What Are Aliens Like?

Over at Cato Unbound, I respond to Jerome Barkow’s survey of possible influences on the evolution of alien culture and intelligence, as clues to the kinds of aliens we might meet. Alas, Barkow assumes that alien styles are largely determined by the specific biological environments in which particular alien species originally evolved. However:

This might make sense for aliens who are a thousand years more advanced than humans are today. But it makes far less sense for aliens who are a million or a billion years more advanced – far more likely timescales. Given how much adaptation could have taken place over such times, we should expect to see older aliens selected far more by their final environment than their initial environment.

I then offer five predictions about older aliens:

First, … [they] should be very well adapted to their final physical environment. … Advanced aliens are physically similar across the universe, unless significantly different social equilibria are possible and have substantially different physical implications.

Second, … sexual reproduction is quite unlikely to last. … This doesn’t mean signaling will end. …

Third, very old aliens should be accustomed to very low levels of growth and innovation. …  We’d [not] have much general information of use to such aliens. …

Fourth, … very advanced aliens should not be either generically friendly or generically hostile to outsiders. Instead they should be very good at making their friendship or hostility appropriately context-dependent. … Such aliens would ask themselves in great and careful detail, what exactly could humans eventually do to help or hurt them?

Fifth, advanced aliens should be well adapted in both means and ends. … Advanced aliens will be very patient, but also very selfish regarding their key units of reproduction, and quite risk averse about key correlated threats to their existence. (more)

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  • Anonymous

    Third, very old aliens should be accustomed to very low levels of growth and innovation.

    Unless true post-scarcity is possible. It is unlikely, but we can’t strictly rule out speculative technology that would allow a civilization to grow inward without limit; imagine the TARDIS: “It’s bigger on the inside…”

    • Anonymous

      Also a possible explanation for the Fermi paradox: all sufficiently advanced civilizations start growing inward and stop growing outward.

      • lump1

        Yeah, maybe, but the inward growth without limit seems as likely as perpetual motion. It could happen, I suppose, if the amount of matter and energy needed to perform a calculation could shrink without limit, a kind of perpetual Moore’s law. But in a universe that’s discrete like ours, I really don’t see any way it would work, not even with the zaniest Star Trek rationalizations.

        For this to also explain the Fermi paradox, it would have to be the case that *every* civilization would discover the inward growth strategy first, before outward expansion became feasible for them, and that they would all choose to forgo outward expansion even once it was within their means. The mechanism behind this universal uniformity would be more mysterious than the paradox itself.

        Our own civilization is a few centuries from seriously contemplating the start of galactic colonization. Many sketchy blueprints already exist for how it would begin. The motivation is also clearly there, if not for us as a global humanity, then for subgroups (religious, racist, ideological) who want to start their own “pure” thing somewhere else. Even if, in the meanwhile, we do discover some way to grow “inward” without bounds, I suspect that some of these groups would still rather get out. And in turn, some of their colonies would also generate emigrants, etc. Altogether, the idea of outward expansion being available but universally not chosen just doesn’t seem possible.

        So yeah, for many reasons, I think this is a bad solution to the Fermi paradox.

      • Anonymous

        Outward expansion would only be chosen if it is more economical than inward growth. If each subgroup can create their own inward branch or pocket universe tree or whatever you want to call it, then the need to “get away” will be met by that technology alone.

        We have just recently discovered that space itself is expanding and that we are likely in a multiverse with branching locally inflating universes. If this process can be controlled, outward expansion may never be as economical as inward expansion. No one spends the trillions needed to go to Alpha Centauri when they can create whole universes at a whim, and then new universes within those.

        (Of course all of this is pure speculation)

      • What does “pure speculation” even mean?; how could it ever be “impure”?

      • Anonymous

        What I meant were degrees of evidence; some post-scarcity enthusiasts don’t recognize that for limitless inward growth, highly speculative physics would have to be real.

        In contrast, the prospect of a Mars colony is much more evidence-based, since humans already have brought functional technology there. If we had transdimensional buildings that are bigger on the inside, or a garbage disposal that sends unwanted radiation out of this universe, the prospect of limitless inward growth would be much less speculative.

      • Dave Lindbergh

        Pure vs. informed speculation (i.e. a weak hypothesis).

      • It’s an idiom. It’s like someone who called another person a “complete idiot” were interrogated about the nature of an “incomplete idiot.”

      • Cambias

        Speculating about someone’s sex life, maybe?

  • lump1

    One of our strategies for overcoming low levels of growth and innovation is to expand our territory (and markets, etc.). What I don’t get is why a civilization that is perfectly adapted for life in our universe wouldn’t ride the growth-through-expansion train as far as it goes. What could make stagnation preferable to them (and *every other* advanced civilization)? But it seems that they didn’t take the path of territorial expansion: Where are they?

  • Lord

    Does it even make sense to speak of a species over those space and time frames? More likely they diversify into a huge multiplicity and adapt to a myriad of environments that continue to evolve and about the only final environment would be if they adapted to space itself.

  • Cambias

    It’s an odd assumption that alien species or civilizations will “evolve” to some perfectly-adapted form. But think about how real evolution works: the species or civilization will branch out into a diverse array of forms, some of which prosper more than others. There’s no reason to think something like that wouldn’t happen on an interstellar scale.

    So the original Klingon civilization gives rise to three daughter civilizations — Old Show Klingons, Movie Klingons, and Next Generation Klingons. The Old Show Klingons don’t expand any more, but the other two spread out, creating the Spicy Klingons, Extra-Crispy Klingons, Dancing Klingons, and Fun-Size Klingons. And so on.

    Here’s the important part: none of them necessarily goes extinct. They’ll all coexist. So the godlike superintelligent nebula-dweling Vitamin-Fortified Klingons will be doing stellar engineering while their ancestor species the original Klingons are still hanging around on the homeworld playing VR games.

    Evolution on an interstellar scale should lead to a diversity of species/civilizations, not a single final form.

    • On Earth, life in similar environments is actually pretty similar. That’s the kind of similarity I’m talking about.

      • Tony

        Like vertebrate fish and free-swimming squid?

  • J.j. Cintia

    You have a strange concept of aliens. Why would superintelligent beings experience stagnation? Mankind has only stagnated through corruption and invasion. Superintelligent beings would not fall into the trap of corruption, because corruption would stunt their growth and lead to backsliding.
    Conflict on this planet and others depend on scarcity and lack of resources. If beings possessed the ability to transmute matter and recycle waste they could potentially never be without resources. Space being as vast as it is, entire Civilizations could expand for eons without meeting another Civilization as advanced or cultured as they are, therefore conflict may not be necessary most of the time…

    • Marcel Soanes

      The extent of exponential growth over large time-scales kind of indicates that we’d reach a peak somewhere. 1% annual population/technological/economic growth, for a million years, implies we’ll be on the order of 10^4000 times our starting point by that time. That’s 10^3920 people per hydrogen atom in the observable universe. Which is somewhat absurd.

      Sub-exponential growth is stagnation compared to what we on earth have experienced over the past 100-200 years.

  • I was once clearing a fenceline and picked up a half-rotten log with a termite nest in it. I watched in amusement for a moment as the insects scurried about in panic, then tossed the log aside and got back to work.

    That’s what First Contact will be like for us, if we’re lucky. Note that I didn’t go out of my way to exterminate the termites. If aliens capable of interstellar travel visit our solar system, we’ll have no more understanding of them then those termites did with me. Those SETI people who want to actually broadcast to contact aliens are idiots of the highest order. If intelligent aliens are out there we should be keeping the lowest possible profile.

    • AnotherScaryRobot

      You might have taken more interest in those termites if termites were very rare. So, depending on how rare life at our level of development is, we might expect to recieve more attention than that.

    • IMASBA

      We would never be like termites to aliens, more like cavemen. You wouldn’t just ignore them, if you have halve a brain you’ll recognize them for the rare form of life they are and that they can learn to understand our technology.

  • Pintuti Nine

    I read your article and imagined applying it to the Pintupi Nine. They are said to have stepped from a hunt and gather nomadic life to 1984 Australia in a day. How many of your predictions scale down to their experience?



    I’m curious about how efficient their leadership or leadership selection will be. For example people are often scared that one simple gesture or message could be highly offensive to aliens and cause conflict, but if the aliens have wise leadership figures those would understand that we humans can’t possibly know what’s offensive to them at first contact so they would correctly deduce it must be ab unfortunate coincidence. So Robin, do you think an old species would have learned how to rule itself wisely (perhaps even by AI)?

  • Dan Browne

    Robin: I agree with most of your points except the one about sexual reproduction. Even in a universe populated mainly by machine intelligences you’re going to end up with parasites and various predators that will drive evolution and in such an environment, cloned creatures are at a significant disadvantage. So I don’t see sexual reproduction dying out anytime soon. Unless I have entirely missed your point….

    • AnotherScaryRobot

      There are alternatives to cloning or the random recombination sexual reproduction, such as deliberately engineering new individuals. Or, conceivably, spending resources on enhancing existing individuals rather than creating new ones at all.

      • IMASBA

        Keeping existing individuals alive doesn’t work: eventually accidents, disease and simple wear and tear will win. Engineering new individuals is possible, though I think it would be wise to maintain the option of sexual reproduction (so a population cannot go extinct when they lose some infrastructure).

      • AnotherScaryRobot

        My answer was considering non-biological entities as well, to which neither of those objections necessarily applies.

      • Dan Browne

        A fast moving plague that wipes out all of the cloned individuals is going to be prevented *how* in your two scenarios?

  • JFA

    Very interesting… but your first point can be summarized as, “Advanced aliens are physically similar across the universe, unless they’re not.”

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  • Personally I wonder if the government is hiding a decapitated alien’s rainbow corpse in area 69.

    Other than that, I think we all watch too many movies. Movies give us the notion that we can have some useful idea about what aliens look like and what their motivations are.

    Have you ever seen dark matter or dark energy? As far as I know no one has. We infer it’s existence from other effects but as far as I know, we cannot see it even if a portion of it is sitting next to us.

    Let us ignore the truly invisible aliens and those in dimensions that we have no access to. They may well exist but as long as that don’t do anything we can detect who cares?

    A truly alien intelligence might hate our sun. Not something I can understand but I have no trouble grasping the concept.

    It prefers the low energy cold and dark because maybe it’s a super efficient super conducting critter. It knows physics that is a trillion years beyond us. It does not like our sun but it does like our gas giant planets. It turns the sun out and moves into the the neighborhood. All of us just died and the aliens neither knew nor cared.

    • Tueksta

      Well, if it feels too far fetched for you, just imagine what humans will be like in 50000 years if they survive. Or ants. Or whales.

      One thing is sure – it will be a story of a million misunderstandings. As new encounters always are.