Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Fermi Paradox as an Exercise in Social Engineering

The Fermi paradox poses some very interesting societal questions which are even more important than the technological ones. Basically, the question is: Will an alien civilization that has developed a high level of technology and mastered a potent source of energy use that power to colonize space? And if so, where are they?

The question that I find more interesting is: What kind of social or political organization would be required to accomplish the task of colonizing the solar system? We were barely able to sustain the American public’s attention long enough to put a man on the moon, and that was more due to hubris over competition with the Russians than any innate pride of discovery or advancement of human civilization. After all, all other voyages of exploration were done for monitory gain or to escape persecution. The British did not hold onto Jamestown despite terrible losses just because, in the words of JFK, ‘it is hard.’ What could amount to a multiple lifetime project would be unsustainable if done by popular consent and voluntary sacrifice, not to mention requiring a change in disposition from a war like economy to one willing to pour ones energies into a project of this scale.

To do this would require an absolute authority comparable to the Egyptian pharaohs’ building of the pyramids. The boss says it, it gets done. I wonder if this is possible on a planetary, not just a national, scale? If some other civilization ‘out there’ developed a society governed by a technological elite where the masses of farmers, craftsmen and engineers just did what they were told, instead of a self gratifying civilization manipulated by unenlightened self interest, maybe it would be possible. Of course, we did not evolve that way and would probably consider such a culture fascist and its citizens slaves laboring in a hive if we were to encounter them. What they would think of us is anybody’s guess. That may make great science fiction, but it’s really the only way a project of this scale could be undertaken.

It is safe to say that evolution operates on other worlds as it does on ours. So we can imagine a lot of social structures that alien races may evolve into, but that doesn’t make them possible. Through random mutation and selection, a form of cooperation has evolved on our planet, but that’s a very complicated phenomenon. Prior to the evolution of population centers dependent upon farming and animal as well as human labor, humans apparently lived in small extended families of 25 to 30 or so members. Somewhere along the line we evolved the ability to psychologically index and manage a larger body of people, around 250 or 300. That’s the average village. Seemingly magically, at that point we were able to diversify functions and greatly improve efficiency. But it also required a greater level of order and control and a much more complicated culture with stricter rules, harsh punishments and ruling classes. We lost the Garden of Eden, but we gained civilization.

One somewhat popular theory (world systems theory) states that human social behavior is shaped by ecological and economic factors. A culture evolves according to what the population needs to do to eat and live. People then invent mythologies and religions to reinforce and teach the underlying structure of their civilizations (all subconsciously, of course.) For example, ancient Chinese culture rose or fell on the state of its irrigation systems. Since it was imperative for the full functioning of the society for the canals and dams to be working correctly, it was also imperative for individual members of the population to fulfill each his own role in the economics of irrigation. Mobility was a detriment to the system. Farmers had to farm. Engineers had to design complex canals, terraces and dams, and etc. all the way up to the emperor. So, a system of philosophy evolved in Confucianism to enforce the idea that you are assigned your role on earth by heaven. Your highest goal on earth is to faithfully fulfill the duties of the role into which you were born. (A similar example is the Protestant work ethic, which evolved during the English industrial revolution. Factory owners needed thrifty, sober, hard working factory workers, and the local religion obliged with sermons on sobriety and hard work.)

Let us assume that an alien species decided to forge out into space and colonize other worlds. Under what circumstances would an ET civilization decide to do this? Would this be a spontaneous democratic decision or the decision of an oligarchy? If the former, then what evolutionary pressures would produce this trait? According to evolution, for a mutation to be selected it must increase the fitness of the individual possessing it. That’s the only requirement. Evolution does not operate on the group level. A gene for massive group efforts that benefit a small segment of the population several generations hence is not likely to be selected.

If the latter, then we are back to a ruling benevolent elite in control of a domesticated lower class. Incidentally, a trait for following a charismatic leader does increase the fitness of the individual. If you play by the rules you are allowed to live and pass on those ‘sheeple’ genes to your descendents. If you are particularly aggressive, you are eliminated or, if you happen to be a part of the ruling elite, you may become emperor some day and pass on those Caesar genes (also true if you happen to be lucky enough to win an insurrection. You can establish the next ruling elite.) We have been evolving as city dwellers for only about 10,000 years. Apparently this has not been enough time to fully domesticate humans into autocratic but benevolent elites ruling over submissive and obedient workers. Too bad we stumbled upon the ‘oil yolk’ now instead of in ten or twenty more thousand years. Our descendents might have evolved into a culture able to use it wisely.

If you think that an enlightened group of learned individuals (a technological, intellectual oligarchy) might be able to instruct the remaining population and make them understand and, therefore, change their behavior, then you are incredibly na├»ve. The Mensa Club and other ‘think tanks’ believed that world leaders would consult them in issues requiring a high IQ response. Of course, world leaders don’t want a resolution to the species’ burning issues. World leaders want to remain world leaders, thank you very much. You can keep your tank of brains to yourself.

Can we imagine an ET civilization where this would be different? Sure. But we would still expect them to have a philosopher king. Common people (and ET’s) everywhere would have common problems to deal with. It would be much easier for them to just follow their leaders than to think for themselves. Mass populations that do think for themselves tend to become factious, not harmonious. If people come in from the fields to protest the government, then nobody gets fed. This is what mass manipulation and propaganda are all about. Our perfect civilization would be massively bureaucratic.

Any ET civilization would have to evolve a natural ability to cooperate (or to obediently accept programs mandated to them.) Since the laws of evolution presumably apply on every other world just like they do on ours, billions of years of evolution are going to produce creatures that preserve themselves, their family and perhaps their extended family or their village (what we see on this planet.) Any individual beyond that small circle is a competitor, not a potential partner. To create a society based on cooperation, division of labor, etc, beyond that you need coercion (laws plus enforcement, international treaties, wars) or propaganda (religion or nationalism.) Or both.

Look at the earliest legal systems from Mesopotamia. They deal with boundary marker placement, proper weights and measures, clashes between farmers and herders, taxes and the penalties for their neglect. Can we imagine a civilization that evolved to conduct fair and even transactions with everyone they met, generously and voluntarily fund their government and treat every stranger as an honest friend? Evolution pretty much guarantees against it. Someone else will evolve to take advantage of gullible people like this. ET’s will have their own ‘E.T.’ Barnum’s.

To build anything (a dam, a bridge, an ocean liner or a space ship) takes an infrastructure. Steel and aluminum don’t refine themselves. Copper wire doesn’t leap from the ground. Dry docks aren’t built by forces of nature. You need miners, smelters, ship builders and riggers. You need transportation networks and farmers to grow the food to feed the people to smelt the steel to roll it into usable products. You need engineers, not to mention the long history of philosophical development and experimentation necessary to provide the engineering expertise to design such a thing and creative vision to imagine it in the first place, plus the trades and training necessary to build it and the will and imagination of the ruling class to authorize it. All of these workers need housing, food, schools for their families, gas for their lawn mowers, local sports arenas and the bar up the street. And all of these things need a similar support structure, et cetera. No, it takes a village to build a space ship.

The question really is: Is it possible for a culture to evolve that is creative enough to invent the structure required to colonize space but also cooperative enough to do it? It is certainly possible to imagine, but that society would still be extremely foreign to us, perhaps even abhorrent.

If you are going to tell the farmers that they need to grow food to support an effort to establish permanent settlements in the solar system for, what, maybe one percent of the current population? Yes, but some day your descendents will live among the stars. Well, not your descendents, of course. Just the descendents of someone who lives in the ET equivalent of Washington. What is his incentive to do so?

Evolution, which we can safely assume works the same way on other worlds as it does on ours, only operates on individuals, not on groups. So any randomly mutated trait that benefits that one individual and can be passed on to its offspring gets selected. Some people have pointed out that hives work together for the good of the group. But members of a hive are not individuals since they derive their genetics from one fertilized egg laying machine (cruelly referred to as a queen.) It is more appropriate to consider them cells in a single organism than individuals that could evolve by themselves and pass on independent genes to their own offspring. This is not possible. A hive species of intelligent individuals is unlikely due to physical constraints. (I wouldn’t want to be that queen.)

One other possibility is a species that reproduced asexually. This is nearly as good as a hive since every member is identical and traces her origin back to one distant matriarch. An individual that mutated to think in terms of the group instead of the individual, and then flooded her niche with copies of herself, crowding out more selfish members, could easily conceive of space travel and the need to work together to colonize other worlds. Unfortunately there are health issues involved with asexually reproducing species that make them impractical. Gene mixing through sexual reproduction is more robust.

But if it was possible to create such a society, it could work, even though these possibilities appear pretty weird to us. We want our independence but we want a massively coordinated and self less engineering and social experiment as well.

In short, I don’t think you can have this level of cooperation and the American Dream at the same time.