Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Coming to Peace with Extinction

Category A5 alien civilizations do not seek to travel to other star systems, not to migrate nor to colonize. They simply see no value in preserving their own civilization, no matter how splendid it might have become. When some problem comes their way, a peril that will eliminate life on their planet or at least intelligent life in a civilization, or they run out the resources they have available, they simply turn off the gestation machines and do not make any young aliens. Nobody runs around committing suicide, and no one has to, as the peril is detectable long enough in advance that the existing alien generation can live out their normal life spans. There just won’t be any young aliens around to watch. There can be an orderly shutdown of their infrastructure, or maybe they will just leave it running when the last alien expires, as nobody cares about using up the last bits of fuel. Only the robots and intellos will be around when the peril arrives, or perhaps they will all have disappeared also, in some orderly way.

This process is reminiscent of Confucius’ guide to living. He divided up the life of a human person into seven stages, and the last stage, from age seventy to end of life, was devoted to coming to peace with a loss of vitality and final expiration. Coming to peace means letting go of the desire to stay alive, as it would be futile. It is very much akin to what Buddha determined was the way to happiness. He taught that true peace only comes when we cease striving and simply accept whatever comes. Much of the techniques that he taught, such as meditation, were directed toward seeking that peace that comes when one does not desire anything at all.

Category A5 aliens have to come to peace not only with their own demise, but with the demise of everyone they know and the end of everything that their entire civilization has accomplished. When Confucius and Buddha taught individuals how to cope with their own mortality, they taught in a situation embedded in the culture that they lived in. There were others around at all times. They did not give lessons on how to be the last human alive. They did not contemplate such a situation, although if they did, perhaps they would have had some insights. Nevertheless, aliens in a A5 civilization all face this prospect. How would they cope with it? Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect that any alien civilization would voluntarily become extinct.

Perhaps they would have a framework that assists them in accepting this end. Being omniscient, they would understand that life is a spontaneous development on many worlds, and it was on their home world. They could think that their existence is a fluctuation in a larger pattern, and that on other worlds in the galaxy, and in other galaxies, the same phenomena will recur. Other alien civilizations will rise up and reach the same heights that they do. With their knowledge of these processes, they would know how different other civilizations might be, and which ones might be favored by the distribution of solo world parameters. They would know that all the things that they accomplished would be accomplished again by other civilizations, and likely had already been accomplished many times by other civilizations. Their knowledge of astronomy would be extensive, and they might know that in every one of the hundred billion galaxies in the universe, there would be the origination of life and the climb to intelligence happening hundreds or thousands of times. In other words, they might see themselves as simply one blip in a huge process, occurring everywhere from one side of the universe to another. They might never have had contact with any other civilization, but they would know that they exist somewhere. Alternatively, they could have astronomically detected signs of other civilizations, but done nothing about this detection, other than to use it to confirm their scientific knowledge. It would be a verification of their place in the universe, which they see as one of billions of near identical processes, leading to near identical civilizations, all choosing to accomplish the same things, or not if they so chose.

As to travel to other stars, they might think that having one more world with an intelligent civilization, perhaps instead of two billion there would be two billion and one, and what exactly is the point of striving for that accomplishment? If they know the average civilization lasts a half-million years, but it could be extended by a factor of ten or twenty or more by migrating, colonizing, re-forming planets with adverse conditions, or whatever, what would be the point? They have a comfortable life, enjoy themselves as aliens do, and they just head for the exit.

Why seed other worlds that will not develop life, or that will be stopped by the lack of evolution of mitochondria or chlorophyll or trees or something else that could stand in the way of that planet achieving an alien civilization just as grand but no grander than their own. Why not seed them as well? Perhaps the alien civilization, prior to its expected demise, just for the fun of it starts off alien life on a half-dozen planets, and then allows their own planet to become barren of intelligence. They might expect that, in a likelihood, these planets would, after ten million or a hundred million or a billion years, have a civilization whose achievements would equal their own.

This type of attitude is the equivalent, for an entire civilization, of what the great Eastern philosophers had for their framework. They lived in a situation where other people would always be around, after an individual passed away, and the existence of others mitigated the loss of vitality they would experience. Buddha taught that the greatest thing that a person could do would be to delay achieving nirvana, the peace of nothingness, so that they could provide guidance for others to escape their striving and unhappiness. Without any other people, that cannot happen, so the existence of others was a cornerstone of his philosophy. An alien civilization might be aware of other civilizations, either through observations, virtually via their probabilistic calculations, or because they had seeded other planets, and this could provide the equivalent framework for extinction that Buddha found for an individual’s demise, the mitigating factor that was never singled out, but was always there as an unremarked assumption.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Axial Tilt, Rotation Rate, and Life Origination

It would be nice to know just what conditions a solo planet actually has to have. Recall that we use the term solo planet for one in which life can originate without being seeded by an alien civilization. It is not the same as a habitable planet, which is one on which life can exist in some way. There are grades of habitability, ranging from ones where the aliens who migrate there can simply drop in and live on the surface, all the way down to ones where they could only live underground in sealed chambers. There are also worlds which can be transformed by an alien civilization. These worlds have their own conditions, typically less rigid than those of a solo world.

Recall also that solo worlds come in gradations as well. They all have the conditions in which simple microbes could form, and the more fortunate ones eventually get to evolving chlorophyll or a surrogate, and then probably land animals, and finally intelligent something-or-others. At this point in astronomy on Earth, most scientists simply use surface temperature as a measurement for ‘habitability’, but this is because we don’t understand much about the origin of life, so we can’t come up with conditions for a solo world, and we don’t understand all that much about the evolution of life, so we can’t come up with conditions for the germination of intelligent life.

This post speculates about both of these in connection with two orbital parameters, axial tilt and rotation rate. Axial tilt is of course the angle between the orbital plane and the rotational plane. On Earth, axial tilt is about 22 degrees, which makes life even more fun here. We have two polar areas where there is no sunlight during part of the year, as well as a tropical zone around the equator where the sun is directly overhead at least once a year.

Consider three alternatives. Suppose the axial tilt is zero, meaning that the two planes are completely aligned. As a second alternative, consider the axial tilt is ninety degrees, meaning they are perpendicular, and as a third, something in the middle, which is where Earth is.

When the axial tilt is near zero, there are no seasons except for the changes caused by the eccentricity of the orbit. If it is nearly circular, as are most orbits we know of, there are no seasons and the year is pretty much the same. There is almost nothing to designate a year. If you were sitting on the planet, it would be hard to tell when a year had passed. There is nothing about the hypothetical sequence of events that were discussed earlier that depend on seasonality. So the question is if there are any second order effects which would affect the origination sequence.

Unfortunately for us, the root causes for tectonic activity are not known. A star exerts a gravitational gradient on the planets that would fluctuate with the passage of a day, but if the day is short, there would be an averaging effect and the daily fluctuations of the gradient would be washed out. Having an elliptical orbit would add to this effect, as would axial tilt. It might also be that even the planet’s year is too short to allow any stellar gravitational gradient to have an effect on magma flow or the separation of different minerals in the lower part of the planet’s crust. These are the phenomena which might be implicated in the generation of rich mineral flows into the planet’s oceans, which is one of the conditions for life origination.

Another condition for the origination of life, specifically the earliest form of a membrane with some DNA inside, is a soup of amino acids, which would, after an eon of time, fit together to make a self-replicating chemical. Amino acids are created everywhere, including interstellar clouds. What creates them in larger numbers. One hypothesis is that lightning leads to random chemical links between carbon and other biologically important elements, and this produces some amino acids. Lightning comes from cloud formation, and this might not occur with anything like the amount on earth if the planet had no axial tilt and instead was extremely stable in heat flux. So, perhaps, planets with zero axial tilt have lower probabilities of formation of amino acids and lower occurrence of geothermal eruptions in the seabed, and therefore the probability of the origination of life there, defined as self-replicating cells, is much lower, and perhaps so low that it would not happen in the age of the universe or the planet.

The other extreme is a ninety degree axial tilt, and in that situation, one pole would receive intense stellar thermal flux for half a year, and then receive none at all for half a year. This is a recipe for the build up of ice and snow and eventually permanent ice cover for both poles. The feedback effect of ice and snow having a very high albedo tends to perpetuate the cover, and both poles would develop this over time, if other conditions were conducive to it. If the planet were too close to the star, it could not happen, for example. But having axial tilt at ninety degrees or close to it would lead to more glaciation than other axial tilts, and therefore less areas in which life could form. The slow variation of heating would also tend to make the atmospheric flow more stable, meaning perhaps less lightning.

Thus, an axial tilt away from both extremes seems likely to promote the origination of life, if certain conditions are correct and if the hypothesis forwarded previously is close to correct. Rotation rate is another matter. For planets with moderate axial tilt, say from ten degrees to sixty degrees, having a very slow rotation rate would lead to more stability, less atmospheric activity, less lightning, less amino acid concentration, and lower probability of the formation of life. If the rotation rate was very high, of the order of an hour, there would be an averaging effect and the same results might be expected.

Thus, having a moderate axial tilt and a rotation rate that is slower than the time taken for major atmospheric events to form, yet significantly faster than a year, would tend to make the probability of the initial origination of life more likely. Life origination is a gamble, and none of these extreme cases can be excluded. Only if a large number of solo planets were discovered could any statistics be generated.

Once life originates, evolution takes over, and the process of generating ever more complex life forms begins. It is not clear why any of the extreme cases would be less favored for any stage of life, with the exception that a highly glaciated planet would have less area in which it could happen. Even the generation of chlorophyll seems to be independent of these two parameters. The emergence of life from the seas onto land surfaces seems to be independent as well. There is no apparent bar on the emergence of trees, which have figured into the emergence of grasping extremities from the two parameters. Thus, once a planet forms the original cells, most planets with appropriate temperatures would be able to evolve higher life forms, and perhaps lead to an alien civilization that can travel the stars.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Ordering the Grand Transitions

There are several transitions that an alien society must make if it is going to become capable of star travel, for more than some simple probes. These have been called Grand Transitions, in recognition of their importance, in another post. They include
1. Food Sources
2. Baconian Scientific Method
3. Genetic Improvement in Intelligence
4. Population Control
5. Full Recycling
6. Memes for Star Travel

There could be other Grand Transitions, and perhaps they will be uncovered later. For now, these six are singled out as necessary transitions. Food Sources is a label for the transition to civilization, to stable habitation of one area, dependent on the cultivation of food, or some other method of food gathering germane to the planet where it is happening. Essentially, this is the start of civilization, the living in stable cities. It must obviously occur before any others. Next has to be the invention, by some genius, of the scientific method and its communication far and wide, enabling science to begin. Further, it enables scientific thought to begin, and citizens of the alien planet start to incorporate cause-and-effect thinking, with appropriate verification, into the thinking for the daily lives. In essence, the Baconian transition affects everyone, not just scientists and engineers, just as did the food source transition.

After a great deal of science has transpired, the civilization develops genetics, and begins to improve its gene pool, leading to many improvements in the successive generations of citizens, none of which is more important that providing high levels of intelligence to everyone. Each young alien is a very smart alien, and then the scientific revolution approaches top speed. This does not have to come next, however.

Population control is a necessary transition, as without it the Petri dish effect is possible, as long as there is a portion of the population which does not participate in the genetic intelligence improvement transition, and acts to continuously increase population and the drain on resources. This could come in several ways, perhaps by an introduction of artificial gestation, by regulation, or voluntary control. It could occur before the intelligence transition, or after.

The recycling transition might happen simultaneously with other ones. The onset of this transition would be the voluntary recycling of the most valuable, i.e., hard to obtain, materials, and does not require any change in the form of the city in which the citizens live. But as the transition proceeds further, there must be a change in habitat, so that recycling can be done over more materials and to a higher degree. As noted elsewhere, the recycling efficiency rate, or the equivalent loss rate for individual materials, may be the limiting factor on the duration of the civilization. If the transition is delayed, the amount of materials remaining on the planet in available form, or elsewhere in the solar system if it is economical to transport them to the inhabited planet, would be less, meaning that leaving the home world to find materials elsewhere would have to occur earlier. This transition can start before population control, but it cannot reach completion as long as population is growing. Thus, it can overlap but not end before population control. On some alien worlds, it could occur before the genetic intelligence transition concludes. These three have a complex relationship, but they can all overlap to some degree.

The last transition, the development of memes for star travel, can occur at any time following the discoveries of other planets around other solar systems, or even before if the civilization somehow imagines or anticipates what they will find. Once the knowledge of exo-planets, i.e. habitable planets existing in other solar systems, if obtained and becomes widespread, the memes can start to emerge. It will likely take some strong visionary in each alien world to come up with this meme, and to see that it is accepted and propagated. In a previous post, the psychology that might motivate such a visionary to arise and motivate the citizens of his world to adopt that meme was elaborated. Since it is a natural thing to expect in any civilization that was stable, it should be able to happen at any time following the exo-planet observations. Clearly they are some time after the Baconian transition, but may occur before even one of the other three following ones comes to completion.

Actually, these star-travel memes are not simply memes that relate to voyaging to other planets; they are memes that relate to how the civilization values itself, or about what within the civilization the citizens single out as important to preserve and propagate. This inspiration of the entire civilization, which is inherent in the designation of a particular star travel meme, does more than set the sights of the civilization on the stars. It also motivates themselves to improve their society, and to thrust aside obstacles that hinder their achievement of star travel. Once the citizens become accustomed to looking outward for their destiny, the concerns that they may have had since origination or since the foundation of their cities, or perhaps since certain technological steps became clear, can be addressed and dissolved.

In the alternative situation, the lack of any visionary citizen who could have inspired the citizens of the alien world to ‘reach for the stars’ might slow down the changes that the civilization has to do, in other words, the absence of an inspiring figure could delay the progress of the three large Grand Transitions, and allow problems and objections to them to gain more traction. In the worst case, if the viewpoint of the citizens never makes the transition from short-term, individually-oriented thinking to the long-term, species-oriented thinking, these three Grand Transitions might be delayed so long the momentum for completing them is lost, and the civilization fails to move forward. The planet would become what was nicknames, a plateau planet.

On such a planet, the civilization reaches a point and stays there. Since there is likely to be an overshoot of technology and development, the civilization might lose some of its technological capability and slide a bit back to where it was some time before. As noted in the post on plateau planets, this might be a permanent loss, meaning they never recover, or they might decline far enough so that there was a more-or-less sudden traumatic event which leads to a revolution in thinking and a re-start of the climb to asymptotic technology and all the trappings that go along with it.

In summary, there is one gradual transition, followed by one sudden transition, followed by three gradual transitions which may overlap. Almost independent of these is the sixth transition, which can serve to turbocharge the previous three, or in the alternative, allow them to burn out and the civilization to regress in its absence. This effect is reminiscent of the effect of the equivalent of Sir Francis Bacon, without whom technology doesn’t get going. Without the visionary for star travel, the alien civilization lacking him/her/it simply plods along and most likely reaches a peak before slipping back to a past state.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Great Filter – The Post Office

How does science and technology actually get started in an alien civilization? In the early days of the civilization, when only primitive tools and items were being produced, a producer of them could teach his offspring the techniques, or even take in offspring of nearby sources as apprentices. The tools themselves could be traded if such things were established; otherwise they would only exist in the place where they originated. This type of behavior, involving specialized labor, can occur when there is a civilization proficient enough at providing for itself that some citizens can devote some or all of their time to specialization, such as tool-making. In the earliest days of the life of the alien species, there was no opportunity for specialization. This requires a larger social unit, bigger than a hunting group or some other group which has only a few individuals in it. Competition between the individuals has to diminish somewhat, so that an individual who can produce a better tool can do so for individuals other than himself.

Most likely, specialization of labor cannot exist in a nomadic community; some settled community is necessary. And after that, for a long period, tool-making stays very closely connected with utility. Tricks and techniques are developed, perhaps accidentally or by trial-and-error, and remembered. They are taught to the apprentices, and tool-making advances bit by bit over generations. This is not science. It has nothing to do with understanding the cause-and-effect relationships, or let us say, coming up with a theory of why something works better than something else. Utility is a hard driver, and it does not promote abstract thinking at the earliest stages of learning.

Abstract thinking requires the dedication of time. For some alien citizen to have that time available, the society must be relatively prosperous, and the citizen involved has to somehow amass enough resources so they are not constantly involved with producing things for survival. So, there needs to be some mechanism by which an individual can find the time free for abstract thinking. Furthermore, they need access to materials with which to experiment. In the earliest days, there would likely be those who engage in abstract thinking, such as happened here on Earth with gurus and others in similar roles. These individuals would not be coming from a basis in tool-making, however.

Some individual has to somehow collect the resources needed to support abstract thinking, and then those resources have to be provided to someone capable of it, either the same individual, a descendant of the collecting citizen, or some appointed person chosen for their ability. Once the resource question is resolved, the citizen who is now responsible for figuring out things in a more coherent way can begin his/her/its work.

But abstract thinking is difficult. Having an isolated individual working alone and coming up with new abstract theories, in a situation where experiment can prove someone wrong, is conceivable, but unlikely. So there could be a situation where the collecting authority dispenses the resources to multiple individuals who act in consort, but in the earliest days of technology, there aren’t that many individuals standing around with their hand outstretched, waiting to engage in abstract thinking. That there is one available at any place and time, in this early era, is fortunate. So what happens?

This is where communication comes in. If, in different parts of the planet, there are individuals capable of doing abstract thinking, and who have been so fortunate as to find a sponsor for their work and their time, and they can communicate with one another, abstract ideas can be slowly generated. The number of individuals with genius genes, and who are able to recognize their own skills, see how to use them, obtain sponsorship, and produce something useful in this area, is likely very, very small. Somehow they would have to hear about one another, and somehow they would need to communicate.

Operating in an isolated fashion, such an individual might not produce anything particularly useful, and the sponsorship that they had found would cease. Thus, without some additional means of generating ideas for these abstract theories, of verifying them, of pointing out flaws and errors, and all the various modes of interchange that active scientists rely upon, the initial attempt at science would fail.

To find out where such individuals are requires some sort of news to be shared between locales where resources are sufficient to support such an endeavor and where a person who collects resources has the opinion that such thinking should be supported. There might not be many locales, but if there are some, some means of communication has to exist. By this time, writing would certainly have been invented, and not only writing, but writing technology to allow the transfer of information over distances. Writing technology has to have progressed far enough so that it involves lightweight, portable means of communication, and the technology has to have spread to all these locales where bright individuals are ensconced. Beyond the ability to write in a way that is portable and lasting, there has to be a medium of communication, some common language, or at least an ability to translate any differences in language or dialect that exist in different locales. Since we are talking about primitive times, it is not likely that one single language has yet replaced all the original ones that arose in small groups.

One last thing is necessary for the dawn of science. There has to be some way for writing to be transmitted from one locale to another. Call it the Post Office. This might involve any means of carrying written materials from one location to another. Before science in invented, there is only one option. Some citizens have to be devoted to the ferrying of information, in written form, from one place to another. More specialization of labor happens. When this is established, the first thing to happen is that information about the appointment of individuals to positions where they can concoct theoretical explanations of phenomena has to be spread to all the other locations. After this, the obvious exploitation of the transmittal service has to happen. The individuals have to start communicating, and sharing their own formulations of why something happens. They would also share what experiments they have done, and what results were obtained. After this step, the invention and implementation of a post office, science, in the sense of theorizing about cause and effect in an abstract manner, can begin. One could say that civilizations that are more hermit-like, and do not communicate between regions, and have no post office, will not develop technology. So, one possibility for a Great Filter that prevents aliens from visiting us is the Post Office.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Selfishness and Altruism in Alien Civilizations

Selfishness and altruism have roots deep in evolution. Evolution is all about making genetic copies of the genes a creature possesses. Sometimes selfishness promotes the copy number and occasionally, altruism promotes it. This should be the same wherever evolution works, and in order for planets to possess intelligent life, they have to evolve it, unless they are colonies of a planet that did. So alien civilizations should, at an early part of their history, have individuals who display both selfish behavior and altruistic behavior.

Making gene copies is promoted by selfish behavior, as selfish behavior leads to two transient advantages, both of which lead to more gene copies. One is survival, and as long as making gene copies can be done by a creature, staying alive to do it makes sense. The other is access to resources needed to make gene copies and to preserve the ones which already exist. Different species might do this differently. In a species that has sexual reproduction, access to the other sex might be improved by having resources, meaning possessions, food sources, command authority in a group, or knowledge. Preservation of existing gene copies is promoted by the same set of possibilities.

In a species which demonstrates group behavior, and in which the genes of all the members of the group are similar, altruism that promotes the survival and reproduction of other members of the group is almost as significant for making gene copies of an individual as reproduction of the creature itself, and in some situations, may be more significant. Thus, in any alien society, these two behavioral modes should be visible.

After the alien species achieves some more brain power, gene copying is promoted by adult creatures teaching young creatures how to live, which is obviously a way to make gene copies. By assisting those who carry a creature’s genes to make copies of their own genes, they promote their own gene copying, and make evolution very happy. So, inter-generational information transfer soon becomes a mechanism for enhancing the making of gene copies. For this to work, memes have to be initiated. In other words, it is not enough to teach the descendants of a creature to better cope with the world, the first generation has to ensure that the second generation does the same thing, and teaches the third generation the same lessons. This is akin to having both hardware and software being copies, generation to generation. There is a hidden feature here. Where did the first knowledge come from? From trial and error, and experimentation on the part of some creature in an early generation, or it could be that the initial information that was bundled into teaching slowly emerged from genetic information. In other words, evolution could oversee a transfer of information about how to cope with the world from genes to memes. Perhaps the coding of information transfer is easier or more efficient if the genes code for inter-generational information transfer, rather than have all the information encoded into the genes themselves.

Once there has been some transfer of inter-generational information sharing from gene encoding to memes, everything works well, unless there is an interruption of the process, and some generation is left without any information transfer. Perhaps that is a recipe for a short life span and no gene copies, and only those creatures who specialize in maintaining the necessary environment for meme transfer spread their genes.

After this mechanism is established, then the additional learning that a generation gets from trial and error can be incorporated. It is so nice to see how evolution leads to tool use and the inter-generational teaching of the making and use of tools. The beginnings of technology have deep evolutionary roots. At this point, a blending of meme transfer and altruism can play a role, so that instead of a creature only informing his/her/its own descendants, the meme transfer can take place within the social group that exists. Education and training get invented by evolution.

In a sense, everything up to this point is on the track laid out by evolution. Evolution provides a motivation for certain behaviors because they lead to increased numbers of gene copies. But at this point, alien civilizations can start to diverge from this track because the cost of training and education is so low, compared to other survival behaviors. With a larger brain, superfluous memes can be invented, and there is little pressure to eliminate them. Perhaps the same can be said of genetic information. Carrying around genes that no longer code for anything is reasonably cheap for an organism, so there is little pressure to reduce the number of genes to the minimum needed for coding the entire organism. However, there are few visible signs of outmoded and left-behind genes. The signs of outmoded and no-longer-useful for increased gene copies memes are more visible. A creature learning things, or mis-learning things, can throw them into the stew of what is taught to the next generation, and if they do not necessarily reduce the number of gene copies made, they will survive.

For each generation, they have to learn the memes necessary for them to regulate their two alternative behavioral choices, selfishness and altruism. If these memes become corroded, but not so corroded that they do not provide some benefits, and if the environment is such that they have little effect on the actual number of gene copies made, the corroded memes can be preserved and propagated. By corroded, it is meant that the behaviors induced do not have an effect on gene copies, or if they do, they are far from optimal. But other factors in the environment overwhelm the corroded memes. So we can have memes building up the equivalent of ‘junk genes’, if such genes actually exist, and being promulgated. If the memes are part of a set, some of which are corroded, but the other part is effective, the whole shebang will be preserved. There is not much opportunity, except possibly over long times and with low effectiveness, of eliminating these corroded memes.

What this means is that there could be memes existing in the alien civilization that we cannot predict, as they are random choices that are not eliminated. It could also be that these corroded memes interfere with the civilization passing one or more of the grand transitions that it needs to do in order to reach the ability for star travel. There could be a meme related to selfishness that, in a resource-rich environment, promotes some sort of hierarchical structure which acts to preserve itself, and the act of preservation inhibits technology. There could be a meme related to altruism that leads to a Petri dish situation, where the resources are exhausted. Do not forget that memes are encoded deep into young individuals’ learning, and are only rarely questioned and challenged. Thus, corroded memes can possibly inhibit or prevent an alien civilization from traveling the stars, and coming to meet us. Can it actually happen – this should be investigated more deeply.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Effect of Short Duration Alien Civilizations

In a previous post, there was some detailed thinking about how hard it would be to maintain an alien civilization on its home planet for a million years. The problem that arises is resource exhaustion. Even supposing that the alien civilization is good at recycling the materials of the planet, the inevitable losses will run the alien civilization out of resources in shorter times than that. Perhaps there are solutions, such as using the resources of moons within their home solar system. These will do little more than double or triple the duration of the civilization, at best. There is no option for interstellar resupply, as the costs are too great. Some concepts about turning part of the civilization into a regenerative system will help with certain materials, but again, this is a factor of a few. This post considers what would be the effect of alien civilizations all having short durations on their home planets, for example, a hundred thousand years.

This concept promotes resource exhaustion as a reason for interstellar migration. Instead of waiting until there was stellar death in their solar system, which is of the order of billions of years, or some galactic peril, or some planetary peril, which might come earlier, of the order of tens of millions of years, they have to move on to a different solar system in a short time, relatively speaking. Suppose the alien civilization recognizes what the limitation on its survival is, and has a meme that induces the civilization to maintain itself. If it was capable of multiple colonization attempts at one time, this would be sort of suicidal. With only a certain number of planets able to host them, for reasons of habitability, having multiple worlds going at one time would run them out of planets even faster. So, the best they can do to survive in the galaxy, is to have one colony at a time, and when, despite their best efforts at recycling and minimization of consumption, they start to hit the exhaustion limit of that colony planet, they need to move on.

The galaxy is of the order of ten billion years old. If this alien civilization was a early starter, and life evolved on the planet after only a billion years, they would have the whole galaxy to colonize before being forced to either leave the galaxy or die out in defeat. Suppose they have, on the average, a hundred thousand years on a planet before resource exhaustion sets in. That means, to survive a billion years, they must do ten thousand migrations. Now comes the question of how many habitable planets are there, at a particular time in the galaxy’s history. There may be only of the order of thousands. This would mean that no alien civilization can endure for the life of the galaxy.

Note also that finding successive colony worlds will become harder and harder. At first they can explore near their home world, perhaps traveling up to a hundred light years away. But this sphere will become empty of future worlds for them, and they are forced to travel further each time. We have not considered what might be a maximum travel distance for a colony ship, but this effect could exacerbate the difficulty they face. To travel further would require more expense, in terms of resources, which also makes the problems more difficult.

What would the galaxy look like after a billion years of this one early starter moving from world to world. There would be thousands of hulks left behind, where there had been mining and extraction of resources, and then abandonment. A second alien civilization that managed to get started somewhere, in another solo world, would either find itself on a planet that had been mined already, or in an galactic environment where they had few worlds left to migrate to. They might be in a solar system that formed later in the life of the galaxy. Their planet could have formed long after the original alien civilization had burnt out, in other words, after they had exhausted all the solar systems they could reach. Now comes a new civilization circling a newer star, and after life evolves on that planet and reaches intelligence, moves up in technological capability, starts star flight development, only to find there is almost nowhere for them to go.

They would find that all the solar systems around older stars in which there were planets meeting their habitability conditions had only hulks awaiting them. On the other hand, if Earth is a good example, there would be geological processes on these old hulks that submerged the original crust and recycled newer crust material to the surface, giving them a new start. On such a planet, there are subduction zones in which older crust materials sinks back into the mantle, and the opposite as well, where new mantle material seeps out onto the surface. This brings new materials to the surface. The time scale for this continental recycling is of the order of billions of years for a complete recycling. Thus, it might not be hulks that the new civilization finds, but pristine planets, or ones that have been scavenged on the older crustal material but not on the new part.

The results of these two competing timescales leads to some interesting possibilities. Can the original alien civilization we initially used as an example, which originated early in the history of the galaxy, find enough worlds to move to so they can survive long enough to eventually return to their home world after a billion years to find it rejuvenated, crust-wise, and able to support another short duration of resource extraction by the same occupants who originally stripped it dry?
The answer would likely be yes, if the alien civilization in the example decided to only maintain a minimum population on their home world and especially on any colony worlds. Recall that there is a tradeoff between population and resource exhaustion time. If the alien world decides to reduce their population down to something like a minimum, perhaps ten million citizens, they would greatly extend their potential duration on each world they inhabit, and in the galaxy in general.

There would certainly be many interesting aspects of this situation. One is the living standard of the aliens. If the average alien has fifty robots and fifty intellos engaged in providing him/her/it with all the needs and wants that they might have, the average consumption rate per alien citizen would be much higher. If a much smaller number of robots and intellos were used, their duration is equivalently longer. Another aspect is that performing a migration might be more difficult with a smaller population. There might be a minimum number of citizens needed to pull off this stunt.

The density of hulk planets is controlled by the duration of an average civilization on a colony planet. Thus, the future of a new civilization is controlled by how many previous civilizations there were before them, exhausting the supply of new planets. This may explain why no aliens have showed up here. There was nowhere for them to colonize and they all went extinct.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pathways to Idiocracy Part II

The first part of this duo of posts describes a pathway to idiocracy caused by the effects of affluence on reproduction rate, in a period of time for an alien civilization after they had made some technology advance or advances that eliminated, temporarily, the selection effect of fitness. In that situation, if the reproduction rate balance between those with smart genes and those without them was tipped toward the non-smart, and significantly so, the smart portion of the population would decline and the civilization would arrive at idiocracy.

There is another pathway as well. Perhaps there are many, but this blog is going to describe one which depends not on differential reproduction rates, but on gene combination effects. In the post on genius genes, it was pointed out that there might be a combination of genes necessary for genius. Here we investigate the idea that there might be a combination of genes necessary for higher tiers of intelligence.

Suppose that for someone to be smarter than some threshold, they had to have four genes. These four genes were floating around in the gene pool, and only when someone got all four did they have a chance of being smart. Being smart is a combination of genetic effects and upbringing, so having the four genes is not guarantee of the smartness emerging; there has to be customs within the civilization to tolerate and indeed promote intelligence and high intelligence. For the purpose of our discussion, let’s take it as a given that the population is promoting intelligence through upbringing customs.

Let’s suppose this alien world is still divided into geographic areas, being far from the point where unification makes sense. Each geographic area remained separated for a long period of time, with only sporadic interchange between them. Let’s suppose that the isolation time started back when intelligence was first emerging among the creatures that lived on the planet, and it largely was maintained, with whatever exceptions that occurred being temporary. Perhaps two groups merged at one point, or perhaps one group split up. Perhaps there was a migration of a small fraction from one group, where they couldn’t get along with the majority, and they were accepted into another group which was more conducive to whatever was their uniqueness. But by and large, there were separate groups evolving under the particular conditions of their own geographic area.

Also assume for the purpose of exploratory thinking, that one of the geographic areas put more selection pressure out for intelligent solutions to whatever problems with living that this area had. Perhaps it had horrible storms, requiring more preparation and storing of goods. Perhaps it had more vicious pests, which required careful thinking about how to remain un-infected. Perhaps the seasons were more extreme, requiring more planning on a yearly cycle. Perhaps there were resources that could be tapped by the intelligent that would lead to short-term benefits, including reproduction rate. Perhaps there was something else, but no matter which perhaps is correct, something drives this particular geographic area toward smartness faster than any of the other areas.

They make technology advances in this area. They figure out something to help themselves, but in so doing, they receive in return a strong bump up in genius genes. Now the population has a gene pool with a good fraction of genius genes, and the probability that some new alien gets the combination of four or whatever to make a genius happens pretty frequently, at least frequently enough to provide a subpopulation of really smart aliens who can solve problems, not only those specific to their geographic area, but in general. Perhaps one of them does a Francis Bacon maneuver, and initiates real scientific advances. Now their area is getting ahead of the others, and technology is blooming there.

Note this is something that has not been discussed in detail in this blog. Geographic divisions that have differential growth rates in technology may have some other effects that have not been discussed. Here we only discuss how this can fold back into the idiocracy question.

Technology would likely diffuse to other areas, by traders or travelers or migrants or lost wanderers or hunters who went too far off course, or any of a number of other options. What happens if the technology can be transferred to other areas? In other words, what happens if the use of the technology doesn’t require any genius genes or even great intelligence, just the ability to imitate. Research on this planet requires serious smarts; use doesn’t. Now we have the whole planet benefiting from the advances of the geographic area which was singled out for special selection pressure. Now we have affluence everywhere, and from the previous post, we can guess that it might have reproduction rate effects.

Whoa! With technology comes mobility and with mobility comes migration. Recall that the only reason there were geniuses in the selected geographic area was because the population of genius genes of the four types was high enough in the selected area so that the combination of all four needed ones would happen frequently enough to make all the genius aliens needed to promote technology past the Baconian transition and onto rapid advances. But now, when migration occurs and gene pools start to blend, the rate of occurrence of genius genes drops down by some factor, and now probabilities of getting all four drop down by the same factor to the fourth power. This fourth power kills off genius.

Consider what fourth power means. Just suppose each of the genius genes in the original geographic area had a rate of 10%. That means that one of every ten has one of them, and a random selection provides all four at a rate of one in ten thousand. If the population has a million people, there are a hundred geniuses producing brilliant results for all to share.

Now lets suppose that through gene pool blending, there are now ten times as many non-smart genes as before. The new rate of genius genes is 1%. Having all four is that to the fourth power, or one in a hundred million. The total population has ten million people, in other words, each of ten geographic areas had a million each and they merged. Now there is one genius every ten generations. Goodbye to technology advances. Goodbye to the maintenance of the technology existing prior to the merger of gene pools. Goodbye to the chances of star travel. Hello to ten thousand years of selection effects to get back to the level of geniuses in the population that existed before the merger. Perhaps exhaustion of resources will occur before this, or some peril will strike, or some wars occur, and the civilization is doomed to never traveling to the stars. All because of geographic distinctions…

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Pathways to Idiocracy Part I

Idiocracy is a word used in a previous blog to indicate an alien civilization which did not have enough exceptionally smart people to be able to propel it to the next stage of technology development, or in the worst case, to even maintain the existing level of technology or the existing living standards. In that blog, the description of the situation was elaborated, in that it did not simply mean no geniuses, but it meant that the fraction of the population who were geniuses, or near genius, or just pretty smart, was too small to form the critical mass necessary to overcome the lack of smarts problem. Only one pathway was hypothesized there: if there arose a negative view of intelligence, so that it became a downselected trait, the intelligence level that had led to the civilization climbing to wherever it did would be lost, and the civilization would descend to an earlier level. Perhaps it would be permanent, or perhaps after some traumatic generations, high intelligence would again become rewarded, and the civilization would get a second chance to climb out of the morass of universal low intelligence.

There are other pathways to idiocracy, and if we are trying to find out if this is the actual Great Filter that stops most alien civilizations from coming to Earth, we need to explore them so it will be possible to see if one is inevitable, or at least so likely the number of alien civilizations with star travel is in the low single digits. If the numbers are that low, other obstacles, not Great Filters but just serious problems, could have hit each of them, and this would explain the lack of alien ships hovering over our cities.

To try and do a normative analysis of how an alien civilization could wind up in an idiocracy, it is useful to carefully define what one is. We are not describing a political situation, where there are bright people all over who could advance technology, but some warlord or other governing functionary is of the frame of mind to want stasis, preserving for himself and perhaps his descendants, what he/she/it regards as a fine set of circumstances, at least for himself and his closest minions. This is another type of Great Filter. We are not describing a situation where customs prevent the teaching of technology to young aliens, because of some unlucky choice of memes by those important citizens who have the influence to establish the memes and do so in such a way that technology is anathema. This is again a different type of Great Filter. We are not talking about a civilization where there are smart people, but they just do not understand how to do science and are constantly distracted by extraneous considerations, such as magical thinking; this is the Baconian Great Filter, which has been discussed and mentioned extensively in this post. Instead, we are talking about a situation where the genetics needed to produce smart-enough individuals is not there. However many genes there are in this particular alien genome for high intelligence, the civilization doesn’t have them in any significant numbers. Now we can ask, how could they get that way?

Smartness is evolutionarily selected, so in earlier eras of the alien civilization we are talking about, there were genes around in the gene pool for smartness, and since that conferred an advantage, in the earlier situation where fitness was still determining which genes were selected, they would have grown in numbers. Perhaps a society at that level of technology, almost nil, doesn’t need all smart people, and instead it needs lots of people to do what the few smart people tell them to do in order to build the infrastructure the civilization needs and to prepare for various possible events, such as battling tribes or bad weather. Nonetheless, smart people genes get selected to some degree, and do not disappear except by chance.

What could cause this to change? To phrase this another way, what could stop the process of evolution from doing its usual thing and provide better gene pools for each generation? The answer is obvious. When fitness ceases to be the selection criteria for reproduction rate, evolution turns off and anything can happen. What would cause fitness to cease being a measure? One answer is affluence. If there is a large change in society, caused by some technological innovation or discovery, so that reproduction rate was controlled by desire for reproduction, rather than fitness in a competitive environment, this could happen. In other words, the civilization produces enough bright people to invent their way into a wealthy society, measured by their past standards where fitness was culling the population, and then stays there for a while, perhaps the inventions come fast and furious, idiocracy can find its way in.

The numbers can work out in two ways. One is a relative sense. If bright people reproduce at their normal rate, and others reproduce not at the rate that existed formerly which was controlled by fitness or lack of it, nor at the average rate that bright people have, but at a significantly higher rate, the population distribution would tend toward lack of intelligence. The other way is an absolute sense. If bright people simply are affected by affluence so that their reproduction level drops below 1, their numbers will decline. This is ignoring the mixing effects that happen between bright and non-bright people, and instead just uses for illustration the idea of two separate populations reproducing separately. In other words, affluence could either boost the reproduction rate of the non-bright or diminish the reproduction rate of the bright, and idiocracy comes calling.
Affluence is used here to represent the change in the standard of living, but if there was any aspect of affluence or of the technological changes in general that promoted either of these two effects on reproduction rate, it would accomplish the same thing. These changes might be unnoticed for a while, but that is hard to imagine as lasting a long time, but alternatively, the civilization could have such short term vision that it did not substantially care about what was happening to future generations of aliens. Thus, besides affluence, there has to be a direction of attention toward the present or very near future, and less thinking, perhaps almost none, about the long term implications of changes in society.

As noted in the previous post on grand transitions, short term thinking is the starting situation for a primitive society, and there is a grand transition to long-term thinking that comes at some technology level. Obviously, idiocracy has to hit before this grand transition happens, because once the alien civilization starts worrying about its long term future, they would realize they were in a descent into idiocracy and do something about it. As noted there, it might be resisted for long enough to destroy the chances of the society for dealing with it, as once idiocracy sets in, it would take a long period of a return to fitness selection before genius genes would arise again. If the genes were essentially lost, we are talking about mutation times, not selection times. Mutation times might be ten or a hundred or even more times as long as the time needed for selection effects to produce a population change.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Does Common Morality Play a Role in Technological Development?

The search for factors that might explain why no aliens have visited Earth needs to be wide and deep. It is not enough to look at the easy concepts, like cost of starships or failure to originate life. We are on the verge, observationally, of detecting at least one signature of life on other planets, oxygen in the atmosphere. If a planet is not generating oxygen via photosynthesis, any oxygen in the atmosphere soon becomes bound to rocks or as carbonate or otherwise, and disappears. So, if astronomers see oxygen, it is a solid clue that life exists on the planet, and has existed there for a long time. It takes of the order of a hundred million years to replace an atmosphere. At least that is an estimate of how long it took for Earth to do it, after the evolution of chlorophyll or its immediate antecedents.

This means we should immediately get on with the task of anticipating why planets with life on them have not sent visitors our way. It would be good to have this task finished up before the observations are finished, so we don’t have to waste time figuring it out after the observations are done. Recall that understanding this question may provide us with information we can use to regulate our own lives here on Earth.

This post asks the question: Does morality play any role in technological development? If it does, and the aliens on some other planet have evolved intelligence, but they chose the wrong morality, then they never got technology going very far, and of course, never built themselves a starship. Morality is only one of many possibilities, but to cast the net wide, we should consider it.

What exactly do we mean by morality? Morality is part of philosophy, and it is also part of the credos or memes that we propagate from generation to generation. Morality specifically can refer to a set of decision-making rules that someone could use to determine how to act. More practically, morality can refer to a set of decision-making rules that somebody else uses to figure out some general guidelines for behavior, perhaps a bit more specific than the original founding set of rules, and then propagates them via some medium to the population. In other words, the memes are too general for everyday use, and somebody or somebodies try to take them and figure out more explicit examples for citizens to follow. On an alien world, we might have A, the set of rules that everybody thinks is great, and B) the elaborated set of examples and behaviors and whatever else is needed to govern daily life, which everybody might think are great, but at least they feel a compulsion to follow them most of the time.

In the early days of the alien world, there might be different groups, probably in different areas, which had not had enough interaction so that one choice of A and one choice of B became universal. We could have the north A and B, the east A and B, the west A and B, and the south A and B, as an example. Technology might be developed either in the north, the east, the west or the south on this planet, if just one of them had the right morality that somehow engendered technology development.

What type of morality would favor technology development on an alien planet? We are talking about a solo world here, as if the planet was a colony of some other planet, they would have long past technology development. The driving force of technology development is cause and effect. If a morality does not believe in cause and effect, instead ascribing phenomena to some magic influence, then there would be no motivation by someone falling under this morality to expect to do science. Instead, a morality which supports and encourages technology development must include a strong belief in cause and effect. If the support that the morality has for cause and effect is universal, the citizens under it will believe that their own future success is governed by their own behavior. In other words, a cause-and-effect supporting morality will also encourage its followers to take actions to better their futures.

What futures can a morality comprehend? There can be the future of tomorrow, or the future of later in life, or the future of some afterlife. If the espousal of cause-and-effect is thorough-going, it will imply that for all of them.

Another component of support for technology development concerns the training of the next generation of young aliens. If part of the meme does not cover the responsibility of someone to train the next generation, there will not be a core of young adult aliens willing and ready to proceed to improve their future, or if altruism is incorporated into the morality, the future of others. The support could also be embodied in the expansion of the rules by some citizen who chose to do this and who was effective at having his version of the implementation of the basic memes accepted. In other words, it could be in the A or in the B, but support for the education of young aliens, even up to young adulthood, has to be included. Furthermore, this education has to be broad enough so that technology is included. If technology is not looked on with favor by the morality, it will likely not be included in the educational curriculum supported by it. So, this aspect of morality needs to be clear, that education of young aliens is mandatory and someone has the defined responsibility for it, and it should include in it technology. If technology is regarded as foolish, or as possessing some taint of immorality, then the portion of the alien primitive society that has these rules will not develop technology.

Morality is another component of the memes that are passed down generation to generation, and it is an earlier one than the one we customarily discuss in this blog, the meme relating to star travel. Yet it should be clear that without the right choice of a morality meme, at least in one segment, perhaps geographic, of the population, technology will not develop and the civilization will stay at a low level. The segment does not have to be geographic, it could also relate to specific subgroups of aliens, however they divide themselves. But the morality has to be correct in order for the civilization to advance to star travel capability.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Why Aren’t Beavers Intelligent?

Is the evolution of intelligence rare, in the sense that only a very unique and specific set of circumstances could cause it? If it is, then perhaps intelligence is the Great Filter that prevents aliens from visiting Earth. If all the planets that are habitable are full of non-intelligent species, then the only answer to the no-alien question is intelligence.

In a previous post, there was a discussion about how communication and tool-making were the principal evolutionary advantages that intelligence first provides. These two things, perchance, are the ones which cause certain species to rise up out of the average situation, and begin to think conceptually. This has only happened once on Earth, as far as we know, and if we do not draw the line for intelligence too low. However, there are some very clever mammals here on Earth, with one of the foremost being the beaver, and the question is, why hasn’t the beaver, or something else other than a particular primate, developed intelligence?

Beavers are very likely candidates for evolution into intelligent creatures from one standpoint. They are nicknamed, ‘Nature’s engineers’. Beavers are responsible for changing the landscape of wherever they live, back in the days before they were exterminated for their fur by humans. Beavers build dams, which impound water, creating ponds. The ponds change the habitat of the surrounding area, by providing an area for fish to live, for wild life to drink in times of drought or dry seasons, for plants which require nearby water to thrive, for other water-living mammals, such as otters, to live, and much more. As part of the dam, they build a burrow, with typically several underwater entrances. They stock edible branches underwater to survive a winter, even in areas where the stream they engineered freezes over. The burrows provide habitat for several other species, so they can survive in the winter.

There is a tremendous difference between an area with a stream that has not had any beavers for a few decades, and one in which beavers have had free play. The stream will be subject to drying up in a drought, but because beavers also dredge channels as well as build dams, there will be water lasting through the drought. Dams might be built every few hundred meters in a stream with enough vertical drop, which means that there will be less velocity to the water, except where the overflow of the dam is, and therefore less erosion and less soil carried downstream. Because of the silt collection upstream of the dams, the land will have excellent soil conditions after the stream changes its course and leaves the old course free of water flow.

Beavers accomplish this by knawing down trees, up to 12 inches in diameter, and hauling them both across land and through the water to the lodge and dam. They use their forepaws to hold the branches and trees that have been cut. They also use their forepaws to scoop up mud from the bottom of the pond to provide waterproof layers for the dam.

Beavers communicate their dam-building skills to the younger generation. Typically the second year of a beaver's life is devoted to apprenticeship at the side of their father; then they depart to build their own lodge. Thus, they have rudimentary use of their limbs for construction activities, and can teach skills that are not genetically transmitted. Why didn’t they complete the task of becoming intelligent? Beavers have been building dams in much the same way for twenty million years. This is more than enough time to grow a larger brain and to break through the twin barriers between everything else and intelligent creatures.

The answer seems to lie in the details. Beavers are rodents, and have not developed grasping paws. Their paws remain clawed. They do not climb trees, they only cut them down. In a previous blog, it was noted that trees might be a Great Filter, as without them, there might be no evolution of hands, with or without opposable thumbs. Well, beavers certainly have trees, but they live in lodges, and climbing into a tree would be counter to their normal means of survival. Monkeys and some other primates can escape ground-traveling predators by taking to the trees, where they can travel from one to another in dense forests. Predators need to maintain an ability for speed, and this is opposed to having nimble tree-climbing abilities, at least for larger ones.

Thus, using their forelimbs for carrying and pushing trees into place and so on does not translate into a evolutionary advantage for growing fingers instead of claws. It may be further down that line in that beavers do not inhabit areas of Africa where the basic evolution of intelligence occurred, and so did not experience the same environment that drove tree-climbing and hands.

They also communicate, and in two ways. One is the warning signal that beavers give when a predator is seen. This is a tailslap against the water surface. This sends a noise both underwater and through the air, so any beaver within some distance would be able to hear and recognize it, and take immediate action to preserve themselves. Beavers have great breath-holding abilities, but it is hard to see how vocalization could occur underwater with the same type of apparatus as it would occur in the air. Whales and dolphins can certainly vocalize underwater, but not well on land. The types of sound are different. The other type of communication is through gesture and example. This is used for tutelage. The part of the brain that recognizes physical motion and enables imitation of it is not connected with the part that makes vocal sounds. It is true that some systems of communication for deaf people, e.g., sign language, are very rich in capability, but there is no obvious advantage to be gained for a beaver to master symbolic communication. Thus, the second avenue for intelligence, communication of something as simple as a noun-verb combination, is blocked.

What we are approaching here is a slightly better understanding of why intelligence has not occurred multiple times on Earth, and why it might not have occurred on alien planets. Of all the environments that have existed on Earth over the last several million years, only the African savannah provided the right environment for intelligence to spring up. If other planets have not had any long period with this type of environment, they could very well be of the type surmised at the beginning of this blog: nothing but non-intelligent life running around.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Great Filter – Mitochondria

Mitochondria, small chemical processing organelles located inside almost all cells, from bacteria on up, are usually thought to have originated when one bacteria swallowed another, and instead of dissolving, the internal one continued to survive in the cytoplasm of the larger cell. Dating methods indicate that the initial incorporation occurred about 2 billion years ago.

There has been no evolution to multi-cellular organisms of those primitive bacteria which do not contain mitochondria. This implies that they are necessary for further evolution. Alternatively, there might have been a spurt of multi-cellular organisms without mitochondria, but they became extinct for some reason, perhaps in competition with those that do have mitochondria.
The majority of the chemical processing that the mitochondria do is the preparation of adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP), which is the chemical fuel used by many processes within the cell. Why is it so beneficial for cells to have mitochondria? One guess is that the processes that involve the highest energy levels are disruptive to other protein manufacturing or membrane maintenance or some other cellular functions. It is better for cells to encapsulate this energy production behind the mitochondria’s double membrane structure. There the energy production processes can more safely operate. Rupture of the mitochondrial membranes can lead to cell death.

Another reason might have occurred later in the evolutionary process. Different cells have different numbers of mitochondria in most organisms, and having a simply reproducible unit that can respond to the differing levels of energy requirements in cells would appear to be an advantage. Mitochondria dump ATP back into the cell plasma, but they likely also monitor the levels there, and can respond by dividing into two as many times as necessary to produce the level of ATP that the cell needs to consume for efficient operations. As an example, liver cells can contain a thousand mitochondria, as compared to some other cells which might only have a few.

Thus, the initial generation of mitochondria a couple of billion years ago could represent a Great Filter. The mitochondria we see now have evolved along with the cells for these two billion years, and it is not clear just what the initial bacteria that was able to survive inside the cellular wall of another bacteria was composed of. It is known that mitochondrial DNA is the most diverse group of it, as there are many coding differences between the DNA of mitochondria from widely different organisms. This does not necessarily mean that one bacteria was incorporated into another bacteria multiple times, as simple mutations might have resulted in the coding differences, which are not substantial and only affect a one or a few coding sequences, often concerned with STOP codes, the four amino acid sequence that dictates that DNA replication should end at a certain position.

Bacterial cell walls are intact, but they can connect with other bacteria and exchange DNA, in what is known as bacterial recombination. This process allows bacteria within the group that exchanges DNA to more quickly respond to a change in environment or to more quickly spread a better gene. Since bacterial reproduce by simple replication, this is an early equivalent of the exchange of DNA that occurs in organisms that have two sexes.
In order to do this recombination, the two bacteria involved would have to contact one another, and the cell walls would have to fuse and then split open. They would then remain open for a while so that there could be a swapping of some chromosomes or possibly even parts of chromosomes. If, when the cells contacted, there was a flaw in both the external bacterial membranes at the point of contact, so that one would split without having linked to the other bacteria’s membrane, and then move over the other bacteria’s membrane to enclose it, before closing again. There would have to be a corresponding flaw in the process that the other, smaller, bacteria had for its membrane, which kept it from splitting. Given that bacterial recombination is an uncommon event in the life of a bacteria, and that two opposite types of defects in the process of cell fusing would have to take place, plus some mechanism to restore the external membrane of the largest cell, plus on top of all that, the ability of the smaller bacteria to survive inside the larger one, we are really looking at a rare event. A large number of highly improbable events exist in this postulated sequence of mitochondrial origination, which means there is a low probability of it happening. This is the recipe for a Great Filter. Naturally, there is no knowledge at this point of how mitochondria originated.

The survival of the dual cell might not be very good. Furthermore, at this point there is no evolutionary advantage to having a second bacteria inside the larger one. How the dual bacteria would reproduce is also interesting. If the internal bacteria was able to take advantage of the chemical soup inside the external bacteria and make copies of itself, when the external bacteria went through its budding and reproduction process, at least one copy of the internal one might be transferred. The existence of the internal bacteria does not seem to provide any advantage to the external one’s survival, and furthermore, the external bacteria needs to find nutrients able to satisfy both its original requirements and those of the internal parasite it is now carrying. This seems to be an evolutionary disadvantage. In an environment that was nutrient rich, it might not be a problem that would threaten the survival of the external bacteria, so this is another condition to be placed upon the survival of the incorporation process.

The evolution or modification of the membrane of the interior bacteria would have to occur soon after the incorporation, whereby it started to provide ATP to the external bacteria. This would change the relationship from a parasitic one to a symbiotic one. Once this happens, and if there really is an increased safety element provided by having no ATP generation in the external bacteria, but only in the interior one, it would seem the high road to evolution of mitochondria has been found.

Perhaps in the history of planet Earth, this combination of events only happened once. Maybe bacterial fusion of two bacteria with complementary flaws in their membrane fusion processes could have happened multiple times, but most times it only resulted in an evolutionary disadvantage, and the dual cell soon became extinct, if it did not die immediately after the incorporation. Similarly, perhaps it happened multiple times, but only once in an environment where there was a plethora of nutrients that existed for long enough for a secondary mutation or multiple mutations in the two cells to occur, where the external one gave up ATP production and the internal one specialized in it. There seems to be so many unlikely combinations that labeling mitochondria a potential candidate for a Great Filter is not outlandish.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Is Collective Ennui Possible in an Alien Civilization?

Consider another point of view of alien civilizations: the individual citizens might feel ennui. There are many factors involved. First off, the activities that the citizens originally evolved to do have been industrialized, and are done by robots or intellos principally. Gathering food or hunting animals or raising crops or catching fish are now just voluntary activities, which the aliens can do when they want to, and ignore whenever they want to. There is just no need for them to do it. Consider rearing young aliens. Any intelligent creatures need a remarkable amount of rearing, meaning learning how to live in the society, how to interact with others, what activities can be done and how to do them well, communications skills, artistic skills, literacy and numeracy, and on and on. These would be done most efficiently by robotic instructors. Gestation is industrial, so there would be no specific young aliens to bond with, although some arrangements to that effect can be imagined. Even advanced activities such as recycling are largely done by industrial processes, and the only interaction the aliens would have would be to ensure that what they used was returned to the recycling stream. What this means is that there are almost no necessities to drive their activities, that almost everything would be voluntary. A particular alien who wanted to do nothing but mope could do it with no repercussions.

Secondly, there is no way to affect society. Everything has been figured out centuries ago, and optimized. Any bright suggestion would have been thought of over and over during the past centuries, and if it were good, used. The same goes for other aliens. Their problems are solvable by the infrastructure of the city, and there is no need for one alien to help another with their health, their psychological problems, any addictions, grooming, appearance, clothing, appliances, living conditions, financial considerations, or anything else. It is done by the city, and done perfectly well, as all problems have been seen before, and there are no new things that would appear that would need any attention of another alien citizen. There is no need to run for office, as the city will run just like it has for centuries without any intervention. It doesn’t significantly change, so there is no need for a citizens’ committee to review proposals, nor for any protests against changes that impact the lives of the citizens. Things which break are replaced by the city, most likely before they have any impact on the lives of the citizens.

Thirdly, differences between alien citizens are largely superficial. Every alien who is gestated has the best genes and receives the best upbringing. They would participate in different voluntary activities, and so their experiences would be different, but there is no subset of individuals, the geniuses, or the charismatic, or the avaricious, or anything else, who are special and who have some activities that they are driven to do or that society needs them to do. All aliens are optimal. So there is little reason for an individual alien to regard themselves as unique or special. This has a serious implication. Any alien would realize that they are dispensible to the city, and if they left or expired, there are ten million more aliens just about the same, and they would not have created any loss by disappearing. There is no special contribution they can make which might change that. It is almost like aliens are ants in a colony or cows on a farm. The loss of one is hardly noticeable.

Fourth, during most of the duration of the civilization, there are no great goals to participate in. If their meme supports star travel, there would be some time when they are establishing the first colonies, or when they are migrating out of the world they inhabit. But the civilization lasts millennia after millennia, maybe even millions of years, and this adventure would last a time scale of the order of centuries, or even less. There might be a peril that arose, a galactic peril, a stellar peril, or a planetary peril, and the civilization would have to deal with it, by migrating or perhaps relocating some cities. Again, this is a task to last centuries at the most.

There are certainly grounds here for us to think that the aliens would suffer from serious cases of ennui, in which they wake up every day with a feeling of uselessness or hopelessness, of complete boredom with the world, of frustration at not being able to matter, of despair, or other very negative emotions. The key here is ‘us’. We would feel this way if thrust into such a society, carrying with ourselves the patterns with which we have been raised, and the background of a society which was totally different. It is not ‘them’. To understand an alien civilization, it is not always a good idea to translate current-day Earth attitudes over to an exo-planet 1000 light years away with different creatures inhabiting it, and many more centuries of experience in dealing with their own situation.

Aliens on their home world or a colony do not grow up with the same attitudes towards their life that we would feel if thrust suddenly into it. We imagine reactions according to our background. Alien life would be based on different principles, and would have activities that would consume the time of alien citizens in a wholly enveloping way. Because there is no need for productive work, productive work of all kinds becomes an avocation, to do for the joy of it, rather than for the necessity of it. Almost all humans work because they have to in order to obtain what they need for survival of themselves and those they support. When that evaporates or disappears, there is a psychological hole to be filled. Loss of income creates a negative pressure, which can lead to despondency. Even if there is income from some sort, there can be a psychological hole. Someone on Earth who has worked for decades and then suddenly is unemployed initially feels like a part of their lives is missing, and it is. This is not how aliens would view work.

A better analogy for aliens’ concept of work is a well-prepared for retirement here on Earth. A retiree on a pension might for a period feel the loss of the ritual of work, but after that, work is voluntary, and there are plenty of activities that can be done to replace it, and which can become as interesting or more so. Earthlings sometimes talk about what they would do if they could retire. Aliens in an advanced civilization already have that option.

We now know of a few forms of artistic creation. From ancient times we have sculpture. Then paint was invented, and we had landscapes and portraits. When metal became available, jewelry and ornaments became available, too. More recently, animated cartoons were invented, and then film and video. There is no doubt that art will continue to expand its boundaries, and all manner of things not considered art now will become art. One that has been mentioned in this blog has been the creation of unique creatures wholly from genetic design, and even more, ecosystems comprising them. Clothing became an art form a century or more ago, even if it is not included in any modern lists of art. Tattoos and other forms of body decoration are a recent invention. Masks have been an independently invented art form in many cultures on Earth. Parades are an art form, or at least can be. Now the individual contributions to a parade are artistic, but there is nothing to stop an entire parade from being orchestrated.

In an alien civilization, there would not necessarily be anything corresponding to a family, but other forms of interaction and bonding between individuals could take its place. There is deep friendship here on Earth, which sometimes creates stronger bonds than a family. Over centuries, aliens would certainly have developed something which becomes embedded in the culture.

Thus, the imagination of ennui upon hearing about how an alien civilization lacks some things Earth has by necessity creates a feeling of loss, but that feeling of loss would not be present on an advanced alien world. Instead, there would be a cornucopia of possible activities and relationships, which would be more than enough to fill the lives of the alien citizens. Do not forget that, very likely, they would all be intelligent to a level beyond what humans have ever achieved, and this alone can open the door to new activities we cannot imagine. So, ennui is not a recipe for an alien planet to voluntarily expire, and particularly never seek space travel. The explanation must be sought elsewhere.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Closed Cities with Ecological Feedback

The difficulty of maintaining a closed city with recycling of all materials has been discussed in previous posts. The difficulty is reminiscent of designing a command economy, which is one in which all necessary consumption goods are ordered by a central planner, who is responsible for ensuring that all production components, from trained workers to facilities to transportation to raw materials to tools to whatever else you can think of, are present in the right numbers or amounts. This proved to be a difficult task for those nations on Earth which tried it, as it is not inherently robust to disruptions. There are delays of all types in the various manufacturing and other processes, and storage questions, and transportation route and traffic issues, and many more things. It is a computational nightmare, and the data to manage the command economy may not be present. Bad values for data may represent disruptions, as can environmental events such as weather incidents or fluctuations.

The market economy is touted as an antidote to the need for centralized planning. In this, decentralized planning occurs everywhere in the economy, as individual actors make decisions to optimize their own benefits, and in so doing, there are neighbor effects. Those managing transportation try to maximize their profits, which means providing transportation that is needed to other actors in the market economy. In place of a centralized planner who attempts to predict the transportation needs of all actors in the society, the decentralized planner operates with a shorter span of interest and perhaps a faster response time, along with a quantitative measure to tell him/her/it how well he/she/it is succeeding in matching the needs of the other actors. Further division of any task into competing actors makes the response of the whole economy just that much more precise and quick.

A market economy may be a theoretical impossibility, or alternatively, approximations to it may occur, but this is not the point. The point is that decentralizing decisions in a complex system subject to fluctuations of all kinds makes it more efficient and productive. The same occurs with an ecology instead of an economy. There are virtually infinite examples of ecologies on a natural planet such as Earth, and none of them operate with some centralized control system and network. They all possess numerous actors, competing individually and across tasks, who make near instantaneous decisions on how to maximize two things, survival of individuals and reproduction of the next generations. There is no reason why an alien civilization would not use these concepts to build a more efficient and resilient closed city.

Recycling is a combination of an ecology and an economy. In a closed city, air, for example, is recycled. In the atmosphere of a whole primitive planet, creatures of one type use some component and make another, while creatures of another type use the second component and make the first. At least one of these must have an energy source to power the process. On Earth, plants absorb photons and carbon dioxide and make oxygen, while animals use oxygen and make carbon dioxide. Aliens may breathe methane instead of oxygen, but the principle is the same. Numbers change to respond to imbalances, righting the imbalance. In a closed city, if there were some creatures that counterbalanced the aliens’ use of some component of the atmosphere, and could increase or decrease their numbers in inverse proportion to the availability of that component, there would be some island of stability. In such a system, too rapid a change cannot be accommodated in the same time scale, and there has to be a surfeit of energy resources to allow the system to be responsive.

The alien closed city would not have to use the same creatures as occurred in their home world’s natural environment. Instead, they could genetically create creatures which provided the same response to imbalance as occurred in nature, but perhaps quicker and with less use of energy. While evolution produces masterpieces, there is no guarantee that intelligent design could not produce something better, according to whatever standard was chosen. There could be a simplification of the types of creatures needed for the ecological portion of the closed city systems, or even a diversification if the feedback loops worked better that way.

The other portion of the closed city system, the economical part, could mimic the market economy that was discussed above. If some material was growing short, some pricing could respond to that so that the use of it was reduced. Of course the whole system would operate near equilibrium at all times, but fluctuations could be dealt with in such a manner. This implies that the alien civilization lives in an economic system of some sort, at least one in which citizen consumption behavior could be modified by cost factors. In a previous post, such an economy was discussed as relying on energy as a unit of currency, as most factors in the economic part of the closed city systems can be translated into energy units.

On the production side, it was proposed that some master computer serves to regulate production and distribution. Having a single computer or network performing this activity does not mean that feedback loops cannot be built in. If copper was becoming more scarce, the needs of infrastructure would be met first, but then the use of copper in consumer goods might be discouraged by the alteration of the price, in such as way as it would reflect increased energy costs in obtaining new supplies, either from local mining or from interplanetary sources, including of course the possibility of extracting it from low grade sources such as oceans.

While we cannot predict or estimate how an alien civilization would be structured, at least it is possible to hypothesize some arrangements that might be a solution to the problem of long-term management of the cities in which the aliens live. These arrangements would likely be diverse, with some materials being subjected to biological feedback loops and others being subject to economic feedback loops. All of them would be set up under the direction of the alien governance, but once set up, they should operate long term, until some disruption was so large that the feedback loops could not respond sufficiently to allow the city to fully function as before. Some of these have been discussed as planetary perils, but lesser ones might require some more drastic response than relying on the feedback loops, and, with their high degree of omniscience, there would be plans for such incidents and various type of preparation.

Another feedback loop that would likely be present in the alien civilization is the ability to, over the time scale of generations, alter the population. This would allow the civilization to get through a difficult time after certain incidents had happened. Other options may also exist.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Million Year Alien Civilizations

It is possible to blithely talk about an alien civilization that has lasted a million years, but does the feasibility of this hold up when the details of it are examined? This post will attempt to uncover a few of the issues that might arise, when a civilization transitions from a few millennia out to significantly longer times, such as a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand millennia.

There are physical limitations and societal limitations. Consider a city on an alien planet. Over the course of a hundred years, a river can change its course. Subsidence of seacoast can happen. Over the course of a millennia, there can be significant climate changes. Over the course of hundreds of millennia, coastlines can change from the deposition or removal of materials. Volcanoes can form and erupt, leaving mountains behind. In the ecology area, if there is natural evolution occurring on some portion of the planet, species can form or disappear. Some species can transform certain types of areas, such as beavers building dams along rivers, leading to wetlands, and a change in the types and numbers of different classes of animals and even plants. Extensive grazing by herbivores can reduce a pasture land to a drought-ridden desert area. Glaciers can form, disappear, enlarge or retreat. In short, there can be great changes in the landscape and flora and fauna of the alien planet, and the alien civilization would have to be immune to effects of them.

We are principally talking about alien civilizations which have achieved asymptotic technology. This would allow them a level of control over some of these phenomena. Most certainly, they would have the ability to affect the biology of some areas of the planet, within the bounds formed by the environment and the changes that occur to it. They might be able to forestall desertification in some areas, or ensure that coral reefs, or the alien world’s equivalent of them, continue to form. Other terrestrial changes such as volcanic activity, might be wholly beyond the scope of their civilization. To these changes, they have the option of moving their cities, as, except for the occurrence of what we have termed a planetary peril, the disturbances will remain localized and plenty of area will remain in a constant state such that new cities could be built and maintained for millennia.

As for the cities themselves, basic structural materials cannot be expected to last for a million years. Structural materials, of the most basic type such as concrete, might last a millennia or a few millennia, but then the inevitable decay processes will win out and the materials would have to be replaced or somehow renewed. As an example, consider an alien city, practically closed if not hermetically sealed, which has to be redone. Suppose it was built in the form of a circle. There could be an arc of the circle which was under construction, and when each arc was completed, the adjoining arc would be started. If the whole city was rebuilt on a millennia scale, the reconstruction of separate arcs could be done in a leisurely fashion. To minimize the loss of materials, in other words, to ensure that building materials were recycled, demolition would not be the preferred mode of re-construction, but instead, recycleable segments or components would have to be removed. There would be a process of sealing off the majority of the circular city so that removal of the area under reconstruction could be done. Much of the work in reconstruction of the principal structural elements of the city would have to be done outside of the city’s closed areas, and so there would be a debit to the recycling accounts that would have to be made up by extraction.

Other materials would likely have a shorter recycle time. Machinery might be useful for centuries, as would be communication and transport networks within the city. Air and water recycling might be the shortest, with a mean recycle time of weeks or months. For all this recycling, there are losses.

One of the hobbles for an alien civilization trying to reach its millionth birthday might be recycling losses and the need to replenish the accounts with mining or other extraction activities. A civilization which has, for the material with the highest irreducible loss rate, a loss rate of .01% per year, would have to find during a million years, 100 times the amount of material embodied in the civilization’s cities and infrastructure.

Potassium. This element is used as a trace element in all life on Earth, and may also be in the same position on alien worlds. To recycle 99.99% of potassium, all the effluvium from the bodies of all creatures living in the city, from the aliens themselves, to the intellos, to any organic materials used in the production of foodstuffs, to bacteria living on surfaces, to pets, and probably more, would have to be collected and the potassium completely removed and re-introduced to the city. For a creature weighing 100 kg, the allowed loss represents only 10 g per year, assuming potassium was uniformly distributed through the creature’s body and through all the nutrients consumed as well.

Stop for a moment to consider the painstaking efforts that would be needed to accomplish this level of recycling of a particular trace element. How much biological material is exhaled by a 100 kg breathing creature a year? The air would likely have to be filtered and everything of micron size and up filtered out and returned to the recycling stream that produced solid materials. What is a typical amount of biological material that is lost each year to spillage? Could cleaning up spills reduce the loss rate per creature to less than 10 g per year? Could the piping and other transport machinery in the city keep losses per citizen to less than 10g per year? A slow piping leak might lose many times this before it was detected. Most likely there would have to be a second line of defense, and beyond that, a third line, all devoted to reducing losses of particularly scarce materials.

The more that the recycling for a million years problem is examined, the more it becomes clear that this is a monumental design problem. Transportation between different cities might be enough to cause the 0.01% losses that might be the maximum tolerable limit. Just having citizens enjoy the exterior of the cities might do the same. Reconstruction of the city could put certain types of construction materials or constituents in jeopardy. So, is it a reasonable concept to consider an alien civilization lasting a million years? More investigation certainly needs to be done before it can be considered viable.