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3 Body Problem: is the universe really a 'dark forest' full of hostile aliens ?

April 6, 2024 · Comment icon 31 comments
Aliens in a dark forest.
Is there anyone out there ? Image Credit: Bing AI / Dall-E 3
If the universe is teeming with intelligent alien civilizations, why have we still not been contacted by them ?
Tony Milligan: We have no good reason to believe that aliens have ever contacted Earth. Sure, there are conspiracy theories, and some rather strange reports about harm to cattle, but nothing credible. Physicist Enrico Fermi found this odd. His formulation of the puzzle, proposed in the 1950s and now known as "the Fermi Paradox", is still key to the search for extraterrestrial life (Seti) and messaging by sending signals into space (Meti).

The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and life is at least 3.5 billion years old. The paradox states that, given the scale of the universe, favourable conditions for life are likely to have occurred many, many times. So where is everyone? We have good reasons to believe that there must be life out there, but nobody has come to call.

This is an issue that the character Ye Wenjie wrestles with in the first episode of Netflix's 3 Body Problem. Working at a radio observatory, she does finally receive a message from a member of an alien civilisation - telling her they are a pacifist and urging her not to respond to the message or Earth will be attacked.

The series will ultimately offer a detailed, elegant solution to the Fermi Paradox, but we will have to wait until the second season.

Or you can read the second book in Cixin Liu's series, The Dark Forest. Without spoilers, the explanation set out in the books runs as follows: "The universe is a dark forest. Every civilisation is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost, gently pushing aside branches that block the path and trying to tread without sound."

Ultimately, everybody is hiding from everyone else. Differential rates of technological progress make an ongoing balance of power impossible, leaving the most rapidly progressing civilisations in a position to wipe out anyone else.

In this ever-threatening environment, those who play the survival game best are the ones who survive longest. We have joined a game which has been going on before our arrival, and the strategy that everyone has learned is to hide. Nobody who knows the game will be foolish enough to contact anyone - or to respond to a message.

Liu has depicted what he calls "the worst of all possible universes", continuing a trend within Chinese science fiction. He is not saying that our universe is an actual dark forest, with one survival strategy of silence and predation prevailing everywhere, but that such a universe is possible and interesting.

Liu's dark forest theory is also sufficiently plausible to have reinforced a trend in the scientific discussion in the west - away from worries about mutual incomprehensibility, and towards concerns about direct threat.

We can see its potential influence in the protocol for what to do on first contact that was proposed in 2020 by the prominent astrobiologists Kelly Smith and John Traphagan. "First, do nothing," they conclude, because doing something could lead to disaster.

In the case of alien contact, Earth should be notified using pre-established signalling rather than anything improvised, they argue. And we should avoid doing anything that might disclose information about who we are. Defensive behaviour would show our familiarity with conflict, so that would not be a good idea. Returning messages would give away the location of Earth - also a bad idea.

Again, the Smith and Traphagan thought is not that the dark forest theory is correct. Benevolent aliens really could be out there. The thought is simply that first contact would involve a high civilisation-level risk.
This is different from assumptions from a great deal of Russian literature about space of the Soviet era, which suggested that advanced civilisations would necessarily have progressed beyond conflict, and would therefore share a comradely attitude. This no longer seems to be regarded as a plausible guide to protocols for contact.

Misinterpreting Darwin

The interesting thing is that the dark forest theory is almost certainly wrong. Or at least, it is wrong in our universe. It sets up a scenario in which there is a Darwinian process of natural selection, a competition for survival.

Charles Darwin's account of competition for survival is evidence-based. By contrast, we have absolutely no evidence about alien behaviour, or about competition within or between other civilisations. This makes for entertaining guesswork rather than good science, even if we accept the idea that natural selection could operate at group level, at the level of civilisations.

Even if you were to assume the universe did operate in accordance with Darwinian evolution, the argument is questionable. No actual forest is like the dark one. They are noisy places where co-evolution occurs.

Creatures evolve together, in mutual interdependence, and not alone. Parasites depend upon hosts, flowers depend upon birds for pollination. Every creature in a forest depends upon insects. Mutual connection does lead to encounters which are nasty, brutish and short, but it also takes other forms. That is how forests in our world work.

Interestingly, Liu acknowledges this interdependence as a counterpoint to the dark forest theory. The viewer, and the reader, are told repeatedly that "in nature, nothing exists alone" - a quote from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962). This is a text which tells us that bugs can be our friends and not our enemies.

In Liu's story, this is used to explain why some humans immediately go over to the side of the aliens, and why the urge to make contact is so strong, in spite of all the risks. Ye Wenjie ultimately replies to the alien warning.

The Carson allusions do not reinstate the old Russian idea that aliens will be advanced and therefore comradely. But they do help to paint a more varied and realistic picture than the dark forest theory.

For this reason, the dark forest solution to the Fermi Paradox is unconvincing. The fact that we do not hear anyone is just as likely to indicate that they are too far off, or we are listening in all the wrong ways, or else that there is no forest and nothing else to be heard.

Tony Milligan, Research Fellow in the Philosophy of Ethics, Cosmological Visionaries project, King's College London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Read the original article. The Conversation

Source: The Conversation | Comments (31)

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Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #22 Posted by man with breasts 2 months ago
If organisms exist on extrasolar planets they will be subject to natural selection and possibly sexual selection if gonochoric dimorphism has occurred. It is observed that sexual reproduction or genetic recombination confers fitness onto organisms in our environment so if complex life-forms exist they will be predatory and would probably supplant humanity if both species came into close proximity. Given the vast distances this is unlikely.  As for 'civilisation', it is a specific human notion not reflected in any other species so unlikely to exist anywhere else in the universe. 
Comment icon #23 Posted by MrsGently 2 months ago
Is it? ants, bees, termites, naked mole rats, rats in general maybe even.... just of the top of my head.
Comment icon #24 Posted by man with breasts 2 months ago
Civilisation is culture. Nonhuman species have no capacity or no use for it. Eusocial insect behaviour is not civilisation. 
Comment icon #25 Posted by Zebra3 2 months ago
Watch it. Just 'cause Eiza.
Comment icon #26 Posted by MrsGently 2 months ago
No culture is culture. Cultural technologies are language, fire, maths, music.... Cilvilisation is when a 'tribe' of social lifeforms comes together to allow eachother more power through specialisation. Building things, others do the weening, others do the harvesting, others are scouts/military... and the species has multiple tribes to form a bigger 'web', that is civilisation.    
Comment icon #27 Posted by man with breasts 2 months ago Nonhuman species may have complex social behaviours but they certainly do not have 'civilisation' and why would they? They are already remarkably efficient at propagation and survival. 
Comment icon #28 Posted by Duke Wellington 2 months ago
Most people understand how the world around them works in terms of cause and effect. But ask an engineer or physicist and they`ll tell you there are other forms of causation proven to exist in science. There is a type where an effect brings into existence its own causes in the past. It can be seen in the quantum eraser experiment. The universe is about 14.5 billion years old (to the best of our knowledge) but that doesn`t mean the creation of the universe also occurred 14.5 billion years ago. If effects can bring into existence their causes then it is entirely possible that the universe was cr... [More]
Comment icon #29 Posted by Hazzard 2 months ago
No type of resources are infinite (food) so competition must be part of their world as well as ours. Im thinking whatever any possible aliens out there are like, there has to be predators.
Comment icon #30 Posted by MrsGently 2 months ago
I don't care about official often I'll check later. The most successful civilisation on Earth? For every human on Earth, there's estimated to be about 2.5 million ants – or 20 quadrillion in total.   add: just checked: anthropocentric twaddle fit for the Victorian era   more modern: wiki for reasons stated in my previous contribution to this thread: numbers are power. That is why our King Elon the Musk wants to spread our power beyond Earth. To prove that culture is more successful than 'just' civilisation.   That is my opinion and I stand by it. Sorry I am 'not allowed to discuss anymore... [More]
Comment icon #31 Posted by Cho Jinn 2 months ago
I think you are demonstrating the exception at work.  Is an interstellar, or even interplanetary, civilization going to be behaving in the way an organism would?  You can say a civilization is just an extension of a single organism, however "the civilization" is engaging i behavior that a single organism won't, and particularly when we're not talking about, for example, an organism being coming into or being introduced into an environment and helping itself to resources.   Planet Earth has never been visited by extraterrestrials as evidenced by the planet hasn't been strip mined, or had al... [More]

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