December 15, 2014
Robin Hanson: Something Out There Is Killing Everything

Robin Hanson says "and you're next".

Robin offers a pretty interesting take on the Drake Equation. Since everything we can see looks dead it really is very dead out there. An intelligent civilization that grew very large and technologically advanced would create artifacts on such a scale that we could spot it. So why don't we see any?

Robin asks a very interesting question: have we already gotten past all great filters that are preventing large scale space colonization. Is there a great filter ahead of us? Or have many civilizations gotten as far as us and got filtered out at later steps?

Granted, some large number of intelligent civilizations might be at an earlier stage of development, even earlier than us. But what are the odds of that? If an intelligent civilization does not kill itself (or get killed by others) it ought to spend the vast majority of its existence at a much higher level of of technological civilization than the stage we are at right now. Therefore, it ought to have time to construct massive artifacts.

Is a hidden Berzerker machine civilization going around wiping out other civilizations? Or are societies of evolved brains unstable? Go out on the internet and look for unhinged people. Go watch the news and listen for unhinged people. I see stampedes of foolishness and think it quite possible some future stampede of human foolishness could doom us.

My biggest worry about humanity: human brains. Our technological advances are creating a succession of environments that are less and less like what we evolved to handle. Humans are way out of their depth and this is increasingly the case. The vast majority can not understand the workings of the technologies that support our civilization. I can't see how they are going to be able to make wise decisions in the long term while at the same time technological advances will enable them to make much bigger decisions. Offspring genetic engineering anyone? Even among very bright people intellectual fads take hold that are varying degrees of crazy. Look at the intellectuals of the 20th century who embraced communism. That's crazy. But they did it and that does not bode well.

One might expect somewhere in the Milky Way Galaxy conditions favorable to the development of intelligent life would select for saner minds. Maybe a calmer, more rational, and cautious intelligent species has developed a technological civilization. Maybe that civilization is keeping a low profile in order to avoid the berzerkers.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2014 December 15 08:41 PM 

Ronald Brak said at December 15, 2014 10:54 PM:

I'm not going to attempt to watch the talk as I'm in Australia and my internet connection can't even handle youtube videos at the moment, but judging from your summary, Hanson seems to have skipped over the possibility that a species spread across the galaxy or galaxies long ago and the universe looks the way it does because that's the way they like it. While such a civilisation could effortlessly destroy us, on the bright side they have no real incentive to since there is nothing we could do to harm them. And hopfully we be informed of how to avoid being destroyed if we ever got ourselves into being in a position of doing something they might not like.

Abelard Lindsey said at December 16, 2014 12:06 PM:

Greg Bear's "Anvil of Stars" and Gregory Benford's "Galactic Center" series are particularly dark scenarios that we may face in the future.

More likely, though, we are alone, at least in this galaxy. Our loneliness is drive by two factors. One is the gamma ray bursters, which apparently sterilizes smaller galaxies and most regions of large galaxies such as our own on a regular basis. The other is that the hydrogen hypothesis endosymbiosis, which is the most likely explanation for the emergence of the Eukaryote, is such a singularly rare event such that it has happened only once in our galaxy, if not the observable universe, thus making the Earth the only current abode of complex (multi-cellular) life. Nick Lane has written extensively on this latter issue.

James Bowery said at December 16, 2014 6:59 PM:

RP writes: "I see stampedes of foolishness and think it quite possible some future stampede of human foolishness could doom us."

The keyword in your post is "stampede" but it doesn't really go far enough.

What I see happening is E. O. Wilson going crazy in "The Social Conquest of Earth" at key points in an otherwise brilliant exposition on how extended phenotypes can start creating group organisms: He attributes human brain capacity to the eusociality from group selective pressures of the campfire when it is likely that, instead, fire contributed, via quasi-digestion energy, to the calories required to support high levels of cognitive abstraction in pursuit of food. What then ensued was a radical increase in the potential for extended phenotypic dominance of other humans in the same, qualitative, manner that a queen and her drones parasitically castrate their offspring to become sterile workers in their extended bodies called "hives".

One you head down the eusocial application of intelligence, what you are evolving are huge group organisms, that exist for their own end -- not the end of the "workers". These organisms compete in a form known as "war" whether insect or human. However, "war" can take many very subtle forms, including infiltration and subversion, such as we're seeing in the elites of the West, who are leading their "hive" down a suicidal path due to the superior armaments of infiltrating group organisms. Where does this end? One thing is for certain: It doesn't have to be group organisms with _any_ abstract intelligence at all -- they can degenerate into the evolved "intelligence" of any other organism and, indeed, abstract intelligence can get in the way of evolutionary ruthlessness.

Bob said at December 17, 2014 12:32 AM:

I don't think E.O. Wilson's work is based on the extended phenotype concept. The extended phenotype concept comes from Richard Dawkins who has a gene selection view. Whereas E.O. Wilson is coming from a group selection viewpoint.

James Bowery said at December 17, 2014 4:13 PM:

Quoting E. O. Wilson’s book “The Social Conquest of Earth”, page 55, chapter “The Creative Forces”:

Natural selection at the individual level, with strategies evolving that contribute maximum number of mature offspring, has prevailed throughout the history of life. It typically shapes the physiology and behavior of organisms to suit a solitary existence, or at most to membership in loosely organized groups. The origin of eusociality, in which organisms behave in the opposite manner, has been rare in the history of life because group selection must be exceptionally powerful to relax the grip of individual selection. Only then can it modify the conservative [emphasis JAB*] effect of individual selection and introduce highly cooperative behavior into the physiology and behavior of the group members.

The ancestors of ants and other hymenopterous eusocial insects (ants, bees, wasps) faced the same problem as those of humans. They finnessed it by evolving extreme plasticity of certain genes, programmed so that the altruistic workers have the same genes for physiology and behavior as the mother queen, even though they differ drastically from the queen and among one another in these traits. Selection has remained at the individual level, queen to queen. Yet selection in the insect societies continues at the group level, with colony pitted against colony. This seeming paradox is easily resolved. As far as natural selection in most forms of social behavior is concerned, the colony is operationally only the queen and her phenotypic extension [emphasis JAB] in the form of robot-like assistants.

From "The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct" by Wilson and Hölldobler page 9:

“[T]he entire colony represents an extended phenotype [emphasis JAB] of the queen and her mates on which evolutionary selection operates”.


“There are traits that are expressed in the workers that are not expressed in the queen,” says Hölldobler. “The colony’s traits are the phenotype of the queen, but it is not really the queen’s phenotype. It is the extended phenotype [emphasis JAB]. The colony, even the nest structure, is part of this extended phenotype.”

Moreover, Wilson and Hölldobler do explicitly credit Dawkins by name for the concept of the extended phenotype that they explicitly make reference to in their work.

"Parasitic castration" of the offspring of the reproductive caste, to produce a sterile worker caste, as the particular extended phenotype at work is my embellishment and it is accurate.

Bob said at December 17, 2014 7:47 PM:

James Bowery,

Thank you for that clarification. I was unaware that E.O. Wilson had explicitly adopted the extended phenotype concept in his more recent work. In his older work he comes from a group selection viewpoint and doesn't use the extended phenotype concept as a framework.

Given the ongoing debate between group selection, with Wilson cited as its preeminent authority, and the gene selection view of Dawkins and others, why doesn't Wilson emphasize that the group selection view can be resolved in gene selective, extended phenotypic terms, since he does seem to concede that it is a superior model?

James Bowery said at December 17, 2014 9:27 PM:

There seems to be some sort of brain-freeze whenever people start talking about "altruism" -- blocking them from understanding that what appears to be altruism is in many cases parasitic phenotypes expressing in the bodies of others. I have, for at least 15 years or so, been of the vocal opinion that this brain-freeze is, itself, a parasitic phenotype and it has expressed itself, most notably, in Richard Dawkins with his obsession with debunking religion that magically appeared immediately after he published "The Extended Phenotype", thereby abandoning a truly "dangerous" line of research.

E. O. Wilson and Nowak et al have something similar going on in their debunking of the Hamilton inequality's explanatory power for the evolution of eusociality. They really need to elaborate their mathematics in such a way as to reach, ahem, consilience with Dawkins et al, but I suspect Dawkins is too much of an extended phenotype himself to be able to contribute much. An example is a recent panel discussion between Hitchens, Dennatt, Harris and Dawkins pretending to be intellectually courageous in debunking religion until Hitchens brought up "The Bell Curve" and whether they should be as courageous if the facts supported it. The subject changed so fast you'd wonder if you had imagined the question being raised.

They're all a bunch of crickets.

And that's the way the world ends, not with a bang but a gordian worm bursting forth and swimming away.

Bob said at December 17, 2014 9:56 PM:

Yes, good point. I have noticed that as well, not just in popular discussions, but in scientific discussions too. Any and all social behavior is automatically assumed as "altruism", and then all intellectual effort is aimed at coming up with just-so stories that purport to show how the behavior is altruistic or beneficial to those performing the behavior, no matter how unjustified, preposterous, or convoluted the reasoning.

When I see otherwise intelligent people cling to this kind of reasoning, it seems that pride and perhaps fear motivate them. They are too proud to consider that they and others may behave in certain ways because of extended phenotypics, as well as fearful of confronting such a possible reality.

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