Existential Risk and Far Future Civilization

by Paul Gilster on August 30, 2013

How do we ensure the survival of our civilization over future millennia? Yesterday Heath Rezabek discussed installations called Vessels that would contain both archives and habitats to offset existential risk. Today Rezabek’s collaborator, author Nick Nielsen, broadens the view with an examination of risk itself and three possible responses for protecting our culture. Nick is the author of two books, The Political Economy of Globalization (Palgrave Macmillan, 2000) and Variations on the Theme of Life (Trafford, 2007). In addition to his recent talk at Starship Congress in Dallas, he presented “The Moral Imperative of Human Spaceflight” in 2011 at the 100 Year Starship Symposium in Orlando, and “The Large Scale Structure of Spacefaring Civilization” at the 2012 100YSS conference. In addition, he authors two blogs: Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon and Grand Strategy Annex, focusing on the future of civilization and the philosophical implications of contemporary events. Mr. Nielsen is a contributing analyst with Wikistrat, an online strategic consulting firm.

by J. N. Nielsen

Nick Nielsen

To see our world as a pale blue dot barely visible in the vastness of space graphically shows Earth’s place in the universe, and if we could continue to expand our scope for several more orders of magnitude while remaining focused on our pale blue dot, we would perceive our Earth in the full magnitude of its cosmological context. Just as Earth is placed in cosmological context in its appearance as a pale blue dot, we must similarly place earth-originating life, intelligence, and civilization in its cosmological context, and we can do so by way of astrobiology. Astrobiology can be considered an extrapolation and extension of terrestrial biology, or as biology in a cosmological context.


There are many definitions of astrobiology, some quite detailed and others quite concise. The NASA strategic plan of 1996 (quoted in Steven J. Dick and James E. Strick, The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology, 2005) gives this definition of astrobiology:

“The study of the living universe. This field provides a scientific foundation for a multidisciplinary study of (1) the origin and distribution of life in the universe, (2) an understanding of the role of gravity in living systems, and (3) the study of the Earth’s atmospheres and ecosystems.”

The NASA astrobiology website characterizes astrobiology as follows:

“Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. This multidisciplinary field encompasses the search for habitable environments in our Solar System and habitable planets outside our Solar System, the search for evidence of prebiotic chemistry and life on Mars and other bodies in our Solar System, laboratory and field research into the origins and early evolution of life on Earth, and studies of the potential for life to adapt to challenges on Earth and in space.”

More briefly, astrobiology has been called, “The study of life in space” (Mix, Life in Space: Astrobiology for Everyone, 2009) and that, “Astrobiology… removes the distinction between life on our planet and life elsewhere.” (Plaxco and Gross, Astrobiology: A Brief Introduction, 2006). Taking these sententious formulations of astrobiology as the study of life in space, which removes the distinction between life on our planet and life elsewhere, gives us a new perspective with which to view life on Earth.

With earth-originating life, intelligence, and civilization placed in cosmological context, we ourselves and our civilization can be understood in terms of the Fermi paradox. Fermi asked, if the universe is filled with life, “Where is everybody?” The universe is billions of years old, demonstrably compatible with the existence of intelligent life, and yet we find no evidence of highly advanced civilizations. The paradox has only been sharpened by recent scientific discoveries of exoplanets, including small, rocky planets in the habitable zones of stars, some of them relatively nearby in cosmological terms.


Once we remove the distinction between life on earth and life elsewhere we see that the idea of an “alien” is an anthropocentric concept, and a Copernican conception such as astrobiology must do away with the idea of “aliens” as constituting all life other than earth-originating life. So when we ask, “Where are all the aliens?” We must answer, “Right here, on earth; we are the aliens.”

A conception of intelligence and civilization as comprehensive as astrobiology would place these phenomena in cosmological context, and drawing on the insights of astrobiology we can see that an anthropocentric conception of alien intelligence as all intelligence other than earth-originating intelligence limits our conception of intelligence, as an anthropocentric conception of alien civilization as all civilization other than earth-originating civilization limits our conception of civilization. A Copernican conception will be concerned with the fate of life, intelligence, and civilization as such, but we must also acknowledge that we are all that is known so far of life as such, uncopernican though that sounds.

We are the only known “aliens” to pass through the Great Filter – which is what we call whatever it is that has filtered out other possible civilizations in the universe and left us only with our own civilization on Earth – and the development of astrobiology has directed our attention to the many near disasters we have experienced in the past – disasters that have shaped the surface of our planet and the history of life on Earth. The emergence of a single hominid species from several branches of hominid evolution makes homo sapiens a kind of existential choke point or bottleneck in the history of intelligent life, so that there is a sense in which we are the great filter. And this life, which is itself a marvelous and meaningless accident of the cosmos, is vulnerable at any moment to being annihilated by another meaningless accident of the cosmos.


Through the ages of cosmological and geological time our homeworld has been subject to massive volcanism, asteroid impacts, solar flares, gamma ray bursts, and the extensive glaciation that characterizes the present Quaternary glaciation, with its warmer inter-glacial periods such as the Holocene, during which the whole of human civilization has emerged. These natural forces of the Earth, the solar system, and the cosmos at large have shaped terrestrial life, humanity, and human civilization; we have been hammered on the anvil of a violent and dynamic universe. And we have survived thus far, but our survival is not guaranteed.

Earth-originating life has now given rise to industrial-technological civilization, which continues in its development to this day. What follows planet-bound industrial-technological civilization is the process of extraterrestrialization – the movement of the infrastructure of terrestrial civilization off the surface of the Earth and into space – which places earth-originating civilization in cosmological context, just as the pale blue dot places Earth in cosmological context and astrobiology places life in cosmological context. The process of extraterrestrialization, should it come to pass, furnishes us with a more comprehensive conception of civilization that begins to transcend our anthropic bias.


The resources of industrial-technological civilization hold the promise that life, intelligence, and civilization can spread beyond our terrestrial homeworld. Each stage in the development of a civilization capable of harnessing the energy resources required to expand beyond exclusively planet-bound conditions represents passing through further layers of the Great Filter. The gravitational thresholds of our home world, our local solar system, our local galaxy, and our local universe are each of them existential risks and existential opportunities for the future development of earth-originating life, intelligence, and civilization. With the passage beyond one gravitational threshold to another, existential risk is mitigated but not eliminated; the mitigation of one level of existential risk means ascending to a more comprehensive level of existential risk.

The technology that our civilization develops will influence the structure of extraterrestrialized civilization. If the settlement of the universe is parallel to the settlement of our planet, each gravitational threshold will first be passed by an initial slow wave, only to much later be filled in by faster waves of expansion resulting from later, higher technology. But in the event of a disruptive technological breakthrough, as, for example, any of the technologies based on the Alcubierre drive concept, there could be an initial fast wave of expansion only later filled in by slower and more thorough later waves filling in the gaps.

Given extraterrestrialized civilization in its cosmological context, we can approach existential risk mitigation through three principles: knowledge, which transforms unknown uncertainties into quantifiable risks that admit of calculation and mitigation, redundancy, which means multiple self-sufficient centers for Earth-originating intelligent life, and autonomy, which assures the independence of each self-sufficient center to seek its own strategies for survival.

What does knowledge have to do with risk? Following economist Frank Knight, what we call Knightian risk distinguishes between predictability, risk, and uncertainty, with predictability implying total knowledge, risk implying partial knowledge, and uncertainty implying the absence of knowledge. These are simplified and idealized categories; no risk is entirely free of uncertainty, and even uncertainty must lie within what is possible within our universe, and in that sense is predictable. But Knightian risk offers a framework to think about the dynamic nature of risk, which changes over time. The growth of knowledge moves the boundary of risk outward, meaning less uncertainty and more predictability.


For example, even if we have done very little in the past forty years in terms of human space exploration and extraterrestrial settlement, and we are still accessing earth orbit with disposable chemical rockets, space science has made enormous progress during this period of time, and this knowledge has transformed our understanding of our universe and our place within it. This growth of our knowledge of the universe has made the universe a little less uncertain and a little more predictable for us, suggesting clear paths for the management and mitigation of existential risk.

Knowledge alone is not enough. Without redundancy of earth-originating life, intelligence, and civilization we still face the possibility of a terrestrial single-point failure. Existential risk mitigation ultimately means multiple self-sufficient centers for Earth-originating intelligent life. These distinct centers of earth-originating life, intelligence, and civilization will be subject to distinct risks and distinct opportunities, and these distinct populations of Earth-originating life, intelligence, and civilization will be subject to distinct selection pressures, so that they will evolve into unique forms.

Knowledge of risks and redundant centers of earth-originating life together are not yet enough to secure on the long-term viability of Earth-originating life, intelligence, and civilization. Redundancy without diversity incurs the risk of homogeneity and monoculture. Existential risk mitigation also points to the necessity of the independence of each self-sufficient center to seek its own strategies of survival. The mutual independence of self-sufficient centers means the possibility of continued social and technological experimentation, which will in turn lead to the realization of distinct forms of civilization.

Autonomy seems like a simple enough condition, but it may be more difficult to achieve than we suppose. If we look around the planet today, with all its ethnic and cultural diversity, we see that there is, for all practical purposes, only one viable form of political organization – the nation-state – and again, for all practical purposes, only one viable form of civilization – industrial-technological civilization. We need to proactively seek to transcend social and technological monoculture to arrive at a civilizational pluralism from which social and technological experimentation flows naturally.

Taking existential risk seriously means that certain moral imperatives follow from this perspective, but who would possibly object to preventing human extinction? Of course, it is not as simple as that. It might be more difficult than we suppose to define human extinction, because to do so we would need to agree upon what constitutes human viability in the long term. Additionally, there are vastly different conceptions of what constitutes a viable civilization and of what constitutes the good for civilization. What is stagnation? What is flawed realization? What exactly is subsequent ruination, when achievement is followed by failure? What constitutes a civilizational failure? What exactly would constitute the “drastic failure of… life to realise its potential for desirable development”? What is human potential? Does it include transhumanism? For some, transhumanism is a moral horror, and a future of transhumanism would be a paradigm case of flawed realization, while for others a human future without transhumanism would constitute permanent stagnation. These are difficult questions that cannot be wished away; to pretend that they are not contentious is to fail to do justice to the complexity of the human condition.

These different conceptions of human potential and desirable outcomes for civilization will issue in different ideals, different aspirations, and different actions, but if we can continue to increase knowledge, establish redundancy and assure autonomy there is reason to hope that existential catastrophe can be avoided and an OK outcome realized, which is the point of what Nick Bostrom calls the maxipok rule – maximizing the probability of an OK outcome, where an OK outcome is defined as an outcome that avoids existential catastrophe.

If we do nothing, we will have on our conscience the extinction of all earth-originating life, intelligence and civilization. In the long term, our survival is only to be had through the extraterrestrialization of our civilization. But survival is not salvation. Survival often simply means that we will have the opportunity to go on to make later mistakes on a larger scale, which constitutes an OK outcome that is better than the alternative.


Eric August 30, 2013 at 15:19

Agreed. We probably have made it past the “Great Filter”, which makes us the only intelligent life in our galaxy and maybe even our local group. If that’s true then we should focus on not obliterating ourselves. Bases on our moon and Mars would be a good first step. It’s also possible that this hypothetical “Singularity” will allow us to spread life or something like it, much faster and further than what seems possible now. To me, a robot like Curiosity is so much more complex than a rock that it is, essentially alive. At the very least, our technology is producing things that could act as a foundation for Earth based life’s expansion into the universe.

Nick Nielsen August 30, 2013 at 16:28

I agree. In the big picture, the most important function that human beings may serve in the universe is to be a dispersal vector for earth-originating life to gain a foothold in the cosmos. If the rest of the universe is sterile, then the expansion of earth-originating life into the universe will be like the Cambrian explosion, several orders of magnitude larger. (Also on this cf. the Freedom Dyson video that Heath references — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yzgPMwshqE — which gives a surprisingly bio-centric vision of the future.) If the rest of the universe is not sterile, we will see something like a “Wallace Line” where earth-originating life and life originating elsewhere share a boundary along their farthest line of dispersal.

Daniel August 30, 2013 at 20:29

Some good thought material here. To me, the “Great Filter” is FTL travel. Without it, the slow process of growth will eventually die. Without growth the civilization will die, and eventually the planet.
We need to expand throughout our system and when we have done that, we have to develop FTL, or stagnate. Millions of technological civilizations could have come and gone without ever substantially leaving their home system. Unless one happens to be nearby in space and time, we will never even know they existed.

Heath Rezabek August 30, 2013 at 20:39

Nick – The trinary cluster of knowledge, redundancy, and autonomy is a really powerful concept, and I think of it often in relation to Vessel, as well as using it as a tool for evaluating all sorts of other strategies.

A question, maybe a tangent, has to do with your other key realization here: that achievement opens up a whole new level of potential challenge and opportunity. Once or twice in other places you’ve applied this to the smaller scale as well, with Xrisk as a lens for the personal struggle to ride the line between Permanent Stagnation and Flawed Realization. Have you seen or found enough parallels in other areas of philosophy to suspect a widespread principle at work here?

Alex Tolley August 30, 2013 at 20:50

Autonomy …. more difficult to achieve…… only one viable form of political organization – the nation-state – … only one viable form of civilization – industrial-technological…. seek to transcend social and technological monoculture to arrive at a civilizational pluralism from which social and technological experimentation flows naturally.

Don’t you have a problem here? By your analysis, global technological civilization has increased existential risk as diversity has decreased. If we expand out into space, initially the solar system, that is unlikely to change, if anything civilization will become more similar as artificial environments will impose common adaptations. Even interstellar civilization might be similar unless isolation occurs and we have autonomous stellar colonies.

When we look at some of the historical risks – disease and destructive empire building, isolation of populations guaranteed survival. Today our global spanning population could be decimated by a new disease that will find every corner of civilization. So we have to extraterrestrialize in the hope that new isolated pockets of civilization will occur?

projectstudio August 30, 2013 at 22:21

While “we need to proactively seek to transcend social and technological monoculture to arrive at a civilizational pluralism from which social and technological experimentation flows naturally” the underlying assumption is that the ‘extraterrestrialization’ itself is based on industrial-technological civilization.

There has been great difficulty – to put it politely – integrating diverse cultures on the earth. Rather than a successful Clovis culture, we now have a successful Hamburger Flipper culture. A sameness pervades so much of the world connected by roads to nowhere and that sameness is invasive and monopolizing.

But the industrial-technological civilization has demonstrated an ability to gain a foothold in space – for the few, but not the many. How to ferret out essential enablers of this industrial-technological that are compatible with known cultures and unknown cultures to emerge? A related challenge is yet another ‘Great Filter,’ that is, how can the Few, elevated to orbit and beyond, represent and preserve a diversity of autonomous cultures? During the initial expansion of the fast wave expansion do we quarantine those few cultural representatives from cross-contamination, and if so how do we preserve the technological enablers in that small band so they can populate the High Frontier? Avoiding the monoculture may not be possible during the Diaspora. It may be more practical to find ways to ensure *future diversity* by focusing on ensuring inclusive genetic diversity and the preservation of diverse cultural knowledge and its artefacts. Meanwhile, while we have the opportunity it may also be wise to find ways to share and empower, where welcome, essential enablers for extraterrestrialization across cultural boundaries. In doing so we may increase our partial knowledge of these enablers and lesson the serious risk we have – even in our present day technological monoculture of extreme specialization and limited/inhibited scientific pier review – of losing them altogether.

Richard Prichard August 31, 2013 at 1:17

I think that a mistake made in this analysis is thinking that our present civilization is industrial-technological, and then concluding that we need pluralism to enable social and technological experimentation. However, a capitalistic-technological civilization promotes not merely experimentation but extensive marketing that creates the demand for ever more sophisticated technology. Experimentation alone may lead no where, take for example the early Greek development of the turbine. Consequently, our one viable form of civilization is actually global-industrial-technological-capitalism, and the idea of a superior form of civilizational pluralism and its supposed social and technological benefits is probably a utopian fantasy. Of course, this global monoculture may well destroy the environment and lead inevitably to our extinction. But that’s what can happen when social and technological experimentation flow naturally.

Richard Prichard August 31, 2013 at 1:28

Perhaps a better plan than creating vessels that hold the great advances of our civilization is engineering a method to send life’s simplest organisms to other stars. Perhaps the vessels main jobs would be to serve as guardians of life as they move outward through the galaxy.

Alex Tolley August 31, 2013 at 14:07

@Richard Perhaps a better plan than creating vessels that hold the great advances of our civilization is engineering a method to send life’s simplest organisms to other stars.

We could indeed be on the cosmic verge of being able to do this. We have seen that beamed sails may be our best method of achieving suitable sub-light velocity. Small sails (e.g. StarWisp) would mean reasonable power plants, as opposed to fusion drive ships. Microbes spores are highly resistant to damage. If we can be sure that the target worlds are sterile, then seeding these worlds with microbes to bootstrap new living worlds may well be the best way to ensure the continuity of life, especially if life proves to be rare in our galaxy.

Heath Rezabek August 31, 2013 at 19:45

When I was asking my original question to Nick above, I at first accidentally put ‘diversity’ rather than ‘autonomy’. This was a slip, but diversity is implied in the whole approach suggested through Vessel as well as through Nick’s speculations above.

In other words, each attempt to fork the code of culture will produce a new offshoot of society, particularly once those attempts escape the planet’s surface and take different approaches to survive different challenges. That deliberate aiming for a wide range of efforts is considered a feature, not a bug, due to the diversity it engenders. ‘Variations on a Theme’ may be one of the most important patterns in the language of evolution.

Related to this question are several folks’ musing about the prospects for unbounded life, scattered as widely as possible. Again, here, I really recommend listening through the Dyson talk at Starship Century: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_yzgPMwshqE

Aside from being mind-blowing by the end, it presented a strong case that individual and minimalistic (greenhouse or terrarium-like) habitats, spawned in profusion and scattered widely, could be one of the best ways of ensuring a vast range of possibilities for life… And each, Dyson suggests, would adapt over great lengths of time to the starting conditions in each pod, resulting in a huge range of possibilities from one pod to another.

Vessel relies on the same likelihood of profusion, without calling for the engineering of warm-blooded plants(!).

So I’d have to add to Nick’s three qualities (Knowledge; Redundancy; Autonomy) that of Diversity or Variation. He may have meant this as one part of Autonomy. But I think it’s central enough to spell out its necessity. Small variables at the start result in vastly different outcomes, in the fullness of time…

Heath Rezabek August 31, 2013 at 20:03

“As the human mind opens up to the limitless possibilities and opportunities of living in space, a great diversification of human society can be envisioned. Unlike Earth, where limited resources together with economical and geographical factors do not permit the maintenance of impermeable boundaries between nations, space colonies could develop into fully self-sufficient statehoods, which might individually regulate their physical contact and communication with Earth and other space colonies, and thus develop their own independent cultures and ways of life. […] Ultimately, this might lead to an unimaginable diversity of cultures and lifestyles of mankind. This cultural diversity, and the spread of mankind over the entire solar system, would be the best insurance against any fatal catastrophe in the future arising from external and internal threats.”

– Peter Ulmschneider, Intelligent Life in the Universe (2006) p.187

“The Culture, in its history and its on-going form, is an expression of the idea that the nature of space itself determines the type of civilisations which will thrive there. The thought processes of a tribe, a clan, a country or a nation-state are essentially two-dimensional, and the nature of their power depends on the same flatness. Territory is all-important; resources, living-space, lines of communication; all are determined by the nature of the plane (that the plane is in fact a sphere is irrelevant here); that surface, and the fact the species concerned are bound to it during their evolution, determines the mind-set of a ground-living species. The mind-set of an aquatic or avian species is, of course, rather different. Essentially, the contention is that our currently dominant power systems cannot long survive in space; beyond a certain technological level a degree of anarchy is arguably inevitable and anyway preferable.”

– Iain M. Banks, A Few Notes on the Culture. http://www.vavatch.co.uk/books/banks/cultnote.htm

David Cummings September 1, 2013 at 8:56

Seeding the galaxy with earthly microbes. An if all life goes extinct on earth,, then the human race would have lived to fulfill the Prime Directive of DNA, which is simply to propagate itself into the future. A chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg. A civilization is DNA’s way of putting DNA on another planet.

Interating. But I would rather propagate culture, not DNA. If we go extinct but propagate earthly microbe DNA into space, what have we done, really? Fulfilled some deaf dumb and blind directive of our ancient pinball DNA.

But if we go extinct but propagate the memory of our civilization into space … that to me is a more worthy goal.

Let’s send flash drives, not seed packs. I know the two aren’t mutually exclusive but unless we’re talking about fully viable human embryos, I personally would rather be working on the flash drive, not the seed pack.

Alex Tolley September 1, 2013 at 12:37

@David Cummings. DNA or culture, the choice depends on your view of what’s “out there”? If the universe is sterile, then there will be no one to read your culture, whereas seeding the cosmos with life will generate many more possibilities of life and possibly civilization. If the universe has life, but all of it either simple or a long way from intelligence, then DNA on sterile worlds still makes more sense.
Only if there are other potential civilizations would it make a lot of sense to send culture. The other scenario to send culture is if we expect [an] earth civilization to expand into the universe. Then providing cultural time capsules would be of value. It would have obviated all those early Asimov stories where the galactic culture does not know its planet of origin.

But consider. Suppose we send seed ships out into the galaxy (and beyond) as fast as we can, say 0.5c. That will start preparing at least some worlds to become habitable to us. Maybe it takes a million years or more for such a world to be ready, but we will have “terraformed” at least a small part of the galaxy ready for our descendants. And sure, send the flash drives along too.

As an aside, biology is advancing so quickly now, that we may need to consider what “terrestrial life” even means. I suspect biological technology will be extremely mature well before we send our first ships to the stars. A seed ship’s biological payload may be very different from what we think today.

David Cummings September 1, 2013 at 16:06

Excellent points, Alex. I guess my original comment shows that I assume there are other civilizations already out there. But of course all such assumptions are pure speculation.

Anyway, it’s certainly true that it’s not either/or, DNA or artifacts. We can seed the galaxy with both.

It’s just that Richard got me thinking about the old adage of the purpose of a chicken. Richard Dawkins I think.

The idea of DNA “using us” to propagate DNA also reminds me a bit of Sirens if Titan, where it turns out the purpose of human civilization is to manufacture pop tops (on cans) so that one can make it to Titan to be used as a spare part for a broken space ship piloted by a robot taking the message “greetings” to a civilization on the opposite side of the univers from the robot’s home planet.

David Cummings September 1, 2013 at 16:16

Typo, should read: Sirens of Titan.

Heath Rezabek September 1, 2013 at 17:29

@David, @Alex – As luck would have it, different stakeholders will care about different things. Providing a way for different approaches to collocate and reinforce one-another seems like a fruitful way to proceed.

Preserving cultural knowledge, along with some means of recovering it if temporarily lost, should help ease the rebuilding and recovery of any intelligent civilization who encounters it. If our descendants are still about, we can hope that’s who we help. If they’re not, then there’s nothing to be lost in hoping it can help whoever does happen upon our traces in our stead. I definitely empathize with the ‘send ALL the flash drives’ camp.

In describing Vessel early on, I once mused to someone that, were Earth to be dislodged from its orbit and cast into space as a rogue planet, its frozen surface structures and biomass would in effect become a lossless, full-scale model Vessel archive, were it ever to be discovered millennia hence. My feeling that maybe we shouldn’t rule out a beacon/signal role in such scenarios, or for caches of whatever can be cached, means I’m still well conflicted about METI.

The advance of biology, especially the fairly recent breakthroughs of synthetic biology, are one reason I too think the design of living information systems is in our future. Of the strategies towards preserving cultural signal I’ve surveyed, I have to say I’m most impressed by the potential of the DNA data storage methods that’ve come along, and of them, Goldman and Birney’s description of discovery layers has the most in common with the layered labs in the Vessel framework. http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130724-saving-civilisation-in-one-room/4

Most definitely agreed: Even our flash drives may yet be biological.

Nick Nielsen September 2, 2013 at 1:34


I think we can build a vibrant and vital civilization, and an expanding civilization, without FTL travel. People often fail to realize that thought near-lightspeed travel involves a significant lapse of time at the point of origin, those who actually travel out into the cosmos can cover a lot of “ground” in the period of the lifetime of ordinary mammals. Once we add life extension technologies, there is virtually no place in the universe we could not travel at sub-lightspeed.

Also, we can build a robust spacefaring civilization within our own solar system that could in theory endure as long as the sun endures. This would give us plenty of time to develop improved transportation technologies that would take our civilization to other stars.

Thanks for your comment,


Swage September 2, 2013 at 7:17


Maybe there is no THE Great Filter. There are many Filters, many obstacles to overcome. Extinction events being the first during early development and then with the rise of science we have the weapon problem (the Cuba Crisis was one such threatening incident) which continues to persist with a certain percentage. Then there is the danger of reversed development and drifting in new scientific and technological Dark Ages, the difficulty of coping with antiquated economic systems which can halt development in an rapidly advancing world. Then there are of course resource constraints, ecological impact and ultimately the maximum window for a habitable niche around a parent star.

That being said… i don’t think that our evolution was that special, all things considered. Extinction events caused quite some setbacks. In an optimal environment without extinction events, and there are certainly worlds where that is the case, life could achieve an advantage in evolutionary complexity worth billions of years in the same time without the need for constant re population. However, my guess is that this makes us more resistant. I think we got more evolutionary backup mechanisms encoded within our DNA than an undisturbed environment would, which can be a good thing. It probably means we have integrated much more adaptable DNA, which bodes well for space colonization in a variety of environments (indicated by events like the Cambrian evolution, creating totally new ecology from scratch in a mere 20 million years – seen in context of planetary age of 4.5 billion years that is incredibly fast). We were lucky during the Cuba Crisis as the soviet submarine didn’t launch nuclear weapons against the American destroyers dropping water bombs by the veto of one officer from three, but generally spoke we were not that lucky. Maybe we are also not all that stupid.

There is another thing which concerns me deeply: our radio signals have traveled 11o light years. Since we have not picked up radio signals of other civilizations, the usual assessment is that we are alone. However, usually nobody bothers to talk about the inverse square law. We have to ask how far we could detect our own emissions with our current technology. And the answer is that even distances below a light year would be extremely hard to distinguish from background noise, especially when you have no idea where to point your antenna to. Also we are transitioning away from broadcasting radio signals to cable transmissions which are virtually undetectable.

What we have done lately is detecting planets and estimating their habitability based on acquired data. And at an estimated 144 billion potentially habitable, earth like planets (Goldilocks Zone, approximately earth-sized) in our galaxy to state the data looks promising is a gross understatement.

And considering astrologists show more and more interest in objects OUTSIDE of the habitable zone, which is not even represented in this estimate is nothing short of incredible.

This also raises the interesting question of how, given that we can detect a biological active world, by lets say spectroscopic analysis, we would try to establish contact. I am fairly certain this comes down to directed energy beams, which are only detectable if the beam is directly aimed towards the target planet. This has of course some implications towards our own SETI efforts. Maybe we are not looking for the right kind of technology. Actually i am fairly certain we don’t. However there has been considerable reconsidering along this line of thought lately. I would also go so far as to predict we will shift more away from traditional technology towards more and more biotechnology.

With due respect to the Fermi-Paradox, its very possible it may not even exist. That is at least my assessment.


I disagree about FTL travel being the Great Filter. We will very soon be able to seed distant stars by microorganisms without FTL technology. FTL would certainly speed things up, but its not a necessity. Also, it may not even be feasible at all. Its all about survival and survival is, in a way, very possible without FTL technology.

@Alex Tolley
I am not convinced about the immorality of seeding populated worlds. Even if i suspect there are differences in genetic coding i suspect the basic concept is following designated pattern. Quite interestingly in our genetic code we have two coding mechanisms in a symbiotic relationship transcribing information and specializing in suitable tasks that improve the whole, RNA as phages and DNA for long therm data storage. Abundance of genetic information equals adaptivity. The more genetic sequences are aviable, the faster evolution is progressing. It could mean a huge leap forward for both genetic systems if they evolve towards transcription and as such being able to share information, which is a very possible scenario. Personally i think the most valuable information in existence to transmit is genetic information. It carries the potential to jump start evolution into heights usually unobtainable within the lifetime of a single star. Its the only way to break that information-limit-treshold and as such highly recommended. And, quite frankly, this is already happening: Earth is billions of years old. There have been enough impact events to accelerate terrestrial material out of the solar system for billions of years. This material must have indeed crossed light years by now. I suspect the surprising resistance of certain microorganisms to space conditions is not a coincidence but an evolutionary intention.

There are two controversial studies trying to calculate back to pinpoint the origin of life. The latter one is based on Moore’s Law and the former tries to asses genetic diversity, calculating backwards the radiations in the tree of life. They both match at nine billion years. That is without factoring in setbacks by extinction events.

@David Cummings
DNA is our Flash Drive. What if the receiver has no technology to read it? A microbe is in a way a self-extracting archive. And there is no better way for long therm data storage than to store it in DNA. And even better we also supply the evolutionary capability for receivers along with our data, in case there is no one around.

That being said, DNA is, although the best known method to conserve data, always mutating (when active). Selective bias tends to care only for information that is directly useful, there is no selective pressure to keep artificial information from dropping into the background noise of evolution, so even that approach is somewhat limited. But it certainly can last a multitude of billions of years, enough time for evolution to come up with a species dabbling in genetics and accidentally discovering our messages.

However that in itself could provide such an advantage in an interstellar context, that it qualifies as selective pressure.

The flash drives WILL be biological. Perhaps they already ARE.

Heath Rezabek September 2, 2013 at 9:48

@Swage – Two quick questions. Can you clarify or rephrase this? I can’t tell quite what you mean: “With due respect to the Fermi-Paradox, its very possible it may not even exist. That is at least my assessment.”

ie, that the paradox may not exist, or that other advanced life may not?

And, you mention “There are two controversial studies trying to calculate back to pinpoint the origin of life. The latter one is based on Moore’s Law and the former tries to asses genetic diversity, calculating backwards the radiations in the tree of life.”

I know the first, but wasn’t aware of the second. Do you have any links so we can gather the resource?

Alex Tolley September 2, 2013 at 12:31

@Swage immorality of seeding populated worlds

Some issues:
1. Exotic species introductions – we have abundant examples of how badly that has gone on earth. We have lost diversity, not gained it, as species have declined in response.
2. New disease vectors. Adding new genes that cause pandemics is not my idea of acting morally. Terrestrial organisms could wipe out whole worlds.
3. As a counterpoint, there is no reason to expect a priori that our DNA=>proteins structure and coding is the same as on another world. In which case our terrestrial life would become a “shadow life” in Davies’ terms, having no impact on extant life except though resource competition.

I’m not sure where I would draw the line, seed only sterile worlds, or maybe worlds with only single cell life. But seeding worlds with existing macrolife strikes me as immoral.

Realistically, before we send out any ships, we are going to have a good grasp of how common life is in the universe. If it turns out to be common, then I would not send out seed ships to HZ worlds (unless we know they are sterile) but rather send ships that can create HZ conditions (under domes/under ground) and seed them. Maybe we can create those exotic biologies Dyson envisages and forgo the domes, although I would prefer someplace our descendants could settle. I have no doubt that there is plenty of space for us to go without disrupting living worlds apart from the desire to study them.

David Cummings September 2, 2013 at 13:50

Swage, DNA is amazing and can code for many things but you can’t store Pulp Fiction (proper noun or common noun) in DNA. Now whether or not you would want to distribute Pulp Fiction (proper or common) to the galaxy is another discussion, but if you WANT to do that (or anything like that) you have to use some kind of file storage device (as we currently understand the concept).

When I use the term flash drive I am aiming for generic in the extreme and of course every effort would be made to render the access protocols as simple as possible, with math-coded instructions etched into the gold-plated packaging (or whatever method is settled on by those designing the project).

Jer September 2, 2013 at 13:52

Wonderful piece.
Though, I am thinking that individuals, in general, are not overly concerned with the survival of the human species.
Explanation: Given a level of technology that enables a type of personal immortality (biological or otherwise), resources to leave earth and survive/ thrive space indefinitely, and an ability to live in a small socially-cohesive community, I believe the vast majority of humans would ‘take their spaceship and friends and go’. This is not to say, given a definable ‘global extinction’ threat, that there would be no heroic acts or communal efforts to effect survival of the mother planet or large groups of its inhabitants. However, I think there is a deep seated interest in a general dispersal outward, possibly with no specific destination in mind. Apart from a comfortable and inspiring space-going habitat with some small idealized group size, I don’t feel that there is a great interest in maintaining any type of connection with human civilization at large. Perhaps some occasional meetings, trading, and shared experiences throughout these voyages may occur, planned or otherwise. Further, we may find that the number of people who choose to remain on Earth or any other terrestrial body (with its uncertainties, discomforts, and limitations) is a very small number compared to the number of humans voyaging. Interestingly, this may be one of the arguments against the Fermi, the very wide and thin spread of all other civilizations – none with post-spaceflight cohesive society locations at all – a galaxy smeared with countless small packets of wanderers, mostly indifferent to other species beyond a detached neighbourly interest.

Swage September 3, 2013 at 8:56

@Heath Rezabek

Yes, i suspect the Fermi Paradox is the “Great Delusion”. Especially Tipler’s interpretation.

According to Arthur C. Clarke any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Now… if we rephrase that and exchange “magic” with “biology”, because self replicating technology (along the lines of a Von Neumann Probe, although i am more thinking on the lines of a colonizer for practical reasons) is also governed by the rules of evolution, which is a fundamental law of self replicating architecture, you get the general idea.

Additionally i would expect any technology to undergo an evolutionary transition towards more biology like architecture over the course of generations until it becomes indistinguishable from “natural” evolution (as its governed by the same paradigms). I think this has some very serious implications for the Fermi Paradox.

If you allow yourself for one second to abandon concepts like natural and artificial, you will realize that for example a forest, is a pretty sophisticated arsenal of self replicating… constructs. A solar powered, self replicating, resource gathering, chemical factory park. We just never looked at it from that perspective. We grew up with such things as a species, so we we have a problem with perceiving such things. Its simply too familiar.

Estimates are currently at 144 billion habitable worlds (as in habitable by human standards) for our galaxy alone. Earth has seeded the Cosmos by Lithopanspermia for 3 billion of years, estimates for average distance between those worlds are at 6.4 Ly, so an infection scenario is not only possible, but also very probable. I have serious doubts about habitable, sterile planets even existing. I think they are all occupied as soon as they are formed. You find evidence for life in Earth’s fossil record as far as its intact, which in itself favors a infection scenario.

I would expect advanced civilizations to be present, yes.

About your request to the second paper:

Genetics Indicates Extra-terrestrial Origins for Life:The First Gene
Rhawn Joseph and N. Chandra Wickramasinghe

@Alex Tolley

There are dangers, undeniable, in both directions besides. There are also just as many examples for symbiotic relationships. In the end you have to trust life to form symbiotic bonds instead of running amok. If we look at the fossil record we see a history that wasn’t easy, but more or less successful to create and maintain a certain equilibrium repeatedly. The phylogenetic tree expands over the course of time, that is its general tendency. Nobody can promise smooth transitions, of course. Mutations and also the introduction of foreign elements introduce an unpredictable elements. All in all i am more tempted to think it will work, but that is by no means a granted, yes.

Besides, if i am right the process is already taking place naturally, which means we could meet some old friends who had more luck adapting on another planet than they had on Earth. Three billion years is a long time. It also means we are infected constantly. This may be way less intrusive than we imagine and we way be more adapted to this than we expect. Perhaps we even rely on it to a degree.

Imagine there is a planet with only plant life, poisoning the atmosphere with noxious oxygen. Introduction of the ability to metabolize oxygen may save the entire planetary ecosystem, allowing it to continue billions of years further.

@David Cummings
DNA is a self replicating file storage device, you can store anything you like as long as you do not impair its functionality beyond usability it will be around for a very long time. Viruses learned to exploit this a long time ago and despite them usually being associated with pathogens for their habit of destroying the host cell in the replication process, there is also a wide range of symbiotic viruses which deliver genetic information of all kinds across the boundaries of species and have a throughout positive effect.

Of course finding it may prove difficult. But i guess the assumption that a sentient species will dabble in genetic research if it advances enough, which is the target audience in any case, isn’t too improbable. A stone-age civilization wouldn’t be able to comprehend math in any form and probably worship the unusual gold disk in a cave until the time a Greek alike mathematician is in for the shock of his life upon finding it – which probably leads to even more worship, so it may not be the worst idea to make sure a certain level is necessary to access it.

Rob Flores September 3, 2013 at 13:10

We should think of extra terrestrial settlements as a
method to launch several societal models (SM) and each settlement should
strive to “bud” off a slightly different version of itself, when needed.
If you were a government in charge of one said settlements one of
your jobs should be to identify whom believes the current SM is flawed
and in need of alteration. Well…. assist these likeminded breakaway
populations in leaving and estabilishing their own version of things.
In other words you can be dissident about your SM, but you have to, put
your money where your mouth is and acutally create and lead the kind
of SM your peer group wants. No rebellions allowed internally.
Obcourse Hegemonizing Swarm-like SMs are to be Nipped at the bud and
not allowed.

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