Where are all the aliens? This is the question Fermi asks. When we do all the guesswork with our statistical math, even when we are at our most pessimistic in our assumptions, we still come up with the possibility of millions of potential planets that could support life. That’s the paradox for astrophysicists. If there is still the possibility for huge numbers of life supporting planets, where are they and why do we still feel so alone?
Astrophysicists have come up with quite a few reasons for this. They call them “filters.” Of course, the big ones are that life is much more complicated to boot up than we realize. “Advanced life,” like ourselves, are even harder to be realized (I will touch on this one again shortly). Extinction-level cataclysms periodically rock planets, which is everything from gamma bursts to comets smashing into the planet (I’ll follow up with this one as well). Then there is the possibility – even if a planet and potential technologically advanced civilization survives all of those potentially life-ending and civilization-crushing scenarios – that the reason why no one else is out there is because they blew themselves up, either with their technology directly (i.e., nuclear weapons) or they self-destructed due to climate change. These are all real possibilities that could lead to why no one is out there.
There is also the simplest explanation. We’ve only been looking for a few decades, and space is really big. We have a hard enough time even identifying asteroids and comets in our own backyard, never mind the so-called “Planet X” or “Planet 9,” not to mention that radio waves on a galactic scale take a long time to get around. So there could be technologically advanced civilizations springing up and trying to do what we are doing, but depending on how far away they are and when they reached a point in their electrifying of their civilization, we may not hear from them – or them from us – for hundreds or even thousands of years. Or they have come and gone, and we missed the signal because we only just built those listening posts a few decades ago.
Now the more complicated possibilities for why no one is out there. On galactic scales, life on planets is rare, but through sheer numbers, there could still be a lot of planets that have life. We’ve established this, but I want to touch on a couple more filters that astrophysicists and other thinkers have not brought up yet. These reasons could be huge as to why technologically advanced civilizations do not seem to be out there.
Firstly, we still don’t know why or how we ended up with big brains. We have theories, and they are good theories, but a big brain is an anomaly in the evolutionary context of the planet. Even rarer are big brains with hands that have opposable thumbs. Dolphins have big brains, but they can’t make fire (I have stolen that joke). On the other side are the great apes: they have opposable thumbs, but they don’t have the cranial capacity we have; not to mention that we diverged from chimpanzees and bonobos approximately 5-6 million years ago, and Mother Nature has never deemed it necessary for them to advance beyond what their current capabilities are. They are not only able to survive, but they thrive in their environments and have not had to change much at all. This could be the case on all of these potential worlds out there. Evolution may have finally led to a troop of organized hunter-gatherer primates, but they are kicking ass and living the good life as they are. They don’t need larger brains and electricity.
But let’s stay on the evolution track for another moment. Virtually every organism and creature on this planet – once we got beyond single-celled organisms – have banked on bigger, sharper teeth or claws, or have adapted really well to eating certain kinds of vegetation. Several species may move in herds, but this is usually the extent of their cooperation. Lizards and fish and many other species don’t seem to show empathy. Just about every mammal does. I know rats do. So, in the realm of evolution towards a species that can only survive when it works together, this has taken a long time to produce (I want to be clear: evolution is not linear, but it is really hard not to feel that it is when we do look at our fossil record and can clearly see we started out with single-celled organisms and, 3 billion years later, we put a fucker on the moon!). But that is also another filter. Mother Nature, until us and dolphins came along, has never really backed a big-brain strategy. It’s either been photosynthesis creatures or creatures that can eat those photosynthesis creatures, or creatures that can eat those creatures; in other words, creatures with strong teeth for chewing grasses, or really sharp teeth to eat the herbivores. Even mammals have taken this approach for almost their entire existence. I’d say this is a pretty big filter. Not only can a comet or solar flare cause a mass extinction at anytime in the course of a planet’s history, Mother Nature may never see the need for big brains to ever be a requirement.
But what if there isn’t a climate cataclysm like the meteor from 65 million years ago? We are only here because that happened to earth. Until that meteor, the dinosaurs were doing, more or less, just fine. It’s hard to imagine little ole’ us ever having a chance with T-Rexes and Raptors roaming around. So, we got lucky. Maybe the other planets don’t have those cataclysms and cold-blooded creatures rang supreme.
Now the next filter. Let’s say these other planets somehow find life evolving and adapting in such a way that ultimately, a frail creature that lives in tribes of a few dozen to a few hundred, like us, does ultimately find its way coming into existence.
This is where I want to go into more depth about a filter that I think would keep most of the “aliens” from ever reaching out to find us or to broadcast signals so we could find them. We have already addressed one key filter that they blow themselves up and commit “civilization suicide” before they get to star travelling levels, but I’m going to argue that is not even the filter that prevents them or that we should be most concerned with. I make the argument that most of them never even get to the point of being an electricity-wielding civilization (EWC), not because by this point they would lack the IQ as a species to do so, but because they would never need to become EWCs in the first place. This is my first argument. I draw on this from our own history. We, as humans, have anatomically existed for over 200,000 years. We only started using electricity in the last 200 years, give or take. Once upon a time, our ancestors started using fire 2 million years ago and seemed to get on just fine.
Also, current hunter-gatherers, when Western civilization isn’t fucking with them, do quite well on their own. I cite Civilized to Death by Chris Ryan and The Awakened Ape by Jevan Pradas, who both stress what good anthropologists have known for ages, which is hunter-gatherer tribes have it pretty darn good compared to our modern standards of living. They only have to work 4-5 hours a day in gathering food and doing their chores. They live a life of leisure and community, devoting much time to socializing, dancing, sex, and enjoying the occasional psychedelic experience as well as enjoying the bright stars of the night sky. They have tough feet that do not require shoes. They have good teeth and virtually no heart disease. They have an encyclopedic and intimate knowledge of the environment around them. They know which plants and animals to eat and which ones to stay away from. Sure, they do have challenges, but it is amazing how remarkably adapted we are to handle those challenges. Tribal peoples the world over are happier than we are; even those tribes who we have pushed into some of the most challenging and harshest environments to live in. Why would any sane person give that up to put up with the bullshit we have to deal with, like taxes and moronic bosses? And don’t think I don’t see the irony of how many people every year enjoy “camping” for their holiday. That’s how we used to do it all the time. Then there’s the number of folks who enjoy hunting in their spare time. They do for fun what we used to do all the time as a way of life!
This is a big filter, and one of the most important filters, because even with our big brains, we only stopped living like slightly more sophisticated chimps 12,000 years ago.
Which leads to another important filter that could keep space-age civilizations from popping up: it is here I cite the work of Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson and their book, Why Nations Fail. As you read this book, you begin to realize that it doesn’t just describe why the Latin world is poor compared to the US, or why sub-Saharan Africa, China, India, and pretty much every other nation outside of Western Europe, the English Commonwealth and the US can’t seem to get their shit together. Through reading their work, it becomes clear just how much of a fluke our modern age is. They describe some key events in history, which they term “critical junctures,” where had that war or plague gone the other way, we could still be in feudal systems of serfs and slaves, with no real innovation and no incentive to do so. We’d still all be living like peasants with a handful of narcissistic sociopaths at the top inbreeding with other narcissistic sociopathic families in order to keep their dirty hands in power and stroke their own egos.
We take our current scientific age of progress for granted, like it was just a matter of course and time that all societies ultimately progress to high levels of technological invention and use. But I just want to highlight how lucky and fortunate, not to mention remarkably rare, that these key institutions, such as patent law, private property rights, and anti-trust laws, along with participatory and inclusive institutions such as assemblies, congresses, parliaments, and senates are, which have allowed for the last 300 years of economic growth and technological advancement. Now, if you are growing up in the suburbs of, oh, say Independence, Missouri, it may be impossible to truly appreciate how fragile these systems are and to also be aware of the number of times these rare and unique creations have been almost crushed and stamped out of existence (remember the robber barons of the 19th century, anyone? Or that once grand city of Venice).
This is not to say that relatively advanced Extraterrestrial Civilizations (ETCs) don’t exist. For the moment, we do. But if a pandemic like the one we are currently experiencing (which, in the grand historical scheme of things, is just a bad cold) can knock so many of us down and highlight how fragile our economic and political systems for innovation and technological advancement can be, this shows a level of naivety and unchecked faith in them and misses how fragile they are and that a lack of these systems could be just as big of an impediment for ETCs to reach space-age levels as any comet or other galactic filter.
In a fun coincidence of timing, the YouTube Channel “What Da Math” posted a video on a recent article which was published with the intent to redesign how we classify type 0, type 1, type 2, and type 3 civilizations from the Kardashev Scale we currently use. Just for a brief background, Kardashev’s scale labels civilizations on their capacity to harness and use energy. Type 1s have traditionally been considered those who have mastered their planet and have harnessed it for energy (this is where we lie, I do believe). Type 2s are considered those that have harnessed their sun/star and are masters of their solar system. There is a tendency to cite the theoretically hypothesized “Dyson’s Sphere” as an example of this (Star Trek TNG did an episode on this and featured a clever way of bringing Scotty back for a guest appearance). I won’t discuss how stupid of an idea a Dyson’s Sphere is, but it shouldn’t take away from the idea that type 2s can harness and use a lot of energy. Type 3s take it to the next level and can harness and use the energy of their whole galaxy. You could maybe think of a type 2 being us in Star Trek and a Type 3 would be the “Galactic Empire” from Star Wars. Using these templates or standards has been what has helped guide how we look for ETCs. We are looking for the harnessing and use of a lot energy.
The new article instead wants to reframe and reclassify what type 0s, 1s, 2s, and 3s are, and therefore why it will be such a challenge to find such ETCs and how we should change our current approach in order to have a chance at finding them.
Here is the Abstract:
Context: The interest towards searches for extraterrestrial civilizations (ETCs) was boosted in the recent decades by the discovery of thousands of exoplanets.
Aims: We turn to the classification of ETCs for new considerations that may help to design better strategies for ETCs searches.
Methods:This study is based on analogies with our own biological, historical, technological and scientific development. We take a basic taxonomic approach to ETCs and investigate the implications of the new classification on ETCs’ evolution and observational patterns. Finally, we use as a counter-example to our qualitative classification the quantitative scheme of Kardashev and we consider its implications on the searches for ETCs.
Results: We propose a classification based on the abilities of ETCs to modify their environment and to integrate with it: Class 0 uses the environment as it is, Class 1 modifies the environment to fit its needs, Class 2 modifies itself to fit the environment and Class 3 ETC is fully integrated with the environment. Combined with the classical Kardashev’s scale our scheme forms a 2-dimensional scheme for interpreting the ETC properties.
Conclusions: The new framework makes it obvious that the available energy is not an unique measure of ETCs’ progress, it may not even correlate with how well that energy is used. The possibility for progress without increased energy consumption implies a lower detectability, so in principle the existence of a Kardashev Type III ETC in the Milky Way cannot be ruled out. This reasoning weakens the Fermi paradox, allowing for the existence of advanced, yet not energy hungry, low detectability ETCs. The integration of ETCs with environment will make it impossible to tell apart technosignatures from natural phenomena. Therefore, the most likely opportunity for SETI searches to find advanced ETCs is to look for beacons, specifically set up by them for young civilizations like ours (if they would want to do that remains a matter of speculation). The other SETI window of opportunity is to search for ETCs at technological level similar to ours. To rephrase the famous saying of Arthur Clarke, sufficiently advanced civilizations are indistinguishable from nature
The only thing I want to challenge or question on this reclassification is regarding the following: on the surface, I know what the authors were striving for, but I think they have it backwards. I will make the assumption that type 0s would be hunter-gatherers who simply “use the environment.” We might be type 1s currently because we definitely can modify our environment (roads, skyscrapers, mass deforestation, massive dams and bridges, etc.). But I find it a little unclear as to what they mean when they say “Class 2 modifies itself to fit the environment and Class 3 ETC is fully integrated with the environment.” Here is where I’m going to argue they got it flipped. I instead want to make the fun case that agrarian societies would be classified as type 0s for the way they use the environment. Type 1s are us in our current industrial and technological phase where, as mentioned above, we can and have undertaken monumental projects which have dramatically changed our environments to fit our needs. But here I’m going to say that hunter-gatherers are the type 2s and 3s. They adapt to their environments. Whether they are in the Amazon Basin, or the Kalihari Desert, or the Arctic, hunter-gatherers change to fit their environments. They change and modify their tools depending on the game they hunt, they change their clothing (or lack thereof) in order to survive in their environment, and they will even genetically adapt. Compare the anatomical differences between Australian Aborigines whose torsos are shaped in a way they can dissipate heat during the hottest times of the day when temperatures can reach 35-40 degrees Celsius, and then can turn around and conserve their body heat when temperatures drop to 5 degrees at night. The peoples of the north, such as the Inuit, have evolved to carry a higher percentage of body fat and uniquely have an extra layer of fat on their hands to protect them from the icy-cold waters. It’s the genetic changes that may constitute full integration into their environment, which would make them type 3.
As a result, this might be why we can’t find anybody out there. They are already in harmony with nature, fully integrated into the environments they live in, and therefore have zero need to build enormous satellite dishes.
Qualitative Classification of Extraterrestrial Civilizations https://arxiv.org/pdf/2005.13221.pdf