Yell To The Sky?

Paul Davies disagrees with Stephen Hawking:

When British cosmologist Stephen Hawking warned against contact with extraterrestrials in a new Discovery Channel documentary, … [his] comparisons with Columbus … reflect the rampant anthropocentrism that pervades much speculation about alien life.  Just because we go around wiping out our competitors doesn’t mean aliens would do the same. A civilization that has endured for millions of years would have overcome any aggressive tendencies, and may well have genetically engineered its species for harmonious living. Any truly bellicose alien species would either have wiped itself out long ago, or already taken over the galaxy.

By comparison, humans would quite likely be considered dangerous warmongers, posing a possible menace to our galactic neighbors in centuries to come. If so, then ET may act to eliminate the threat if we didn’t mend our violent ways. Ironically, the greatest danger from an alien encounter may be ourselves.

Many species here on Earth have endured for millions of years while retaining “aggressive” tendencies, and even very “mildly” bellicose aliens, ones who would only exterminate us if they could make a plausible case that we might pose a future menace, should still be of great concern to us.  I sure don’t want to be exterminated “just in case.”  Wouldn’t it make more sense then to shut up until either we don’t look so menacing, or until we are strong enough to defend ourselves?

If I didn’t know more about Paul Davies, I’d leave it at that.  But Davies has long been a well respected academic expert in this area, and I’ve come to respect him in my personal contacts.  I can’t claim he hasn’t heard contrary arguments; he invited me to present my “Burning the Cosmic Commons” work (more) at a workshop he held, and he covers it extensively in his (good) new book The Eerie Silence:

Hanson points out that whatever the motives a community may have for spreading, and whatever the parameters such as travel speed, length of sojourn at new colonies, order of priorities and level of incentive to continue, there will always be a fastest wave of of migration  Given a sufficiently rich plethora of diverse cultures vying for planetary pastures new, the leading edge of this wave will be determined purely by competitive selection effects.  [p127]

Davies even considers in great depth possible signatures that an alien colonization wave passed this way long ago:

How about this: aliens passed through our part of the galaxy a long time ago harvesting comets? … If the solar system is typical, and other stars have comet clouds too, then the comets ejected from them should sometimes come our way and enter the solar system.  If an extra solar comet paid us a visit, it would be seen traveling on a hyperbolic rather than elliptical orbit, i.e. moving too fast to be from the Oort cloud.  So far no such comet has been seen, which is a bit puzzling.  [p133] …

We can’t be sure the [puzzling] lack of monopoles is universal – maybe its just our region of the galaxy that is affected.  Are the aliens to blame?  Why would magnetic monopolies be of use to them?  Monopoles would be the power source of choice for any self-respecting super civilization. [p137]

But even though Davies accepts that selection could induce such rapacious alien expansion, he still sees any nearby aliens as unthreatening:

Obviously not every spacefaring civilization would choose to colonize the galaxy in a grand imperial manner; … But it only takes one such community somewhere in the galaxy to present us with Fermi’s awkward conundrum. [p120] … The motivations of intelligent aliens are a closed book to us.  Whatever might induce them to spread out, it is unlikely to be the product of primitive urges that confer little long-term survival value – the relevant genes would, I believe, long ago have been engineered out of the gene pool. [p125] … Once technology advance to the point where a community can exercise choice over who survives and who doesn’t, pure natural selection breaks down.  … The further course of evolution can be determined by design. [p154] … Free of primitive Darwinian urges such as flight-and-flight, disgust and the need for procreation, autonomous computers are unlikely to see humans as threatening or in competition with them. [p159] …

Can we trust ET not to dupe us?  An alien civilization might not be explicitly hostile to humans.  It could regard us as mildly useful, but ultimately ‘in the way’ and of little relevance to their grand scheme.  They might enlist our help, then elbow us aside. … An alien civilization that goes the the trouble and expense of actively trying to contact us would probably be highly altruistic. [p171]

The danger from METI is miniscule. …We need to ask why aliens would be interested in harming us or invading. … The greatest danger to humanity is if a nearby alien community judges us to be a threat.  Given our warlike history, that is not an unreasonable conclusion. …The aliens might decide to mount a preemptive strike for the greater good of the wider galactic community.  And could we blame them …? … But even if this gloomy assessment is correct, METI would not increase the risk of bringing fire and brimstone down upon us.  In fact it may serve a useful purpose if we could signal our best intentions to ET. …

I am in favor of METI, not just because I think there isn’t a snow-ball’s chance in hell of anyone out their picking up the signals, but because the act of designing and transmitting messages to the stars serves manny noble purposes, such as raising interest in science in general and SEIT in particular, and in encouraging people – especially young people – to think about the significance of humanity and the vastness of the universe, and to reflect on the common factors among our disparate cultures that we wish tho preserve for posterity. [p198]

Davies’ reasoning still puzzles me.  Why not just inspire youth by standing in a field and yelling up to the sky “Yo aliens, here we are!”?   OK, youth may not believe that aliens could hear you then.  And yes, if you tell kids you used a big expensive radio telescope to send a message, they’ll naturally assume you did that because you calculated aliens could hear you that way.  But if you actually calculate that aliens couldn’t possibly hear you that way, well then you are “inspiring” youth by lying to them. Why not “accidentally” leave your telescope unplugged, or just lie about having used it?  Would those lies be worse than tricking them into assuming your radio telescope could be heard?

But if your argument is that while the chance is small it is real, with a substantial expected value when you multiply the probability of contact times the value of such contact, well then you have to consider the relative probability and value of friendly versus hostile contact.  Sure we can’t assume they’d be hostile, but neither can we assume they’d be friendly.  Until we have a better handle on how to make this calculation, shouldn’t we just shut up in the meanwhile?

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  • Under normal Hanson/OB naming conventions, this post should have been “Why Yell to Sky?”, to avoid giving the impression that you favor Davies’ view.

  • roko

    “A civilization that has endured for millions of years would have overcome any aggressive tendencies”

    Davies may be a great physicist, but as this quote shows, his own wishful thinking is in the driving seat. It is a simple non sequitur to claim that survival implies lack of aggression, especially when the mode of existence is expansion rather than static existence. Indeed, if there is more than one alien race in the supercluster, survival of the most aggressive is perhaps the most likely outcome.

    Davies is simply expressing the left-wing/SWPL tendency to use a discussion of aliens to signal our left-wing views, especially to compare the “wisdom” and “peace” of aliens to the “violence” and “folly” of humans. This is signaling behavior, and really has no entanglement with the evidence.

    • Yes that quote seems very weak. They might have engineered to be peaceful along amongst themselves (if they have weapons such that existential risk is still a threat to them even once space-faring that is probably a requirement for long term survival), but no reason for them to have compassion for weak outsiders.

      However Davies made a legitimate point elsewhere in the book that any advanced aliens who would detect radio signals would probably be able to detect our existence on Earth in any case. Shouting out deliberately probably doesn’t change our chances much.

  • Low status

    Eh, there’s a huge difference between a civilization and a species. There are many aggressive species that have sustained for millions of years, but how many of them have developed thermonuclear weapons and space-travel? They’re old and aggressive but not dangerous enough to be a threat to the existence of their whole species, by any other mean than by eating all the prey.

  • Whatever might induce them to spread out, it is unlikely to be the product of primitive urges that confer little long-term survival value – the relevant genes would, I believe, long ago have been engineered out of the gene pool.

    What did he say there? That survival isn’t a primitive urge? If there’ll be any primitive urge removed at all, then I believe, the urge to survive as first-order goal might be one. Given that we may soon hit an absolute barrier, that there’ll be nothing new to learn and the outlook bleak. That is, we might relatively soon learn that the universe will indeed end in a big freeze, with no chance to escape. Thus there might be not much incentive for any sufficiently educated intelligence to put much effort into useless repetition over cosmological timescales until the inevitable “run down” to a state of no thermodynamic free energy will torture you to death as slow as possible. Aliens might simply indulge themselves into hedonistic oblivion once technology allows for that possibility. That would also explain the absence of any space opera out there.

    I hope I’m wrong. And until we know this to be the case, we should try to conquer the skies and beyond.

    Though, even if the universe is endless, i.e. imagine infinite possibility. I think it will all come down to the questions of complexity, how much is there to learn before it’s all about permutation? And secondly, is smarter than human intelligence possible? If it turns out to be the case that there are limits to knowledge, or that we are able to effectively understand everything once. And if it tuns out that human intelligence is effectively the absolute limitation in intellectual appreciation. What will be left? At what point are we going to hit the excitement barrier? Nothing to learn, nothing to enjoy, nothing new, nothing to look forward to. Endless repetition resulting in a static universe of everything. Or would infinite of all parameters allow for infinite novelty? Nevertheless, that might very well not be the nature of reality.

    For more on that train of thought, read this short-SF.

    Anyway, about the risks associated with aliens and their offspring. Given that superhuman intelligence is possible, how are we going to come up with risk assessments regarding super-alien-intelligences? Not even some of our closest relatives, the Gorillas, are able to tell that we might kill them to use their hands as decorative ashtraies.

  • jb

    Yeah, Davies makes a bunch of arbitrary claims that he can’t support. Very irritating.

    My mental ranking of probabilities goes a little something like this:

    1. We’re almost certainly in a simulation – if we extrapolate that we can simulate the entire universe on a cellphone in 100 years, the odds of this being the “one true universe” are very small
    2. If we’re not in a simulation, and given the fact that life seems to have developed on Mars, life may be very plentiful throughout the universe. If life is plentiful, the entire galaxy should have been colonized hundreds of millions, if not billions of years ago. Why are we here?

    2a) Aliens would love to plunder our resources, but they’ve missed our star so far. We’re just that lucky
    2b) Aliens have no need for our resources (see the Iain Banks Culture novels as a for-instance), and are ignoring us
    2c) Aliens have no need for our resources, and don’t know we’re here
    2d) Aliens would love to plunder our planet for resources, but they make a point of only plundering planets with intelligent life, out of sheer spite. That seems nonsensical.

    If 2a) or 2d) is true, we shouldn’t press our luck. 2b) is yelling at the sky

    Only 2c) lines up with Davies, and I struggle with the motivation of the aliens in that scenario.

    anyways, I love these kinds of discussions, because they’re so theoretical 🙂

    • roko

      2b) Aliens have no need for our resources (see the Iain Banks Culture novels as a for-instance), and are ignoring us

      RATIONALITY ERROR: treating fictional evidence as if it were real

      Events portrayed in Banks’ Novels are not an “instance”.

      • Hey, can’t we treat even a fictional subject with fictional evidence? Isn’t that what economists do all the time, create models to treat models? 🙂

      • Tim Tyler

        They *are* an instance of the idea in question.

      • jb

        yes, just to be clear – it was a “for-instance” example of the concept that highly advanced technologies can produce unlimited amounts of anything without needing to consume matter. I don’t think that the Culture novels represent reality, they just represent a conceptual shorthand for various kinds of future innovation.

  • TGGP, I added a “?” to title.

    Low, how do nukes and space-travel change the determinants of aggression? Nuke use is not civ suicide.

  • Alexei Turchin

    In fact passive SETI is much more dagerouse activity than METI – we could download Alien AI (ie cheme of a computer and programm to it) which will use the earth to send its copies further.

    See detail in
    Is SETI dangerous?

    I am going to present these ideas on Humanity + summit

    • Tim Tyler


      • Jack (LW)


      • Alexei Turchin

        scheme or blueprint

  • Chris T

    This is one of those topics where supposedly rational people seem to feel free to make blatantly unsupportable statements with impunity.

    Their arguments often seem to go like this:
    We cannot hope to know what an alien species is like, therefore they must pose no threat/are peaceful.


  • Tim Tyler

    Maybe Paul is going to have another stab at the Templeton Prize – for showing how angelic alien races must be.

  • tim

    Some people, like Hawking, suggest we should hide because we can’t know if aliens are altruistic. Well, what if there are extremely altruistic aliens who would make our lives far better if they discovered us? What if we flagged down some immortal ETs who are horrified by sickness and death and insist on saving us from ourselves? I haven’t come across any reason why that’s less likely than meeting aliens who want to use Earth as a McDonald’s drive-through.

    I do think that it’s silly to imagine we could hide from aliens (hello, big ball of oxygen), so in my opinion, we might as well stick out our thumb and hope for the best.

  • Arthur

    You should lie where you can trick yourself in thinking that you are not lying.

    If you leave the telescope unpluged or don’t use it and get caught what will you say?

    But you can always say there was hope about the aliens hear you with the radio telescope, even if they prove it is impossible.

  • Robert Koslover

    My hunch: Intelligent life is very rare, other advanced civilizations probably exist but are on worlds that are generally extremely far away, and interstellar travel is very, very difficult, even for very advanced civilizations. My conclusion: We will be in communication with other civilizations perhaps a thousand years or more before we ever meet them, or even meet their robotic probes. We will then have several millenia to discuss and negotiate in advance, both with them and among ourselves, to determine just how any such meeting should take place and if we need to prepare for violence or not. Without intending any disrespect, I’m guessing that when that distant time comes, no one will care what Stephen Hawking, Robin Hanson, or Paul Davies had to say about it way back in the early 21st century, with the possible exception being if one of them comes up with a really quotable quote (e.g., “give me liberty or give me death”) or something similar. So… until the first confirmed communication with advanced alien beings takes place, I’m not going to worry about it. Meanwhile, here’s another thought for you: Nearby asteroids (which are proven to exist and proven to be dangerous if/when they hit us) are a genuine (if uncommon) threat to the Earth. What if distant space aliens just happened to be willing to suggest effective ways for us to protect ourselves from asteroids? Maybe we should ask them, hmm? Of course, that would be a bit more difficult if we were too afraid to talk to them.

  • Thought experiment: were you a future-seeing Mayan priest in AD500, would you recommend immediate contact with Eurasia, or waiting as long as possible? My guess is as soon as possible, lest the techno-gap increase further.

    Continuing the parallel, we yell to the skies, are discovered by a probe, which allows us to, given light-years of distance, catch up somewhat by the time the invasion fleet arrives.


  • GNZ

    Most likely once a civilization reaches a certain level of technology it (or a subset of it) will create robots that will expand in all directions at close to the speed of light visiting everyhting that looks interesting/dangerous/useful. As a result there will be no way to hide since the cost of a self replicating probe visiting earth (whether we exist or not) is negligable.

    that probe will either jsut gather whatever inforamtion it cares about replicate and we probably wont notice (and if we do it probably won’t care) and go on its way or it will strip the earth of whatever resources it wants probably killing us in the process.

    If yelling to the sky matters at all (which seems to imply a someone odd combination of factors – like all civilizations dont like to explore unless they really have to and dont like to use probes) but if that is the case even in the best case they are likely to be trouble either by us as individuals being below their level of comprehension (like skin cells) or their wanting to uplift us in ways we might not like.

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  • I don’t think we should worry too much about aliens coming and wiping us out in response to our primitive radio signals, for two reasons.

    1. if aliens do want what to kill us, they probably don’t want to wait for radio signals. As we’ve noticed ourselves, they seem to be pretty rare. If they really feel the need to gobble up earth-like planets or sterilize potential competitors, they will need a more pro-active method of doing so, rather than relying on their targets choosing to broadcast radio signals.

    2. if hostile aliens can cross interstellar distances, they are going to have the ability to wipe us out with barely a thought. Even with simple chemical rockets and the advantage of being at the top of our gravity well, they could drop big rocks on us that would wipe out all life. There’s no point worrying about something we couldn’t even stop if we wanted to.

  • ruralcounsel

    Why argue about the probabilities of something that is all purely speculative? Isn’t it likely that whatever scenario best reflects our own internalized fears and/or hopes is the one that will resonate? Anyone who has a comment here that something or other is “most likely” is blowing smoke up your a$$.

    It’s far more interesting to list all the possibilities, and see if anyone has any we haven’t heard before.

    As a practical matter, however, wouldn’t it be prudent to plan as if the worst one we can come up with is the most probable? “If you want peace, prepare for war.”