The Origin of Life

The Alien Race

A dilemma

Imagine that you are told that you are in a race where the winner gets to eat any runners up.

However, you are not told where the finishing line is, or how many competitors there are.

Looking around, no competitors are in sight.

What should you do?

The Alien Race

The human race faces a similar dilemma:

It can be quite confident it is in a technological race with alien beings.

The most likely outcome of such a race is assimilation for all but the most advanced species.

Currently there are no aliens to be seen - and a strategy must be established in their absence.

This situation will be referred to here as "The Alien Race".

Are we alone?

We should first consider the possibility that we are alone.

The most obvious relevant facts here are:

  • Life started early - as soon as there was liquid water;
  • Space travel took about four billion years to invent.
  • We are a second generation star, one of the first to have heavy elements such as phosphorus, sulphur and iron;
  • There are no obvious signs of life elsewhere;
  • The universe appears to be very large.
The chances of us being the only lifeforms in the universe appear to be remote.

Are we the first on the block?

The absence of obvious signs of alien life suggests that we may be the first lifeforms in this area.

This conclusion is far from certain - it is possible that the aliens are already here, and that we have yet to recognise them.

This could happen because we are too feeble to detect them - or perhaps because they do not wish to be seen.

If the perception that our kind of life in the only type around is correct, we have no idea how long things will stay that way, since the horizons of both us and any alien species are likely to be constantly expanding.

Is assimilation the likely outcome?

How do we know advanced aliens would eat us?

We don't know for sure - but it seems like a probable outcome.

Organism exponential growth rates rapidly exhaust resources as they find them - and resource competition is the result.

Advanced aliens could probably knock our planet into Venus, mine the useful elements from the resulting asteroid field, build more spaceships and then head off towards greener pastures within a timescale of a thousand years or so if they wanted to.

Galactic civilisations intersect

Expanding galactic
civilisations intersect
If two expanding galactic civilisations intersect - as illustrated in the diagram on the right, there are several possible outcomes.

One issue is what happens in the area where they intersect. If the civilisations are not well technologically balanced, the chances are that one will gradually assimilate the other one. The greater the imbalance, the faster it will happen, and the more will get lost in the process.

Another issue is how fast the civilisations are expanding. A civilisation which is technologically inferior in other respects may have a chance of survival if it specialises in running fast. The life/dinner principle suggests it should be well motivated and stands some chance of success. However, the chances seem high that the "more advanced" civilisation will have the faster ships as well as the sharper teeth.

So: we should start running - right?

Since a failure to develop technologically seems likely to have dire long-term consequences, resources should be directed towards development.

However, there are some issues:

Is this a sprint or an endurance race? It makes a big difference to how fast we run.

Is this a marathon - or an obstacle course? If the biggest problem is falling on our faces, perhaps we ought to watch how we step.

Technological development is currently funded - but politicians often seem to think their competitors are the Russians, the Japanese, or the Chinese. In other words, they have mistaken our team-mates for our competitors.

This tends to generate squabbles and conflicts - at a time when we need to unite and cooperate in order to make progress.

At the moment - in my opinion - technological development does not seem to be being taken seriously enough.

Humans waste their time engaging in idiotic debates about whether to develop fundamental technologies - such as cloning and genetic engineering - and much basic research is banned.

Our political systems ensure that the average IQ of those deciding on such issues is about 100.

Those in charge seem to be constantly fingering the brakes - and worrying about technology gone wrong.

Some caution may be warranted, especially in the "obstacle course" scenario. However the the "obstacle course" scenario does not look terribly likely to me. The problem with an over-cautious approach is that it results in slow progress - and that is a big problem:

If we don't get a move on, less lethargic competitors will get ahead - and the long-term consequences of that happening look likely to be pretty dire.

What are our chances?

They look about as bad as they could be, while we are still able to ask that question.

At the moment, the human race is still stuck in the dark ages - and the light at the end of the tunnel looks as though it is a long way off.

We had better hope we don't come across any advanced aliens any time soon.

At least we have a nice planet and aren't about to blow ourselves up.


Never mind outer space: lets get down to earth (3 seconds)
A Primer on the Doomsday argument
Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards

Tim Tyler | Contact |