Sunday, July 31, 2016

Planetary Formation

Now that planets are being discovered on a daily basis, it isn't quite as interesting to try and figure out from scratch how they formed and how many there might be. Instead, why not just wait and see how many are formed? Planetary discovery has become such a popular topic in the news, that scientific institutions are all jumping on the bandwagon and planning and building new telescopes and clever instruments to find them. For just a little bit, let's swim counter to the flow.

Planets form because of angular momentum in the gas cloud that condenses to form a solar system. If you had a nice spherical gas cloud, not rotating in the slightest, it would simply stay spherically symmetric and collapse down to a single star, with no planets. However, we live in the Milky Way galaxy, and the galaxy is rotating, meaning every bit of the galaxy shares in the angular momentum it has. The sharing is done differently in the two principal parts of the galaxy. The central bulge of our galaxy, and other galaxies, rotates as a sort of solid object, meaning it all has the same rotational rate, and it rotates together. This means that as a blob of gas in the central bulge collapses, it is rotating originally at the rotational rate of the bulge, meaning it has some angular momentum.

Have you ever played that children's game of sitting on a swivel chair with some weights in your outstretched hands, and had somebody turn you around while you pulled in the weights? You would remember that you sped up in your spinning a lot. That is nothing compared to what a gas blob does. A gas blob starts out of the order of a light year in size, within factor of ten or so. It is going to collapse to solar system size, a hundred AU or so. This is about five thousand times smaller, and that means that a small bit of galactic angular momentum in the original gas cloud turns into some serious rotation when the cloud finishes its condensation. The collapse of the central part of the gas cloud into a star is even more dramatic. The galaxy rotates once in a hundred million years. A star rotates maybe once a day. That's a serious increase in rotation rate!

Even this grabbing of angular momentum by the star itself isn't enough to use up all the angular momentum gifted to it by the galactic rotation. Planets have to take up the large majority. As the cloud forms into a rotating disk, because nothing is keeping one dimension expanded and angular momentum is keeping the other two out there, the centrifugal force eventually comes into balance with the gravitational pull of the newborn star, or the central blob of gas that will become the star. No more collapsing, and the time clock on planetary condensation starts.

Keep this simple process in mind as you consider the galactic disk, the other significant part of the galaxy. The galaxy itself condensed from a gas blob, and went through the same condensation process, and formed a disk for the same reasons. But the disk isn't rotating as a solid body. It is shearing with a angular velocity curve that is much more mild than solid body rotation. And that means that the gas blobs in the disk are not rotating with the same angular rate as the those in the galactic bulge, but much less. When they condense to make solar systems, the solar systems will be smaller, with less angular momentum to keep the planets way out from the star.

Perhaps it would have been better to start with the disk, because that is where we have taken almost all our planetary search data, and where we live. But for ease of explanation, we started with the bulge. So, inverting the order, we would expect that solar systems in the central bulge to form much large and further out than in the galactic disk. We have some idea of how large they are out here, and we can judge from that information that those in the bulge are larger, meaning further extended.

This has an implication. Recall that the stars in the galactic bulge are much closer together and moving randomly, like molecules in a gas. This means encounters are more frequent and with shorter separation distances, and this means that planetary systems are more likely to be disrupted by stellar encounters. Put this in the pot with larger solar systems, and the conclusion is inescapable. There are less surviving solar systems in the galactic bulge than in the galactic disk. Inside the bulge, more solar systems are stripped of planets, or at least the outer ones. And therefore, there are even more rogue planets in the galaxy that we would otherwise have expected.

When a stellar encounter happens, planetary orbits are disrupted, and even if the stellar encounter itself does not fling some planets into the void, planetary interaction will. Planets form in a stable arrangement, with planets in resonance situations where they do not transfer angular momentum in one direction only, but instead, trade it back and forth, generally keeping the same average orbital radius over long periods of time, meaning, large numbers of orbital periods. Those that are not in stable orbits disassociate, with a few planets diving close enough to the star to be tidally captured and eaten, but mostly just condemned to the void. The same thing happens when planets that form in stable orbits are pushed out of them by a stellar encounter. A few are eaten and the rest are banished from the solar system. Some planets would necessarily remain, but by and large, the solar systems are stripped of planets.

This is just one more additional reason why looking for aliens in the galactic bulge is not the best choice. Even if their planet hangs onto the star it was born around, the orbital radius would be changed by stellar encounters. Since solar systems are born larger in the bulge, stellar encounters are both more frequent than with smaller ones, and more devastating. It would be easier for a stellar encounter to rip off a far-out planet, and easier for planetary interactions to push it beyond the brink of stellar control, out where gravity from the bulge in general is perturbing its orbit and juggling it into being a rogue planet.

Thus, once again we find a reason to prefer planetary hunting in the galactic disk.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Alien Civilizations without War

War is a very large component of history of humans on Earth. It occurs on all inhabited continents, during all recorded time, and between most neighboring peoples and many distant peoples. Would it necessarily be a similarly large part of the history of alien planets?

Because war is so universal, seeking the origins of it in specifics of clans, tribes, city-states, nations or whatevers seems to answer the wrong question. These studies, related to the incidence of war, try to analyze when it might occur, and what are the underlying causes of it. But to suggest that an entire planet, filled with sentient beings, able to master technology, would evolve without any war at all calls for a different approach.

War between nations might be seen as an outgrowth of war between city-states, as social development enlarges the scale of a single governed unit. And war between city-states might similarly been seen as an outgrowth of war between villages, inhabited by tribes. This again is instituted by the growth of social organization. Tribal war grew out of smaller scale battles, between small clans, and clan conflict grew out of … what? Individual combat. In many mammalian species, there is battling between individuals, often for mating predominance. So, the root cause in an evolutionary view, of war can be considered to be mating combat. Different species evolve to specialize in this, and some otherwise unnecessary and not useful attributes evolve because of it, such as large antlers.

There are other means of mating competition in the vertebrate world, and one is attribute specialization, and again, this has led to otherwise unnecessary and not useful attributes, such as male peacock tails. However, it is not clear that a species could not develop tool-using without having the genes that predispose to mating battles, but instead are based on attributes, even useful ones such as hunting prowess.

As the scale of governance increases, battling and warfare is gradually banned inside the governed organization, probably because it detracts from the efficiency of the group both in sustenance and productive activities, and also in defense preparation. This is not the mechanism that is being considered for the non-existence of war in an alien civilization, but something more basic, a different coding in the genes for how mating competitions are conducted. If the competition turns out to be conducive of evolving traits which are also useful for the individual and the group to which he/she/it belongs, then fitness is aided as well, and evolution gets a boost in this direction. So, it is not too hard to see that an alien civilization might evolve from creatures that do not battle one another, and therefore be free from war at all levels. It would simply be something that was not in their genetic heritage to do, and likely not something that would be invented at a high level of social organization, such as in a city-state or a nation.

Technology development is often said to be partially driven by military needs, at least in some areas and in some times and in some subjects. This is because military activity is a dominant one, as the consequences of losing a war are so high. If there were no military activity at all, something else would assume the dominant role and would replace to a degree the impetus that military requirements have given to technology development. If, as in the above example, hunting prowess was used for mating competition instead of individual competition, in the species that preceded the evolution of the intelligent one, then tools for hunting might feel the developmental pressure, which would then gradually shift to other tools for other purposes. Technology development might actually go as fast or faster in a non-war alien civilization.

Another missing effect of war, at higher levels of social organization, is conquest. Conquest allows governance to expand, and the larger area covered allows internal trade to be more widespread. External trade, between two separately governed organizations, has to be done with the express approval of the two governing organizations, and therefore suffers from more impediments than internal trade, which is authorized and perhaps encouraged by a single organizational entity. While this may be true, it presupposed the absence of a third effect. If there is no war, relations between neighboring organizational units would be very different from a situation in which war was known and considered possible. More amorphous borders might result, and even voluntary mergers might happen. It might even be that unification of governance would happen as soon as the technology enabled it. Once transport and communication were possible over some distances, then it would be possible for unification to occur over those distances and be effective. Or the concept of organizational entity might melt and diffuse, so that different functions might occupy different geographical areas. Guilds for textiles, if they had such things, might operate over one area, but a governmental organization for seed propagation might be done over a different one. And these areas might change more readily with time.

It is therefore not at all clear that a non-war alien civilization would have slower technology development, nor achieve the level of social organization able to bring technology rapidly up to its culmination point. This means that such an alien civilization might attempt star travel.

Would the goals of such a civilization be the same as one which grew up on an alien world where there was evolved traits of mating battles, and all the subsequent phenomena such as war and conquest? If they managed to pull off star travel, and encountered an inhabited planet, what would be their response? Conquest doesn't fall within their heritage. Perhaps hunting would. Would the inhabitants of the visited planets be seen as simply targets for them, or as the next level of colleagues to be met and possibly merged with? Their values need to be explored, and these might depend on some deep details of evolution on their planet. What did they have as hunted creatures? How diverse was the species or even multiple species that developed intelligence and became unified on their home planet? These questions might have some influence on their reaction to inhabitants of a distant planet.

A different approach might be via their memes. Perhaps they had developed not only a lack of interest in individual battles, but an anathema toward it. If they came to a visited planet where war and battling was rife, would they react with utter disdain for the creatures involved in it? Would these creatures be far beyond their limits as to potential colleagues? Would they simply detour around such a planet and make sure that no contact was ever allowed with it? Food for thought.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Vacuum of Motivation

Is asymptotic technology a cliff over which an alien society that reaches it must fall? Here is the dilemma: as technological progress proceeds, one of its benefits is that average intelligence and the ability to use it would increase. The big jump up would be the availability of genetic modification to the alien new generations, which would increase their intellectual capability. Complementary to this would be the development of neurology, specifically, how training an intelligent brain should be done to make it capable of thinking critically and creatively in the fullest way. So here are all these intelligent and educated aliens, inhabiting their planet.

Previously, the escape hatch that was touted was that earlier generations, which had grown up with imperfect training, were highly motivated in certain directions, and they were the ones who directed the design of the universal training that the newer generations would receive. It was postulated that the training would be sufficiently effective in inducing the newer generations to continue to be motivated in whatever directions the earlier generations had chosen for them.

Would the enhanced intelligence of the newer generations make them all like Euripedes, who orginated the phrase: “Question everything” or would the asymptotic neurology make training so irrevocable that the newer generation would not question some of the most fundamental memes that they were programmed to accept. If the latter is the case, then if we assume some of the older generations were enamoured of the idea of space travel, visiting other stars, preserving the civilization by migrating or colonizing, and so on, then the newer generations would keep this up. But if the former is the case, that neurology meets its match with sufficiently smart young aliens, then they question their memes and perhaps drop them in the dumpster.

Recall the well-known origin of motivation. A young alien, or human, or anything with a vacant neural network for a brain, develops associations built upon the few primary ones that come wired in. One of these is affection, and the young brain develops positive associations with whatever happens to accompany these instances. Perhaps they associate receiving compliments with affection, because that's how the older generation acted around them. Then, whatever compliments they receive are stored as a potential origin of positive feelings. The youngster is complimented on eating some new foods, and maybe gets physical affection for it, and as it ages, it associates new foods with positive feelings, more explicitly, its brain generates good-feeling neurochemicals when the person/alien/whatever eats new foods. Affection related to caring for a pet while very young may lead to a desire to raise animals, or become a veterinarian, or pet store owner, or whatever pops up in an alien planet relating to caring for animals. And so it goes, with a thousand possibilities and a thousand associations and a thousand motivations, spread throughout the population.

This is the basis of the methodology of training memes into the younger generation on an alien world with asymptotic neurology, except it is done much more technically and more professionally, most likely by robotic or automated teaching equipment. The more fundamental the association, in other words the more closely connected the association is to the underlying instinctual desires, whatever they happen to be in an alien species, the more firmly it would be held and the more difficult it would be to dislodge.

But let's just suppose that Euripedes beats the teaching robots. What happens? What happens is that the memes of the former generations are called into question and perhaps rejected. Once the mind recognizes an inserted meme for what it is, not something philosophically required nor something demanded by the universe, but just an accident of neural network training, it can be rejected. The feelings will not go away, as neural networks, at least the ones we have, do not erase associations, but their effects can be overridden by some decision-making in whatever part of the alien brain the central part of the frontal lobe of the cortex in humans relates to. They don't do what it proposes they do. They think about what they should be doing, instead of just responding without critical thought. And of course, they find the vacuum that exists.

Everything is arbitrary. Nothing is dictated by nature. Intelligence reveals that all choices can be made and there are only consequences, not values. Young aliens grow up, prior to rationality dawning, learning to please their parents, tutors, or whoever trains them. Then, when the brain develops sufficiently for reason to be available, if there is sufficient intelligence, the alien young person realizes what motivation is, and wonders if it should be followed, or something else should be. And then they find there is nothing else mandatory, but the original memes can be adopted as is, changed, ignored, replaced by others of a rather arbitrary nature, or held in abeyance until some other events lead to a choice for a selection.

This is the vacuum of motivation, and is it the last obstacle that an alien civilization faces before they make a leap into space and travel between stars? If training overwhelms Euripedes, this is not the case, but if they do find the vacuum staring them in the face, or whatever they have for a place to hold their sensors, then there might be no star travel, no probes to nearby planets, no giant telescopes, no learning how to build a starship, nothing in this vein at all because they simply have no interest in it. Their interest evaporated, as a liquid in a vacuum would.

Thinking a bit creatively, one completely different solution to this that an alien society might adopt, to avoid being lost in the vacuum of motivation, is not to make the large majority of their youngsters that smart. Just keep them smart enough to follow the guidance of those VIPs who run the governance, or follow the teaching of the elders of society, the former VIPs who figured out not to grant universal intelligence because it is so deadly to the society. Would an alien society be capable of directing its technology away from those things necessary for universal intelligence, or would it develop the technology and administratively refuse to allow it to be implemented except for a small minority of its citizens, who incidentally might be a liability.

It may be time to think about the inevitability of asymptotic technology in an alien society that is already smart enough to realize that there may be some unpleasant results for figuring everything out.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Cloning and the Genetic Grand Transition

Idiocracy is a recoverable disorder, as the crashing of the population following a collapse, caused by a lack of talent to maintain an alien civilization, causes evolutionary pressures to resume. Intelligence is once again selected for, and some recovery is possible. This could happen repeatedly, and the only thing that seems to happen is the civilization is delayed in reaching the genetic grand transition, and its finale, which includes the universal improvement of intelligence.

The exception to this is scarcity. Malthusian idiocracy puts great pressure on resources, and in fact, is ameliorated by high resource extraction rates, plus all the necessary conversions of resources into sustenance. This means that the ultimate cure for idiocracy, the genetic grand transition, can come too late to save the civilization. It drops down in a collapse, but the resources are not there to allow the civilization to again mount up to the peaks of technology. This can happen in several ways, with different resources being depleted, but the particular way is not important. What is important is that if the genetic grand transition is sufficiently delayed, the combination of Malthusian idiocracy and resource scarcity can doom the civilization's chances for space travel, and ultimately visiting Earth.

Thus, a key question is what could delay or postpone the genetic grand transition, or slow its progress so much that the civilization's future is put into jeopardy? Put into context, how would it be possible to slow the genetic grand transition? Individuals and groups of individuals, no matter how organized, operate after the industrial grand transition to improve their own standing, as they measure it. It seems almost inevitable that some individuals and groups of individuals would find the various steps of the genetic grand transition to be in their own best interest and would therefore pursue these steps.

Anyone involved in providing sustenance the old way, through agriculture or animal husbandry, would seek more efficient ways of producing sustenance. Improvement to crop yields, new sources of edible materials via previously unused biological bases, the elimination of the need for grafting, the development of improved strains of animals, and so on all makes this profession more profitable.

Consider cloning. An animal or plant with exceptional characteristics, if bred with another, might not maintain those characteristics in full, as sexual mixing of genes dilutes the set of genes that produced the superior organism. Cloning is essentially the bypassing of the sexual mixing of genes. For plants, grafting is a way of cloning not involving genetics at all, but which is not as efficient as growing identical seeds. One way of cloning would be the development of parthenogenesis, which would be a genetic modification, perhaps more drastic than simply rewriting a genetic script.

Parthenogenesis is a process that exists today on Earth, among some plants and animals. It is common in the plant kingdom, but rare in the animal kingdom. There are several variants as to how nature performs this feat, and these are understood to a degree now, so that parthenogenesis can be induced in the laboratory, although it has not been explored in a wide variety of creatures. There seems to be no reason why one of the methods of parthenogenesis could not be used for cloning. Among invertebrates, parthenogenesis produces both males and females.

Cloning is more often thought of as being done the more tedious way, by introducing a complete set of DNA to replace those in a viable fertilized egg cell, which is then implanted and gestated. This might be mechanized, along the same lines that DNA deciphering has been automated by a factor of a thousand in cost. There seems to be no scientific barrier, nor an economic one, stopping cloning of both plants and animals from becoming widespread. There may be political barriers to it on any particular alien world.

Once DNA coding is automated, and a large mass of DNA codes are collected and correlated with physical characteristics, the translation of the DNA code into attributes can proceed. Since appearance features are easy to measure and collect, this may be one of the first sets of genes that are understood. Once this happens, and once modification of DNA becomes as easy to do and easy to automate as deciphering coding, cloning can be done in combination with appearance changes. This would allow some degree of surreptitious cloning to take place, in that the clones would all look different. Having a large number of twins, or rather N-multiples, together would certainly make the results of cloning obvious, but if there was a difference in size, weight, bone structure, muscular arrangement, coloring, and so on, cloning would be detectable only by DNA testing. Whatever desirable features the animal farmer wanted to produce would not be changed, but other surface attributes could be. Thus, political barriers in a situation where there was not a great deal of surveillance of everything might be avoided or ignored.

In the alternate situation, where an alien civilization had unified earlier, or at least unified to the degree that only two or a few centers of political control existed, and where surveillance of the citizen population was extensive, genetic manipulation and cloning could be severely limited. If the civilization had been derailed in its climb to asymptotic technology and all the social changes that this entails, in lieu of maintaining the prerogatives of those involved with governance, then there truly would be a mechanism and a motivation for stopping the genetic grand transition at some early point. If the planet were divided into more than one political division, just a few, there would have to be some agreement between those involved in governance in the different capitals that a unified policy on cloning and other genetic modifications would be adopted. This could be known or not, but with identical policies throughout the planet, there is no zone in which genetic progress could be made and then pressure built up to make this progress universal. Instead, there would be a diversion of research into whatever areas of genetic research that were safe to those in governance, and barriers everywhere else.

Even this might fail if those in governance realize there is some benefit to themselves from allowing cloning to be developed, even if only for their own use. Once the door is opened a crack, it seems hard to imagine that with successive generations, it would not be gradually pried open further and further. Could this slowdown of genetic research continue so long as to exhaust the planet's resources? Perhaps.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Impermanence of Collapse

If you want to understand alien civilizations, it is necessary to learn to think in scales of thousands of years. Averaged over that time, progress is continuous. There may be fluctuations up and down, but the long-term trendline continues in one direction: toward asymptotic technology and the solution of all problems that might have plagued an alien civilization in its formative years.

There are only a few possible exceptions to this trend. One has been mentioned very many times here, and it is scarcity. Once resources really and truly become scarce, there is literally nothing that can be done to maintain an alien civilization at a high level of technology. Other than scarcity, there are two positive feedback loops serve as engines to make sure continued long-term growth happens. One is the engine of evolution, and if something happens to the gene pool before it becomes well-controlled, such as idiocracy during a time when competitive fitness was irrelevant because of universal abundance, when the pendulum swings back and evolution again begins to function, the climb back to intelligence will resume and will reach its previous peak. The same factors that created mutations before will create more, and the same pressures for selection that happened before will exist again.

The second engine is intelligence. Recall that intelligence, as defined here, means problem-solving ability, not test-taking ability. Some catastrophes do not cast an alien civilization back into the era of pre-industrial time, but instead simply wreck the existing infrastructure and governance, leaving the population to face the hazards of coping with much less available resources for advancing the civilization. These represent problems, and those aliens with the ability to solve them will rise up to solve them. Perhaps there are one or a few generations in which recovery is the mode, before civilization is restarted, but it will and it will regain the previous level of technology and then pass beyond it.

Are there any catastrophes that could actually lead to collapse so devastating, that aliens could not overcome them in time? We are not talking about perils, such as where the planet's crust opens up and massive volcanism goes on for millennia. Another example would be a rogue planet that comes close enough to the alien's home planet to disturb its orbit. These are rightly called perils, and they can mean the end of civilization and the extinction of the species. Catastrophes are a lesser order of problems, and are not caused by external events in which the aliens play no role. Catastrophes are something that is self-inflicted, as the term is used here.

Let's consider the worst catastrophe on Earth we can imagine and see if it is survivable. That would likely be nuclear war, in which nuclear reactors and spent fuel storage units are the principal targets. For the purpose of discussion, let's also not rule such things out as impossible to portray in any realistic scenario, but just assume the alien world is much more fractious and is still in a stage lacking intelligence sufficient to forestall such catastrophes. They just do it.

There may be mass casualties from the attacks themselves, but the catastrophe's greatest effect will be the spread of radiation both in the vicinity of the detonations, which include reactor sites and fuel storage sites, and also into the atmosphere, where it will be spread gradually over all the surface of the Earth. Back when we lived in the Cold War period, there was a lot of writing about such a nuclear war, but it did not entail deliberate targeting of radioactive materials everywhere on the planet where they could be found. In the scenarios of that era, cities were targeted, resulting in a rapid destruction of a sizable fraction of the population. Back then, the cities targeted were not all cities, but just those of the two opposing camps. In the alien world scenarios, which is as crazy as we can make it, cities are not the targets, but radioactive storage sites. We would also have to assume that they have located them in many areas around the land areas of their planet, and for a reason that is as opaque for them as it is for us, these materials are not recycled, but stored just as they were when they first came out of the early generation nuclear power plants. They are also not impervious to nuclear attack. In later eras, not recycling spent fuel would be laughable, but we will assume they did not, still have it, and are yet in such a situation.

That means, for a period of several years, radioactive materials are deposited all over the world. Radioactive materials as they come from a first or second generation reactor are a mix of materials with different lifetimes and radioactive emissions. The most intense radiation is necessarily that which happens first, and when that disappears because of its lifetime being exceeded a few times over, the next one becomes the dominant one. Lethal radiation might exist for a short period, but carcinogenic radiation could last for millennia. The atmosphere on the alien planet might be homogeneous, unlike ours, and apply a uniform coating.

What survival response is possible? Unless there are areas that do not receive the blanketing of radioactive materials, higher order life would not be able to reproduce properly and would die off within a few generations. If we also assume there were many storage sites and each had much in the way of highly radioactive materials, life would be set far back. Life in the sea would not be exempt, but the dilution of radioactivity in the oceans might put the threshold for life somewhat higher. Radiation has a much shorter path length in water than in air, so the effect of radioactivity would be correspondingly less, and the dilution by depth would also be very large. It seems reasonable to expect that ocean life could continue to exist at a more advanced stage than on land, where perhaps the alien equivalent of insects might survive, as their very high breeding rate might overcome the radioactive effects of increased mutation of progeny genes. Perhaps simple plant life would survive for the same reason. Aliens could not survive underground for the period of time needed for radioactivity to clear from the planet, nor underwater, unless they had made very extensive plans beforehand. So, life would need to re-evolve, setting intelligence back perhaps a good fraction of a billion years.

There does not seem to be any other catastrophe which is a widespread and as permanent as this one, so it should be reasonable to say that, aside from a crazy nuclear war, targeted to seek self-extinction, alien civilizations would only suffer delays of some generations. Thus, except for a suicide pact, extinction is not reasonable, and even a resumption of progress is to be expected. There would be only a short period of existence of the alien civilization where such a self-extinction scenario would be possible, so by and large, a conclusion can be tentatively offered, that once an alien civilization passes the industrial grand transition, it is on its way to asymptotic technology and the potential for star travel.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Two Kinds of Learning

One question about the formation of an alien civilization is the transition from evolution producing grasping appendages, easily controlled by the brain, and tool-using. Is it a big leap to go from having hands with thumbs and using those hands with tools? By tools, we do not mean socket wrenches and power drills, but the most simple tools imaginable. Rocks. Sticks. Shells.

This question is easily answered: tool-using is almost inevitable. The reason for it comes from the nature of the layered neural structure of the brain. It was realized long ago that a newborn infant of a mammal species does not come with all of the coding necessary for living and acting like an adult built in. This does not refer to the transition to adult reproduction, but to extremely basic activities. When a newborn herbivore is born, it knows enough to be able to suckle. This may involve being able to stand up and find the right spot on its mother, and then suck. But in the hours and days that pass, it learns to move more confidently, to eat other foods, to interact with other animals than its mother, and many more. Making sounds must be learned. And on and on it goes. This is the reason that there is an extended childhood period in mammals, and many other animals. It is not only that physical growth must take place, but also that patterns have to be established in the brain. The neural network at birth is largely blank, but it is filled in during the same period that physical growth happens. When childhood ends, the young creature is both physically able to act like an adult, but also is ready mentally, having processed enough information to have learned how to do most things an adult creature of that species does.

That learning takes place through play. By play, deliberate games between two or more creatures is not meant. By play is meant the experimental use of different activities, motions, postures or what have you. The human infant is likely the most primitive of all newborns. It does not have the ability to move, or even to grasp at the onset of its life. It moves its limbs and its brain notices the proprioceptive signals it is receiving along with tactile clues and visual clues, and puts them together into multiple layers of neurons, formerly inactive, but now dragged into use for motor activities. Everything else is learned like this. The newborn tries something and learns from the experiment, so that soon a more complex experiment can be done. There is also learning at a later stage from imitation, once the newborn has enough skills to be able to attempt to imitate. This imitation, along with experimentation, is accomplishing the same thing in the infant's brain. Layers of neuron are being activated, potentials adjusted, and so on. Actually in a human infant's brain, learning during the first three years involves the selection of neurons rather than solely establishing patterns of potentials for use. Many neurons die off in the infant brain and the volume left is filled by the growth of other neurons, which expand as they assume more dominant roles, such as longer distance communication between different layers and different regions.

Since there does not seem to be any alternative to a layered neural network for generating intelligent animals, this same type of learning should happen on any alien planet on its way to evolving intelligent creatures. Another form of interstellar convergence, perhaps? But the implications are immense.

There is no fixed program for a young creatures experimentation. Random inputs from the environment and from interaction with adult members or other young creatures lead to random aspects of the experimentation. There are no limits other than that provided by the physical characteristics of the creature and its species. Experimentation simply covers a wide variety of activities, and not solely those which have been successful among other creatures of the species. Experimentation extends to anything a youngster can do, and is not limited to those activities which adults are seen to be doing. The brain does not develop solely by imitation, but by experimentation.

Now it is time to explain what the two types of learning are. One type is what was just discussed, where a young creature of a species, here or on an alien planet, which is experimenting with anything in its environment and building up a repertoire of activities it will be capable of as an adult. The other type is learning as a species. There is a body of knowledge that can be imagined that the whole species has, which comprises all the activities that adults within that species have learned to do and are still capable of doing. Young creature's play, the first type of learning, naturally feeds into the second type, as anything a youngster learns to do, an adult can still do, with some limitations as to size of the creatures and the amount of growth they do and how the growth changes a few things like flexibility. By and large, when a young creature on an alien planet in a species with a larger brain picks up a rock or stick, it is not only learning how to hold it and throw it for itself, but for the whole species. In other words, tool use naturally falls out of the mandatory learning exercises that each competent young creature in an intelligent species with grasping appendages will do. If there are rocks in their environment, they will pick them up and hold them. They will drop them. They will, later on, toss them and later do some type of throwing. This is the dawn of tool use.

So to conclude, there is no barrier to the development of an alien civilization at the commencement of tool use, but it will coincidentally develop in a species with grasping appendages and a neural network. There may be many other barriers, but this is not one. Note that any tool use that progresses to adults serves as a beginning of the lore that is passed by imitation, so not only does play become written down in the brain of one young creature, it becomes part of the storehouse of survival tricks that the species has.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Twisted Path of Evolution

Changing the size of something doesn't seem to be to hard for evolution to accomplish. Brains are masses of neurons and related cells, and they seem to be able to grow to whatever size is necessary to accomplish whatever tasks the animal has to do. On Earth, whales have the largest brains. It has to be large to manage the senses and motions of the large bodies of these mammals. One speculation is that whales returned to living in oceans about 90 million years ago, and transited there from some herbivore predecessor, perhaps something like a hippopotamus. Perhaps it happened twice, once for baleen whales, which live on plankton and krill, and once for other whales, which live on squid and fish.

It is not hard to imagine a series of simple steps, single mutations, that would lead a creature that lived in river deltas to venture farther and farther out with successive generations, numbering in the thousands, losing the ability to live on land and developing the attributes needed for deep sea living. Did the large brains of these creatures exist in the predecessor land creature, or did it develop after the transition to sea life?

Brains are useful for muscular control, and neurons don't necessarily get more complicated individually, but rather bunch in masses for the control of larger muscles. Thus as the creature evolves to larger size, its brain evolves to control the larger size. Going along with that are all the nerves needed for sensing the position of the muscles, tactile pressure on the skin, along with temperature there, damage sensing, plus control of organs which also have to become larger.

Hunting in those whales which do it requires a special sense: echolocation. Because the speed of sound is much higher, five times, in water than in air, something more impressive than the ability of bats is required. Impulsive sound, clicks, are needed, plus some large mass of neurons in the brain to process these sounds and relate them to the coordinate system that the whale uses. A whale operates in three dimensions, and therefore has a higher requirement for orientation than something like a bipedal human, who does pretty well just standing up and turning around. A whale essentially flies through the water, and that takes much more control, and therefore more neurons and processing ability, than a land animal might need.

Another problem whales faced while evolving is navigation. So far, there is no conclusive understanding of how whales navigate. They may use magnetic sensing, sun position, star patterns at night, echolocation, sound recognition, and likely a combination of several. It is known that they do it quite accurately. Each of these senses would require more neural processing, both on the front end to translate the sensor inputs into something useful, and then more processing to turn it into a location. Further cross-connections would be necessary to correlate two or more senses. Thus there is good reason to suspect that the brains of the predecessor animals which eventually evolved into whales were not nearly so complex. Whales also communicate with each other, which requires more processing, but this is a common phenomena among Earth animals, so it is nothing special for whales, except for the large distances involved.

The point to be taken from this is that, given enough time, there is no problem evolving a brain to match a function, whether it be proprioceptive or navigational, sensory or orientational. Once the basic idea of the layering of associative functions evolves, it can be used for almost anything. Much like the versatility of a computer processor, a wetware processor can be evolved into doing any type of computational task. This means that brainpower is not an obstacle to the development of intelligent alien species, but that the mechanism providing that direction to evolution lies elsewhere.

Dolphins, which may have evolved back into the oceans later than whales, possess large brains as well, and have the same set of situational requirements as whales, and have evolved similar skills, such as echo-location and complex navigation, accordingly. Evolution responds to the environment, and in situations where there is only one functional way to accomplish a task which is crucial to survival and reproduction, that is where evolution will go. Dolphins and whales may be something of a special condition, in that the ocean is a more stable environment than any land area. There is nothing like drought, fires, heat waves, floods, and the other land hazards for sea mammals, so they have a longer, more leisurely time to evolve their capabilities. But most likely, the longer times are not necessary.

Elephants are another example of creatures which have evolved large brains. The same argument about needed neural networks to control all the mass of the animal, skin sensors, muscles, organs, and so on apply here. Elephants have a versatile trunk, reputed to have forty thousand muscles embedded in it, which all require neural processing to control. This may be a very important lesson. It is possible to evolve a tentacle-like appendage which has the ability to hold objects and move them and more, but it takes much more processing ability to do that than something like a hand and arm. This may explain why octopi are not smart, and never developed tool-using ability. Too much processing would be needed.

This seems to be propelling the argument toward interstellar convergence. If the only appendage which can be used for tool-handling and therefore lead to the evolution of human-like intelligence, is the hand with an opposable thumb or two, then aliens would have to evolve this on their own, and so should at least have this in common with us and with all the other intelligent aliens who have formed civilizations throughout the galaxy. It would also be possible to make the argument, but somewhat weaker, that two arms are the most that can be processed efficiently, so we should see aliens with two upper limbs, consisting of arms, not tentacles, and hands with thumbs.

That also means that if we understand how arms with hands and thumbs have to evolve, we can back-track the conditions to determine yet more things that an alien planet would have to have in order to give rise to an alien civilization. With a lot of luck, it will be something detectable that can be seen from very, very far away.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Energy Possibilities for Alien Civilizations

One of the essentials for an alien civilization to climb the technology ladder and be able to confidently contemplate star travel is energy, high-density, efficient energy. We on Earth know of some sources of energy, and there may be more yet undiscovered, lying around like nuclear power was a hundred years ago, unknown, unanticipated and not much looked for. Nuclear power was right in front of us all the time, in the form of solar fusion, but we had insufficient knowledge to appreciate what was right in front of our eyes. It took some Earth-bound investigation to gain a clue that it existed before we recognized what we had been looking at since the first humans.

If there is an energy source yet unknown and unanticipated, that would be wonderful for us and for any alien civilization, as technology is a river that flows in one direction only. Every planet would discover it, barring civilizational collapse or some catastrophe. But since it is unanticipated, there is no way to plot a trajectory for an alien civilization using it. We are left hypothesizing that what we know about is all there is. Our current knowledge of physics is fairly complete, and perhaps good enough so we can extrapolate with some surety that there are no other sources of energy we could take advantage of.

There are two sides to this energy limitation. One is that we have to find sources of energy that the universe has left around waiting for us to access. In other words, no matter how much we know about energy, if there is no free energy that we can use to turn into sustenance or propulsion, for two examples, we are limited and confined to our little planet. The other side is energy storage. Suppose we have enough energy, but it is bulky or inefficient to use. Then we need to use our knowledge of energy to devise some means of carrying it around.

That was done for us for local, terrestrial transportation, by the finding of fossil fuels, which, by utilizing the chemical bond between carbon atoms, primarily, we can find liquids to put in tanks and gases to pump through pipes which make energy use efficient. For interplanetary flight, we can still use chemical bonds, some more compact ones, for propulsion, which allows us to get to our nearest local planets fairly efficiently, at least for exploration purposes. There are some orbits that are efficient to use, so even for more extensive visiting of nearby planets we can use chemical power, although nuclear would be probably be nicer. And nuclear is needed for long distance flights to the rest of the solar system.

Fusion, the sun's power source, has been the Holy Grail for energy for as long as it has been known, which still less than a century. To make it work, we have to continue experimenting to get to a proof of principle, which simply means we can do engineering around this power source to make it release its energy in a mass way. One way of figuring out efficiency is the ratio of energy produced for useful purposes versus the energy needed to produce the plant, the fuel, to dispose of waste produces including radioactive ones, and to dismantle the planet when its lifetime is over. This is a very hard number to compute, but it provides at least the concept of what we are shooting for. The energy ratio changes as resources are consumed on the planet, as the costs of extracting scarce ones jumps up and this makes the whole ratio drop.

There are three questions that we would like to have answered in the next century or two, regarding fusion. One is, can a plant be made to produce more useful power than it consumes on a operational basis. A second is, can a plant be made to produce more useful energy than the total energy used to make it, by some factor like five or ten? The third is, how big does a plant answering the first question or the second question have to be? Without positive answers to the first two, there will be no fusion power in asymptotic technology for general planet-wide use. Without a satisfactory answer for the third, there will be no fusion power for the exploration of interstellar space. The obvious fall-out from this is: what would an alien civilization do with a negative result?

Negative results take much more work to obtain with confidence than positive ones, as there are for a long period, ideas for how to convert a negative tentative result into a positive one, and until these ideas are all explored, one way or another, the negative result is still in abeyance. But let's just suppose that an alien civilization has spent a thousand years doing diligent research on fusion, and it simply doesn't work. No one can figure out how to get the second question answered positively, and it doesn't make much difference then if the first one is answered positively or not.

What would they do?

This affects every aspect of society, especially their long-term planning. An alien civilization passing asymptotic technology does long-term planning, taking into account all the options that they have before themselves. What do they do for energy? Does it destroy any hope they have of star travel, and so will a meme they might have for it be thwarted? Does the lack of fusion mean that alien civilizations die off quickly, and that is why we don't see any of them? Does the lack of fusion mean that there is no possibility of star travel, at least to more than a passing star, and this is the reason that we don't see any of them? There is another possibility that affects our quest to understand why no aliens have been visible to us and that is a negative answer to the third question: size. If fusion works on the home planet, and the alien civilization can revel in an abundance of power, but there is no way to make a ship big enough to have a power plant, this could be the reason no aliens visit Earth, or anywhere else outside of their home solar system.

Thus some discussion is in order on the longevity of a non-fusion alien civilization, and on the possibility of non-fusion star travel. While it is idyllic to think that fusion will power alien civilizations, the alternative should be thought through, just for completeness.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Records of Extinctions

Alien civilizations do not last forever; that is science fiction. They run into problems, collapse, and cease to exist. Three of these problems have been discussed here extensively: perils of the galactic, stellar or planetary type, resource exhaustion, and idiocracy. If we ever do interstellar exploration ourselves, it would be very useful for us to know which solar systems had already had an alien civilization and what caused their disappearance.

Some sorts of perils might be recurring. Supernova can occur again and again, and the galactic bulge is no place to go looking for a new home because of them. Stellar densities are too high, and even type 1 supernova would be unpleasant neighbors. The only stellar perils that have been discussed here have been the gradual, one-time-only, evolution which provides too much heat and then too little. We don't quite understand yet about rare occurrences of stellar upsets, where blasts of stellar matter get shot into space and might hit a planet. Planetary perils like basalt floods, if they were more common than here on Earth, could be a problem for anyone seeking to settle in on a new planet. By the time we get to star travelling, our science will surely understand all of these perils, and be able to predict the likelihood of their occurrence, so even if we find a planet that had intelligent life, but it perished, we can still evaluate the planet without having to find evidence of that life.

Idiocracy having killed off a civilization is a different manner. There would be traces, and a civilization which suffers this problem doesn't exactly go away forever. Idiocracy is a genetic drift toward the loss of intelligence, but any genetic drift caused by affluence stopping evolutionary culling would do the same thing. If idiocracy or other genetic drifts occur during a time prior to the genetic grand transformation, they would not be curable by the civilization, and the population would lose the technological capability it developed to maintain a large population. Population would decline, and the slower process of evolution might start again, unless they were not sustainable at the lower population as well, for some reason. If the alien civilization had managed to strangle the natural conditions on their planet, so that not only the aliens themselves could not survive in large numbers after the loss of technology, but also the whole planet's life systems were forced into monocultures or some other cul-de-sac, then everything might fail at once, and the survival rate of the alien citizens might be too slow and they would drop below the critical mass necessary to be able to regroup and start their evolutionary climb again.

Other scenarios might include the loss of resistance to naturally occurring diseases, and when technology collapse via idiocracy or genetic drift happens, diseases might have a field day with the residual population. It is easy to state these possibilities, but hard to actually envision how the devastation, via idiocracy, loss of technological capability, food shortages, or disease could be so total and so omnipresent that the whole civilization would disappear. There may be other mechanisms which do this. Perhaps military activities could contribute to the collapse scenario and add to the likelihood that the population could go extinct. There could be some environmental contribution, if they were manipulating their weather and suddenly were unable to continue. Massive fires in maintained forests could contribute, by blackening the sky and reducing the photonic contribution to restoration of natural conditions. So the possibility exists that explorers from Earth, or a different alien solar system, could find a planet which had no alien civilization, but which had been modified by the prior presence of it.

What would matter to the new visitors is the recovery time of the planet. Recall that 'sweet spot worlds' are what alien colonists would be looking for, ones where the conditions for life would exist and all they would have to do is move in. There is a possible enantiomer problem, or something more drastic if there are DNA variants that are sufficiently efficient to cover a planet, but putting those aside, the point is that if the planet can recover in a hundred thousand years, it is likely to have done so before alien visitors arrive, given the various timescales of the galaxy, and they could simply settle down there. Maybe if the timing was lucky, they could find a few remaining artifacts.

The serious problem is extinction via scarcity. If the alien civilization progresses through the genetic grand transition, after which they have the knowledge to correct any genetic drifts, and also accumulates the knowledge and know-how to fix other problems the civilization might have, the only thing remaining which they can only postpone, not eliminate, is resource exhaustion. They would most likely do whatever is necessary to stave it off, by recycling to the maximum, and if their solar system is abundant in resources not only on their home planet, but on others, interplanetary mining and shipping of those most critical, high value to mass ones. But this postpones the day they run out; it does not eliminate it. They might reduce their population down, and stretch resource exhaustion out to a million years instead of hundreds of thousands, but the day will come. They might simply leave the planet behind and move their civilization, or go extinct in place. Either way, they leave behind a solar system bereft of resources, and until many tens or hundreds of millions of years have passed and tectonic recycling by the planet itself restores the presence of resources. Without resources, there is not much point in even visiting a new solar system. Smaller planets and satellites, if they were mined by the original aliens, do not keep much tectonic activity going and would not recycle at all. There might be the occasional deep space asteroid which impacts and adds something, but this is negligible in the whole scheme of things.

Thus, a solar system where the original inhabitants went extinct because of total, absolute resource exhaustion, or where they simply migrated to another one, same result, would be useless for explorers to go to, and more than useless for migrants to come to. This means that somehow, in order to make any of our own stellar adventures pay off with a new planet to settle, we have to somehow get our large telescopes equipped to detect the prior presence of alien civilizations, even after they no longer exist.

The shopping around we would do, or any alien civilization looking for a new home would do, involves eliminating worlds that cannot support life, because the temperatures are all wrong, or the orbits are moving and not stable, or it has the wrong atmosphere, or stellar quakes are going on all the time, or something else as bad. But this elimination process is the same for all aliens, and the same for solo planets. It doesn't help at all for finding used-up worlds and scratching them off the list. This is a harder problem than finding already occupied planets, as there is no civilization left there to turn the lights on or send mining spaceships planet to planet. There are no ruins that could be observed.

This means that understanding the origination of life is even more important. If intelligent life has tremendous obstacles in originating, so there aren't many civilizations that ever arise in the galaxy, and if furthermore, star travel has real serious problems so that most civilizations wouldn't attempt it, we might find that there are few used-up planets. However, so far it looks like any planet that can originate life can evolve intelligent life, and stellar transit isn't all that difficult for a civilization past the asymptotic technology transition. So, we have a problem.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Dominance and Submission in Evolution

One interesting point that came out of previous discussions of evolution is that there is noise in the process. There are many points of evolution, many capabilities and functions, that affect fitness, and if one of these happens to be very sensitive in a particular situation, then the noise in it will interfere with the evolution of other traits, and evolution in general will hover around the existing situation, without the organisms involved continuing to evolve at a normal rate. To give an example, if fighting for mate selection is a very critical thing in reproduction, evolution will emphasize those characteristics which allow a creature to win these battles, and anything else, like hunting ability or visual recognition skills will be swamped by the changes in fighting capability.

Now think about this: if a particular organism is not stuck in one of these noise in capability selection chokepoints, it can evolve other capabilities, and step by simple step, get up further in general adaptability and survivability characteristics. Since evolution goes by simple steps, it is not to hard for a noise situation to stop some simple steps from happening, meaning that a whole series of sequential simple steps don't get taken, and a large improvement in characteristics doesn't get completed, or even started. So, if some evolutionary change happens which helps an organism bypass a noise blockage situation, this change can enable other changes which will lead to a much more successful organism after it takes many of the simple steps that evolutionary mutations offer.

This concept of enabling mutations has importance for the development of intelligence. Mate competition seems to be very serious for many animals here on Earth, and perhaps in ways too subtle for us to appreciate, in the plant kingdom as well. How might evolution pull an enabling stunt to overcome this blockage? The answer is dominance and submission. If, instead of a large amount of mate selection competition, there was only a little, then there would be no blockage. If there was, in the gene pool, a gene for dominance which produced submissive behavior if not present, there would be little competition, little noise from this source, and lots of opportunity for the organism to develop any other survival-related traits, like intelligence.

So, if there is on an alien planet some species that has developed grasping appendages, learned hunting with simple implements, inhabited a large area so numbers would grow large and provide many opportunities for mutation, and besides developed a dominance/non-dominance gene, intelligence could be the result, and following that, an alien civilization and star traveling vessels.

Dominance genes could be simply connected with other traits, such as size. If the gene makes a creature 20% larger than otherwise, it would be dominant, provided other traits were not missing or ineffectual. In mate competitions, where battling occurs, there has to be some aggressiveness present in order for the size effect to make a difference, along with a normal amount of speed and a few other attributes. By the way, an increase an any one of these could substitute for size.

Dominance genes might not require any physical attributes to take effect. They could be a result of a prolongation of some childlike capabilities, such as following the commands of a parent. If the lack of dominance genes meant that a creature would not get over the willingness to obey a parent, and lost the transition to independence, then it would be submissive and no competition over mates would be necessary. Only between two creatures both possessing the dominance gene would there be battling, and if it were an uncommon gene, this might not happen enough to detract from the quiescence needed for other traits to evolve.

Remember that any particular stage in the chronology of an alien civilization, from the formation of the right kind of world to the overcoming of some sociological obstacle, has implications that stretch both forwards and backwards in the chronology. This hypothetical result has the same bi-directional implications. It means that only aliens which have developed extensive child-rearing, with the obedience gene or genes needed for long-term childhood, would be able to move past the mate competition battling noise chokepoint using this prolongation mutation. This is fortunate for intelligence, as only with a long childhood and parental involvement can traits which are non-genetic be passed down easily. Tool-using works well in this situation. Parent shows child how to make a spear and how to use it, or a tomahawk. Parent shows child what kind of stick to look for, or what shape of rock to seek, in order for tool using to be passed down generation to generation. This works better with longer childhood and parental involvement. As more complex tool-using develops, it is even more important.

The implications in the other direction are more impressive, and perhaps more consequential. Having a population which is mostly full of creatures who are genetically predisposed to submission rather than dominance behavior means something about the formation of cities. As a clan grows larger, because of its successes in hunting and gathering, enabled by intelligence on top of tool-using, plus communication skills, all from mutations, submissiveness keeps the battling to a minimum and allows the clan to succeed. Submissiveness from a gene which prolongs childhood and reduces the drive for independence means that live in a large population is tolerable, and it means that individuals can be organized to accomplish specialized tasks. It enables the formation of castes.

It also enables these castes to organize within themselves and to take a position within the clan. One of the castes, theological leader, depends on some sort of submissiveness or obedience or similar traits. The organization of warrior/hunter groups depends on some individuals being leaders, that is, dominant, but the rest being followers. The same holds for agricultural and tradesman castes. Some few need to organize the work, pick where to plant or what to harvest to make thread, and all the other hundreds of decisions that these occupations demand, and then others to follow through and implement them.

The implication is that in order for the transition from small hunter-gatherer clan to large clan with castes, some change is needed in how the individuals interact. The concept proposed here, a type of dominance/submissive genetic mutation, seems to be a possibility. This means, once again, that genetics poses no obstacle to the climb to having an alien civilization.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Communication, Intelligence's Predecessor

The whole point of understanding evolution is to deduce, somehow, the various steps that lead bit by bit up to the existing attributes or capabilities. Intelligence, defined as the ability to solve problems, depends on some traits already having been evolved, at least to a small amount, first. Perhaps the most critical one, even more important than tool-using, is communication.

Almost all animals on Earth communicate. There are solitary creatures, which communicate to find mates. There are pack, herd, pod, or whatever animals which communicate to warn the others about predators. There are insects which communicate the location of food. Communication can be by audible sounds, gestures, expressions, motions, and probably other means. It is diverse, and that means it has evolved repeatedly in different organisms for different purposes. This little observation has some special implications.

Communication can be used in diverse ways, and therefore it should be capable of shifting from use to use without too much evolutionary delay or impediment. So, as some alien creatures develop communication concerning one area of their lives, it can shift to another. And when there are two or more uses both adding to the fitness competition from one function, that function gets a double dose of selection, and evolves faster.

How might the sequence go? Climbing in a certain environment, a forest or jungle, develops grasping capability for at least upper limbs. Play, in creatures living in groups, develops that capability to tool use, or toy use, which then migrates to tool use, specifically weapons and tools for hunting and food gathering. The known earliest uses are projectiles, meaning found rocks and stones, spears, meaning pointed sticks, and wedged stones in sticks, used as a tomahawk. Once these uses are discovered, evolution will work to make the creature better able to find and use them, and this involves some brain development in different areas than the prior non-tool-using situation did.

Once tool-assisted hunting and gathering gets under way, a whole raft of needs for communication arise. In a group, if the entire group goes out together to look for where game is, or where edible fruits and vegetables, or the alien equivalents, are, that is a very inefficient use of time, and time is important in survival in some situations, scarcity ones rather than abundance ones. Having individuals go out as scouts, and able to communicate findings, such as what animals or birds or fish or fruit or whatever was found, how hard it will be to follow through on the find, how far, and so on, would make the survival of this group much easier.

In humans, communication with this much detail required the evolution of vocal cords to modulate the sound produced during exhalation. Muscles and the nerves to control them are standard equipment all over animals on Earth, so developing the initial musculature there would be only a few mutations. What took many mutations is the development of the brain capacity to utilize them to make more and more complicated sounds. This went simultaneously with improvements in the vocal tract itself. The diversity expressed in our gene pool, even in the gene pool of a small hunting and gathering group, is sufficient to lead to this. The eventual result was a pool of words and finally combinations of words and meanings.

There is a giant change underlying this. It is conceptualization. Conceptualization as used here means the ability to categorize complex scenes and situations into abstract nouns and verbs. An animal might see a mountain, but it does not think the word, 'mountain'. It relies on the visual scene for its decision-making. An alien in a primitive hunter-gatherer group can refer to a mountain as a single word, perhaps a proper noun naming the mountain, or perhaps a more abstract word meaning any mountain. This is the beginning of thinking. Thinking like this is the beginning of intelligence.

Thus it is completely possible to create a list of reasonably simple mutations and resulting physiological changes, each resulting in an improvement in fitness, that leads to intelligence. Perhaps there are multiple paths. But there is not no path. A path can by hypothesized. This means there exists the possibility that, given the correct conditions, intelligence can arise on an alien planet without any extreme requirements.

One requirement, fairly mild, is that there be group living, a clan, of the alien creatures that might eventually develop intelligence. Among Earth primates, there are those whole live solitary lives and those who live in groups. Group living makes sense, from a survival standpoint, if food sources are large and congregated. If food sources are small and dispersed, solitary living allows each creature to seek his/her/its own, and live on that basis. With concentrated food sources, the group can live together feeding off the single source for a time, before moving to the next one. Predator-prey relations can also affect the utility of living in groups. If the predator type which exists can better be defeated by a group of creatures, rather than evaded by an individual, then the group has this survival push as well.

Perhaps something can be discussed further here. It is possible for some improvements by genetic mutation to disappear if there is too much noise in the evolutionary process. One source of noise is the selection of mating preference genes. If mating preferences dominate the evolutionary fitness competition, no intelligence genes can evolve, or at least not fast enough to make any difference. So mating selection has to have either reached its culmination, or must be bypassed in favor of factors that increase survival probability, which may include intelligence and communication. The bypass can happen if there is some finality to a mating selection, for example, by the selection of a dominant individual who mates with multiple companions, where the non-dominant do not. If the dominance lasts for many years in the group, there is time for other evolutionary factors to develop their role and serve as fitness competitors. There may even be a feedback effect here, in that if dominance of this type develops, then the groups which have it, say those in one geographic locale, the most will evolve other aspects faster and then this characteristic will be carried along as the most populous one in the gene pool, not because it is being selected for directly, but because it enables other ones to be selected which actually do promote improvements in fitness competitions.

This idea, that certain fitness characteristics might become more common in gene pools because they enable other genes to express themselves and win the fitness competition, is a general one, and is certainly not restricted to dominance of one individual in a clan. It does imply some linkage, perhaps having genes closely located on a single chromosome, which is again a simple job for evolution to pull off. It may be that a hundred years from now, the location of different genes on chromosomes will be well understood to be groups of enablers acting together.

So the conclusion is, that on a diverse alien planet, with many types of habitats, with different extents, communication should eventually develop in creatures that live in groups and are hunter-gatherers, as long as there is some mechanism to suppress other fitness characteristics which would overwhelm it. To summarize, alien planets might typically evolve intelligent aliens. This isn't the obstacle it might have been thought to have been.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Speed and Direction in Evolution

Evolution is certainly local. The evidence from Earth is overwhelming. Most species have specific locations, likely the ones they evolved in, and they stay there. They evolved characteristics which gave them advantages in that particular locality, and these characteristics imprisoned them as well. If they left that locality, they would be facing better competitors who evolved to match the adjacent locality, and they wouldn't be the fitness champions and would be eliminated. This explains the incredible diversity of species on Earth, as we have hundreds of localities, each with a full range of species adapted to it.

The same should hold on alien planets. There is no reason to think that an alien planet wouldn't have climate differences, tectonic differences, weather differences and so on, all of which affect the fitness competitions. So, an alien planet visited before their species have been affected by the dominant intelligent alien species would be diverse. For one thing, this assists the aliens in making their technology step up in genetics, as there are countless examples of the expression of genetic codes around.

With all these localities, like little mini-worlds, why would intelligence be arising all over the place, with different creatures getting smarter in deserts, on seacosts, near rivers, in wetlands, in forests, in savannahs, in areas with droughts or floodings or monsoons or what-have-you? Why didn't it happen on Earth, with bright species all coming to flower everywhere and maybe even contacting one another?

This has implications for the presence of alien life on origin planets, where life gets started despite all odds, and generates myriad species. The life getting started stuff is what is hard, we think, but once it does, evolution is like a mighty machine that simply will not stop until all the niches where life can survive have been filled.

In each location, for each species, we have mutations and fitness competitions. But the fitness competitions are specific in nature. Consider large animals on Earth: they often compete in mating selection. Large antelope bucks fight with each other, and the winner is the one who mates the most. The ones which survive are those which can outrun the predators in the area, typically felines of some sort. So, evolution is choosing fighting ability and running ability, not intelligence. The variance of traits such as these, which are affected by many genes, is large, and the key point is that lesser traits, for other functions such as intelligence, are lost in the noise. A buck antelope might have a gene which makes it smarter, but what is competed for are fighting attributes, such as horn size and shape, strength, size, aggressiveness, and many other attributes which contribute to a complex skill such as combat for mating preference. These large numbers of genes are all being competed for, and it takes a long time for some improvements to evolve to being common, as there are so many other genes which produce some changes in the metric for fitness, combat ability. A gene which bumps up intelligence doesn't even register, and therefore is lost in the shuffle of those genes which are involved in the few competitive contests that evolution holds. If running ability conflicts with fighting ability, the fitness competition is even more complicated, and it is even less likely that intelligence would be selected for.

Something should be said about what is meant by intelligence here. It is not neural processing. If you look at predators, they have a great deal of processing ability for hunting ability, for example, for carefully examining visual fields for signs of prey. This involves huge numbers of neurons, and could be thought of as intelligence in a field we do not measure. There is no hunting IQ component, nor one which involves noticing something in a high-definition visual field that has certain characteristics. Nor is there a motion-connected IQ component, although efficient chasing and catching of prey certainly involves, in large creatures, a huge amount of processing of muscle commands and recognition of state of the body, as well as recognition of terrain and adaptation to it. So while neurons can evolve and become complicated, what an animal does with them is subject to the fitness competitions, and they simply blur over intelligence of the kind we emphasize, the kind that creates cities, and stress the kind that solves problems of survival and reproduction. Not as much neural processing is needed here, but some certainly is and it certainly is evolved for.

So if we are trying to figure out if evolution on an alien planet would necessarily produce intelligence, of the kind we like to think about, the city-building kind, we cannot rely on the huge diversity of locations on the typical alien planet to invariably produce it somewhere. It is simply not typically selected as an important variable, and may even have side effects which interfere with the important variables that are being selected for. Largely, it would be in the noise of fitness competitions, and not selected for. We need to figure out when it would be.

Down this path, there is another aspect of evolution that makes a large difference in what gets selected. Consider the speed of evolution. If a species has 100 mutations and is competing them for optimal, it will be evolving faster than one which has 20. In other words, evolution is proportional in some vague sense to the number of creatures. A species which occupies a large habitat, and numbers in the millions, will be evolving much faster than one which occupies a smaller habitat, and numbers in the tens of thousands. The speed of evolution will be tremendously greater, meaning that the homogeneity of the alien planet plays a large role in the evolution of intelligence. If intelligence is way down in the noise of fitness competitions, at some period of evolution, but is not overwhelmed by side effects from the important attributes, such as combat or prey-hunting, so that it has a very slow evolutionary rate, it will not evolve in a habitat that is small and doesn't last too many generations. The species will simply migrate or become extinct, meaning that any small gains in intelligence would be lost.

The evolution of intelligence needs a large habitat, so minor changes in unimportant aspects, such as intelligence of the kind we care about, can evolve and stick in the organism when it finally migrates. The large habitat needs to support large numbers of creatures, not simply a sparse collection. So finally, a little glimmer of understanding seems to be peeking out. Homogeneity of a planet is important. That is something a very large telescope might even see.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Food after Asymptotic Technology

Life in an alien civilization that has reached asymptotic technology, that is, one which has essentially finished all the science and engineering that is possible, and has organized it and put it to use, is something of a mystery to us. It is a mystery not only because it is a situation that we have not experienced, but one that we have no guidelines to figure out. In a civilization where anything is possible, anything is possible. What would the typical alien civilization choose?

Food might be an example that can elucidate the problem. What would aliens eat? With abundant resources, in other words, in an alien civilization that was not facing resource scarcity, they could produce anything they wanted. They would be able to produce anything likely in a variety of ways, using robotics or using genetics, using different raw materials for input.

If we think like humans in the twenty-first century on Earth, we might just assume they would have a wide variety of meat, fish, vegetables, fruits and so on. Rather, the alien equivalent of these, as aliens might not divide up their world of food in the same way we do. But this assumption falls apart upon further examination. When we say asymptotic technology, we do not mean just some simple advances on what we on Earth have now. We mean the ultimate in science. They could have things that were digestible foods that come from any source, either grown, or simply fabricated. Think of meat. They could grow any kind of it using some biological tricks, in industrial facilities, without there having to be animals. Or they could make some genetic concoction that produced animals that were simple to raise and were mostly edible meat. Or they could make a different genetic concoction that produced meat from plants. So the opportunities for creation of anything at all cover a wide range. What would they choose?

These questions miss a main point. The aliens themselves would be modified genetically. They could make their lives extremely simple by simply designing their own taste mechanisms to prefer only one type of food, one which was easy to produce. They could arrange so that this one food would make their taste sensors produce great satisfaction, and nothing else would. Then their questions of what to produce and how to produce it are all moot. Every alien likes the same, single food, and they just devote some minimal floorspace in each city to produce it, and delivery is likewise simplified. No alien has to look at a menu and be faced with choices. No one has to worry about whether guests would like what they serve. Restaurants, or whatever serves food publicly, are pretty much identical.

The food chosen would have to meet all the biological requirements of the aliens, but since their digestive systems can be genetically designed as well as their taste sensors, it could all be done at once. The single food could meet every requirement, as its ingredients were matched to what the designer teams put into the alien genetic code for themselves.
There would be no food fads, no chefs, no preparation details, no recipes, no ingredients, nothing at all except some factories or the alien equivalents which make this one substance. Would they want to have a civilization in which a major form of activity, that related to food, was eliminated? Would they opt for simplicity or would they opt for diversity?
The questions raised here about food are the same that might be asked about other aspects of life. And they are not simple questions. In the two alternatives, diversity of foods and simplicity of food, the aliens adjust their genetics so they are very happy with either choice. Happiness is not something that is hard to come by in an alien society. It is built into the genetics, and the training, that each alien has. If the alien civilization figures every alien should be happy, they will be, as the technology will exist to make sure this happens. So one conclusion that can be immediately drawn in that happiness of the aliens is no criteria to use in trying to figure out how they would design life in their civilization.

In place of happiness, what would the decision-makers of the alien civilization use as a criteria, or a methodology, to design their society? One that comes to mind is efficiency, which means that they would make choices that use less resources, less footprint, less energy, less wear and tear, or less whatever. This means they are trying to make their civilization last as long as possible on the home planet, or the home solar system, by running out their resources as slowly as possible. This puts off the decision to leave for another solar system as long as possible, and conserves the resources necessary to make the interstellar transition when the time comes. It does seem somewhat strange that the decision on how to feed the members of the civilization is intimately tied into the meme for star travel, but that is what appears to be the case. Perhaps the entire civilization is affected by the choice of star travel memes, in other words, everything revolves around this fundamental choice made by decision-makers early in the genetic grand transition.

Consider other alternatives. They cannot be looking to design society so that there is more creativity, as that is already a maximum. They have completed science and figured out how to use it, so that cannot be a goal. Exploration of their solar system, if it has economic payoffs, would already have been done or else well within the existing capability of the civilization to do whenever in their history they chose to do it. Art is already expanded to the maximum and as far as novelty goes, none is left to do. Virtually everything that can be done on their home planet has been researched, understood, done, and wrapped up. Other than space travel, there is nothing left to challenge the civilization.

This puts interstellar travel in another perspective: it’s the only thing they haven’t done yet. If and when they do it, if their memes do not have it as a major goal of the civilization, it will become another thing, perhaps the last thing, that the civilization decided to accomplish, and then promptly forgot about it. So, we may need to add to the list of motivations for interstellar travel one thing: another challenge for a civilization that has a meme for accomplishing difficult goals and overcoming obstacles.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Interstellar Convergence

In short, interstellar convergence means that aliens would look like us, and have the same chemistry as well. It might happen, and it might not.

Let’s just talk about the chemistry. There are some basic chemical choices that early cells made on Earth, and these choices have been preserved in all the species that have flowed from these cells. Take glucose for an example. It has multiple uses, including serving as the main staple of the diet of cells of any creature on Earth. Why is glucose there and not something else? Was it just random chance that a single cell specialized in using it, and then everything built up on top of that choice? Or are there intrinsic reasons why glucose is superior to everything else that could have been used in the cellular machinery? One reason might be its physical flexibility and foldability, as it can take many shapes. Another reason may be that it causes less damage to the organic chemicals within a cell. Another could be that energy transfer in the ATP-ADP cycle is more efficient than with other choices. And there may be another dozen possibilities.

In the fitness competition, in the days of primitive cells, where one cell happens to mutate to using glucose and other cells mutate to using other intermediate chemical energy molecules, does the glucose using cell always win, or statistically win often enough to drive out the competition? If this competition does indeed pick the best choice, and the selection can take place in a short enough time, then on all planets where there is some option for this competition, glucose would win and become the only energy molecule used in all organism there. This is the essence of interstellar convergence. It means that there is a competition between options, and the superior one is superior over a wide enough range of conditions that it proves itself superior on multiple planets. It means that random mutation cannot lead to a win in the competition unless the mutation actually produces the best product. Interstellar convergence means that all planets have a severe enough competition on all these molecular choices that the single optimal one wins everywhere and all the aliens have the same chemistry.

If this fitness competition depended strongly on some parameters which differed between planets, then interstellar convergence would not happen. Following our example, if glucose is a champion in oceans between 10 degrees C and 20, but something else is between 20 and 30 and yet another between 30 and 40, we would expect to see this spectrum reflected in the chemistry of alien visitors. Some would have the 10 to 20 degree selection, others the 20 to 30, and so on.

There are some reasons to suspect that basic chemistry choices like this do experience interstellar convergence. Evolution is local, meaning that the physical space that a variety of organisms compete within does not have to be the whole planet, but instead just a specialized part of it. If this energy molecule choice was strongly dependent on temperature, then we might expect to see on Earth some glucose cells in the temperate zones, and something different for organisms which live in the tropics. We do not see this. Instead we see universality of these basic molecular choices down on the cellular level.

It might be true instead that something else, like salinity for example is a sensitive parameter, and planets with much higher salinity would experience a selection of a different energy molecule. Earth doesn’t have a wide variation in salinity in its oceans, as the waters all mix. Another planet might have a different situation, and thus a different environment for its molecular selections. There does not seem to be any indication from the understanding of biochemistry that we have, but some other parameter may do the trick.

Once a very basic choice like an intermediary energy molecule is made, many other choices are affected as everything in a cell works together, so that if some planet has a different choice, they would likely have large differences in the rest of their cellular chemistry. The way to resolve the question of interstellar convergence is to create some primitive cells with different choices, and subject them to some environmental stresses, while monitoring their success is surviving and reproducing. Until that happens, we will not know the extent of interstellar convergence. Here on Earth we should be able to do these experiments within a century more of biochemical research or so.

There is some further discussion possible at this stage, related to the existence of enantiomers. There are a huge number of molecules which have left and right forms, much like the left and right hands. No amount of rotation can make a right hand look like a left hand, and the same goes for molecules. But molecules with these two forms would have the same capability and properties, and should compete equally in any fitness competition.

Molecules in the cell fit together to conduct their chemical transformations. That means, if molecule L-A, the left version of the molecule, works well with molecule L-B, then most likely molecule D-A, the right version of A would work exactly as well with molecule D-B. What this means is that whole families of interacting biochemicals would have choices of enantiomers. The labeling is a bit arbitrary, so that they would not all be what we on Earth label the L form, but there would not be mixing between the families.

This means that if interstellar convergence happens, and the aliens all look like us down to the chemistry, there could still be two separate sets of them, one set of aliens whose world started out with the L-type of some basic chemical and it now uses the enantiomers that work with it, and the other set being aliens who use the opposite enantiomers. They could look alike, but they could not breed together, or possibly even eat the same food.

This has some relevance for seeding planets. If some world, Planet X, has aliens with a stellar travel meme that has them going to other planets and replacing the biome there with things more compatible with them, with an eye toward them settling there, there could be a great mismatch if the seed target has life using the opposite enantiomer, assuming interstellar convergence is universal. It is hard to imagine what might happen, if the new predators could not consume the original creatures of the target planet without dying. How to get rid of everything and start all over with setting back the seeding process for millennia or even more?