3.1 ∘ The pacification trend
The trend in human development seems to strongly indicate that, as a species, we are becoming more and more peaceful as we mature. Not only are we not executing the loosing teams at the end of the European Football Championship, like the Mayans did in their version of football (Alegría, 1951), but also in many countries we find it difficult to execute even our worst criminals. It is true, that the Mesoamerican football game had a religious aspect and the loosing team was sacrificed to the Gods, nevertheless the point is that in spite of their advanced civilization (compared to others in the same age) they found it acceptable to kill their kin. Our respect of life increased extremely compared to those days.
As we continue to develop, our knowledge expands and our capability to understand ourselves within the surrounding context broadens. We seem to understand more and more the implications of our actions and we are becoming wiser. If we extrapolate this many generations into the future it is not unreasonable to conclude that our selfish little world will one day give way to a modern, enlightened one which will be in balance with ourselves, with nature and all its other inhabitants.
Coincidence or not, nature imposes excellent barriers in the path of development which seem to favor this trend of pacification and this is likely to be universally true for any civilization, the discussion of which requires a few basic concepts from system dynamics.
3.2 ∘ Feedback loops
Dynamical systems are systems that are in motion, in continuous change and are analyzed as such. They usually describe time dependent processes of nature some as simple as the evolution of a clocks pendulum others as complex as the weather, the economy or processes in the human body. Usually more complex dynamical systems contain feedback loops, processes where the outcome is reintroduced into the system and as such, it influences it’s inner workings. As a consequence, a future outcome will depend not only on the inner workings of the system but also on the present outcome. This future outcome is in turn fed back into the system, and so on, the system evolves, not only churns out results. There are two kinds of feedback types that exist in system, named positive and negative based on the way they influence future outcome (Zeigler, Kim, 2000).
Positive feedback, amplifies whatever the system’s outcome is and, if left alone, it tends to spiral out of control. An exemplification of the process can be seen within the realm of global warming. Heat melts the snow exposing darker soil, which soaks up sunlight more efficiently and as such the temperature of the system will increase even more, hence the positive feedback. Increased temperature will melt snow even more efficiently, exposing even more dark surface and so on (Deser, 2000). A similar runaway process transformed Venus, a presumably habitable planet in the past, into a hellish steam cooker like environment where all the oceans boiled away eventually and got trapped in the atmosphere (Weart, 2011).
The same process can act in the opposite direction but it would still be considered a positive feedback, because it too, adds to the current outcome, whatever that may be. Low temperature would facilitate formation of snow, which is inefficient at absorbing sunlight. Temperatures would drop further, facilitating formation of even more snow. As the process continues, the entire planet could eventually be covered in snow. A runaway process that contributed to the phenomenon called Snowball Earth (Kirschvink, 1992).
Negative feedback loops, as opposed to positive feedback, have a self regulating or dampening effect. To exemplify in the same context of global warming, the increase in temperature will facilitate evaporation of water from the oceans creating clouds that cover an ever bigger portion of the Earth, from above. The clouds reflect sunlight back into space and as such, they no longer heat the ground and temperatures will drop. The more clouds form, the more sunlight is reflected away and the more intensive the cooling, dampening effect, is. If temperatures drop again, there is less evaporation, less clouds and sunlight can reach the ground again; the dampening effect diminishes. The process has the exact opposite effect compared to a runaway system: the larger the output, the stronger the dampening is.
A complex system is likely to have many such loops based one various parameters. A healthy dynamical system, when things stay stable across time, is in fact a very sensitive balance between the two kinds of feedback loops. Too much dampening and insufficient amplification the system halts, it freezes itself. With too little dampening and too much amplification it spirals out of control and there may be no way back (just like in case of Venus).
This equilibrium state, also called steady state, is the state where minor perturbations can be corrected by the feedback mechanisms in place, keeping the system unchanged over time.
When major perturbations happen or in the initial phase when processes start (there is no feedback at this point), the system finds itself in a transitional state, a state which can be characterized by disproportional feedbacks and major state fluctuations that can last for as long as the system enters some sort of stable state, like the steady state (a system may have various stable states, or none at all). Transitory states are potentially very dangerous, because certain feedback mechanism can overtake the system and they can send it out of control.
3.3 ∘ Transitional State of Societies
As almost every aspect of our lives, our development as a species is governed by similar feedback mechanisms. Everything that we do, everything that we know, every experience, affects us and in turn influences our future actions. The stability of our civilization depends greatly on understanding the system we are part of and the processes at work that control our existence. It is an extremely complex process with countless feedback mechanisms and loops, nevertheless the ten thousand foot view is the same as that of much simpler creatures.
Aquatic dead zones, are anoxic events caused by extreme algal population booms, which uncontrollably consume all the nutrients followed by the massive death of the entire population (Schindler, Vallentyne, 2008). Bacteria that consume the dead algae also consume all the oxygen in the water which in turn kills every life that is dependent on it. It’s an example of extreme local disturbance in the balance of life which at the moment can be corrected by global buffers, but should this happen in a fish tank, it could result in the extinction for these algae.
Algae can’t help it. Their existence is a system which is in steady state with the larger ecological ecosystem of the Earth. This state is controlled (maintained in equilibrium) by processes that formed during billions of years and function extremely well under normal condition. One of such processes is the reproductive cycle of the algae, which keeps the population stable within the context of a relatively stable influx of nutrients and an entire trophic chain that feed on the algae. The population boom is a consequence of an imbalance, a change in the system they live in, triggered by an excess nutrient wave, which causes their feedback mechanisms (reproductive cycle) to over correct, spiraling catastrophically out of control.
Humans, are sentient creatures and this sentienthood, is a mechanism in their development and existence just as reproduction is part of that of the algae. It is a vastly more advanced mechanism which can factor in many, many more parameters besides the simple balance between availability of food and population loss to predators. Yet in spite of the fact that both, feedback signals and the means to process it exist, we often produce faulty outputs. Algal blooms, and many other such local imbalances are caused by us, humans, and this makes us a factor of disturbance in the greater system which for the moment is Earth.
In spite of the fact that the system (Earth) is stable around us, through our processes, we are capable of destabilizing it. Regretfully, we know that we are causing these disturbances, we know why and we have the potential to prevent it, yet the pressure to act on what we observe is not strong enough for us to do so. Our sensor is not sensitive enough for the signal we receive. For us to act on it, a stronger feedback is needed meaning larger fluctuations in the output, which can be dangerous because they are more likely to send the system onto a runaway path. Whether our feedback is advanced enough to react before something like that happens, remains to be seen. To speak in algal terms, this would be similar to an insufficiently developed reproductive cycle, a cycle capable to throw algae population off balance in spite of steady system conditions.
In terms of systems analyses, our processes are in some sort of transitional state. It is not at the moment adequate for the system in which we exist and since our mental processes, our thinking, our culture is the vastly predominant process, that is exactly what needs fine tuning.
In contrast, a truly perfected set of processes would allow a system to bounce back to steady state even if thrown off balance by an external factor, or better yet, it would be able to participate in re-stabilizing the system in which it resides. We can imagine a strain of algae, which would decide to stockpile excess resources when faced with it. It would not only re-stabilize the ocean and thus save less sophisticated algae from mas death, it could potentially release the nutrients when there is a shortage saving both, their own population and the less sophisticated ones. This is the level that humans should aim for.
Given enough time, and larger fluctuations in the nutrient flux such algae could potentially develop, because it would be beneficial to the species in the long term. The population would no longer be driven into large fluctuations depending on the nutrients, but rather maintain constant population in spite of fluctuating resources. But just the same, it could very well go extinct in one of these large enough resource fluctuations. It is really a game of chance to a certain degree and adaptiveness of the species. The faster it can adapt to ever greater fluctuations, the lower the chances of going extinct on the next big one.
3.3.1 ∘ Aggression Factor
Humans are inherently aggressive creatures. It is probably a heritage from our predatory lineage combined with various degrees of territoriality, a common feature to almost all creatures on Earth (Estes, 1992), in some cases even plants (Chon, 2003). Nutrients are an essential part of the existence of any life and nature will favor those that can defend it from both foreign species but occasionally also from their own. The higher we go up on the food chain the less abundant the food, the more predominant territoriality becomes. It is likely that all civilizations, regardless of where they develop, will present similar characteristics of territoriality and will have some degree of innate aggression in their character.
When used against other members of the same species, aggression, may be a double edged sword that can pose great danger to the species itself. Little aggression with low degrees of violence will fend of competition and favor the stronger, the fitter individuals. Increased aggression and violence on the other hand can lead to injury or death of the fit individuals, potentially endangering the entire population. In nature, aggressive species almost exclusively developed a system of low violence, moderated aggression, insuring that individuals within a species don’t fight to the death but rather more like a showoff. Serious aggression is kept for real threats.
If we factor in higher cognitive processes like intelligence, capability of processing abstract concepts, planning, emotions, strangely enough, there is room for sidestepping from this general rule.
A bear is incapable of assessing the danger to its species associated with the killing of one individual. It cannot comprehend that killing one out of one million will not impact negatively the bear population, so if the killing of even one individual becomes a generally accepted behavior, the population will quickly become extinct. The fact that they survived stands evidence to the fact that in the bear society, or roughly in any society where such impact assessments cannot be made, killing must be prohibited or strictly controlled by some mechanism that can switch it on and off, for example population density.
This is clearly not the case when intelligence is factored in. Humans can assess that the killing of one individual out of a million will have little or no impact on the population stability and the higher the intelligence and knowledge the better it can assessed what the acceptable number is before it starts impacting survivability of the species as a whole.
Natural selection, however, favors pacification of these species as well. Rationalization for killing an individual is a mental process and mental processes are based on the same feedback mechanism as mentioned above. Learning is based on repetition and constant positive and negative reinforcements. If finding reason for killing the first individual is hard, it will become ever easier for the following ones through a process called habituation (Thompson, 2009). A species who finds it acceptable to kill it’s own kind, will impose looser cultural and legal barriers against such practices. The step from killing one, two or ten members of one’s own species can gradually degenerate into genocide, as seen in the past within our society. Such a civilization will be more likely to engage in worldwide massacre that can lead to annihilation or regression of the species.
For example let us consider the social rule that the killing of one individual justifies the killing of two other individuals (not necessarily by the same individual or in the same area). It is a positive feedback loop that amplifies an aspect of the system, in this case the acceptance of the killing of individuals. Iterating the process for an initial population of 7 billion individuals it can be observer that first there is one death, followed by other two deaths, then four, eight, sixteen and so on. After only 33 iterations the entire population of 7 billion ends up dead.
If the species finds somewhere during the iteration process a stopping clause (a negative feedback), perhaps something that says that the death of over a million individuals must halt the killing and is lucky enough not to self annihilate, it will get another shot towards a peaceful development but if not, the cycle is likely to repeat. The more the cycle repeats, the greater the chances for total annihilation. Time is not on the side of such society.
By contrast, a peaceful society, which renounces aggressive behavior and the killing of its own kind will collectively work to impose both cultural and legal barriers for preventing such things from happening. The same positive feedback which in the previous case may spiral out of control and end in self extinction is likely to spiral out of control in the opposite direction, where the society is incapable of killing anything, not even individuals of other species. The likenesses that such a species will engage in activities that result in the annihilation of their own species diminishes considerably.
The iteration of this systems over a sufficiently long period of time, will result in aggressive societies either auto annihilating or becoming peaceful. The longer the period of time over which the iteration takes place, the more likely self destruction is and as a consequence the more peaceful the society needs to be in order to survive.
There really is a single steady state for any civilization, with relation to themselves, and that means peace. Any other state is either a transitional state or in the best case an oscillatory state (with persistent and regular ups and downs across time). The only remaining alternative is extinction.
3.4.1 ∘ Natural Disasters
The population count can be influenced by many factors, not just aggression. Natural disasters are one of the biggest ones. Over long periods of time, on any planet, species will experience natural disasters from very mild to potentially apocalyptic: famine, diseases, climatic, geological activities, cosmic events, etc. The likelihood for advanced lifeforms to develop, especially intelligent life, is inversely proportional with the frequency of major natural disasters. It is reasonable to conclude that any planet that may develop intelligent life, experiences rare to very rare extinction level calamities. Smaller ones may even be beneficial, because they force evolution, nevertheless they do impact population count negatively.
As such, the longer the population stays in transitional state, or the more frequent their population collapse due to aggression, the more likely it is that it will coincide with a natural disaster and collectively trigger extinction.
3.4.2 ∘ Physical Limitations
Lifeforms have inherently a lot of physical limitations. Although our imagination readily explores beings with superpower, capable of defying the laws of nature it is much more reasonable to assume that effects of life, unaided by some technical factor, are physically confined in nature, geographically, temporally or both. Creatures are either confined to a small geographic region and as such cannot have large scale effect, or can overcome this confinement and have large scale effect, but this can only happen over a long period of time. In some sense, nature blocks virulence.
In certain cases life can overcome some of these limitations by making use of various natural phenomenons, like birds or fish, do. By efficiently using the medium which they live in, some species, were able to spread to all the corners of the Earth. Even so, there are grand barriers in nature that stand in the way and limit expansion of life. This happens for the fact that some of these barriers that need to be conquered are incompatible with life as it is at that moment. For example, while fish were free to roam around the planet in the oceans, needing little or no adaptation, terrestrial creatures were confined to continents and became geographically isolated, deep oceans being incompatible with their terrestrial lifestyle. For creatures to cross this barrier, radical adaptation was necessary which took a long, long time and as such their wide range action was temporally confined.
Given sufficient time, life has colonized every nook and crack of the world, but some physical medium, like space are so incompatible with all life that adaptations are simply out of the question. Although, panspermia, the concept that life migrated across space bodies seem plausible for certain cases, like between bodies within the same solar system, for life to cover interstellar space this way is still under heavy debate. But even if possible, it would take enormous amounts of time for life to cross such vast distance imposing heavy temporal limitations.
These magnificent physical barriers favor the transitional state to run its course. Life is simply locked in space by physical factors for enormous amounts of time, so much in fact, that it would hardly have any large scale effects on the universe on its own without the emergence of technological abilities.
3.4.3 ∘ Implications of Technology
Space may not be the final barrier (Some theories suggest that life can ultimately spread to other universes) but it is a formidable one and while adaptation may allow very simple life forms to hitch a ride, for complex life this is out of the question. Complex life will either develop intelligence and technology or will eventually die with the planet.
But technological development is a tedious incremental process that can greatly influence a species survival. On one hand, it too, requires a lot of time until it offers any possibility to overcome the biggest barriers of all, space, and on the other hand offers exotic ways for a species to self annihilate. In terms of systems analyses, it exacerbates the feedback mechanisms hastening the road towards steady state or on the contrary, extinction.
It can be reasoned that physical discoveries have a certain sequentiality with interstellar space travel being somewhere very far out in the sequence. Certain physical phenomena happen at scales that are inaccessible unless the civilization possesses a high enough technological development. For example a civilization that discovered subatomic particles probably already knows about chemistry, simply because chemistry, or at least many chemical processes, happen on humanly accessible timescales and can be observed without any need for magnification. Subatomic processes on the other hand need extremely sophisticated instruments to be unlocked, instruments that cannot be built without a certain knowledge about chemical processes. Such interdependencies inevitable create sequentiality.
Faster than light (FTL) travel, if at all possible, is likely to require extremely high density energy sources, at least mater – anti mater annihilation (Crawford, 1990), superconductivity and deep understanding of the fabric of space time. To get there, a society must walk through a long chain of discoveries which on one hand open new and more effective ways for population growth, for healthier and longer life but at the same time, ever more effective ways to kill one another should they choose to. To name just a few of them:
- Hunting tools: increase efficiency in acquiring food and so to grow population. For self aggressive species provides means to efficiently kill each other at close range. It does not require understanding of population dynamics potentially leading to local self destruction.
- Transportation (low tech): facilitates spreading of knowledge, aids trade and increases efficiency for food production allowing for even faster population growth. At the same time, it increases range allowing for reciprocal destruction on a somewhat larger scale.
- Chemistry: facilitates development of fertilizers, advanced tools, medicine, which may in turn provide means for a global population boom. Besides that, it also provides effective ways for killing large number of people in one shot by offering the possibility to create bombs. In turn the population boom opens the prospect for a population collapse and/or a possible technological regression in form of a Malthusian catastrophe or worse.
- Biology & microbiology, genetic engineering, atomic processes, nanotechnology, bioengineering, synthetic biology, etc.: facilitates understanding of life itself, increases health standards, quality of life, medical care and potentially lifespan. Energy availability becomes ever more abundant. Population can freely grow to incredible numbers but in case of a self aggressive species these technologies allow for extremely easy total and complete annihilation through atomic bombs, genetically engineered viruses, or gray goo (A hypothetical self replicating nano device that replicate out of controll consuming every resource in the process (Drexler, 1986)).
In a nutshell the better a civilization is equipped to maintain and grow population and potentially avert a natural event, the easier it becomes for them to self destruct, completely through some self inflicted global catastrophe. At atomic technology level, it is desirable that the civilization is rather pacifist in general, because the possibility of triggering global catastrophe sits in the hands of a just a few individuals from a potentially very big pool of individuals (Population boom is possible due to technologies that are expected to be discovered at this time).
If the goal is “survival”, as the chances for self annihilation grows exponentially with each iteration in the technological development, the necessity for peacefulness must increase at similar if not higher rate. At nuclear age self annihilation rests in the decision of small groups of individuals and will take several events that gradually spiral out of control offering the possibility to society to back away in the midst of it somehow. At nanotechnology / synthetic biology level, so much as a single event generated by a single individual can in itself spin out of control and deliver global doom. At this point, self aggression has to be almost non existent if the species is to survive for long periods of time because space travel is still likely to be far ahead in the technological development sequence.
This absolute peacefulness towards their own kind exercised over long periods of time is likely to reflect upon their behavior towards other species as well (3.4).
3.5 ∘ The Anomaly
If a society acquired FTL space faring technology in an artificial manner, by a fluke of nature or from a technologically superior species the consequences could be disastrous not only to them, but at a universal scale.
Such a species would not have achieved steady state and would bring their destructive behavior into other corners of space with the potential to go out of control. Suddenly, the likelihood of annihilation, which may be at a critical point, would extend from local (self, one species) to universal (everybody in the universe).
Who is to say that such a reckless species possessing nanotechnology would not be able to create an FTL capable Gray Goo which would not only eat up their own planet but the entire galaxy or even beyond. Such things MUST not happen.
To draw a scaled down parallel which is closer to our reality, let’s consider a bacteria invading host, like the human body. There are really only a few possible outcomes, ordered here based on their implications:
- beneficial to host society: it develops a symbiotic relationship in which case mutual benefits exist and thus it is not only acceptable but maybe even desirable for the bacteria to spread to other hosts. Steady state is achieved.
- neutral: it becomes commensalistic in which case it benefits from the host but without causing any trouble to the host.
- bad for host, neutral for its society: it becomes parasitic/pathogenic, consuming resources at unrealistic rate and potentially destroying components of the host while doing so, making the host sick and potentially prompting an immune response. This can end in either the death of the host or that of the invader, both of which result in the extinction of the intruder species.
- bad for host society: kills the host but becomes infectious, spreading to other hosts in order to escape extinction. In this last of the cases, an intelligent host society must mount artificial defenses to kill off the pathogen and prevent further spreading.
The parallel might sound a little bit harsh, but as a species we behave very much like a non infectious pathogen (3): multiply out of control and consume the resources of the host (Earth) so much and so fast that it does not have time to replenish them, causing damage to the system in some cases beyond repair.
If we think objectively, with its current behavior, Homo Sapiens would pose an enormous risk to the galaxy and its potential inhabitants. Should human society become space faring tomorrow, it would progress from (3) to (4) and in case there is a consortium of intelligent species out there, they would have no other choice but to enforce quarantine (Soter, 2005): total extinction, or civilization reset to preindustrial phase, so that all knowledge of their existence would fall under the category of myth and be dismissed later on during development process (A necessary step discussed at 3.5.2).
The fact that we have not been eaten by a galactic gray goo up to this point, suggests that such anomalies have not happened, ever, since the beginning of time. This points to the fact that FTL capable hostile aliensdo not exist, which can only mean that either:
- FTL does not exist, it is physically impossible
- intelligent aliens do not exist, at all, due to various reasons discussed earlier, or
- there is a rule in space, akin to the Star Trek Prime Directive or the Zoo Hypothesis, which is enforced to the absolute and which prevents any alien civilization obtaining FTL before they achieve steady state (become peaceful enough not to threaten in any way the universal peace)
The Star Trek Prime Directive was centered around the FTL capability of the species. Forbidding contact and interference with species that have not yet achieved FTL. Although this criteria would overlap considerably with the steady state criteria, given the long time it takes to achieve FTL, they are not necessarily equivalent. Some species might achieve steady state long before they achieve FTL. This would make them an asset to the universal society and as such interaction may be a possibility. On the other hand, an anomaly might occur and a species might achieve FTL via some means becoming a liability. In such a case, forced regression needs to be considered as means for containment.
Due the enormous implications of containment breach there really cannot be any margin for error. This rule must be respected at any cost. The slightest error during an intervention may lead to leakage of information or worse, technology, which could serve as means for the breach or means to delay steady state by altering mental states and community attitude.
Failure to respect such rule could escalate to deliberate extinction or artificial regression of the undeveloped society. If anything like this was to happen, the responsibility for the atrocity would rest exclusively on the ones that failed to enforce the rule. Such course of action seems unacceptable even to us, a society which still has major conflicts worldwide and readily kill each other on the theater of battle.
The processes that drive our evolution, our relation with nature, with others are largely mental. We do have instincts but at this point in the evolution most of them are infused with intelligence and decisions are highly intellectual in nature. It is likely that a lot of feedback factors that will decide whether we annihilate ourselves or not will have a mental, emotional source rather than instinctive ones.
The prospect of Mutual Assured Destruction was a great motivating factors that led to nuclear nonproliferation treaties. Minimum reason is enough for one to realize that complete self destruction is not an acceptable price for winning a war. Both parties knew that the arsenal at their disposal was sufficient to compromise the only available habitable zone, Earth. With no escape strategy at hand, self destruction would have been inevitable.
But if at the time Mars had been an already terraformed and colonized planet with a flourishing population at the hands of one of the protagonists, things might worked out very differently. A handful of sufficiently irresponsible people, might have considered acceptable the loss of the entire planet, and as such most of their people left on Earth as a price for winning the war.
For people so eager to pull the trigger, isolation, the prospect of no help, no escape, can be a determining factor between a reckless decision and self control. It is not an accident that we are so preoccupied with the question “Are we alone in the universe?”. We, humans, are social creatures and when alone in a dark forest fear makes us cautious, vigilant and calculated. Having no help in sight and having to make the best of what is available, making a mistake is not an option simply because it can be fatal. The slightest assurance that there is another planet in reach or the prospect of some alien super power rushing to our aid would make us prone to enormous mistakes. As a society, we suffer from something akin to the “rich kid syndrome” (Minear, Proctor, 1989), where the child expects parents (a higher power), to fix all the troubles he might get into.
The Maya society was great society, highly developed relative to their times. Methodical, determined, resourceful, they left behind aw inspiring technologies like irrigation, structural engineering and astronomy that other people in their age wouldn’t even dream about. Unfortunately they lived in an extremely harsh natural environment. Climate was not at all friendly to them and in their limited understanding this meant angry, vengeful Gods. The anger and bitterness of their creators, their fathers so to speak, reflected greatly on their behavior turning them into an extremely self aggressive society who performed countless sacrifices: from soldiers and kings of other tribes to fathers and children of their own, no life was sacred when it came to pleasing the Gods.
It is thought that their society collapsed for the cumulation of reasons, but their self aggression was most probably part of it. At that level of bitterness and anger all they needed was bows and arrows to weaken their population sufficiently so that enemies and nature could finish the job. Had they been more peaceful, they might have survived.