species would effect that species' 'personality'?

What about the possibility of two separate species evolving on the same planet? Granted, the first species to evolve into even early pre-civilization would probably have an edge, with a good chance for exterminating the other species early on, but I don't think that single-species-worlds should be treated as a given. Two similar species could evolve on separate continents that have no 'land bridge' to connect them, or two very different species, with different or even complimentary resource needs, could evolve side-by-side.

Two intelligent species that enter into a symbiotic relationship early on, or that both evolve intelligence after developing a symbiotic relationship, could potentially have a significant advantage compared to non-symbiotic intelligent species on other planets, especially when it comes to the concept of working together for mutual benefit.

Would such a species pair be more open to peaceful co-existence and cooperation?

Unknown said...

I thought this paper proposed an interesting resolution to the fermi paradox: the galaxy has only recently become "calm" enough for complex life, and we are one of the first examples to happen along. (Unfortunately, though they address it, I've never been able to get over the apparent anthropic bias in that statement.)

Unknown said...

I don;t understand why aliens would want resources off of the surface of this world -- deep in a gravity well -- when there are lots of resources for the taking scattered around the Solar System. What could they possibly want that is on the surface of the Earth but not somewhere more easily available in the asteroids or comets.

Meat, that's about it.

Acacia H. said...

It's one of the major wall-banger moments I have with the TV series "V" - these space aliens come all the way to Earth to steal our water?!? Oh, and to harvest humanity. I can understand that part of it, seeing that they were fighting in a war and were going to use humans as cannonfodder against their alien enemies. But even then, you'd think robotics and the like would be more effective weapons than bloody foot troops.

One more logical reason is biochemistry: aliens come to Earth to sample various biochemical creations that our life has come up with. Thus you have aliens coming to investigate our rainforests and coral reef systems and other diverse ecosystems. But the more we learn about science, the more we realize that the "traditional" reasons for alien invasion just don't hack it. With the exception of xenophobia: destroy alien races before they evolve sufficiently to become a possible threat.

Rob H.

ZarPaulus said...

@ Illithi:
I doubt that multiple sapient species could evolve naturally and coexist on the same planet unless they were really different, like say a terrestrial species and an aquatic species.

Babylon 5 touched upon two species evolving on separate continents. The Centauri once shared their homeworld with a species known as the Xon but they went to war immediately after a Centauri ship reached the Xon continent, the Xon were exterminated and the event is still celebrated.

As for mutualists, all of our macro-partners seem to have become, if anything, less intelligent as a result of our relationship.

Anonymous said...

What could they want? Who can say with any assuredness? Perhaps there is an alien species that values biological diversity. No matter how advanced a species might be, would they be able divine the multitudinous biological compounds, structures, systems and beauty that evolution can produce in a biosphere that they have never seen before?

Darrell E

Darrell E said...

Ah. I see that Robert beat me to it.

And, I finally figured out the problem with signing in here with my google account. Hurray!

SteveO said...

In examining the many hypotheses for why it is quiet out there, I lean towards two.

The first is, we are in the first possible wave of technological intelligences in the universe. The universe is ~14 billion years old. The Earth and Sun are about 4.5 billion years old. Arguing from a data point of one (I know, I know) let's postulate that there has been time for about three waves of star and planet forming allowing for biological evolution of technological people.


Planets that formed early on were VERY metal-poor, since metals come from supernovae. ("Metal" in the common, not astronomical, sense.) So in order to form a technological society, the clouds out of which a solar system forms needs to be seeded with at least one, probably multiple waves of supernovae. While life, maybe even intelligent life, may have been around a long time, I suspect previous waves were on planets on which it would be very difficult for technology to develop. Sure, certain very lucky planets might have had metals, but that drops the probability of a close (or old but expansive) technological civilization that we could listen to by a large amount.

And even so, our solar system was probably subject to random chance that increased the probability of life forming. Jupiter is still near the orbit where it formed, rather than spiraling close into the sun, as seen in many other solar systems. Hypotheses for why vary, but it turns out to be harder to explain why it is still there, rather than where Mercury is. Baby-Earth would have been tossed out of the cradle had that happened. We have a big Moon, relatively speaking, whose tides probably helped expose chemicals to environments conducive for the start of life. We have active plate tectonics to refresh essential chemicals that otherwise may have been depleted. During human's time on the planet, only during the last 10,000 years has there been a stable climate allowing the invention of agriculture, and thus civilization.

Our wave of planet-forming may have been the first one to include enough metals, and if so the race to the stars may just be commencing across the galaxy now (+/- a few million years). Sorry, no Uplift Universe ancient races in this scenario!

SteveO said...

That was the hopeful hypothesis. The second, more depressing cause I lean towards is that once technology exists, it will almost invariably lead to a rapid civilization boom, and then a permanent bust. This is really my fundamental fear about our civilization. So very much of what allows us to be technological depends on withdrawing more energy/resources from our planet than can possibly be maintained over a significant time frame. This article proposes a model of how we are spending the "principle and interest" in our planetary bank account in a number of different, and very scary, ways. Climate change is only one. This may be biologically inevitable - in order to evolve a civilization-bearing society, we must be aggressive and fecund. When those traits become contrary to civilization's survival, things are moving so quickly (the bad singularity) that we run out of resources before we can as a society react to the problem. (e.g. tragedy of the commons, creeping normalcy.)

If this one is true, sure intelligent life develops, then they find bountiful and easily accessible natural resources, then use them up to build a glorious civilization, and then run out of those resources, leading to collapse back to (best case) a small population of hunter-gatherers with small amounts of residual and inefficient agriculture left over. And this time, there is nothing left to bootstrap the population and technology needed to build a civilization. (This is why I am so interested in bringing more resources from the Solar System to the planet before it is too late to even find enough resources on Earth to build an infrastructure that could do it.) This scenario is demonstrated in Diamond's Collapse.

That is one that I hope desperately that we humans can circumvent.

I secretly wish that the reason we haven't heard from anyone else is that we humans have, perhaps uniquely, overcome huge evolutionary pressure to develop the scientific method. But this is such a blatantly humanocentric viewpoint that I am skeptical of it.

Acacia H. said...

One other thing to remember is this: the universe is a big place. We may be alone in the Milky Way galaxy... but who is to say we're alone in the universe as a whole? There may be dozens or hundreds of spacefaring species out there... separated from us by the vast intergalactic void. And given the immense level of energy needed for even light to reach us (to the point that it takes a supernova for points in a distant galaxy to truly stand out), we may not be hearing the other species out there because of the background static of the light from the stars (and galaxies) themselves.

Rob H.

Ilithi Dragon said...

ZarPaulus, did B5 give a reason for WHY they went to war immediately upon discovery of the other sapient species? Sci-fi is a great way of creating the what-if thought experiments Dr. Brin described last post (with me grinning like an idea the whole time reading that segment), and that can be a powerful tool for analyzing possibilities, or throwing out new possibilities, but we have to be careful about using it as evidence for things, especially if it does not present solid logic/reasoning for the results of its gedankenexperiment.

WHY would a species be prompted to immediately embark on a war of extermination against another species at first contact? Why would a species have any motivation to do so?

Yes, our own history suggests a lot of bad things could happen from such a contact, but the first European explorers, after realizing that they HADN'T sailed around the world to India, didn't first look to a war of extermination against the natives, they thought of trade opportunities. Early settlers were quite often very friendly with the natives.

If the technological disparity between the two cultures hadn't been so great, history may well have been very different.

I would think it more likely that contact between two sapient species on different continents of the same world would go much more like that of our history with contact between different civilizations, if there is a similar technology gap. The more advanced species would horn in on the less-advanced species, but would not see any need to exterminate them, or at least, no more than the European settlers in America felt towards the natives (and probably with similar results, though a different species probably wouldn't have to worry about their population being devastated by new diseases, which was one of the biggest reasons why the native Americans weren't able to resist the European settlers).

With more comparable levels of technology, even with a still significant tech difference (say, medieval era vs late Renaissance), I see the less-advanced 'natives' holding their own much better (both through higher martial strength, and also because they would look much less like 'primitive savages'), and I would expect that they would survive as an independent nation(s) much better than the native peoples of North and South America.

In fact, being a separate species, with a large enough species boundary to prevent disease, may be enough to guarantee their survival as a people/independent civilization, even with a tech gap comparable to that between the Native Americans and Europe. The native populations across the Americas was devastated by disease. Estimates for the casualty rate from 'new' diseases contracted after first contact with European settlers and explorers range as high as 80%, with some areas seeing casualty rates as high as 90% (smallpox epidemic in the Massachusetts Bay area wiped out 90% of the native population between 1618 and 1619). Had the native population (estimated as high as 18 million prior to contact with Europe, and possibly higher) not suffered such devastating casualties from disease (and continued population devastation from such diseases into the mid/late 19th Century), history would have been very, very different.

Acacia H. said...

In response to the B5 question, according to Wikipedia the second race was the instigator. A Centauri ship made it across the ocean and found the other race... who promptly slaughtered the Centauri, boarded their ship, and went back to the Centauri continent and invaded. The other species was bigger, tougher, and more aggressive than the Centauri. The Centauri were more technologically advanced. Despite this, the Centauri were almost slaughtered.

Indeed, it was almost a MAD situation. By the time the fight was over, the Centauri population was drastically slashed, which resulted in the social stratification where women were kept out of positions of open power and were relegated to being wives and mothers, so they could repopulate the planet (and then other planets).

Near the end of the extinction war, the Centauri were visited by a spacefaring species; I don't recall the specifics but it did result in the Centauri going into space fairly quickly, and starting to colonize other worlds; Centauri Prime had the smallest population of all the major races, and several of their oldest colonies had populations of comparable size to Centauri Prime.

Rob H.

Darrell E said...

SteveO said:

"And even so, our solar system was probably subject to random chance that increased the probability of life forming."

I am not sure this is an important distinction. Random chance is a factor in every event that has ever occured.

"We have a big Moon, relatively speaking ..."

We do not yet have anywhere near the amount of data necessary to assign a probability with any reasonable confidence to the formation of planet moon systems similar to ours.

"We have active plate tectonics to refresh essential chemicals that otherwise may have been depleted."

Same argument as above. We have no idea how rare, or common, plate tectonics is throughout the universe.

"During human's time on the planet, only during the last 10,000 years has there been a stable climate allowing the invention of agriculture, and thus civilization."

I don't think that this is accurate. There have been periods of millions of years throughout the history of life on this planet where the climate has been relatively stable. If you look at climate change on a geologic time scale our current Age does not seem to be atypical in any way.

Ilithi Dragon said...


Blogger keeps eating my posts! EVEN WHILE I'M TYPING THEM!
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Rob, that still begs the question of why the aggressor species would be motivated to try to exterminate the other species, and begs the even bigger question of what would motivate them to try to exterminate the other species so hard and so relentlessly that they would have to be exterminated themselves to stop the war.

What reason would one species have to go through the gargantuan effort of exterminating an entire other species? That's no small feat, and would take massive effort even if there was no influence of conscience over such genocide. Subjugation into slavery, or absorption as second-class citizens would be far, far more likely, in my opinion, even when there is competition for scarce resources.

Acacia H. said...

It could be something so simple as uniting a fragmented and warring species under a charismatic leader who portrays the second race as "Other" and thus dangerous... as well as a source of loot and the like. (One thing that was mentioned was that the other race started raiding Centauri coastal regions and due to easy early successes, decided to wage a large-scale conflict. And the other species (the Xon - I doublechecked) may have intended on enslaving the Centauri... and things escalated.

It also seems that the Centauri were invaded by aliens called the Shoggren right about the end of the Xon conflict, and that the Technomages gave the Centauri technological aid against the Shoggren, which catapulted the Centauri into space pretty much once the conflict with the Xon and Shoggren was concluded.

So it probably started as a war to enslave... and escalated. All you need is one Hitler for a slave race to become an object of extermination. And the Centauri decided not to risk the Xon rebuilding... and there was probably too much hatred to effectively enslave them.

Rob H.

Ilithi Dragon said...

I'm not saying attempts at extermination aren't a possibility, it certainly is possible. I'm just rejecting the notion that it is the default or even majority outcome.

Unknown said...

@Robert: Have you read David Brin's short story "Those Eyes"? It explores some of the aspects of the Aliens == Fae folk concept.

Unknown said...

@SteveO: There's still room for Ancient Uplift Projenitors. This might be the first wave of planet forming that would likely generate sentient technological species, but at the same time, our own planet has had an ecosystem capable of producing such a species (or at least one with "potential") for over 250 million years.

FoundOnWeb said...

" I want more discussion. And for arrogant fools to stop blaring into space “on our behalf” "

I'm always confused by statements like this. Surely our normal radio/TV/BMEWS transmissions are more easily detectable than a single 'hello world' fired off into the ether.

Doug said...

Re: 2 sentient species on the same planet.

Well, what happened to the Neaderthals? It's a big question -- but we're here, and they are not.

While I hope that it was something as innocuous as homo sapiens sapiens out-competing them for resources, or that we somehow managed to interbreed with them, I personally find the "we killed them" explanation more likely. One supporting argument for this is the whole "uncanny valley" reaction -- things that look human, but not quite human enough, evoking a strong reaction against that thing.

That said, contrary to the forehead-aliens of television, it also seems quite unlikely that any aliens would be humanoid to any significant degree, so maybe we'd do better with them.

SteveO said...

@Darrell E

Note that I started my little essay acknowledging it was extrapolation from a single datum. It's all we have as yet.

"And even so, our solar system was probably subject to random chance that increased the probability of life forming."

>I am not sure this is an >important distinction. Random >chance is a factor in every event >that has ever occurred.

Well yes, but the point here is that if the joint probability of "things that have to happen for technological life to evolve" is low, that decreases the number of civilizations with whom we will have an opportunity to converse.

"We have a big Moon, relatively speaking ..."

>We do not yet have anywhere near >the amount of data necessary to >assign a probability with any >reasonable confidence to the >formation of planet moon systems >similar to ours.

I don't totally disagree, but consider what had to happen for us to get our big-ol' Moon (according to the current model). A planetoid the size of Mars had to smash into baby-Earth at a high angle of incidence. Much bigger and we would be trying to evolve on blasted apart asteroids, much smaller and you don't get a Moon of that size. Extrapolating from our Solar System, the gas giants are the only ones with anything like our Moon. The other terrestrial planets don't have anything that would cause tides. Pluto has Charon of course, but that type of capture would be unlikely (as far as we know) in the inner Solar System for a terrestrial-scale planet.

"We have active plate tectonics to refresh essential chemicals that otherwise may have been depleted."

>Same argument as above. We have >no idea how rare, or common, >plate tectonics is throughout the >universe.

Again, somewhat agree, but consider what drives tectonics: radioactive elements that keep the interior of the Earth hot enough to move. Those could not have been present at such levels in early planet-forming waves. Extrapolating again, our terrestrial cousins have no or little regenerative plate tectonics, even our twin Venus. (*Note that Venus may have tectonics, but not the type that renews the surface.)

"During human's time on the planet, only during the last 10,000 years has there been a stable climate allowing the invention of agriculture, and thus civilization."

>I don't think that this is >accurate. There have been periods >of millions of years throughout >the history of life on this >planet where the climate has been >relatively stable. If you look at >climate change on a geologic time >scale our current Age does not >seem to be atypical in any way.

Note the preceding clause, "During human's time on the planet..." There is plenty of evidence to show that the Holocene has significantly less variation than other recent ages. Point here is that we were lucky enough to have the brain hardware that allowed civilization to be a possibility at the same point when the climate stabilized allowing farming and husbandry. That is why, while humans had been around for a while, they stayed hunter-gatherers for most of that time until the Holocene Optimum, at which point those big brains were given the stability and climate to figure out how to domesticate crops.

SteveO said...


Not really. It is a difference of broadcast (which won't make it very far before it attenuates) and directed beam, which can go quite a ways. Also, as we move to more point-to-point (cable TV, satellite etc.) we are actually decreasing total radio-spectrum emissions with time.

David Smelser said...

Because of the inverse power law, at a certain distance normal TV/Radios broadcasts are too weak to distinguish from all the the normal background noise. A single higher powered transmission can be detected at further distances.

SteveO said...


Well and we still need some time to evolve to technology as well as the conditions that permit it. Here we REALLY have no idea, but at least for Earth, the earliest we had critters that might have started to evolve towards intelligence is maybe 70 MYA, and they got hammered by a the double-blow of ecological diversity loss and meteor strike. And I am not convinced that predator species could really evolve civilizations. Tribes, maybe, but not cities I don't think.

Hmm, not a lot of omnivores amongst dinosaurs...

But the Drake equation assumes steady-state over the life of the universe or galaxy, and so the question of "Where is everyone?" comes up. I'm thinking that is a bad assumption, and that the time horizon of intelligences is much more recent allowing a much higher probability TODAY of intelligence than previously possible. Some of the coincidences that we are now thinking happened during our Solar System formation that allowed such a life-hospitable planet are pretty unlikely, so the probability goes down there.

So, very low probability in the distant past, a possibility, but still low probability in the near past, means longer time to have technological intelligences evolve.

There may be Great Old Ones or whatever, but I'll bet they are pretty few and far between - like less than one per galaxy at this point in time.

But of course I am just guessing!!!

Jon said...

I saw Seth Shostak speak yesterday at the Sunnyvale library about SEIi and pretty much loved his talk. I haven't yet read his "Confessions of an Alien Hunter."

One argument against "remaining silent" is that we'd pretty much have to put a stopper on technology. As he pointed out, really advanced aliens could use certain masses as a "gravational lens" (bear with me, I'm not a science major and may have misundersttod him) and spot city lights, etc. We're already broadcasting as it is. Let's broadcast more intelligently.

On what the aliens would be like, I find myself of two minds. Some people compare ET contact to a "European colonists meet the Native Americans" approach. I think that a more likely situation would be found in looking at how humans treat other lifeforms on this planet: as food, pests, pets, work animals, and science experiments. As a meat eater, I can't be too critical though.

The second view is, though we have to be careful about anthropormorphizing aliens, we're already doing that to a certain extent when we describe them hunting the radio frequencies, building ships and heading out here to explore/conquer/etc.

If they are sufficiently advanced to build a scientific and technological system that gets them out here, would that "science" also include an understanding of information exchange, trade, positive sum games etc.? Would developing science mean that they'd have to understand the concepts?

As for resource raiding, I'm skeptical that anything we'd have would justify the resources spent to get here, *except* for information of various sorts (biological, trade, etc.)


BCRion said...

While I would have to see the content, I don't understand how "gravitational lenses" could be used to filter the minute signals we give off compared to that of the sun. Not dismissing the possibility outright, but I am skeptical. Our signals are quite weak once you travel a few lightyears away that it becomes lost in the noise.

Unfortunately, trying to attach human anything to extraterrestrials is fruitless. They might be benign and much like us. Then again, they could be totally different with unfathomable cultural attitudes. It's impossible to state, with any certainty, what contact would look like. It could range from passive, genial, hostile, or outright bizarre by our standards.

Who says they think of science in the way we do? What reason do we believe that such a species would have any concept of trade? How can we guess what "values" something like that would even possess?

My personal feeling is we should hold back and listen until we are far less ignorant about the universe.

TwinBeam said...

The most likely set of reasons for the great silence:

(a) There's no such thing as warp drive - fractional light speed is the best anyone can do, and even that takes huge effort;
(b) there's generally insufficient motivation to undertake the expense and effort to colonize, even via relatively cheap "star wisps" or von Neumann replicator seeds;
(c) the above apply to the few colonies that get established as well, so the few waves of colonization that get started all die out quickly even if some of the colonies survive - none spread to fill a galaxy;
(d) distances are too great for affordable broadcasts to be detected;
(e) narrow casting to be heard takes so much energy/expense that even the most loquacious species can't afford more than a few transmitters;
(f) the number of intelligent species able to hear and respond is tiny relative to the number of target stars to be narrowcast searching for a response;
(g) a target species would need to be listening hard in the right direction during the relatively short interval they can be targeted;
(h) Intelligent species quickly realize (a) through (g), and so almost none bother trying.


- Those who are running our simulation want to see what would have happened if the human race had been alone in the universe, instead of hooking into the galinet back in 1961. They predict that the singularity that happened in 1992won't happen this time, and they'll shut it down by the end of simyear 2012, having adequately verified their hypothesis.

Tom Crowl said...

Great show!

Very bright group of guests.

Your concept for the distributed network of amateur astronomers as searchers is a clever way to gather more results and advance interest in science at the same time! And right in line with your larger theme of the vital role of the amateur in an age of experts

And let us know about that three-hour deeper discussion! I bet more would be interested than TV execs might think.

P.S. Some great comments here. Steve O especially has some good ideas as do many others.

David McCabe said...

So did anyone catch the show? Apparently CNN doesn't want my advertising eyeballs, just because I don't subscribe to some kind of weird non-IP networking service.

Tim H. said...

Another reason to visit asteroids, a large one might be a great place to anchor a Preposterously Large Array, which might have some chance of detecting something interesting.

Tony Fisk said...

There was another B5 race (the Hyach) that co-existed with another sentient species. They wiped them out for reasons of religious purity... and then discovered that they needed the genetic mixing to retain long-term racial viability.

Oopsie, mein Fuehrer!

Actually, two similar sized masses in orbit around each other is fairly common... at asteroid scales (then there's Pluto, Charon, and the others)

Hmmm! Moon created by collision with Mars-sized body... Martian topology suggests one entire hemisphere got whacked. Am I adding 2 and 2 to make 5?

It's hard to come up with any reasonable explanations for the great silence without invoking the Anthropic principle because we are attempting to explain an Anthropic circumstance.

Only two occur to me that avoid the trap. They are:
1. someone's put up a 'do not disturb' sign outside the creche.
2. we are a simulation that doesn't have the sophistication to emulate alien signals. Although, if you can simulate a live-in environment, I don't think a bit dots and dashes are going to cause too many design issues.

ppnl said...

I have great respect for our man Brin but this is the goofiest position he has ever taken. And contrarian? A science fiction author suggesting that aliens might invade? Who could imagine such a thing!

The age difference between us and any other civilization is likely longer than we have been a species. It could be longer than primates have been around in any form.

They may be dead, never have existed or entered some state so that the universe we see is irrelevant to them. But invade?

I would like to see some intelligent commentary on the Fermi paradox but Brin disappoints like everyone else.

Darrell E said...


Regarding your last argument, about stable climate, I did indeed somehow miss the "During human's time" qualifier. Apologies, I am usually more observant than that.

In response to the argument you actually posed, the region of the world that, as far as we can determine to date, agriculture was first utilized seems to have had fertile conditions perfectly conducive to agriculture for 10s of thousands of years prior. Even at the height of the last ice age. As you probably already know, there are many competing hypotheses about what led to humans advancing from hunter gatherer to agriculture and husbandry.

Regarding your other points, Rare Earth arguments just do not seem to be very solid to me. They are all based on multiple layers of supposition and "most favorable interpretation of very limited data to fit my hypothesis." Not unusual given the sparsity of data. Though our prospects for studying other planetary systems are looking more promising every day, there is just not enough data available yet to be able to, for example, assign any level of confidence to the claim that our Earth Moon system is exceedingly rare. All we can reasonably say right now is perhaps, perhaps not.

Keeping with the same example, the other problem with this claim is the part about our large moon being somehow necessary for life (as we know it?) to have occured. Since our moon does indeed exist it has, no doubt, had a significant impact on the evolution of our planet and its biosphere. That is what has happened. So, while it may be the case that without our large moon we, human beings, may never have been (probably, even), that does not necessarily lead to no large moon = no life, even intelligent life of some other kind. And it certainly does not lead to "the evolution of complex or intelligent life forms requires a large moon."

Also, the events that led to the formation of our Earth Moon system may, or may not be, exceedingly rare. There are plenty of examples of impacts of similar relative scale on other bodies in our own solar system, including Mars. But either way, there is certainly many other ways that a similar system can form. Many that nobody has thought of yet.

In general terms these Rare Earth type of arguments pretty much all assume that since "A" had an impact on the evolution of our planet and of life on our planet then "A", or something very much like it, must not only have been necessary for complex life to evolve on our planet, but on any planet. What we can say with exactly equal confidence at this point is maybe, maybe not.

Tom Crowl said...

A Google Quote today which I think has particular relevance...

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.
- Voltaire

Jonathan S. said...

Perhaps the galaxy is virtually teeming with sentient life - and we're just not interesting enough to come visit.

Or perhaps the concept from the Mass Effect games is in play here. (Briefly: every race that begins space travel soon discovers a cache of ancient technology, which gives them FTL travel using a given technology. It was all planted hundreds of millions of years ago by Neglectful Progenitors, in this case machine intelligences that come back every fifty thousand years and harvest sentient beings as part of their reproductive process. They spend the intervening millennia hanging out in intergalactic space, doing whatever ancient machines do to pass the time. The tech-planting is to make sure that when the machines come back, they have an idea of what sort of technology to expect to fight.)

Or perhaps the Great Galactic Religion holds that our Sun is the Sacred Home of the Star-Gods, and to disturb its Holy Serenity is blackest blasphemy. (In which case they're not going to be really happy to see us when we get out there!)

Or... :-)

Anonymous said...

Brin checking in anonymously from lost wages...

Larry King episode:

Actor Dan Ayckroyd was his typical frenetic mix of science-zealous and credulous/silly about UFOs. Four smart guys is TOO MANY reducing cogent points to rapid sound-nibbles. sigh.

Now in Vegas to keynote a Casey investor conf. Kind of right wing ("all is lost, civilization has already fallen, buy gold!) But will try for a tone of tech optimism.

Found on web… your assumption sounds typical. People leap to conclusions in this field. Please consider the difference between circular ripples from a rock dropped in water… and a laser beam. THAT is ho much farther a METI or planetary radar beam ill travel, than does I LOVE LUCY.

“PPNL” exactly which “brin” are you referring to. Please find for me where I talk of alien invasion? My big stance and almost only one has been to push for bigger and more open discussion of these issues and for people to stop saying “of course it’s obvious that…” Like the contempt you just expressed for me.

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.
- Voltaire

ppnl said...


Sorry to be so critical. I have no problem with discussion. But I barely consider Larry King intelligent life from the quality of his show. And I doubt Dan Ayckroyd will ever constructively contribute to any public discussion on any subject.

Any danger from phoning ET is far less than from the nuclear power plants we need to be building and even less than from the LHC.

Really I'm sorry to be so negative. I like your books. I love many of your essays on the net. Discussing aliens is interesting in itself. I just cannot take the danger from ET seriously.

And I really really hate the Larry King show. Sorry.

David Brin said...

no sweat! The show itself went pretty lame. I just don't recall quaking with fear over invasion. My WHOLE point was that we don't know and need to talk more among ourselves before shouting yoohoo

rsynnott said...

"All living creatures inherently use resources to the limits of their ability, inventing new aims, desires and ambitions to suit their next level of power."

This one is interesting, actually. Do they really? To what level?

We're now seeing a situation where in the most socially advanced (I use this to mean countries with a high level of social/economic equality) development, populations are stabilising, or in some cases actually falling. If a hundred times the resources it currently enjoys were to become available tomorrow, is it really credible that, say, Germany, would consume the lot and go actively looking for more?

Of course, you can't necessarily say that any given aliens would behave the same way, but it does look like humanity tends to reach a certain level of stability when the average person becomes content enough. Hopefully this isn't just a blip...

rsynnott said...

Johnathan: The puppeteers are the paranoid herd animals, of course. And, in the later books, turn out to be much, much nastier than anyone else.

rsynnott said...

CulturalEngineer: "As much as I loved the Niven "Kzinti" stories, it seems unlikely that a highly technical society could develop without substantial co-operation drives."

(Minor spoiler, but mentioned towards the beginning of almost all Kzinti stories) They didn't develop a technological society; they stole it.

rsynnott said...

FoundOnWeb: " Surely our normal radio/TV/BMEWS transmissions are more easily detectable than a single 'hello world' fired off into the ether."

Maybe not. The more controversial METI messages involve sending a directed signal to nearby systems which look like they might plausibly support life. It takes far less energy to send a signal to a particular place than to blanket the universe with it.

rewinn said...

"... but it does look like humanity tends to reach a certain level of stability when the average person becomes content enough. Hopefully this isn't just a blip... "

In addition, as a general trend, when human females control their reproductive capacity, they produce fewer kids. The contentment angle is certainly very important as a motivator, but the empowerment angle seems to be necessary to connecting motivation to action.

We might therefore conjecture that a species in which the costs of reproduction are borne roughly in proportion to the amount of contentment it provides the individual (...or whatever reproductive unit is relevant...) would experience little expansion pressure due to population. We might hope that they would outproduce, in a technological way, more unbalanced civilizations but ... who knows?

Many people seem to satisfy their procreative needs (... some would say "sublimate" ;-) with other creative endeavours, such as writing or developing ever more elaborate virtual worlds. Perhaps the aliens will conquer Earth in order to get more players for their equivaent of Star Wars: Galaxies.

Unknown said...

My definition of civilization is a bit different.

What it is to me is a network of trust, rather a network of networks. And there are of course, different levels of trust, and trust is in a constant state of flux.

So yes, you can have Hegemony or dictatorship or anything, as long as there is trust. You don't have to like it, there just needs to be trust between the participants. Someone will be carrying out their "duties" and in return gain something, Money, honor, power, it doesn't matter, but each side "trusts" the other to carry out their end.

A good example of a low level of trust is one of the pillars of civilization, the contract. It doesn't require a deep amount of trust, just an agreed method and amount of exchange. (Gold is Good! )

Understand, my Mother's youngest sister had an arranged marriage. Neither she nor my uncle wanted to marry each other, but it was arranged by their mothers. But it was there to keep land that was reclaimed from the sea, over 150 years ago, in certain families. And yes, my Mother's family was founded in 367BC. (We have records. -even though there may have been breaks, during the War Centuries.)


In return, my Mother's youngest sister controls her family farm and money. She works very hard and is rewarded, very well. So even though both parties were unwilling, everyone trusted they would carry out side of the bargain.

*Sigh* But you may ask, what happens when there is a violation of that trust. I'm afraid we are going to see what happens, and fairly soon. Because whether or not, merely perceived or fact, I think we are facing an Integrum. A breakdown of trust is coming.

Fear Not! ( I like using that phrase.) I don't expect a "Long Night" in fact, it might only last a few months, maybe a couple of years to five years, at the outside, in places like Central and Northern California. Because modern telecommunications, trust will "heal" very, very quickly. The very nature of things like business has lots of safeguards and will evolve new ones, as time goes one.

I must admit, I had this discussion with Tom Kratman, and he expects it may take 20 years or longer to re-establish civilization.

In either case, due to the geopolitical location of North America, North America will dominate the world for the next century, it's just a matter of who's going to dominate North America. Some of the guys from Stratfor (Strategic Forecast) here in Austin, think it will be Mexico. ( I think that Mexico's infrastructure is in too much of a mess.)

So what's my point. I don't think anybody had THE answer to Civilization. And I think David is right, we need to know more before we run into Others, because aliens are well, alien. At least we now have a pretty good idea of which stars have the proper spectrum to hold habitable planets. (within the last couple of months, only.)

Acacia H. said...

Considering the scarcity of funds and resources for far too many scientific and astronomical projects, should we waste our time and money beaming messages to aliens who may not even exist when that money could be better spent studying stars, upgrading our technology so we can accurately find habitable planets, and generally improving science as a whole?

Yes, this is basically the "why should we waste money in space when we have hungry people in our own country" argument, but it is also valid: why waste time and resources for something that has no real reason to it but arrogance to shout out into the night "Here we are! Come and get us!" If we had found a radio signal out there that was definitely from aliens, that would be one thing. We'd have a valid target to send messages back to. But we don't. It doesn't matter if the hypothetical aliens are hostile or not. What matters is that the money, time, and effort should be spent on other scientific endeavors, not wasted on prideful foolishness.

Rob H.

Ilithi Dragon said...

Rob H. does have a good point, there (and maybe THAT'S why we haven't heard anything!
} ; = 8 P ). I'd much rather see the funds allocated to projects that can produce something useful, like going to Mars or mining asteroids, etc.

Off-topic, and on a disturbing note, is anyone else suspecting the attempted Times Square bomber was an attempted Oklahoma City bomber repeat? There's a Taliban group claiming credit, but everyone involved in the investigation is skeptical of that because they apparently claim credit for everything. My money's on home-grown terrorism attempting to copy the Oklahoma City Bombing.

Unknown said...

Tim H. said...

Another reason to visit asteroids, a large one might be a great place to anchor a Preposterously Large Array, which might have some chance of detecting something interesting.

Why anchor such an array to anything? You'd be better off with a small fleet of telescope satellites that would know how to keep themselves in some precise formation.

Unknown said...

Citizen surveillance is in the news:

I just heard an NPR report on a Pulitzer prize-winning series by the Philadelphia Daily News. It was about a narcotics unit that went around robbing convenience stores and abusing the owners under the guise of looking for small cellophane baggies (read: drug paraphernalia.)

In each case, the police disabled the store's surveillance system before proceeding. The reporters' break came when they were sent surveillance video from a man whose system not only saved the video locally, but also uploaded it to his home.

Acacia H. said...

Considering that police have been deliberately targeting people who film arrests and the like with "obstruction of law enforcement" suits and confiscating cameras and camera phones, I think that a Federal law forbidding that practice (the confiscation and harassment of civilian filming of arrests) might be called for. After all, the best method of preventing police abuse is through citizen surveillance efforts.

Rob H.

Dave X said...

Hi David,

Your link to your "The great silence" article on to seems broken.

I found a copy of the article at

rewinn said...

Matt & Tim H. said..."Another reason to visit asteroids, a large one might be a great place to anchor a Preposterously Large Array, which might have some chance of detecting something interesting.

Why anchor such an array to anything? You'd be better off with a small fleet of telescope satellites that would know how to keep themselves in some precise formation"

Do we need to keep precise formation, so long as we know each probe's relative position and can juggle the data appropriately?

How light a radiotelescope would be worth launching toward infinity, perhaps with a solar sail to provide a little extra push, as part of a Preposterously Large Array? Could the cost of mass-producing and lofting them ( perhaps in a bundle ) be brought within range of the vanity of billionaires and of energy-cartel owners ?

rewinn said...

@Robert said...
"...a Federal law forbidding that practice (the confiscation and harassment of civilian filming of arrests) might be called for. After all, the best method of preventing police abuse is through citizen surveillance efforts."

PLUS it would be protective of "good cops" by creating a record that they were not abusive (which incidentally removing any advantage that "bad cops" might have from their behavior.) Also in the rare unfortunate incident where something very bad happens to the cop, a citizen record can help catch the badguy.

Unfortunately, some police treat even their own recordings as things to hide when they misbehave.

SteveO said...

@Darrell E

To be clear, I don't buy the "Rare Earth" hypothesis either, with respect to life origination or think that the factors would prevent intelligent life from arising. I do think that some of these factors might reduce the probability (a.k.a. increase the length of time before) a *tech* civilization could get up and running. And given the really short (geologically speaking) span of time it took to form life on Earth once conditions allowed it, I tend to think that we will find life pretty much anywhere it is possible, and intelligent life in a good number (though I am much less sure about that - I mean, really, where is the evolutionary pressure to evolve such mutant brains as ours?). Though of course, this too extrapolates from a data point of one!!

Although the Fertile Crescent may have *allowed* farming earlier (I haven't seen climate data for it during the last Ice Age - link if you know of some), you need more than that to get a farming society leading to civilization, as Jared Diamond explores in Guns, Germs, and Steel. You also need a reason to allocate energy to farming (working now for a more predictable payoff later) rather than hunting and gathering (payoff now, but subject to greater variation).

There is probably no one reason for this transition in those areas that independently invented agriculture, but I suspect at least part of it is some minimum human density. In order to get that density to allow farming, then they must be very efficient hunters and gatherers in a fecund location. So why switch to farming at all? My guess is that they were so efficient that they grew to such numbers that they started to deplete the easily available resources, AND were lucky enough to be in a place that not only had a stable enough climate for farming, but had potentially farm-able plants. We don't need to know the exact probabilities to know that that is a chain of dependent events, so the joint probability of happening is smaller than the probability of intelligent hunter-gatherers' way of life. This is borne out by different societies across our planet - some never did leave the hunter-gatherer stage, and for a variety of reasons.

Similarly with the Moon, there is a large number of things it did for the Earth to allow more global stability (and local predictable instability) that may have allowed life to develop sooner. And there just are not a lot of ways to get a big Moon orbiting a terrestrial planet deep in a sun's gravity well based on the physics we know now. Not to say that is a complete knowledge, but we can only hypothesize from what we know. Still and all, I'd bet that a big moon is not necessary for life - it just might speed up the appearance of complex life earlier.

So I guess I don't disagree with you that there is a huge paucity of data so we really can't answer these questions, but I do tend to think that we can come up with some reasonable hypotheses based on what we do know. And this seems a reasonable hypothesis about why we haven't heard from anyone yet.

SteveO said...

Ilithi, from what I have heard about the "bomb" it doesn't sound like a particularly workable explosive device. More like one built by someone who watched too much MacGuyver, or action movies where cars apparently can't wait to explode. If it was actually sponsored by a Taliban or al-Qaeda, I think it would have been a simpler, more robust, design with which they have experience.

For now, my money is on a home-grown idiot.

Tim H. said...

Rewinn & Matt, I had in mind something to detect long waves and very weak signals. Concerning a lot of small, guided radio telescopes, it seems more difficult and the mission might not be interchangeable. Might want both, if we could.

Acacia H. said...

There was an excellent piece of dialogue in Mass Effect 2 concerning intelligent life which hit home, and may help explain the relative lack of identifiable sentient life via radio waves and the like: All scientific advancement is a result of intelligence overcoming and compensating for limitations. If there are no limitations, then there are no advancement. No advancement results in cultural stagnation. This works the other way too. Advancement before a culture is ready is disastrous.

If humanity was more able physically, stronger, with effective claws and the like, then there would have been little reason to develop and use tools. Humanity would have remained a smart predator. But it would not have gone beyond this.

It is the weak that have to overcome their limitations. The meek inherit the Earth because they struggle to overcome. Because their life is struggle. If there is a too-effective predator that wipes out a new intelligence, then that world will never evolve effective intelligence (or it will take forever for the intelligence to arise at least). If a world is somehow too benevolent environmentally (say the entire world is one huge series of islands rather than continents, and has a warm and stable climate) then life has no need to fight and grow.

Life may actually be commonplace. But it may be limited to its environment... too harsh and it never evolves beyond single-cell organisms. Too benign, and there is no struggle to force life to thrive... and thus intelligence is not encouraged. And if there's a super-predator that is overly effective... then these new intelligences may be hunted into extinction before it can grow enough to overcome this threat.

Rob H.

Tony Fisk said...

In 'The Weathermakers' Tim Flannery points out that it was the gradual deterioration of the 'fertile crescent' due to climate change (the Milankovich cycles tidying up the last ice age on that occasion) which led to desparate remedies on the part of the inhabitants.

They invented the city.

asesima: an affluent suburb of Ur

Ian Gould said...

We'll almost definitely have the ability to detect habitable planets and even techological civilizations in other solar systems well before we have the ability to travel between solar systems.

The same probably goes for any hypothetical aliens.

So staying quiet is probably futile anyway.

If aliens exist, their equivalent of the Kepler telsecope is probably clicking away right this second.

If the hypothetical aliens are aggressive and expansive as Hawkings suggests, they're likely to be proactively looking for new targets, not waiting for us to send up a flare.

On a related note, there's one proposed form of METI which I read about 30-odd years ago which I'm surprised doesn;t get moe discussion.

Manufacture several tons of a relatively long-lasting artificial isotope like Technetium and fire it into the sun so it shows up the soalr spectrum.

Not exactly useful for exchanging data but it certainly says "Hey, look over here."

Has anyone ever checked the spectra of other stars for evidence of his sort of manipulation?

Although coem to think of it it'd make a lot more sense to spray clouds of Technetium near the sun to maximise the visibility.

Ilithi Dragon said...

On Mass Effect, a clip from ME2 demonstrating why ME is just pure awesome:

David Brin said...

on to next.,....

Darrell E said...

SteveO said:

"Although the Fertile Crescent may have *allowed* farming earlier (I haven't seen climate data for it during the last Ice Age - link if you know of some), you need more than that to get a farming society leading to civilization, as Jared Diamond explores in Guns, Germs, and Steel. You also need a reason to allocate energy to farming (working now for a more predictable payoff later) rather than hunting and gathering (payoff now, but subject to greater variation)."

Okay, I think I understand your position better, and I think we are pretty much on the same page. Climate change throughout the late Pleistocene / early Holocene, undeniably did affect human cultural development. Exactly what led to humans changing from H/G to AG is in some dispute still.

I don't have much time for a search at the moment but here is one link you might find interesting. It is sort of an overview on the current hypotheses regarding this subject and the methods behind the data that lead to the hypotheses.Biogeography

Some interesting excerpts:

"Hence the term agriculture refers to the rise of a “new
kind of relationship” that came about when the hunting-and-gathering no longer provided
sufficient resources for a population. Studies have shown that gathering can actually be more
energy efficient than cultivation under the right conditions (Harlan 1975). Our human ancestors
had been hunter-gatherer societies for millions of years before, which leaves us to assume
agriculture emerged out of some kind of new necessity that emerged during this period when only gathering food was no longer a reliable source. This change could have occurred due to
either population growth or shortages of food for one reason or another. Thus, humans instated
measures to control food sources through domestication."

"For example, wild
grains, grinding equipment, and a stone oven were excavated in 2004 from Israel’s Sea of
Galilee. Archaeologists found 143 varieties of seeds, including wheat and barley, dating back
over 23,000 years. Researchers suggest they did not actually plant crops but rather a cooling
period and disappearance of wild game forced these Ohalo people to gather seeds in the fall,
grind them into flour and bake the food source to survive winter months (Zorich 2005)."