Thursday, April 7, 2016

Fragility in Alien Civilizations

Some previous post talked about social collapse in an alien society that had achieved asymptotic technology. They had already passed by the genetic grand transition, and utilized what was learned there to endow all members of succeeding generations with all the benefits that good genes, or great genes, can provide. The implications of this are profound. More intelligence, actually at the maximum achievable, leads to a solution of disagreements, even if they are long-standing and harbored in ancient prejudices. The basics of the conclusions are simple: once asymptotic technology is achieved, society unifies and starts making all the right decisions. Individuals trade rationality for instinctual decision-making, and goals become common, rather than impulsive activity. Problems just melt under the white heat of universal high intelligence.

This implies that the alien civilization does not have to worry about its internal arrangements in thinking about threats in their future. They might have to worry about galactic threats, or stellar expansion, or a nearby supernova, or geological activity, or any of a number of external problems, but they don't have to worry that something within themselves contains the seed of their own destruction. This eliminates many of the possible reasons why aliens have not visited us. They did not destroy their planet through some technological error, as they are smart enough to figure out consequences in advance. They did not divide into warring factions and destroy the planet with their wars, again, they we too smart for that. They did not crash their economy, as they were too smart for that. And on it goes. These problems didn't stop the alien civilization.

Not so fast. What about the period of time before they achieve asymptotic technology, when they don't have universal high intelligence to rely on to save them from every kind of social problem. This situation seems remarkably similar to the one where the civilization was facing Malthusian idiocracy, in that during that comparatively short period, between the industrial grand transition and the genetic grand transition, all manner of things can go wrong. To avoid Malthusian idiocracy, they had to make some intelligent choices, and they had to do it while the level of intelligence in the civilization was no more that came from evolution. It may be that there was even some decline prior to reaching this critical juncture. The same holds true with other crises of different sorts. They have to make the right decisions to avoid the debacle, and they have to do it without the mental ammunition they would have in only a century or two.

Consider one simple phenomena: war. As technology gets more and more powerful, the destruction of war can become more and more extensive. Can the alien civilization figure out how to not divide themselves into factions that descend into an all-out war? We on Earth don't understand how wars can get started, or rather we have many diverse theories as to how wars get started, all of which contradict one another. Perhaps some particular alien society does figure it out, and then they can avoid war. Otherwise, they can avoid war by fearing the destruction that is involved. Would that be enough to prevent some particular alien civilization from simply deciding that enough is enough and war is the only answer to some problem they face? Maybe.

As far as we on Earth know, there might be multiple social phenomena which lead to war. Can all alien civilizations figure out, at this early stage in their technological progress, what they all are and even better, can they figure out how to tone down these phenomena so they do not propel the planet into war?

Consider another simple phenomena: care of the planet, sort of a sum of both ecology on a planetary scale and the environment, which is necessarily on a planetary scale. Can they figure out how to not do too much damage to it? During this phase, they are gradually weaning themselves off dependence on the planet's other life systems, but earlier on, they are still wholly supported by such things as photosynthetic food production and some water recirculation system. They might now have chlorophyll on their planet, but some other photosynthetic chemical provided by their form of evolution, but there isn't any other source of energy that can support all the life on a planet that has grown large numbers of intelligent, civilized aliens. Can they use this energy source for as long as they have to without doing something to damage it? There are likely other factors in the ecology-environment mix on their planet that they can use or damage, depending on how they orchestrate their use.

Consider a third simple phenomena: prevention of epidemics. Once genetic manipulation starts to become common knowledge, but before it is comprehensively understood, both on an explanatory basis and on a utilitarian basis, can the alien civilization figure out how to prevent accidental or deliberate genetic manipulation of disease vectors into something more suited for widespread contagion? At this point, there are still individuals who, although intelligent, are not psychologically well-balanced and this combination could lead to some pathogen being tinkered with or worse, and released. Whether this is possible probably depends on the immediate living conditions of the population. Have they begun to merge into large cities?

All in all, a single word to sum up the state of the alien civilization at this intermediate era is 'fragile'. There are many things which can go wrong, which will become impossible to happen in only a few centuries, after the genetic grand transition has fully passed by. It might be possible to come up with a long list of what possible classes or categories of fragility would exist then, and certainly the list would be long. This finding, if one can dignify it as such, means that figuring out if self-destruction is a principal cause of the lack of alien tourists is going to be much, much harder that anticipated. It is so much harder because the era before asymptotic technology is not uniform across alien civilizations, and the various technologies could progress differently on different planets, so technological determinism is going to be a bit sticky to use. The era is short, but during that period so many opportunities for poor decisions, as a planetary whole, that it could easily be the final one for many alien civilizations.

The same phenomena could not happen in earlier eras. The difference is globalization. In earlier eras, there were still regions that were autonomous and only poorly connected. If there was an epidemic in one area, it stayed there. If there was a war, it might be between two regional factions each occupying five percent of the planet's habitable surface area. These disasters are recoverable because of their small scale. Later, when technology emerges to connect the globe both in mobility and in communication, problems can leap up to planetary scale. This is the recipe for disaster embodied in the word 'fragility'.

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