In The Rapacious Hardscrapple Frontier, Robin Hanson analyzes the evolutionary economics of how civilization spreads throughout the universe. The article is a must-read if you’re interested in the long-term future of humanity, frontier life or evolution. I’d like to elaborate on some points that Hanson couldn’t find space to discuss in his essay.
First, let us recapitulate Hanson’s essential insight about the space frontier: evolutionary thinking applies to the conquest of the scarce resources of the universe.
The ultimate scarce resource in the universe is usable energy-matter – stars, black holes and gas clouds separated by many light-years, grouped in galaxies hundred of thousands of light-years wide, themselves clustered and separated from other galaxies and other clusters over still-greater astronomical distances. Whoever manages to first colonize any given resource may use this resource to grow and prosper, eventually sending missions to the next nearest exploitable resource to found new colonies and so on.
Comparatively speaking, whoever makes efficient use of his resources to grow, prosper and multiply, does just that, whereas whoever does not, does not. This tautology, from generation to generation, from star system to star system, entails an evolutionary arms race whereby those civilizations that make extremely efficient use of resources to spread throughout the universe are selected.
This is Hanson’s main point. In his article, he explores the evolutionary consequences of economic constraints on the expansion of civilizations regardless of what form or shape they may take, as long as minimal constraints apply. I am going to expand on these premises to discuss the concepts of aggression, law, immunity and identity. But first, I will make my own prediction as to the shape and form of colonization missions.
The expansion of civilization through the stars is limited by several factors:
- The speed at which seed colonization missions travel in space.
- The time it takes for a seed mission to grow into a mature civilization and start sending out its own progeny.
- The rate at which the new civilization can subsequently send missions to further star systems.
- The success rate of seed missions.
Space travel is as hard as it is slow. On the one hand, it is limited by the speed of light. On the other, hitting even a tiny speck of dust while moving at a large fraction of the speed of light can totally ruin your trip. The greater the distance, the more opportunities you have of such “interesting” encounters and the bigger your ship, the larger the surface it offers to potential collisions.
For efficiency reasons, we should expect an initial colonization mission to be much like an egg – it may very well be the size of one. It will have a tiny seed inside, a bootstrap kit made of a few nanomachines capable of decrypting a redundantly encoded plan, plus just enough fuel and raw materials to get by upon arrival. The raw materials may also double as a passive protective shell against space radiation during the trip. Something like an egg shape might also be optimal to deal with collisions, though a structure that has such a shape at relativistic speeds might look quite long at rest.
An active membrane may regenerate the shell after it has been hit and thin filaments of life may provide similar services inside the shell, as well as communication between the shell and the actual seed. The egg may itself be carried by some structure that only knows how to accelerate then decelerate on arrival, or the deceleration structure may itself be in its own egg with fuel being the surrounding raw material.
Once on the target planet, the nanomachines would reproduce using the resources in the egg, the resulting nanobots growing into a bigger organism. The organism may possibly adapt to the surrounding environment based on the data from sensors grown early to probe the world outside the shell. When ready, the organism would finally hatch and start gathering external resources to reproduce. It would build new organisms that can themselves reproduce and together grow into a bigger structure, itself a self-reproducing organism.
The cycle of reproduction, growth and emergence of greater structures may continue at several levels, following the seed plan. The higher level plan may consist only of vague hints, relying on algorithmic search or slightly directed evolution to fill in the gaps while adapting to whichever actual environment the mission will find on its target system.
Indeed, interstellar communications will probably remain slow and unreliable. They might not be available until the seed has already grown a lot, so the seed must be able to develop on its own without external input. And if it survives each of the successive steps of planned and unplanned growth, the seed may eventually become a mature civilization, build vessels, and spread further by sending more space eggs.
Confronted with such a vision of ruthless impersonal efficiency, some of my readers will protest. If humans are ever rich, powerful and technologically advanced enough to launch spaceships, won’t they prefer to satisfy their romantic urges, fulfill their dreams and travel in person? Science fiction shows manned deep space missions involving fancy spaceships of all sizes, from the personal ship hosting a single human traveler to the gigantic spaceship hosting an entire megacity.
This kind of space opera sells well because the public empathizes and identifies with the humans in such missions. But evolution doesn’t give a damn for the abstract preferences of individuals. Any civilization that fails to do whatever it takes to spread faster than its rivals will be outcompeted and will fail to find any additional resources for colonization. Civilizations must choose between efficiency and irrelevance.
The very first civilizations that spread into space may well be very inefficient. However, space is astronomically large, variations will occur amongst civilizations as they spread through space and these civilizations will de facto compete for expansion in space, with the first to get there tautologically being the first to get there.
However, very quickly, in astronomical time, only those that approach the optimal combination of travel speed, growth cycle, reproduction rate and success rate will succeed in spreading and conquering deep space, while their inefficient rivals get left behind.
In the end, the evolutionary pressure will strip space-conquering civilizations of anything that doesn’t positively contribute to the efficiency and success of space conquest. No resources will be available for satisfying the arbitrary fancies of humans, or for sustaining humans over efficient robotic life forms.
Some will then wonder whether our future will have no art, beauty, curiosity or love. Rest assured, they will still exist, being essential aspects of civilization. And there as anywhere else, there will be only so many resources available to dabble with anything that doesn’t eventually contribute to the bottom line. The space age won’t provide limitless resources to devote to art for the sake of art. But, the yearning for all of them will be preserved in all civilizations. The future may not match the human fantasies of space opera, but I am confident there will still be opera in space.
Aggression and War on the Frontier
Now, the wavefront of galactic expansion will probably not be the only place where action happens. While it may take years or centuries for a civilization to mature and spread to the next star, the star it colonized will burn over billions of years, and only so much can be done to accelerate the rate at which one may extract energy from the star. The explosive spread of civilization through eggs will be accompanied then followed by other ways of competing for resources instead of sheer speed at reproduction.
Aggression will keep happening, if only because it does pay to attack a victim that is insufficiently prepared. Evolution guarantees rewards for mutants that successfully claim resources that others do not properly defend. An evolutionary arms race will decide what is efficient aggression and what is proper defense, guaranteeing that everyone should either pay the price of either taking proper defensive measures or eventually pay the price of being conquered.
Of course, the threat of future retaliation may discourage a lot of unnecessary violence. But this threat has to be eventually credible to be meaningful, which still supposes not only that the means of aggressive violence will keep being cultivated in the same arms race as for defense techniques, but also that these threats will be acted upon as a test of credibility.
Still, the first civilization to reach and colonize a given star system will enjoy an advantage in being able to shape said system to fulfill its needs.
Over time, other civilizations may send their own eggs or even bigger missions, possibly before the first arrival has completed its maturation cycle. Then what? Will the newcomer be eliminated by the established civilization’s defense systems? Will it take over the system, destroying the first occupant in the process? Will it grab its own share of the resources and then coexistbwith the previous occupant? Will the two contenders somehow join forces and information and work together towards common goals? Will one subvert the other and parasitically use its resources and capabilities while taking over the direction of efforts towards its own goals?
Evolutionary thinking can help us understand some of the essential characteristics of war and peace on the frontier.
Conquest, Domination and Hegemony
In the most extreme case of successful aggression, a second wave of conquering eggs may spread everywhere and quickly vanquish all the systems initially settled by the first wave.
The occurrence of such waves is all the more likely since civilizations on the wavefront of expansion are pressed to clone themselves as fast as possible to further the frontier and thus evolve in a slow asexual way. Civilizations inside the expansion core must interact with others to improve their processes in the hope that the improvement may make them relevant again, evolving in a faster, sexual way and eventually yielding stronger technology or faster enough expansion speeds.
To survive, established civilizations must cooperate with each other, communicating using light speed signals to trade tactics to resist aggression faster than any enemy egg can spread. It might sometimes be hard however to distinguish the recipe for a great improvement against aggression from the recipe for an egg that will take you over. The distinction between the two need not be sharply defined.
In a somewhat peaceful scenario, some new revolutionary changes in a civilization may spread through voluntary assimilation. When faced with disruptive superior war technology, a less advanced civilization may gladly welcome such change and adopt the technology even when it means accepting the cultural paradigm and mores from a hegemonic foreign power.
Is the offer of the new technology a helpful hand that allows your civilization to survive existential or a proposition enacted by force? The distinction doesn’t matter much in the end.
Panspermia and the Great Silence
Whatever the nature of the successive waves of expansion, we may predict that astronomer Fred Hoyle’s panspermia hypothesis will come true. There will be seeds of life everywhere in the universe, populating every parcel of it, bringing civilization to the most barren intergalactic backwaters. But we can simultaneously conclude that his hypothesis hasn’t come true yet.
Space eggs will be an instance of panspermia, but not some miserable amino acids or proto-bacteria that take hundreds of millions of years to blossom into a civilization. Amino acid molecules or extremophile bacteria are totally inefficient and useless as seeds of life. Local equivalents may be generated just as well in less time than it takes for those things to travel.
The seeds I’m talking about will be full-fledged eggs of civilization, traveling for a few years at a sizable fraction of the speed of light and not at random. Once established, they will grow exponentially to take hold of planets in years and of star systems in centuries, fully preserving the blueprints of advanced technology.
Considering that we have no reason not to believe we’ll be able to send out such eggs in a few centuries, it appears that the slow proto-bacterial version of panspermia is completely improbable and therefore bogus. By the time primitive life may have evolved from such weak seed, then traveled and spread, advanced civilization will have conquered the entire universe.
Space civilization quickly overtakes any proto-civilization that it may reach. In the most improbable case that we ever witness extra-terrestrial life, it will be too late for us to react. Most probably, we are the seed of life that will conquer the universe, leaving no opportunity for any other life to evolve. The sad alternative is that we are a stillborn space civilization, destined to quickly die after exhausting our local resources.
Interacting Individuals and the Ubiquity of Universal Law
Space civilizations are necessarily made of a great number of smaller autonomous organisms. These individuals may in turn have to coordinate and cooperate with other individuals in achieving their own or higher goals. Resource-based rivalry is inherent in all these activities, and considering that coordination is necessarily imperfect, conflict will arise. Therefore, space civilizations will necessarily cultivate technology to efficiently prevent and resolve conflicts. In other words, law.
Not all law is created equal. Some principles of law lead to more conflict than others or resolve conflicts to the advantage of parasites rather than creators, inducing vicious incentives. The civilizations that adopt such principles will waste their resources, and lose in the competition for space conquest against civilizations that adopt better principles.
Eventually, some form of universal law will be accepted wherever law matters. It will be based on a few universal principles that apply at the scale of civilizations and individuals as well as within or beyond, principles easier to maintain at one level as they are acknowledged at other levels and can be made readily available at any scale capable of reflecting on these few abstract concepts. The same universal law may well be used to settle conflicts with invaders from foreign star systems as well as conflicts between natives from the same system.
What will that universal law be like? I believe it will be the “natural law” of libertarians, principles that acknowledge that resources are to be owned by individuals. To minimize aggression, ownership will be based on discovery, transformation and voluntary exchange. For an elaboration of why libertarian principles are an efficient foundation, see my essay Capitalism is the Institution of Ethics.
Individuals, Societies and Scales of Abstraction
In the previous section, we invoked a notion of scales of abstraction to claim that law applied to individuals and civilizations.
The concept of an individual (respectively a star’s civilization) is useful because it helps describe a reality where:
(a) Many entities exist, each defined by a membrane (respectively made of matter or huge empty space) that separates an inside from an outside.
(b) Peer entities do not overlap.
(c) The behavior at the interface between inside and outside of an entity is determined more by the inside than the outside.
(d) The interaction between inside and outside has a slow and/or narrow channel of information as compared to the decision processes happening inside or outside the entity.
(e) The decision processes inside an entity are coupled to the survival of the entity as a phenomenon, both through internal design and through (external) natural selection.
At a given scale of abstraction, it is not relevant whether the inside is made of many components considered as individuals at a lower scale of abstraction. The notion of an individual is useful precisely because it allows for abstraction – the ability to disregard details of processes inside individuals or around them and focus on the interactions between individuals and their environment.
A society made up of a variety of individuals is particularly robust, as compared to an amorphous structure. When circumstances vary, some individuals survive and prosper, whereas others whither or die. Individuals provide a locus of change: they make it possible to locate positive and negative innovation and duplicate and propagate beneficial mutations or isolate and eradicate detrimental infections. Evolution and progress becomes possible and manageable.
We can therefore expect space-faring civilizations to expand the existence and development of individuals amongst societies at many scales of abstraction. Therefore, we can examine the evolutionary implications and dispel a few obvious mistakes along the way.
Defense Mechanisms as Immune System Response
If we consider a star’s civilization as an individual with posthumans individuals, then what at a smaller scale can be seen as violent efforts against individual aggressors, at the larger scale can be seen as immune-system reactions.
Changing between viewpoints is a good tool to clarify points or to debunk mistakes. Consider, for instance, the legitimate use of violence within a healthy society and the appropriate use of immune action in a healthy civilization.
On first approximation, the immune system fends off aggression of “me” by “not me.” In social terms, this is war between citizens and foreigners. Such a fight requires the ability to efficiently distinguish between “me” and “not me.” In a biological organism this is typically done by testing for cells that share some genetic and epigenetic traits and homing in on those that fail the test.
Now on second look, we find that a healthy body contains a lot of symbiotic organisms that are genetically “not me” yet usually friendly. It may also contain cancer cells that are formerly “me” cells gone astray and other cells infected by viruses or other agents, that otherwise misbehave, all of which pass the “me” test, yet act in ways that are as detrimental to the organism.
At the scale of a civilization, individuals that contribute positively may have a wide variety of genetic and cultural backgrounds largely uncorrelated with the actual behaviors that make some of them detrimental to the civilization: invaders, criminals, saboteurs, subversives, violent madmen, etc.
Elaborate tests of identity — “meness” — may thus be required to avoid the immune system contributing to the destruction of the organism rather than its survival. This is no quest for a perfect test, but an evolutionary race between increasingly efficient defense mechanisms and ever more treacherous aggressive behaviors. The existence of a minimum background noise of aggression that cannot be fully eliminated is a sad fact of life. In the end, only competitive pressure from civilizations that do better will keep everyone’s defense systems relevant and the aggression level closer rather than further from this minimum.
What then makes for efficient litmus tests to distinguish friends from foes, good citizens from bad citizens? What are constant aspects that will be optimized for and what will be constantly changing aspects that will keep moving? We know that whenever a useful test is found and enforced, aggressive behaviors will adapt and somehow manage to pass the letter of the test while challenging its spirit, until the test is not marginally relevant anymore. Old criteria will then get abandoned and new ones adopted. But how much rigidity is necessary? And can’t we identify overarching principles behind a civilization’s immune system’s sense of identity?
Any expense incurred in passing the identity test is to be accounted as a liability of the defense system, not an asset. A more efficient immune system will seek to minimize such expenses and maximize the return. In other words, a good civilization keeps the identity it requires from its members both small and relevant, with evolution stripping anything that is not essential to success.
In the end, whichever technical means are being used to assess whether an individual is a “good citizen,” the actual intent of the test might be as small as just that: that an individual should act in good faith, stand by his word, respect other individuals and so on. In other words, in a sufficiently advanced and peaceful society, being a good citizen equates to being respectful of universal law — being a law-abiding citizen, a “lawizen.”
Irreducible background conflict and war activities will remain. And when society breaks down, identity issues can get really ugly. When people have taken to lazily identifying with some institutions as proxies for identification to respect for law, and those institutions come into violent conflict, something’s gotta give.
But even then, as long as both parties recognize some variant of universal law, conflicting claims can be settled and a modus vivendi can be reached. Evolution will exert pressure towards efficient and stable ways to represent universal law and express and test for respect for that law to minimize the cost of divisions.
Beyond and Within Law
Now violence is the last refuge of the competent. The law — violently enforced rules — does not cover all social interactions, only the points where these interactions break down.
A stable civilization depends not just on respect for the law, but also on honesty, a sense of fairness and general benevolence towards others, none of which is usually usefully enforceable as such. Christian Michel, in Should We Obey The Laws Of Our Country?, explains which categories of rules may apply. Law (what he calls rights) is the only category where rules may legitimately be enforced through violence while mutual, voluntarily accepted contracts may legally codify behavior and bind the signatories, affecting their rights. Finally, most rules of behavior involving dealings with others are in the large and vague domain of morality and are not enforceable with violence. (As for legislation, as Michel explains, it is usurpation and does not apply — see more below.)
Peaceful enforcement of rules of behavior may rely on ostracism, shaming, nagging and peaceful non-cooperation. But peaceful enforcement actually relies more importantly on positive interaction and conditional forms of cooperation: education, financial incentives and any kind of non-monetary rewards, including love. These strategies allow individuals to make incentives proportional to the desired effects, independently from each other. Thus, individuals may development many overlapping networks to cooperate efficiently on each of the many aspects of their lives.
A notable distinction between the law and all these peaceful rules of interaction is that the law is simple and universal. The peaceful rules of interaction that will be developed by civilizations constitute their interaction structure; they may grow arbitrarily complex, are completely context dependent, may develop in path- sensitive ways, and are mostly beyond our ability to predict.
Conflict is inevitable and will arise from discrepancies between the beliefs and opinions of various parties.
Now as long as both parties are in good faith and recognize the law, no violence is necessary to resolve conflict. Therefore, so long as parties agree on the principles of peaceful society, they will eventually reach a resolution without violence, because it’s in their mutual interest. For that, they will seek a settlement and if they can’t agree on one, they will obtain arbitration in a court of justice, abiding peacefully by its terms.
Thus, in a peaceful society, the casual residual conflicts that happen between law-abiding citizens do not give rise to any police intervention. Instead, legitimate violence usually remains a distant threat, employed solely to enforce the principles of peaceful society against those crazy enough to deny them.
Yet, abiding by the law has a cost, and the cost of everyone perfectly abiding by the law is infinite. Therefore, there will also always be residual violent conflict, due to marginal lawbreakers.
Indeed, in actions of police as in war, organized forces or individual parties use legitimate violence to destroy, starve or contain those individuals who do not abide by the law.
Of course, in a healthy society, such lawlessness only happens at the margins of society. Legitimate violence happens at the interface, not in the mass, and the amount of force required in a healthy society therefore grows much slower than the society itself. When the use of violence pervades “normal” life, the society is very sick indeed. Natural selection does favor healthier societies, but not all societies are healthy and one only need be healthier than rivals to prevail.
Usual Systemic Diseases
There again, there is a cost to staying healthy, an infinite cost to perfect health. We must therefore expect future civilizations as well as current ones to be riddled with diseases and disabilities. As these macro-organisms grow in size and complexity, their modes of failure may themselves grow exponentially in number and degree of elaboration. Yet again, without knowing too much about the civilizations of the future, we can make predictions regarding the kind of health problems such civilizations may face, by the mere fact of their being organisms constituted of a large number of loosely coordinated individual entities.
First, the same pressure toward efficiency that tends towards eliminating unhealthy civilizations and replacing them with healthy ones can paradoxically cause problems within a civilization. As the constituent organs are refined to be more efficient, there are only so much resources left for mechanisms to deal with problems and extraordinary problems can then cause a major disruption, affecting other organs with a wave of failure rippling throughout the system. Voltaire rightly quipped that the superfluous is necessary and he was right. If you can’t afford the occasional superfluous spending, you also can’t afford the inevitable occasional stressful situation.
Now, any developed society will possess an immune system, capable of identifying stray cells or invading parasites, stopping them from spreading, destroying them and reducing them back to elementary recyclable constituents. Diseases will ruthlessly take advantage of any systematic or statistical mistake or weakness in the maintenance system. To survive, the system must fix previous breaches and erect new defenses while diseases escalate their attacks to be stronger and more devious, resulting in an evolutionary arms race between the two.
To survive the arms race, diseases will vie toward exploiting defects that are essential to the design of the maintenance system, rather than a circumstantial flaw that could be easily corrected. As disease constantly need to both worry about the maintenance system and be as small as possible to avoid detection, elaborate diseases may consist in just a self-maintaining breach in the maintenance system. Who will guard the guardian and repair the repairman? Autoimmune dysfunctions may abuse the repair system into propagating disease rather than health.
In the end, aging organisms accumulate tissue damage, collect untreated parasites, use up resources, grow various kinds of dysfunctions and fail to adapt to changing conditions. The addition of all these issues may eventually cause some vital subsystem to fail and catastrophically collapse whole system.
Of course, a sufficiently advanced system can learn from its previous defeats and proactively try to avoid threats, but advanced diseases will use the same technology to become more potent. The stakes will have been raised, but the essential issues will remain the same.
The Frontier is Already Here
Aggression, law, immunity and identity are universal concepts. Projecting ourselves into the distant future, we can identify the essence of these concepts and what matters about them, as opposed to what contingent details. Ultimately, that’s what makes the exercise interesting. The future will not happen faster or fail to happen because you either understand it or don’t. But your understanding of what matters about universal concepts can help you prosper in the present day by focusing on what matters, and ridding yourself of parasites. And then you may contribute positively to that future and maximize your impact on it.
The distant future is also useful in that it provides perspective on the problems that actually matter. For instance, understanding this future reveals the real meaning of limited resources. For centuries, people have prophesied an imminent doom, a Malthusian Catastrophe in which essential resources are depleted with catastrophic effects on the population.
However, as new sources of free energy substitute for previous ones, we find that there is only one meaningful Malthusian limit: the size of the entire conquerable Universe. The only question is: where do you put your resource horizon? Is the limit of our autarkic territory a farm, a country, a planet, a star system, a galaxy or the universe? Aiming big is no guarantee of success, but refusing to see big is a guarantee of failure.
This aspect of the future teaches us that there is no such thing as “sustainable development;” there is only expansion, followed by contraction. Throttling expansion will not magically transform finite resources into infinite ones. If resources are not to be spent by us, neither are they to be spent by future generations or by anyone and if they are to be spent, the only question is whose preferences will prevail.
The appeal to ecology is but a wedge into our mental immune systems to introduce the cancer of Statism, some parasitic individuals trying to force themselves upon others, violating universal law to replace a healthy social order with the implementation of their own crazy schemes. This tool only favors the most self-serving liars and the Law of Total Destruction applies to all such violations of universal law. A good understanding of the future makes you immune to manipulation through scare tactics or to choosing counterproductive strategies that fail to lead to desired long-term results.
If futurology interests you, you may want to read Hanson’s page on The Economics of Science Fiction. To explore timeless principles of past, present and future societies, you may want to read Human Action by Ludwig von Mises. As for the kinds of radical transformations that may happen in a near future, you may want to read Future Imperfect by David D. Friedman.