Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Alien Archeogenetics and the Seed Question

Image an alien civilization, living on a planet with abundance, not scarcity, moving along on their path to Asymptotic Technology. They have solved many problems of their civilization, answered many questions posed about the world, from microscopic details up to macroscopic ones, nuclei to galaxies, and have teams of brilliant scientists resolving even more problems and answering even more questions. The members of the society, being also very intelligent, support the scientific development as they have a basic curiosity about the universe they live in and enjoy the benefits that the spillover from science to engineering brings. Maybe they are a millennia ahead of Earth’s current position along the technology learning curve, although the time setting for this world in not necessarily contemporaneous. Since many stars were born before Earth’s sun, this could be set a hundred million years ago, or whatever.

They have astronomical instruments on stable off-planet platforms, have done a lot of work in predicting what an alien civilization (alien to them, that is) might look like, and have figured out how to detect them. And they have. They have seen starships moving at high speed a few hundred years away, but going nowhere close. They have figured out the likely destination world and the likely origin world. The origin world gives off signs of life in many ways, as do a few dozen other planets within a thousand light year radius. They know they are not alone in the galaxy, and even in the local neighborhood, there are other creatures. Since they have mastered genetics, they know if their way of life, the chemical coding of the instructions for their bodies and that of every other living thing on their planet, are the same as those on the other planet. Maybe the answer is that there is only one way, and all the planets are pretty similar in their display of life. Maybe the answer is that there are many ways, and the laws of chance indicate that many of their populated planetary neighbors have a different one. We don’t know the answer to this question, but they do.

They have had a calm social history for also a millennium, but before that it was harsh living on their planet. They had wars. Initially they had wars with rocks, then with spears, then with metal swords, then with explosives, then with cannons, then with bombs, then with nuclear bombs, then with infrastructure killers, then with genetic tools, and then, and then. They finally gave up doing that, but their history is a solid indicator that life-forms like to fight, conquer, pillage and burn. They are reasonably paranoid, given their history. Things with starships are out there, and the things might head their way some millennium. Of course, given their history, they know how to make weapons, specifically defensive weapons. They travel through their solar system, albeit somewhat slowly compared to their neighbor’s vessels, but they are ready to arm the outer reaches of their solar system if they have to. But they don’t know if they have to. It would be a tremendous diversion of resources. In other words, they are facing the question we are very familiar with. How much should we spend on defense?

Maybe the other guys are all nice, but there’s no guarantee and nothing but a hope that this might be true. They know their solar system is a great prize, with a habitable planet and lots of other planets and moons to mine for resources and use for outposts. The sun is nowhere near burning up, and they figure they have a few more billions of years of use of their planet before it becomes uninhabitable. Unless, of course, it becomes uninhabitable because of the advanced-beyond-their-defenses weapons of these people who are traveling around between neighboring stars.

They don’t have the technology yet for starships, but they will someday. They need to plan for this century, however, and decide what to do. Active defenses, passive defenses, survival colonies on the moons somewhere, no defenses but broadcast a peace message, or something else entirely.

Then someone asks a germane question: “What if they are our parents?” This became known as the Seed Question, despite the originator’s attempts to have it named after himself. Their work on what we call Great Filters showed them that there were several points in the development of life, in its earlier stages, where highly improbably things happened on their planet to produce life, or so they thought. They figured they were the lucky ones, but after finding other home worlds in their galactic neighborhood, this assumption became somewhat questionable, and more work was going on concerning the various pathways from rock and water to smart creatures. But when the Seed Question was asked, this work was called into question.

The question was elaborated as follows: At several points in the evolution of life, there were very improbable things that happened to move life forward to the next stage. Perhaps the worst was bacterial fusing, or chlorophyll, or single-celled organisms, or sexual reproduction, or something germane to some exotic creature that didn’t leave fossils but had to be assumed to exist, or something else. Instead of the very low probability event happening, maybe the story was different. Somebody dropped in from a neighboring planet and seeded the planet with the result of the improbable happening. It didn’t happen locally, but happened in the ocean on a different planet, revolving around a different class of star, with a different photonic spectrum, and different chemicals in the seas, so the probability of it happening there was pretty high. Those guys, who resulted from the not so improbable changes, decided to help out the planet we are discussing. They were doing a form of slow motion colonization.

Slow motion colonization doesn’t have to start with a world where there are just rocks and seas and air of some unpleasant variety. It doesn’t have to focus on barren planets. If a planet does the easy stuff, which might take a long time, all by itself, but is very, very unlikely to take one or a few critical developmental steps, a little prodding by way of some seed organisms might be all it takes. Is it colonization if you seed a planet in such a way that organisms like yourself will evolve, given some time? Or is colonization only when your guys step down on the planet and plant a flag or some other emblem that showed you had arrived? From a point of view of efficient use of resources, the seed approach is much cheaper. A small ship instead of a huge vessel with colonists. Of course, there may be middle approaches or more efficient ways of getting your guys to plant the flag, but the idea is that if the point of this whole exercise is to develop a clone world, slow motion colonization might be the way to do it.

There are other variations. Perhaps you know that it is likely that sooner or later some planet will perform some developmental step, but the step is improbable and likely a billion years will pass before it happens. Drop in a seed and you have saved a billion years of waiting. Not a bad choice. Another variation is that there are several coding schemes that can form life, and some planet is likely to form one or the other, by chance. Once it starts, it stays. Drop in yours and you have cooked the books, with no question as to who's clone world this is going to evolve into.

So, when the alien planet under discussion hears the question, they raise the bar on archeogenetics, the study of the genetics of ancient organisms, to try and figure out if they are a seed planet or a do-it-yourself planet. If they are a seed planet, and can be sure of it, all those defensive weapons aren’t needed. Progenitors who went to all the trouble to seed a planet aren’t going to destroy it and start over. They are simply waiting until the planet gets over with its civilizational development and joins them in the galactic neighborhood. They know that once the seeding was done, the developmental future is assured, and they don’t need to do anything else. Stopping wars, for example, would be removing a little speedbump in the history of the species. Let them figure that stuff out themselves.

So, after a civilization answers the question of “Where are the aliens”, there may be another one, “Who seeded us?”

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