In a previous post this week, titled “Parfit + Singer + Aliens = ?” OP makes the important point that if alien life is likely to come into existence in our lightcone, extinction-risk reduction has reduced value. 

Relevant snippet -  “Holding future and alien life to be morally valuable means that, on the discovery of alien life, humanity’s future becomes a vanishingly small part of the morally valuable universe. In this situation, Longtermism ceases to be action relevant. It might be true that certain paths into far future contain the vast majority of moral value but if there are lots of morally valuable aliens out there, the universe is just as likely to end up one of these paths whether humans are around or not so Longtermism doesn’t help us decide what to do. We must either impartially hope that humans get to be the ones tiling the universe or go back to considering the nearer term effects of our actions as more important.”

The point of this post is to add that it also matters what the mean values/quality of these potential civilizations are in expectation. OP implicitly assumes that these aliens will convert resources in the universe into utility as efficiently as our society would. Currently, I agree with the author on this because I think we don’t have any good evidence to the contrary and I think we should take the prior that our society will have mean grabby civ values. However, I think it would be possible to deduce that on expectation the potential GC’s that may come into existence have different expected conversion of control of resources into utility than our own society. 

To go about this, we could leverage economic history, evolutionary biology, etc. to run models of civilization formation and try to see if our society is “Weird” in any way. We also can continue to search for other civilizations as OP said and update on their characteristics vs our own. 

I believe that currently running models is pretty intractable because the relevant fields just aren’t that developed, and this seems like a really hard and complicated problem, but it could be a line of thinking to go down as computational power and the quality of these fields increases. 


Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Charlie - I strongly agree that if would be useful to 'leverage economic history, evolutionary biology, etc. to run models of civilization formation and try to see if our society is “Weird” in any way'.

We made a preliminary attempt to leverage evolutionary biology to make some reasonable predictions about likely extraterrestrial psychology in this 2017 essay

The field of astrobiology, SETI, and ETI studies has developed lots of interesting ideas over the last 60+ years... but it often seems to assume that there's no 'convergent evolution' at the level of psychology, morality, or technology, such that if we don't know the physical/chemical basis of extraterrestrial life, we can't possibly make any predictions about how its intelligence or civilization will work.

I disagree with that pessimism. 

I think there are lots of insights to be gained about likely patterns of convergent evolution by understanding how existing models in evolutionary biology (including optimal foraging theory, evolutionary game theory, sexual selection theory, niche construction theory, signaling theory, etc) would apply to ETIs.

Amazing, thank you for the reply. I'll definitely check out the linked essay. Would be curious to hear why people agreement downvoted you. I'm assuming they are more pessimistic than you?

Your optimism updates me pretty strongly because I don't actually know much about the fields in question. 

I would agree with you that there are a lot of insights to be gained from evolutionary biology (and also studying optimal foraging theory sounds like it would make for quite an interesting career). On the other hand it still seems daunting to imagine that we could come to real generalizations about economic history (not saying we can't). 

It seems like we can barely agree on why the industrial revolution happened or why fertility crashed. Perhaps we are closer than we think on agreement in these areas, or I am misinformed about the state of the field. Or maybe we can still get lots of useful generalizations while still not solving some of these fundamental questions. I guess I'm just left with this intuition that if we could predict ETI societies with any sort of accuracy we would also have a much clearer understanding/agreement of the macro trends of our own history. 

Hi Charlie,

I seem to get downvoted fair amount on EA Forum, for reasons I don't understand, and often by people who don't leave comments; so I have no idea what their reasons are.

Anyway, I agree that using evolutionary biology to understand the likely types and natures of 'primitive' ETIs (before they develop technological civilizations) might be easier than using some generalization of economic history to understand what kinds of civilizations they might develop, or how their higher-order social organizations might function.

We have many examples of convergent evolution in biology; we don't have that many examples of 'convergent history' in civilizations -- although I'm still optimistic that certain principles of economic and social organization might apply even to ETIs. 

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities