Sunday, September 6, 2015

Are Aliens Like Ants or Monkeys?

One of the ways to think about potentially unknown areas is to parametrize. In discussing alien civilizations, we have used the star travel meme as a parameter. This was useful in determining some characteristics of alien civilizations, depending on what they accepted as their role in exploring and colonizing the galaxy.

Another possible parameter could be created to discuss the independence of individual aliens. By independence, we do not mean that aliens would be breaking away from their civilization to establish a new one. Instead, we are trying to understand the effect of the devotion that an individual alien would have toward its civilization as a whole. Aliens who had much independence would be analogous to our monkeys, who do a whole range of activities on their own, and only follow the primate group they belong to when they migrate, or for personal reasons such as to take advantage of a food source. Aliens who had little independence would be analogous to our ants and certain other hymenoptera, who pretty much devote all their effort and time to furthering the goals, the welfare and the survival, of the insect group they belong to. Monkeys are very highly motivated to survive individually, although there are times when a monkey will sacrifice himself to allow the group to escape from predators. Ants are hardly motivated to survive individually; they will respond when attacked and take actions to survive, but they will sacrifice themselves more readily when the group is attacked. Independence is a matter of degree, and thus makes a good parameter.

One source of the difference in independent action between social insects, like ants, and social animals who live in small groups or packs, like primates, is their reproductive strategy. Social insects do not reproduce individually, there is a single queen in the group who produces all the eggs, although there is a range of variation among ant species. Social animals do not all successfully reproduce, but there is a competition between them for mating. Thus, a non-reproducing social insect is not as much of a loss to the gene pool as a reproducing social animal.

Would it be possible for low-independence species to develop technology and eventually ascend to the state where they could invent and operate star traveling ships? On Earth, very few species ever become social. Besides ants, about 10% of known bee species do it, and a smaller percentage of termites. However, this arrangement has proved very successful for ants, whose total biomass is thought to be greater than that of vertebrates. Two features that social insects have that may be important for the development of social living arrangements are the massive egg-laying capability of the queens and the nest-building capability of the workers. Workers also tend to the eggs and feed the resulting larvae.

Once evolution tries to develop more complex brain structures, a concomitant to that is more care has to be expended on raising the young. Social insects take one route, that of committing many individuals to the offspring of the queen, instead of the route taken by chordate orders including reptiles, birds and mammals, which is reducing the number of offspring to that which can be cared for by one or two parents. If, for example, some amphibian species had somehow developed into a social animal, it might have been able to develop into something resembling the social insect arrangements and then subsequently develop intelligence. This route would lead to a low-independence alien civilization.

There are implications for star traveling of the independence parameter. For exploration missions, they would not contain queen aliens, but worker aliens, and the trip might be one-way with no serious reservations by the crew. Colonization would also be different. In a dire emergency, getting a ship built and launched with the queen and a few companions might be the chosen solution. For a more relaxed colonization operation, ships with worker aliens could be sent to a new planet, and they could do what worker bees do, build a residence for the queen. The queen alien would come later.

A more subtle difference would be in the preservation of the meme. An alien society which had a certain meme for space travel, for example a category zero, and in which the aliens were more like honeybees than primates, would not call the meme into question. We are assuming that the meme is well laid down in alien training of their young, but between different levels of independence, the low-independent type of aliens would be less likely to question it than a high-independent type. So far, this blog has not discussed details of the preservation of the star travel meme for long period of time, except to note that all categories that question their meme and abandon it for an existence without any meme at all, turn into category four civilizations and gradually or suddenly become extinct.

Low independence for aliens also seems to imply less of a need for a high living standard, and therefore a more economical civilization. Highly independent aliens would likely have activities such as art of all kinds that occupied them in their cities. These create costs. The lack of a need for a high living standard might make it possible for low-independence alien civilization to colonize more planets, specifically those which would require hermetic cities, or close to that, because either the atmosphere was inadequate or toxic, or because of microbial or viral pests. With a wider range of planets to choose from, their civilization might propagate across the galaxy faster. There would be less distance to travel between colonies and the multiplication factor that arises from the number of colonies involved with continuing to propagate would play a role.

To understand whether or not we should expect to find low-independence or high-independence alien civilizations on nearby exo-planets, it would seem reasonable to inquire as to the key factors that led to the evolution of social insects here on earth. If those factors can be easily enumerated, it might be possible to see if the attributes of exo-planets might favor them even more strongly than here, which would imply that creatures with larger brains than insects might evolve into having them.

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