A key criticism of our search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, is that we might be looking in the wrong places. The wrong type of stars or planets, or that we should be investigating sightings here on Earth. But what if the easiest place to find aliens is to look in the mirror? So today is our monthly Sci-Fi Sunday here on SFIA, where we look at concepts better known from sci-fi than science and ask how realistic they are or if science allows any pathway to a given technology or situation. And today we are also making a long-awaited return to our Alien Civilizations Series, as it’s been over 40 episodes since our last entry in the series, Hungry Aliens, back in the spring. So, I thought it was past time for a return, and when one of our
audience members suggested this to me, I didn’t even put it in one of our audience image polls, I just stuck it right on the schedule, because it’s a topic that’s long overdue. Because there’s very few topics that come up in regard to aliens more often than that we are in some way related to them, that we’re a lost colony or that they visited us and bred with us, or that they’re doing it now to create some hybrid race, and we will discuss those all today and more.. Now our Alien Civs Series is a somewhat tongue in cheek twin to our Fermi Paradox series, as what we do in Alien Civs is mostly to take a proposed behavior of aliens and try to figure out why they would be doing it, and if a given motivation might have easier approaches. For instance,
an alien invader might want Earth’s resources, aliens wanting Earth’s mineral wealth or water supply pops up a lot as plot motivation in sci-fi but doesn’t make any sense when there are so many more easily accessed or abundant supplies. And since astronomy tell us, very emphatically, that those supplies are still around us in every direction, it would seem like an invader would have chosen to bypass several rivers and lakes and unguarded jewelry stores in order to come to a small oasis to steal a tiny pond’s worth of water and the cheap pair of gold-plated earrings one resident had. From that we deduce that if aliens were invading Earth for some resource, it would be because they wanted something only Earth had, like unique biological specimens or art. Of course, they could just park in orbit and say “Hey earthling, we’ll trade you a digital copy of all your art and literature for this clunky old fusion reactor design of ours. Also, we have a couple other technologies we’ll file patents on and use the cash to fund an embassy and a bunch of biologists to collect samples for us. Deal?” and we’d be making that deal so fast they would think we had FTL, even if they were demanding the physical contents of the Smithsonian and Louvre as part of trade. It’s a good deal since they can also presumably
take it by force, unless there’s other big actors on the galactic stage who’d get them if they got us. There’s always the option of aliens among us too, that they’re hiding here, and decided to take over, as we see with Skrulls and Nick Fury in the recent Disney version of Secret Invasion. There’s definitely some plot holes there in the reasoning but one could imagine aliens sneaking to hide among Earth as a protected planet from some enemy that hunted them and over time just melded into the population. Indeed, their disguise might be rigorous, shape might be fluid in some more advanced or post-biological civilizations and they might be perfectly fine with cramming their brains into cloned up human bodies. They might not be planning to steal our planet either, and view themselves as paying their rent by slowly feeding us technology, possibly with the ulterior motive of turning us into an eventual ally against whoever forced them into hiding.
That deal and the one I just mentioned before it of tech for cultural data, would both be examples of Technological Uplifting, giving a primitive species more advanced technology. Our other two types are Physiological Uplifting, which would include something like giving a critter some opposable thumbs, so they can manipulate objects better, and Neurological Uplifting, which is making them smarter or otherwise adjusting their brain to be more suited for civilization. More debatable examples might be altering their genetics so they bred fewer kids and didn’t rapidly overpopulate or were less aggressive so they didn’t go to war with each other constantly – or other aliens once they became spacefaring themselves. For more on the concept see our two-part episode on Uplifting with John Michael Godier, or David Brin’s amazing scifi classic, the Uplift Saga. And this falls into another major category of reasons aliens might be coming here. That they are interested in us specifically, or because they’re
chasing someone who came here either because they were interested in us or to hide among the primitives. One example of all-of-the-above would be an alien scientist coming here because it was curious about the primitive apes a probe spotted, and wanted to experiment on us and uplift us, and its own species was coming here hunting for him, or it, maybe because they wanted to give it a medal, or put it in front of firing squad, or possibly both at once. For the crime of tampering with a poor primitive species and making them into mutants, or, alternatively, for creating a competitor race they now have to decide if they need to kill off or not.
Or maybe they think humans look pretty good and want to get to know them better, if you know what I mean. History or mythology, and modern sighting testimony, is full of accounts of beings on high coming here to have kids with humans, the example of the Nephilim from Genesis being perhaps best known, along with Zeus, who virtually every major character in Greek Mythology seems to be a son or daughter of, but I’m not sure if I know of a single religion that doesn’t have half-human demigods in it. One notion is that these are literally true, and angels or gods bred with humans, after all there are a ton of witnesses and claims, so surely they can’t all be wrong, and while I don’t agree, that is nonetheless a reasonable stance to take. People claim something a lot, it is reasonable to consider that it might be true. Another perspective is that these
are so prevalent in mythology not because they are real, but because the human mind likes to ascribe ever more mighty deeds to its heroes as the stories grow, and many a leader finds it useful to claim godhood. So, you get a pantheon built around this growing pool of quasi-historical figures that were not superhuman in that way, but which people believe were, and again this is reasonable perspective to take and thus not one that it’s surprising to find popped up all over the world in many different times and cultures. Now the third option, and one of the points of interest for today, is very appropriately a hybrid of the first two, in that’s assuming the beings from on high are aliens from outer space rather than a supernatural being from a higher place of reality. Or sometimes both, and the line between very high tech and supernatural powers can get blurry, as with Arthur C. Clarke’s famous observation that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And on this show, we refer to
technology like that as Clarketech, in his honor. And again, this is a reasonable enough position. Science has inclined us to expect natural answers are the norm and the whole point of the Fermi Paradox is that life arising naturally is probably normal and the Universe is so huge and ancient there’s probably more ancient galactic empires throughout it than trees in a forest. Or maybe grains of sand on a beach, as the Universe is really, really big, and really, really old. If they are around and were around back when humanity was younger, there is no surprise some of them might have visited our planet and gotten interested in us. That their behaviors and
actions would seem strange and majestic and be the stuff of stories and legends to later generations. So again, all three points are reasonable with coherent logical arguments at their foundations, and we have no way of disproving any of them, but we can start asking some questions… and some have surprising answers that can be used to support the idea that aliens might have mixed in with us. First off, the big one is that you and I couldn’t breed with an animal, let alone a tree, so the idea that some alien evolved on another planet might be able to mix genes with us is absurd. Except, it isn’t. I don’t mean because of convergent evolution, we looked at that in its own episode two years back and while the basic premise of convergent evolution has its strong points, this extends to ideas like aliens also developing eyeballs or fingers and thumbs. It doesn’t imply it’s any more compatible with our biology than we are with an octopus just because we both have eyeballs, or that a program would run on two different computer operating systems without any modification. This needs a few caveats though. First, we don’t really know how alien reproduction works, and most lifeforms on this planet do not use sexual reproduction. They use mitosis, the organism grows and eventually divides itself
and all its internal bits and pieces, in a process that’s more like cellular divorce than marriage. There’s a lot of ways and reasons two cells might come to mix DNA – or whatever they use for that purpose – much as why they might band together into multicellular organisms or communities. One path might be to grab a cell and hijack it, replacing its DNA with yours, and it would be plausible enough that this could result in a mix-and-match stalemate where hybrids pop up too, or that on same alien world the way life works there might allow for large crossings of genetic data, so that half-human half-animal hybrids were very common on their world. They also might have more parasitic approaches to reproduction, not just laying eggs in another organism like a wasp does, but something more elaborate such as an organism that just laid an egg in the head of any large animal and it grew into a new brain there. Or even something like a second lobe of their brain and over time this evolves to be more symbiotic and more like neurological uplifting than body stealing. The organism remembers its early life in a haze, and
begins growing smarter, in a case reminiscent of Algernon or Charlie Gordon from the story Flowers for Algernon, though without the sad ending. Our first reaction to a case like this is disgust at a parasite, but let us instead contemplate a hypothetical alien, the Gordonites, whose race way back in the early days was nothing but parasites but as they began getting more clever to handle their various prey getting smarter at evading or neutralizing them, they developed a strong ability at empathy to help predict their prey and fit in among them covertly. Over time they grew more civilized, and began caring for their prey and raising them, much as humans did with livestock and beasts of burden, particularly with those beasts of burden. Eventually it got a lot closer to a pet relationship too, because every Gordonite dimly recalls their own time as a little alien horse or puppy frolicking around the mushroom forest and pasture of their homeworld before their Gordonite spore was implanted and grew them into a smart alien horse or dog, one that often cared for and help tend their youthful companions who weren’t chosen for pairing. And the Gordonites came to view themselves as doing those critters a serious favor since all of them used to be one of those critters. So, when the Gordonites get to space and start
encountering primitive aliens, and discussing whether or not uplifting primitives is ethical, it’s a no brainer for them, time to give these aliens some bigger brains. Now they may simply use their vast knowledge of genetics and other sciences to do this since it wouldn’t be terribly likely they could jump into any body, no matter how alien its physiology, and just hijack or merge with it. A giant squid has a donut-shaped brain for instance, arachnids keep part of their brain in their legs, and it would seem a stretch to imagine any organism could become that versatile in puppeteering entirely new body architecture.
Possible though, but more importantly, humans don't have the ability to magically grow hair for cold climates or longer arms for reaching high objects. We build tools and principally around enhancing activities important to us. The Gordonites entire technology base is founded on making them better and faster and more versatile at hijacking or integrating into a strange host organism. One of their big quasi-historical or mythological figure is Beluga, the Gordonite who first figured out how to integrate into sea mammals of their world and from which all the submarine Gordonites claim descent. There is also Cetus, the Gordonite who first integrated into one of their big flying sky whales that could migrate back and forth to the large and close moon their planet has as an effective double planet, and Cetus is regarded as the Gordonite equivalent of a combination of Icarus and Neil Armstrong.
Those sky whales and their cousins had carried simple life to every larger planet and icy body in their native solar system over a billion years since they evolved, and as a result, the Gordonites’ first forays into their own solar system found countless examples of simple ecologies with very diverse animal life in them, often with animals big enough for them to try integrating with. A lot of times that wasn’t possible, and more so as they got to other planets, but to them the normal reproduction method was not inherently special or romantic, so it was just a fine in their eyes to study that life and find a way to change their DNA a little to result in a locally natural intelligence arising. And some of them, using their superior tech, either built android bodies for themselves or hijacked a recently dead proto-human to fit in and refine their art. A symbolic and metaphorical integration. And
if early Gordonites seemed superhuman, that was merely all the personal tech they have, same as any modern human might compared to a primitive. Unfortunately, for the Gordonites, the process they used here was not terribly effective or stable, and because of how fluid their own body shape tends to be from hosting inside hundreds of different large animal types, they don’t standardize their personal tech much in favor of custom jobs. They never can buy clothes off the rack, so to speak, or gadgets, it’s all tailored. So when the already delayed messages from the Gordonite homeworld, 1000 light years away, arrived telling of a large schism and civil war, the Gordonites here were on their own and couldn’t reproduce because they only had those androids and revivified bodies, the process they were using on proto humans was making those proto-humans smarter, not actually making more Gordonites or humans smart enough for technology yet. They weren’t very numerous and slowly died off and when their home civilization finally got itself put back together again and investigated this planet, more than a hundred thousand years later, they weren’t too sure what they were looking at and what’s more, the empire they had formed had broken into an awful lot of factions, including some that, like humans, were only spiritual descendants and not really interested in any integrated empire with them, but nobody wants an interstellar war, that’s just a nightmare scenario all around, so they have a lot treaties and some give Earth a bit of blanket protection. So, some factions are
on Earth trying to tinker with our DNA to make us compatible hosts, some are interfering with that, many are pursuing other agendas entirely. One of the factions’ intelligence agencies pronounced the confused and conspiratorial situation on Earth “Even weirder and more convoluted than the conspiracy theories they have about Unidentified saucer shaped Skywhales crewed by little gray bipedal Gordonites”. This gives us a good reminder, as absurd as a half-human, half-alien character like Spock or Deanna Troi might seem in a normal biological context, with sufficient technology you can brute-force make that happen. Even if your half-human, half-tentacle-monster love-child is the equivalent of an android using an artificial fusion or reimagining of human and tentacle-monster mind and body that can hatch from it’s techno-womb and latch onto mom’s spine and brain stem for safety and nourishment and nurturing, like all good little tentacle monsters do, till it's old enough to go to daycare. As I like to say, the main point of technology is to be able to have your cake and eat it too. Something the Gordonites are fond of saying too, though the literal translation of their versions is about brains not cake… but to each his, her, or its own, I suppose.
The thing is, while I would have dismissed this in past times as technically possible but rare, one thing the internet has taught us, in its full and traumatizing glory, is that tastes vary. And while we wouldn’t normally have to worry much about the dozen or so folks on our whole planet who might happen to find marrying a giant leech or starfish compelling, the situation changes drastically when we start adding in post-scarcity, post-biological, or Kardashev-scale civilizations into the mix. When you have a star system of quintillions of people, not billions, those dozen or so folks proportionally become 12 billion in number, half again as many people as currently alive. That’s definitely a big fan club and funding base for going to
visit earlier Earth and meet some Neanderthals. So too, post-scarcity civilizations are those that permit someone to decide the following, instead of dressing as a dragon for Halloween, they’re going to have their brain surgically implanted into an artificial one for the day instead. Post-biological ones are the kind where someone might dwell in virtual worlds in which normal physics, let alone biology, doesn’t even apply. So you start mixing in all those together and our normal assumptions move a bit. You may already have a weirder collection of humans or human-descendant entities in just one solar system than anything you’d find in an entire universal catalog of critters who made it to human-level intelligence by their planet’s normal Darwinian evolution. What’s more, interstellar space is so big and
slow to travel that you are almost bound to have colonies near some other critters’ territory that are pretty focused on those critters. If you’re near the Klingons, those colonies closest to them might be mostly indifferent, with some hating them, and some loving them, and none of that really being a true fringe element because their proximity keeps it forefront in minds. In that regard, finding out that a lot of anthropologists wanted to get implanted into androids or bio-duplicates of the primitive aliens on some newly discovered world and eventually went native is just not that hard to believe. Indeed we see a parallel case to that in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s excellent novel Children of Ruin from his Children of Time series. There’s many more scenarios for this sort of mixing behavior. They may even have vast
numbers of space habitats or virtual worlds back in their home system that were some mix of nature preserve and historical reenactment of our world, possibly massively exceeding Earth’s own size too. In the end, this really is a sequence of alien behavior on Earth that is not really implausible. So, what’s the hole in the reasoning? Well there’s quite a few of the normal variety though most can be answered plausibly. But they too get problematic and in conjunction make it a tough sell. For instance, when we ask what happened to the aliens who visited us long ago, where’s their big empire that should only have grown in size since, it can get tempting to point out that simply assuming aliens are very rare is no stranger than thinking they are extinct.
But in this case, you’re already assuming aliens were rare, as if they were common, someone new would just show up and visit even if the prior folks died off or ascended or whatever, and now you’re stacking on the additional improbability that they managed to wreck their whole interstellar civilization, or get wrecked by someone who then disappeared too, and we discussed how unlikely that would be to happen in our Fermi Paradox: Fallen Empires episode two months back. So you’re replacing a seemingly improbable set of circumstances with that same set of circumstances plus another one on top of it, life is very rare and dies off a lot, but not until it’s spread out a bunch to go visit and guide other worlds for whole centuries at a time. Remember our three default perspectives on the Fermi Paradox beyond intelligent life just being insanely rare is that there isn’t a paradox, aliens are hanging out here now, or there isn’t a paradox, space travel and colonization is very hard, or there isn’t a paradox, intelligent life just doesn’t occur much and blows itself up before it can colonize much. For this sort of theory, that humans are an alien colony or hybrid, it requires all of those, and stretches each further. Life is very rare
but space travel is practical, enough to let someone reasonably near us in our own galaxy have visited Earth in a big way, and yet so prone to blowing itself up that it did, and blew itself up on every world it had colonies or outposts, but not until after being spacefaring for many centuries at least. Super self-destructive in inclination and capability but lucked out for millenia. Possible but really improbable. Now an alternative is that we are aliens but from 4 billion years ago, and either simple microbes permeate space in a Panspermia scenario, seeding worlds naturally, or some alien visited us 4 billion years ago and accidentally vented some microbes who then colonized the world, rather than those aliens. The issue here is that the Universe has been growing more hospitable to life in general as it aged, with more heavy elements and planets forming, and with each of those planets having more time for life to begin and to develop. So to assume someone was flying around the
galaxy in spaceships 4 billion years ago is fine, but then it strongly implies we should have exponentially more of them popping up since then, who all also do space travel. Which again is requiring a sequence of events that is stacking up unrelated improbable scenarios in a way that Occam’s Razor will tend to cut to shreds. Though to be fair, we have lot of question marks in our fossil record that take for granted that a given hazy step did actually occur, when in reality it might have been life was here and 2 billion years ago a clumsy xenobiologist studying it forgot to sterilize their suit and introduced alien microbes to the existing environment, wiping out everything that was here back when life was still primitive enough that we couldn’t really show a definitive linkage between this existing terrestrial amoeba and some utterly alien microbe of a similar general design, microbial convergent evolution is reasonably plausible, especially when that convergence need not be much more than the general shape it had and it’s approximate chemical composition. We don’t have any DNA from anything much older than our own recorded history, so technically an alien war might have flat out sterilized the planet and the victors felt bad about the collateral damage that they had their scientists’ guesstimate the ecosystem and biology from video clips and bones. Do not assume such an environment was even pyrotechnic, as we discussed in Fallen Empires, they might have unleashed a swarm intelligence that literally surgically disassembled anything big enough to hold a sentient intelligence - which might be a bacteria if we’re talking post-biological life.
But I think if they were in that league, it’s not that they couldn’t have done that, it is more that they are probably good enough to genuinely put humpty-dumpty back together again, since they probably were transmitting extreme levels of details to command and control during the process, where even the take out of single rat – or it’s proto-mammalian ancestor – might have gigabytes of reports on what went down. Which raises the option that they might have done that rebuilding in a virtual world. As we’ve often noted, if you’re already post-biological yourself and don’t hate other aliens, just don’t want to share the Universe with them in a way that requires you constantly looking over your shoulder, you can just murder them all, copy their brains, and convert their planet into a giant computer able to run their simulated world and many more for trillions of years. It’s not really ethical
but it’s a strategically decent move and a lot less evil than just killing them. Or maybe you’ve got the tech to dump them into a pocket Universe rather than a computer simulation, arguably the same difference. And if you even feel a need to justify the apparently empty universe they see, you can just tweak a few astronomical details to make the Fermi Paradox seem less paradoxical. In the end there’s no issue with motivation here being implausible, as we usually have with the topics of the Alien Civilizations series, it’s just that these options all require the aliens to have shown up and done stuff and left, and no one to have come by since then. Maybe they set us up well as children they loved but wanted to let us finish growing up on our own, though that would seem a stretch since that analogy is implying abandoning your kids at some point is a healthy choice, but maybe they left us a big inheritance, a small cluster of stars of our of own to settle nearby and a million star fortresses concealed around the solar system to protect us from predators. Still sounds like bad parenting though. Of course, they could be keeping their distance for fear of getting hit with a species-scale paternity suit in the galactic courts, they owed us money, and a hundred thousand years of compound interest and late fees might bring down even the mightiest star empire.
Speaking of Star empires and getting out into the cosmos, a moment ago I was talking about how things might look if some advanced civilization had seeded our planet at some point and the idea of seeding life and seeing it grow all the way up to being a civilization is one that’s always intrigued me. If it intrigues you too, there’s an excellent and free-to-play science-based game called Cell to Singularity that walks you up the evolutionary and tech trees from that first moment all the way through a technological singularity and settling neighboring worlds, and I’m particularly glad to say that Cell to Singularity’s developers are part of our audience, so it also explores many concepts and themes we’ve discussed and the game is accurate and based on real science and research, even though it has wonderful sci fi theme too. Explore from Early Earth out to among the stars, in a game that fits easily into your busy day and again is free to play. Try it out on Steam or on your phone, available
on iOS and Google Play, and start building your civilization up from Cell to Singularity today. So that will wrap us up for another Sci Fi Sunday and next month’s episode will continue our look at alien civilizations with Nihilistic aliens, civilizations that may have decided that purpose in life and free will didn’t exist. But we have plenty of episodes before then, starting this Thursday with how to build domes on Mars, and if we should compared to underground habitats, and we will see the construction options and weigh the pros and Cons next Thursday, November 16th, 2023. Then we’ll examine the astronomy of Double Planets, where the big object in the sky isn’t a moon but a much larger and bluer and greener planet, and ask if life might be able to arise on such worlds and migrate between them. Then our monthly livestream Q&A is canceled this month, and indeed next month will be our last Livestream for the foreseeable future, but we will still be having a short episode that day on Space Hygiene, our most recent poll-winning topic, before closing the Month out on November 30th with Agriworlds, and a discussion of how you could farm an entire planet. And if you didn’t catch it already, our feature length episode,
the Fermi Paradox Compendium of Terms and Solutions came out earlier this week. If you’d like to get alerts when those and other episodes come out, make sure to hit the like, subscribe, and notification buttons. You can also help support the show on Patreon, and if you want to donate and help in other ways, you can see those options by visiting our website, IsaacArthur.net. You can also catch all of SFIA’s episodes early and ad free on our streaming service, Nebula, along with hours of bonus content, at go.nebula.tv/isaacarthur.
As always, thanks for watching, and have a Great Week!