Coexistence with Aliens
Good Afternoon and welcome to an extra edition of Scifi Sunday featuring our 4-part Coexistence with Aliens series originally recorded and produced for Nebula in 2019 and 20, and has never before been seen on Youtube or any of our other platforms. As channel regulars know, we had our end of the month Livestream Q&A scheduled for next weekend, then had to reschedule it to this weekend, May 21st, so I could co-host the International Space Development Conference. However I’ve just had a minor surgery on my nose and tongue and as you can probably tell, my voice is still recovering and not ready for an hour of live Q&A. Fortunately our 4-part Coexistence with Alien series has a combined run time of just over an hour, so it seemed a great replacement, and will cover a number of ways we might coexist with aliens, beginning with Alien Xenopsychology in part 1, and moving on to look at trade, war, and alliance in parts 2, 3, and 4. And without further ado, let’s get started! How do you greet an alien visitor and insure you don’t create an interstellar diplomatic incident, or worse? The Universe is an immense and ancient place, filled with billions of trillions of stars, many of which may have hosted life and have given rise to civilizations. If that’s so, they seem a quiet bunch thus far, but presumably there would come a time when we’d talk to them and interact with them and eventually, hopefully, come to coexist with them.
Of course coexistence is a vague term, it might mean ignoring each other or going to war, it might mean trade, friendship or alliances, and we’ll examine those aspects throughout this series. It’s fun to contemplate meeting and getting to know alien civilizations, but from a realistic standpoint the level of cooperation and friendship, and even romantic love that we see in science fiction is probably not too realistic and we’ll be looking at ‘why not?’ along with how such efforts at coexistence might go, from the physiological to cosmological, and today the psychological. It’s easy to look at humanity’s past and the meetings of our scattered tribes and use them as an analogy, but fundamentally all humans have a fairly shared psychology arising largely from a near-identical physiology. Yet even there we see many differences arising from different traditions of each place and time, things which do not cross cultural boundaries. Unlike most animals, human behavior is far more
learned and this can give rise to major alterations in behavior and life focus. How much different is a mind evolved under an alien sun, one that might not even use the same core biology? Let’s consider a hypothetical case, a species that was nearly the same as us in every way, except their biology tended to breakdown, in a very short window of time. Everybody died at 72, plus or minus a year at most, barring accident or illness. Consider the huge impact that would tend to have on their view of death. They might break their whole lives into very precise periods,
say 6 life phases of 12 years each, child till 12, young adult till 24, and so on, get married in your 24th year, never marry anyone more than a year older or younger than you since you’d be guaranteed to see the one outlive the other. They might be ultra-regimented about time and calendar and obsessed about not wasting time or being late, just from that one minor thing. They might abhor any efforts at medicine to extend life beyond that, viewing it as cheating fate or stealing from future generations. All from that one minor difference with us. And it would be beyond peculiar for us to meet anyone that like us in mind or body. Think how different a civilization would be if their children reached physical maturity in just 2 or 3 years, more in keeping with other mammals of human size. Would such a species be very likely to develop concepts like marriage or children going to school or close family ties? Something as minor as being monochromatic in vision, just seeing the world in black and white, or having much larger ears that could rotate like a cats to detect sound directions better could hugely impact their development of language or art or day to day life.
On the other end of things, we don’t know that DNA is the only way to do carbon-based life, there are after all more than a dozen other amino acids we use besides the 4 in DNA and RNA, which uses 4 too, but swaps out thymine for uracil and is single stranded rather than double. There are also far more amino acids than we use. And that’s even assuming you have to use amino acids for your biological construction blueprints, or that life even needs to be carbon based. Something silicon based might evolve natural semiconductors that served as nerves and neurons. They might be small and short-lived but think exceedingly fast, experiencing very long subjective lifespans of millennia packed into mere months. Similarly, humans are in
many ways a colony organism, we contain as many bacteria as human cells in our bodies, and most of the latter are simple blood cells. Our other cells run on mitochondria as a power source and those are basically a symbiotic life form living inside us. We could see brains develop from more overtly colonial organisms, like a neural network composed of insects or microorganisms in a hive that simply replicated neurons by their day to day motion and actions. Alastair Reynolds contemplates
such a mind, a glacier as a brain, whose neurons are composed of little worms burrowing around that glacier, in his short story Glacial. Such a mind might exist for millennia while experiencing only days of time as you and I would view it, counting actual days as eyeblinks and years as breaths. It would also seem to be without any means of controlling the world around it, and its senses might be composed only of light and temperature changes. So too, day length and year length are big factors in how we behave, and many worlds with life might be tidally locked to their Sun, as we expect for many red dwarf stars, the most common type of star. Those would experience perpetual light on one side and perpetual dark on the other, or have years of mere weeks around such small stars or many years around brighter and shorter lived stars. In this respect, the very notion of anything
approaching human psychology being possessed by aliens seems almost ridiculous. And yet, for all those differences there are some traits we could expect to be very common if not universal. In the 1995 science fiction novel “The Killing Star”, the authors suggest three such rules we’d expect to be true of all intelligent aliens: Rule 1. The Aliens will believe their survival
is more important than our survival. Rule 2. Wimps don't become top dogs. Rule 3. Aliens will assume that the first two rules apply to us as well. Or to clarify, whether or not they are friendly folks who’d give you the shirt off their back or so hostile they try to wipe out all other life, they will still place their own existence above yours, as evolution will instill a survival imperative, it’s pretty much what it does. It also doesn’t produce wimps and they don’t get to be dominant over their planet to explore the galaxy beyond if they are. They’re not likely to be physically fragile but even if they are, they’ll be beyond deadly in the overall sense, same as humans are.
Humans stand at the apex of a 4 billion year deep corpse pile, and everything else still alive and kicking in the modern era of this world is a sophisticated survival machine too. So any aliens we meet are likely to be the same as us in this regard, very good at surviving and in a way that lets them control their world, not just hide, flee, or defend from threats but proactively deal with them. They will also assume everyone they meet out in the galaxy probably will be too. Exceptions to that ought to be rare at best, an example might be that glacier-mind I mentioned or some monoculture world where some single algae brain developed across the whole planet. Though even that is very dubious for becoming intelligent let alone technological as there’s no predator-prey cycles driving improvements and adaptations to adaptations. No biological arms race, as it were,
pushing you toward higher intelligence. Also, even if you have such intelligence, it doesn’t necessarily result in technology or civilizations. Those 3 rules of “The Killing Star” can probably be added to with “Any technological civilization must possess and value curiosity” and “Civilizations can only arise where social behavior and cooperation are common”. As we looked at in our Rare Intelligence and Rare Technology episodes, it wouldn’t seem very plausible you could develop advanced technology without critters who were willing and able to work together a lot, and who could specialize in various tasks. A blacksmith can’t eat coal or iron ore and needs to be able to trust his neighbors to provide those to him and give or trade him food and other things for his work, so he can focus on being a good blacksmith. What’s more, this is likely to also require at least some acceptance of different worldviews.
Our work shapes our thinking on life and our day to day approach to life, a farmer and blacksmith will inevitably have different outlooks in life and need to be able to coexist in spite of those. You also can only create and innovate with not just a curious mind but a certain tolerance of such curious folks playing around with new and strange concepts. You can also only develop civilizations with a capacity for long range foresight and a willingness to sacrifice for the future, to invest effort into planting crops you won’t eat for a year or raise apprentices in your craft who won’t be skilled for years. Which strongly implies any such civilization is going to have concepts like friendship, diplomacy, family, self-sacrifice, tolerance, curiosity, a value for knowledge, and a notion of risk-taking and long-term planning. Or close analogies there too.
If you encounter an alien ship, you can assume they don’t want to be blown up, that they will be curious about you, that they will be willing to take at least some small risk to satisfy their curiosity and so on. They’ll be ready to defend themselves and quite good at it, but they’ll also have an idea that not everyone thinks quite like them and a basic willingness to tolerate that, even if it might be much less tolerant than we are. There should be at least some basic potential for conversation. There may be exceptions, we can almost always contrive some scenario that would result in a species lacking these traits, but they are likely to be the exception not the norm. And again,
you don’t want to assume this manifests itself in a very human way. Their concept of tolerance might be so narrow the worst and most oppressive orthodoxies of human history might call them narrow-minded. They might be curious but ultra-cautious compared to us, so that every new technology or cultural change gets proofed and pondered by committees over centuries, or they might be so anarchic that they barely hold together as a cohesive civilization, or are hyper-aggressive or are aggressive but just aren’t very violent by nature to their own. Humans have a reputation among humans as being rather cruel compared to animals, though I’m never clear why, we aren’t the only critters that kill our own, not even vaguely, and we do work with other animals, often keeping them as pets and effective family members, not something too common in the animal kingdom. That might be a rarity among aliens too, though
it might not be, our capacity for doing that, keepings cats and dogs around for vermin control and others as livestock or work animals was a big factor in how our civilization was shaped and maybe even in allowing a civilization to emerge. It is worth noting that we can get along quite well with other mammals, many of whom are millions of generations removed from us biologically and psychologically. An alien is even further removed from us biologically, less our kin than a tree is or the Ebola Virus, so that may be an even bigger gap to cover in coexistence with them, but they also might be much closer to us psychologically than a cat or dog too, just from those shared traits probably necessary to become a technological civilization. Of course that might still result in an overall massive gap, and also only covers civilizations, as opposed to trying to make contact with some sentient tree on another world. We also can’t assume brain architecture is even vaguely the same. We use a species survival tactic of few
young, and heavy time and resource investment into those young, as mammals and especially as humans, since it takes decades to create a fully developed human in mind and body. A species which was born able to survive on its own and simply kept growing in size and brain complexity as it aged wouldn’t necessarily need anything like a family structure or a small number of offspring. They might be born in packs of thousands of eggs and on average only one of them even got to human toddler levels. That sort of thing might make a species that was very nice to adults but viewed newborn children as little more than a nuisance. It is worth noting that human women are born with several million eggs and human men will produce billions of sperm over their lifetime, and we generally don’t place any value on those as individuals. Now it probably wouldn’t be hard to convince such aliens that casually shooting one of our kids, of which we have few, was not a proper response if one entered a room causing antics and irritating that alien, but that sort of thing can have wider effects too. They might
regard small colonies growing on border worlds as fair game and not even get why we objected when they burned one to the ground and started colonizing it themselves, and be outraged that we even sent them a note complaining about it, all while being very polite and sincerely friendly to us in every other way, freely sharing technology and offering favorable trade. It’s hard to even consider what some other biologies might produce, you might get creatures who had distributed brains around their skin and communicated by licking, gnawing, or consuming each others brain matter, and ate your ambassador then sent you an angry note about how unfriendly and uncommunicative he was. Or who were more of hive mind, maybe even a cross-species one, and just didn’t get why you were offended they killed some of your explorers or absorbed one of your colonies into their collective.
We see something like that in Orson Scott Card’s classic Ender’s Game novel and the sequels. There we get offered various levels of otherness, or alien, based off Norse terms. The Utlanning, or Otherlander, who would be basically be human but of a neighboring place, the easiest one to communicate with. Then we have the Framling, the stranger
we recognize as human but of another world, or perhaps time, like speaking to someone from, say, an ancient hunter-gather tribe. Then the first true alien, the Raman, someone we consider human but of a different species, arguably the way most aliens in science fiction are portrayed to us as, and would probably include anything we’d regard as a technological civilization. Then the Varelse, the true alien, which includes all the animals, for with whom no conversation is possible. They live, but we cannot guess what purposes or causes make them act. They might be intelligent, they might be self-aware, but we cannot know it,
or do not know it yet. That intelligent glacier example from earlier might be such a case. Card also offers us the Djur, a marauding and unreasoning threat, which might be something like a self-replicating probe that simply tears everything in its path apart for no clear reason. As we continue the series, and try to look at major methods of coexistence, from trade to war, we’ll try to contemplate how we might deal with examples of each for now. For the moment though, the big thing to keep in mind is that while aliens might overlap with us in many respects, like being reasonable and curious, so that communication and shared goals may often be possible, they will be different. Each such species will need a totally different approach
and often many different ones for the same species as they splinter and diverge among the stars. Fundamentally an alien mind is exactly that… alien. In the future we may meet alien civilizations. If so, we’ll have a lot of new ideas and challenges to ponder, and doubtless one of those will be how to make some money off them. In our previous episode in the series, Coexistence with Aliens: Xenopsychology, we looked at some of the difficulties we might have establishing a basic understanding of what motivates an alien civilization and of what we might expect to have in common with them too. We noted there that they’d generally have the same basic biological impulses as us and the other sophisticated life forms on Earth, such as a desire to survive individually or as a species, and that they’d have developed some skill at doing so. We also noted that they’d probably be curious
by nature and social critters like us, since those might be prerequisites for developing a technological civilization, but that’s less certain and also pretty broad. For them, social skills and friendships and family might be anything from some insect like hive mind to some loose agreement not to murder each other at certain times and places designated for mating, trade, and storytelling, but to otherwise go ahead and fall on each other at the slightest sign of weakness or opportunity like normal. It doesn’t really have to be sane or pleasant by our standards, it just has to produce a plausible scenario in which a species could be intelligent and not go extinct while developing advanced technology. They presumably need things from each other though and that implies that beyond a basic curiosity and social capacity, they have to have some concept for trade and exchange. Which of course is our focus for today.
First we need to ask what we might actually trade or exchange with them. And Second, if their notion of exchanging things is going to be even vaguely compatible with our concept of trade, or for that matter if our current concepts of trade and economics will apply to us in the future either. It’s a popular notion, probably best known from Star Trek, that in the future we might not have money, though I tend to be rather skeptical about that and we discussed why in our Post-Scarcity series. However, same as we generally don’t pay for air or sunlight or buy water or dirt the
same way we do most widgets, some things might be so abundant in the future they just really aren’t for sale except in atypical cases. There’s some precedent for that, most of us on the older side remember when local phone calls were free and long distance calls were quite expensive, and people had to call collect if they didn’t have quarters for the payphone or were borrowing someone’s phone because their car broke down and they needed to knock on someone’s door and beg to make a call. Needless to say those days are gone, you just don’t pay for phone calls the same way. So there might be many things like that in the future, effectively as free as sunlight. Amusingly, sunlight might become something you have to buy or rent if we shift over to a solar economy, especially a true solar economy, a Dyson Sphere or Dyson Swarm, a collection of solar panels or space habitats that fully englobes a star, offering a billion times the energy and potential living area that Earth has. We often assume this is the ultimate fate of any star system colonized by us or another intelligent species, and indeed one of the reasons I’m often skeptical about us encountering any alien civilizations is that nobody seems to be building these Dyson Swarms everywhere, as we’d tend to expect, and that expectation is what we call the Dyson Dilemma of the Fermi Paradox.
Such structures take a lot of raw material to build too, especially if you want big artificial living habitats rather than thin solar panels, and acquiring that raw material might be a big source of trade in the future, potentially even between solar systems. Even if humanity continues to operate using money,, that doesn’t mean an alien species would. A hive mind doesn’t need money to operate anymore than you or I do, when dealing only with ourselves. My hand rarely demands payment from my brain for services rendered, nor does my brain send out bills for consultation fees or analysis to my nose, eyes, or ears. All of my parts just do their jobs according to their ability and take resources according to their needs. So too, a hive mind or similarly networked intelligence might not have any notion for trade.
In Orson Scott Card’s classic Ender’s Game, the Buggers innocently did terrible things to humans because they didn't comprehend non-hive minds and hence didn't understand how their actions, such as tearing living people to pieces, would be understood. So it’s unlikely the hive would easily understand the concept of “others” let alone the possibility of exchanging resources with others. But it will have a notion of supply and exchange, as it knows its components need various things, likely often not the same things, and it probably knows what investment is too. A hive mind that does farming still knows it needs to save some seeds to plant next year and that if it wants to grow trees for lumber, or giant alien mushrooms, it needs to invest effort into it and harvest it at the optimal time. That’s another thing we’d expect would probably
be universal to intelligent aliens, a concept of patience and investment or sacrifice for the future, delayed gratification, to reap a bigger reward later. They’ll also need some concept of risk management, because they’ll have crops burned or blown down or diseased or so on. But still fertilizing its crops and feeding its foodstock animals might be a hive minds nearest concept to trade, and that might not be a basis for forming mutually satisfactory trade relations. If it’s not a hive mind they’re likely to have some greater notion of give and take, to form a sounder basis of trade. It’s also rather debatable if you could ever have a singular linked hive mind over a single planet, let alone interstellar distances without some means of faster than light travel or communication, which would imply that other than maybe a few scattered worlds or systems where such a hive mind species might have developed, everybody moving and shaking around the galaxy ought to have a notion of trade. Of course, that might be rather coercive or piratic too. “Give us what we want or we’ll
beat you up and take it anyway” is a fairly time-honored means of exchange in Earth’s own history, so we should assume it’s plausible in spacefaring civilizations too, and of course this series isn’t just interested in space faring civilizations, just aliens in general, so we might want to be trading with some planet-bound hive mind or world of thugs. Especially since trade is pretty ambiguous. For such a thug-empire, ‘give us what we want or else’ is still trade, even if we’d normally call that tribute or taxation. If we opened communication with such a species and sent them offers of trade, we might assume the long delay was them trying to figure out our language when it was really just them being confused and afraid of some trap, wondering why we just sent them an inventory of stuff for them to take.
This brings us back though to asking what kind of stuff they’d actually want. I mean if someone comes and raids your village and demands you give them everything you’ve got, it’s implied they mean everything they consider valuable. They’re not really interested in hauling back the dirt from your farm fields or the air and sunlight hitting those fields.
Space travel is not cheap, especially interstellar travel, and what would be economical to move between stars would vary a lot on not just what you value but what you can economically transport home. By default your best interstellar trade commodity is likely to be information, as that can be sent at light speed fairly cheaply even over galactic distances. But what sort of information? When we discuss interstellar trade between human colonies we can take for granted that transmissions would include everything from valuable science and device schematics to letters from old friends and family to arts and entertainment. Aliens might
have some interest in our art, but they might not, and even if they do its likely to be mostly for novelty value. Though to be fair, in high-tech post-scarcity civilizations, novelty is likely to be one of the more precious commodities. Two roughly technologically equal civilizations probably would have a lot of science to share, but if they’re not fairly on par, odds are one of them wants that science from the other and not vice-versa. Ancient Human Civilizations have plenty of knowledge we’d value, but their opinions on math and science are certainly not among those. A lot of technology wouldn’t be very interesting either, in terms of day-to-day devices, you don’t care about the newest model of smartphone if you’re a species that has no eyeballs or communicates by directing scented gases at one another from any of their various orifices. I personally would not be surprised if aliens, or future human civilizations, were pretty prone to hoarding and collecting like some hyper-intelligent packrat, so there could easily be a massive trade in random knick-knacks and junk between civilizations. One
amusing constraint of advanced civilizations under known physics is that they mostly are limited by getting rid of waste heat of their civilizations so they can keep tons of stuff lying around just so long as it doesn’t require a lot of power and produce a lot waste heat to store it. Planets might slowly turn into many layers of dimly lit catacombs stuffed full of millions of years worth of collected antiquities because they don’t need to destroy them and are kind of attached to them, but they might be fine with trading them, they just don’t like throwing them in the garbage. Same as many a hoarder nowadays might be horrified to throw anything out, even a broken flyswatter in case they need a spare handle one day, but is all too content to sell, trade, loan, or gift even valuable things to others.
It’s an interesting reversal of the piratic or thug approach to trade, aliens who aren’t demanding stuff by coercion but happily dumping treasures on you just to get them out of their attic and basement without feeling like they were destroying something precious. Humorous notion but not necessarily unrealistic either. Many cities are overflowing with historic buildings that they can’t bring themselves to condemn and knock over, and are often glad when someone buys it while agreeing to maintain its historic nature or even when some random storm or fire knocks the thing over. Odds are pretty good another common trait of advanced civilization will be a tendency to build stuff, value it, and like to maintain it and feel bad when it gets junked. If anything, especially if they are able to technologically extend their own lives, there’s probably a tendency for civilizations to get more obsessed with building projects, grand works or art or monuments, and trying to maintain them.
Throw in potentially high-tech ultra-durable materials or self-repairing structures and long-colonized regions of the galaxy might start looking like some sort of hybrid of a museum, yard sale, and trash dump, full of alien traders just waiting to unload priceless memorabilia on any young new species they think might give it a good home and free up some space for them. Of course what each species values, and is able to trade, will depend on their psychology and technology rather heavily, but some things might be fairly universal, especially if everyone’s been trading for a while and technology and science has gotten fairly evenly spread everywhere and stagnated on progress. It is after all entirely possible that all the major science and mysteries of the Universe get solved by each species before they even hit the galactic stage or not long after, so that there isn’t anything new to discover or invent. Such being the case, there’s presumably still a good trade available in information, but again they really might not have much interest in other species’ art or entertainment or history or news and current events. Or they might have some but not really enough for major trade. What about manufactured goods? Well especially as things like 3D printing improve, you’d not expect interstellar trade of manufactured goods to have much of a niche. Ditto stuff
like food or luxury wines or crops, they’d be quite capable of replicating any planet’s specific lighting and climate, so if they wanted Oak or Cherry wood from Earth, because they like building from our trees rather than giant alien mushrooms, they’d just get the botanical data and some genetic samples, of that plant and any other organisms critical to growing it correctly, build a rotating habitat whose interior replicated good Earth forestland, and grow their own rather than ship lumber across the stars. Of course you could have a luxury market, and quite a big one, for ‘authentic goods’, but probably not enough to support a major and robust interstellar trade network on its own. That mostly just leaves us raw materials. However, while science fiction loves to come up with weird substances found only here or there, strange minerals or elements unique to some planet or star system, the Universe, while an awesome and huge place, is actually pretty boring and monotonous in that regard. While no two systems would ever have identical levels of abundance or concentration of any given element, or mineral, there really wouldn’t be many places that would be particularly short of any given raw material, and no one would likely have anything unique. However, that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be interstellar trade of raw materials.
While at first stuff like ingots of iron or tanks of hydrogen might seem ridiculous things to ship between stars, being abundant pretty much everywhere, this may still be an area of large demand. For any empire into very big projects or growing their civilization around their homeworld or hub systems, there’s no such thing as enough. And even static civilizations might be interested in just storing raw materials for the long haul, as you can never recycle with perfect efficiency and they might be contemplating trying to stockpile enough to last for trillions of years, or even longer, as we’ve discussed in our Civilizations at the End of Time series.
It’s impossible to guess what might be wanted in trade between civilizations, and it would doubtless change from civilization to civilization and even inside each such civilization as they changed with time and had new interests or needs, but it does seem like there would probably be a desire and understanding of trade and exchange for most civilizations, so if we ever do run into any alien civilizations, we might be able to establish trade. Giving them what they want and getting what we want in return. Though of course, they might figure it’s easier and cheaper to take it by force. And so might we. So we’ll contemplate the notion of going to war with aliens in our next episode. Can the enemy of my enemy be an alien friend? What if my enemy is human? We tend to think of “coexistence” as peaceful coexistence. But there’s no getting around
that war and conflict are parts of coexisting with others. If you invade a neighbor’s territory to seize a piece of it, you need a plan for what relationship you want to have with them after they acknowledge the territory as now yours. And if you outright conquer your neighbor, now you’re really in the thick of coexisting with them. Conflict is also often the driving force for separate groups to unify into a coalition or nation, either through their shared suffering as conquered subjects or their teaming up to defend against such an effort.
So we can’t ignore the topic when discussing how we might interact with aliens should we ever meet any. And we need to ask ourselves how we’d defend against an alien threat, or if we even could, as well as why such conflicts might occur and how they’d be fought. If an alien armada showed up on our doorstep tomorrow we would be crushed like ants. The sorts of energy levels needed to move even a single small ship at even fairly slow interstellar speeds exceeds those we see in atomic weapons. True interstellar vessels that can reach high fractions of light speed and carry thousands of crew or colonists or soldiers can literally throw their garbage out of their ship before slowing down and watch it devastate an unprotected planet.
Of course, that’s only in the here and now, and while we tend to assume conflicts will be pretty one-sided between stellar empires, as one would always be older and presumably bigger and more high-tech, that’s not necessarily so. While such a head start, possibly being on the galactic stage millions of years before anyone else, would mean you had an overwhelming advantage in numbers, that’s only true if you’re not only colonizing everything, but staying unified as you do it. Outside of science fiction, where faster than light travel is ubiquitous, we have no reason to think anyone will ever crack the light speed barrier. So keeping together a cohesive empire of all your colonies is a dubious proposition at best, even just those around the nearest neighboring stars. We also shouldn’t assume technology and science is just some endless quest, always another major and mind-bending new discovery to find that itself spawns two more mysteries needing to be solved, like some sort of Mystery Hydra or fractal with ever-lower levels. It’s poetic to say the Universe is a place of infinite wonders,
but all indications thus far is that it runs on fairly set and mundane rules. It’s entirely possible most civilizations figure out all those physical laws long before journeying out from their homeworld in force, and have started plateauing out on technological advancement. Assuming that all to be the case, alien civilizations might very well discover they have parity in both technology and numbers in a conflict. Even really big empires, very loosely bound together, can really only maneuver so many systems worth of forces into a combat theater in any useful timeline, so that they might be at a stalemate even with a single-system empire just because they’re big but really slow to move and have a lot of territory and borders to cover in all three dimensions. Which is hardly to say wars would be on even
footing, just that it likely wouldn’t always be a totally one-sided thing, or that there aren’t other players in the game who might intervene. If you encounter one alien civilization, you can’t assume they’re the only ones out there. By statistical approximation, if two species pop up within a certain distance of each other, then in a volume one-hundred times wider, you’d expect a million other civilizations to have emerged. Unless of course the one you met had killed all the others already and you’re just meeting the front edge of their annihilation and expansion wave, but it would be a bit bizarre for us to encounter that. After all, in all the billions of years it might have originated from, it would be improbable to reach us just now, during the relatively short phase humans have had technology. Particularly considering the galactic
conquest approach is probably only really available to one of the earlier species that emerged with that intent, who presumably emerged very long ago if millions of civilizations have been arising at random since the early days of life-viable planets forming. It’s hard to go on a genocidal warpath if you’re surrounded on all sides by thousands of older civilizations. So odds are there would be a lot of other species out there, or splinters of an original species that diverged from each other a lot and may not share goals anymore. Such being the case, you potentially have allies, or at least enemies of enemies, who might be willing to share technology or even join into alliance with you, which will be our topic in the next episode. All of which means that if there is a war, it’s likely to be either insanely one-sided or actually fairly even, or at least close enough that fighting is plausible rather than futile.
Which raises the question of what you’re fighting over and how you’re fighting. We’ve discussed some of the basic tactics and challenges, as well as weapons, of space warfare in our space warfare and futuristic weapons episodes, if you want the details. However, it’s important to contemplate the kind of scales that would likely be involved. If you’re fighting over resources between star systems, it means you’re getting low on those resources at home, or at least can foresee a day when that will happen urgently enough that you’re willing to go to war over it.
In science fiction we often see single ships of a size with aircraft carriers fighting other ships, and nowadays with better and cheaper CGI, we might see fleets of hundreds of such vessels duking it out. If you’re low on resources though, in a solar system, and on a war path, it’s fairly plausible you’ve devoted something like 1% of your raw materials and production to making ships. Now even ignoring harvesting metals from your own sun via Starlifting, where around 99% of the metal will be, we might assume just about every system has about Earth’s Mass of raw materials lying around available for exploitation, and if we assumed the ships were made out of iron, well there’s over a billion, trillion tons of Iron in Earth alone. An aircraft carrier masses about 100,000 tons, so if you were turning 1% of that billion, trillion tons of iron into warships of that size, then a system fleet would be composed of 100 trillions such ships. Each one of which would be quite capable of whacking
modern Earth all on its own, even without much in the way of advanced technology. Automated construction with drones is likely something we’ll have fairly soon, indeed arguably already do, and it alters the usual paradigms of conflicts and colonization, since you start getting access to virtually infinite manpower and production, limited only by your energy supply and raw materials, which is your own Sun and everything orbiting it. Normally we have problems turning more than a few percent of our economy and population to warfighting capacity for any sustained period, hence my suggesting 1% of resources for ships. But if your robots are doing all the building and dying that could easily be 99% of your economy, and you might be able to sustain the fight for centuries. Which is handy, as without faster than light travel, that tends to be the minimum timescale even for wars with the nearest neighboring star system. It also means you don’t necessarily have to be around very long as a civilization
to be armed to the teeth. Humans can double their numbers very quickly if we need to, and if we just did that at full speed, every generation, say 4 a century, then in 32 generations or 800 years, we’d already have numbers enough to fill up a Dyson Swarm, being a fully Kardashev-2 civilization of tens of billions of billions of people, an Earth’s worth of people for every person alive on Earth now. Amusingly all while our first colony ships were barely reaching those stars nearest us in our tiny little sphere of the galaxy. But machines can presumably replicate far faster, and a civilization like ours, if we managed to get even fairly simple self-replicating machines – and I’d be shocked if we finished the century out without them – could scale up far, far faster. Indeed your limitation is mostly heat, as your little machines would generate
a lot of it while gorging on moons and planets to build themselves and other things, and you can only do that so fast without producing such high temperatures that you’d melt your robots. Regardless, it means some new player on the galactic stage is probably already able to throw billions of warships into a conflict before they’ve colonized even one other star. Now you might think you don’t need all those ships since you could just send a single tiny one with some self-replicators to the fringe of an enemy system and build your armada there and then, but beyond stealth being very problematic in space, it rather ignores that the target system presumably has this exact same ability, and you’re on their turf, where they already have a pretty big armada, control of all the resources, and probably have listening devices and outposts all over. Though you might get some bizarre conflicts between self-replicating machines more akin to viruses and immune systems, or computer viruses and cybersecurity systems. There’s also another paradigm-shift massive automation offers. For the most part, wars have become a bit less common and full-scale conflicts even more so because our weapons are way more destructive and our civilizations way more complicated. In a primitive era,
you could attack someone, kill them, and take their land, which was pretty much the only item of value for core production. In the more modern era, wars aren’t super-profitable because most of the goodies are constructs, like factories and manufactured goods and digital media and skyscrapers and so on, all of which are much more fragile than a million acres of farm and forestland. Alternatively you also have advanced weapons, like nukes or plagues, able to decimate such things as forests or farmlands, while utterly obliterating those things we especially value now, delicate manufactured items and the trained workforce able to produce them. It’s probably a bit cynical to suggest it,
but our modern era of relative peace, where a vastly smaller percentage of the population dies from warfare than any other time we know of, is probably as much due to modern warfare making conquest fairly unprofitable as us growing more ethical and enlightened. We do tend to assume future civilizations would be more peaceful too, for both of those reasons, they’ve gotten wiser and they’ve developed way nastier weapons. However, again, if you’ve got automated construction and most of your fighting is done by semi-intelligent machines, you might instead see an uptick in warfare. You don’t really care if an engagement left half your fleet smashed to molten wreckage just so long as you won, because your robots will start grabbing that wreckage and the enemy’s wreckage and rebuilding from it. Though such a repair cycle will always see a lot of loss,
stuff too scattered or vaporized to easily recover and reuse, so you’re not likely to be entirely blasé about it either. On the other hand, I chose the term ‘semi-intelligent machines’ with some care, as while smarter is better for a battle drone, in general, it opens up the door to things like machine rebellions, or internal rebellions when people start asking how ethical it is to be using sentient artificial intelligences to do all your dying for you. Though one shouldn’t assume most of the elements would be that smart, you might have some equivalent of a carrier or command and control ship that was the only thing in the conflict with real brains, either artificial or crewed by regular people, though that’s a pretty blurry distinction as we’ve often discussed on the show. Such folks might also
have copies of their minds stored elsewhere, as backups, and be less worried about dying. It’s kind of hard to guess what folks would be fighting over besides raw materials, where it wasn’t just genocide in mind, but the usual array of ideological or economic motivations would probably still apply, modified and adapted to those folks. Weapons-wise, you’ve got all sorts of nasty options like relativistic kill missiles or Nicoll-Dyson Beams on top all sorts of smart weapons, self-replicators, digital viruses, and so on. It also means you probably want all those billions or trillions of ships per system as you want to be spread throughout that system, even well into deep space, to minimize your chance of being wiped out in one shot, and also to have all your engagements way out at the edge of the system.
If you’ve got a trillion ships or space fortresses scattered around your Oort Cloud, say a mere light-month out from your Sun, then each would still be a few million kilometers apart from each other, rather larger than the Earth-Moon volume, which is a lot of space to patrol and watch, and they’d be spread out to more like interplanetary distances if you were expanding that bubble to just be the midway point between neighboring stars, the de facto border between systems. This though is our last note for the day, borders. Space is mostly empty and while you likely would have outposts and colonies tucked into every mountain-sized icy rock floating around your Oort Cloud, as we discussed in colonizing the Oort Cloud, your core system is still going to be the tiny little volume composed of everything within maybe a light day of your star, itself millions of times bigger than the habitable zone of most systems and what science fiction usually treats as the inhabited region of space. Yet for all that it’s bigger, a light day of volume is around a billionth the volume of space a system might claim if just using the midway point between stars as the borders. You want to be scattered out there in that bigger volume with your defenses to ensure the conflict stays way away from the core bubble near the star, but this might be treated as something like International Waters, especially as stars move relative to each other quite a lot. Such being the case, you might not really see much advantage in trying to go for an interstellar empire that was a roughly spherical blob, for all that it might let you concentrate your forces on your edge better and cutdown on lag time, because your individual systems are each roughly the equivalent of house-sized objects separated from their neighbors by many kilometers, where the actual habitable zone containing your star and Earth-like planets would be in some tiny closet.
Of course this all changes if you do have FTL, and varies a lot by what type of FTL you have, like some wormhole network or more classic warp drives or so on, which might result in empires that were spread all around inside each other and effective neighbors on the other side of the galaxy from one another. You also probably have most of your actual conflicts not with Aliens, but your own folks and inside your own system, as odds are most species will have a long history of warfare with each other, and no special grudge with alien empires. Indeed, you might see alliances between alien factions even inside internal conflicts, like Earth at War with Ganymede around Jupiter with allies or mercenaries from some alien realm far away. But we’ll save that for next time. When it comes to why we might go to war with Aliens besides outright murder or territorial and resource acquisition though, the options are almost limitless, crazy as it sounds – but keeping in mind some of the crazier things we’ve gone to war over – you might have a species going around attacking other civilizations for punishment for perceived mass murder of future inidviduals because they thought they were being inefficient with their resources. Or because they saw a supernova and took it as a fulfilled prophecy demanding they purge the galaxy of every creature with iron in their blood stream, rather than good and healthy copper, like the hated iron demons of their local mythology. As we’ve noted before when it comes to aliens, it would all depend on their psychology and traditions, which will vary from each civilization to civilization, and which will inevitably be... alien.
A wise man gets more use from his enemies than a fool from his friends. - Baltasar Gracian We know very little of aliens including whether or not they even exist, and yet it is a topic of constant speculation in both science and science fiction in modern times. We have little to draw on but our experiences and history, which do not seem to include those from other worlds, and yet making friendships and alliances with the alien is not exactly a new concept for us either. If history is any judge, an ally is far easier to acquire than a friend, and they’re not the same thing, much as a rival is not necessarily an enemy, and indeed it might be impossible to be friends with some aliens who may not have a true analogy for it in their culture. We focus on Alliance today because it means someone you
have a shared goal or goals you work together to achieve. That should be a fairly universal concept to any thinking creature who has any interdependence with other thinking creatures, probably a prerequisite for technology and civilization, whereas friendship might not be. It’s not simply our history that informs us on this matter, the countless times people have traveled to distant lands and met strange people with alien ways. Rather,
each of us is in many respects an island unto ourselves and everyone we meet is strange and different to us. Much of the rise of civilization has been about us learning to better know one another and from that hopefully be able to work together and form not just alliances of mutual benefit but true and enduring friendships. However, there’s a lot of personal skill and shared culture that helps us do this with humans, and it’s far harder to do that if you don’t have those, and of course you would not with any alien. Such creatures would not even share the same basic human neurology with you, or the shared biology you have with a cat or dog. And yet, we get on quite well with our pets, who share little in common with the human mind beyond the basic architecture of a mammalian brain and hormones, though the latter dominate our behavior a great deal and while an alien would likely have some equivalent, it would be incredibly unlikely these were the same, unless evolution is far more convergent than would seem plausible.
But on the basic motivations end, as we’ve mentioned in prior episodes, some things we would expect to converge, at least for high-tech civilizations. A motivation for curiosity, personal survival, survival of one species or kin or allies, a desire to socialize, these we might expect to be quite common. Whatever their other motivations, ultimately that urge for survival will take center-stage. Indeed the other motivations probably will tie back to it. A species in a very safe and prosperous and stable society might be, or at least seem to be, fairly unworried about survival as primary motive for diplomacy to distant worlds, but it will be there in the background. Indeed, while their curiosity might be their most obvious
reason for talking to us, their curiosity will also likely have been sharpened by it being such a vital advantage in their culture that their culture evolved to encourage it as a life focus. Now we have to ask, how do we help their survival, or threaten it? When contemplating alien civilizations there is a tendency to assume that there’s a lot of kinship there that would make them closer to each other than they could ever be to us and vice-versa. Even ignoring that most scifi authors tend to write up aliens of galaxy-spanning ancient empires as more behaviorally and culturally narrow in their entirety than your typical modern human nation is, let alone our planet, it’s not too realistic to assume there is any sort of cultural unity in some ancient sprawling galactic civilization just because their ancestors, genetically or by artifice, happen to derive from the same tribe of clever monkeys on some single planet; or clever squids or lizards or whichever. And clever matters, because first it means you can diverge even faster than nature allows, with all that augmentation and alteration technology and on many worlds different form your homeworld. But second, because species of this sort should generally tend to shift to more abstract and conceptual approaches to life over the biological and instinctive. When abstract concepts and philosophy
are dominating your worldview, you might find you have way more in common with those who share that worldview than those who shared your world of origin, especially if you’ve all mutated and changed down the millions of years of galactic colonization. Indeed there may be extraterrestrial and post-biological pressures for evolutionary convergence of intelligent minds or societies. If you share a perspective that science matters most, or art is the highest purpose, or that commodity trading is the best competition, or so on, then you might have more in common with people who share that interest and share nothing like your own DNA or cultural history. What’s more,
while we probably shouldn’t assume aliens civilization and our own will all inevitably converge to some shared, reasoned, and totally worked out grand unified theory of ethics or ideology, there probably are only a fairly limited number of those and you’d expect most to arise in some flavor or another in many civilizations. Take Utilitarianism for instance, the Greatest Good for the Greatest Number, and that actions should be taken based on what produces the most positive outcome. This is not exactly a worldview you’d be shocked to see emerge from any civilization. The same should be true for its nominal opposition philosophy, Deontology, the idea that you do your duty because it’s right, regardless of the consequences or outcomes. It would not be surprising if folks subscribing to either belief felt they had more in common with aliens who shared that view than their own who shared the other view. These moral philosophies
and the many others may take on a lot of flavors and be more or less attractive to a given species, but odds are they get developed or at least contemplated as often as science or math. You wouldn’t expect most civilizations to not recognize those philosophies even if they might regard one as utterly disgusting. Now of course, the greatest good for the greatest number requires knowing what is good and who is among that number, and that might vary massively, not including another civilization among those numbers needing goodness, but critically that divergence among colonies as they travel out to the stars should have made them have to think on what qualifies as a person quite a lot, and odds are they either get very inclusive or very exclusive, so that many beyond their genetic relatives count, or many who are their relatives don’t count, but probably no unification. Again, outside alliances may be less popular but probably not outright off the table, and often might be preferable too.
Now why ally? Survival, of course. But that can mean a lot of things. Alliances against an aggressor works, in a war. Alliance to set out rules for mutual expansion and resource use, sure. These are common enough ideas but maybe over-simplified a bit. What is survival to some groups of people who might barely know or care what world they came from originally? What is survival to some nigh-immortal creature who has lived millions of years? Strictly theoretically speaking, there should be no bar to an individual consciousness continuing indefinitely, or a specific civilization doing so. But light speed is not your friend for either and as we noted last episode, while war may be common in the future, galaxy-spanning war really isn’t a viable approach. You just can’t maintain a cohesive civilization, let alone individual
identity, over galactic distances. Nor does the universe end at the galaxy’s edge. So where survival is concerned, for all that you’d probably still colonize or bring resources home, and thus want to move out from your own system in some fashion, ultimately you are fairly limited to your own solar system as a cohesive entity, be it a single massive Matrioshka Brain or a civilization operating under a shared government. You might be able to get a bit bigger, especially if you’re importing mass and energy home to build something like a Dyson Swarm of Dyson Swarms or a Birch Planet, but those, even in their largest theoretical build before literally collapsing under their own mass, are but flyspecks in the greater Universe. One way or another you can’t take it all, not and remain cohesive, so you have to deal with other people, be they of alien origin or merely very distant cousins whose ancestors once shared a homeworld with yours.
Or for that matter were made by those distant cousins, life of artificial origin can hardly be ignored in this discussion, especially if we’re contemplating ultra-long lived and powerful entities, such as some massive sentient supercomputer. What then, is survival? You can’t wipe everyone out, that strategy won’t work at this scale, so you have to deal with them regardless. But survival in the sense of just getting food and not being killed and eaten is less a factor for such critters anyway. Doubtless many would consider or enact long term pacts with others with the same goal of keeping themselves or a copy safe in the very long term. So they might want to meet other species and ask them