An Explanatory Mechanism for Aggressively Expanding Civilizations

Any emergent complexity that adds itself to the ultimate furniture of the universe can be, on the one hand, the basis of further emergent complexities, while on the other hand it can function as a selection pressure upon the other furniture of the universe, including earlier and later iterations of emergent complexity. Now, that sounds very abstract — indeed, I could express this idea even more abstractly in the language of ontology — so let me attempt to provide some illustrative examples. When biology emerged from the geochemical complexity of Earth, biology eventually gave rise to further emergent complexities (consciousness, technology, civilization), but biology also began to shape the geochemical context of its own emergence. Biochemistry emerged from geochemistry, thus biochemistry has always been, ab initio, in coevolution with the geochemistry upon which it supervenes.

Life, then, coevolved with geology, as life now coevolves with later emergent complexities, which means that, in the case of human beings, human life coevolves with the habitat it has made for itself — Earth of the anthropocene and our civilization (cf. Intellectual Niche Construction). This point has been made by Wilson and Lumsden:

“[The] high level of human mental activity creates culture, which has achieved a life of its own beyond the ordinary limits of biology. The principal habitat of the human mind is the very culture that it creates.”

Edward O. Wilson and Charles J. Lumsden, Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1983, p.

We might distinguish between relationships of tightly-coupled coevolution and loosely-coupled coevolution, with the familiar instances of coevolution — such as pollinating bees and flowers — qualifying as tightly-coupled, while those evolutionary relationships not usually recognized as coevolutionary qualify as loosely-coupled — for example, geochemistry and biochemistry, although the scale at which we make our comparison will be crucial to determining whether the coupling is tight or loose. “Coevolution” is another way of saying that each party to the coevolutionary relationship acts as a selection pressure on the other, so we make the distinction between tightly-coupled coevolution and loosely-coupled coevolution in order to differentiate between selection pressures, some of which are immediate and enduring (tightly-coupled), and some of which are distant and only sporadically influential (loosely-coupled).

Now that civilization has established itself as an emergent complexity on Earth, civilization may serve as the springboard for further emergent complexities, but it also has emerged as a new selection pressure upon the life that gave rise to civilization, while the geology of Earth and the terrestrial biosphere are, in turn, a selection pressure on civilization. Terrestrial (planetary) civilization may come to act as a selection pressure upon other emergent complexities yet to appear, which will also act as a selection pressure on terrestrial civilization, and these emergent complexities are likely to be emergent from civilization. A spacefaring civilization that encompasses (at first) multiple worlds of a planetary system, multiple planetary systems of multiple stars, or multiple galaxies, would be one form of emergent complexity that could arise from planetary civilization.

Among the immediate and enduring selection pressures on spacefaring civilizations will be the distribution of exploitable resources in space, as well as the other spacefaring civilizations with which such a civilization is in competition for these resources (these other spacefaring civilization themselves being an emergent complexity originating from other planetary civilizations derived from other biospheres). There may also be selection pressures from emergent complexities that we do not yet understand, and which we have not yet identified. These two selection pressures — distribution of resources and competition with other spacefaring civilizations — will shape (perhaps have shaped) the origins, evolution, distribution, and fate of spacefaring civilizations. Spacefaring civilizations will be in a tightly-coupled coevolutionary relationship with the cosmological distribution of resources (matter and energy) and the efforts of other spacefaring civilizations to also dominate these resources. Let us consider this more carefully.

When I wrote my post on Social Stratification and the Dominance Hierarchy I included a diagram (reproduced above; also see Group Dynamics) illustrating the selection pressures that lead to a dominance hierarchy in social animals. The diagram distinguished among scarce, limited, and abundant resources. Scarce resources lead to cooperation; sufficiently abundant resources can eliminate competition. In the case of limited resources, these resources can be scattered or concentrated. Scattered resources lead to competition in speed, while concentrated resources lead to competition in aggressiveness, and thence to a dominance hierarchy. The dominance hierarchy among human beings, which in civilization we call social stratification, implies that the resources significant to human beings have been scarce and concentrated.

If we confine our interest in human access to resources only to Earth, we can readily distinguish between regions where resources are sufficiently concentrated that they can be defended, and regions where resources are scattered, cannot be defended, and are therefore the object of competition in speed rather than aggressiveness. (We can also distinguish different social systems that have arisen shaped by the differential distribution of resources.) If we pull back from this geographical scale and consider the question from the perspective of a spacefaring civilization, the whole of Earth, our homeworld, is a concentrated and defensible locus of resources, but the cosmos on the whole represents an extreme scattering, over interstellar and intergalactic distances, of limited or scarce resources. This scattering of limited resources, in contradistinction to the concentrated and defensible resources of the homeworld of any intelligence species, ought to have the result of spacefaring civilizations defending their homeworld while competing for resources with other spacefaring civilizations, not through competition in aggressiveness, but through competition in speed.

Competition in aggressiveness for the resources of spacefaring civilization may be excluded by the scattering of these resources, so that we are not likely to see the emergence of a galactic empire, crushing under the boot heels of its storm troopers the aspirations to freedom, dignity, and equality of intelligent species throughout the galaxy. However, competition in speed for limited resources distributed on a cosmological scale may well be the primary selection pressure on spacefaring civilizations, and competition in speed ought to entail the rapid cosmological expansion of these civilizations.

Elsewhere I have mentioned the papers of S. Jay Olson (cf. Big Time, The Genesis Project as Central Project, and Second Addendum on the Genesis Project as Central Project: Invasive Species) concerning what Olson calls “aggressively expanding civilizations,” which embody rapid expansion on a cosmological scale. Here is Olson’s characterization of such as scenario:

“An ‘aggressive expansion scenario’ is a proposed cosmological phenomenon… whereby a subset of advanced life appears at random throughout the universe and expands in all directions, saturating galaxies and utilizing resources as they go… We also assume that all aggressive expanders will be of the same behaviour type, i.e. they all expand with the same velocity v in the local comoving frame, and the expanding spherical front of galaxy colonization leads to observable changes a fixed time T after the front has passed by.”

“Estimates for the number of visible galaxy-spanning civilizations and the cosmological expansion of life,” S. Jay Olson, International Journal of Astrobiology, Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp. 2-3, doi:10.1017/S1473550416000082

Competition in speed among spacefaring civilization would mean a focus on maximizing v for the expanding spherical front of galaxy colonization.

Citing Bostrom and Omohundro on the nature of superintelligent AI (presumptively the heir of our technological civilization, but see the final sentence below quoted from Olson, as he addresses this as well), Olson writes:

“From an independent field of study, it has been argued that resource acquisition is one of the ‘basic drives’ of a generic superintelligent AI. This means, in essence, that a sufficiently powerful AI will tend to use extreme expansion and resource acquisition as a means of maximizing its utility function, unless it is explicitly and carefully designed to avoid such behavior… even if advanced alien species tend to be monks who have forsaken all worldly gain, the accidents involving insufficiently careful design of an artificial superintelligence are potentially one of the largest observable phenomena in the universe, when they occur. The word ‘civilization’ is not really the best description of such a thing, but we will use it for the sake of historical continuity.”

“Long-term consequences of observing an expanding cosmological civilization”, S. Jay Olson

We can see that competition in speed for limited resources provides an explanatory mechanism for the existence and expansion of aggressively expanding civilizations. Spacefaring civilizations that successfully compete for resources on a cosmological scale endure over cosmological scales of time, and perhaps leave a legacy in the form of a universe transformed sub specie civilizationis. Spacefaring civilizations that fail to expand go extinct, and leave no observable legacy. Whether there is room for more than one aggressively expanding civilization in any one universe, or whether this expansion takes place on scale of time sufficient to foreclose the opportunity of expansion to any rival civilizations, remains an open question. Once a universe is saturated with life, no other life, and no other civilization emergent from other life, would have an opportunity to appear, unless or until a cosmological scale extinction event created such an opportunity (which could be furnished by sufficiently violent gamma ray bursts).

The above considerations pose other interesting questions that could be taken up as research questions in the study of spacefaring civilization. How are we to distinguish between scarce and limited resources on a cosmological scale? Might the closely packed stars of globular clusters and galactic centers constitute limited resources, while diffuse spiral arms and the outer portions of elliptical galaxies constitute scarce resources? At what threshold of availability should we distinguish between matter and energy being scarce or limited? This may be a problem contingently decided by the technologies of spacefaring not yet known to us. That is to say, if technologically mature civilizations find interstellar travel (or intergalactic travel) somewhat routine, then we may regard cosmological resources as scattered and limited, and more concentrated areas such as mentioned (globular clusters and galactic centers) might pass over a threshold such that they would be considered concentrated — thus there would be the possibility of galactic empires competing on aggressiveness for defensible resources. If, on the other hand, interstellar (or intergalactic) travel is always difficult, then the universe presents, at best, limited resources, and perhaps scarce resources. In the case of scarce resources, there would be a window of opportunity for cooperation among spacefaring civilization for the effective and efficient exploitation of these resources.

If, as on the surface of Earth (and relative to a planetary civilization), cosmological resources are distributed unevenly, then the distribution of civilizations will mirror the distribution of resources — not only in extent, but also in character, with concentrated regions producing civilizations competing on aggression, and diffuse regions producing civilizations competing on speed. On a sufficiently large scale, uneven distribution of cosmological resources would violate the cosmological principle, which is a cornerstone of contemporary cosmology. However, on the smaller scales (especially galactic scales) that would confront early spacefaring civilizations, the differential of resources between concentrated stellar regions and diffuse steller regions may be sufficient to differentiate regions of a galaxy given over to competition on speed for cosmological resources and regions of the same galaxy given over to competition on aggressiveness for cosmological resources. With the position of Earth in a spiral arm of the Milky Way, we inhabit a region of relatively diffuse distribution of stars, so that any nascent spacefaring civilizations with which we would be in competition would be competition in speed. It is therefore in our interest to reach the stars as soon as possible, or, by declining competition, reconcile ourselves to the existential risk of being shut out of the possibility of being a civilization relevant to the galaxy.

It may be that civilizations in regions of diffuse and therefore limited resources naturally understand their dilemma and consequently focus upon spacecraft speed (which has always been a preoccupation of those engaged in the speculative engineering of interstellar capable spacecraft), while civilizations in regions of more concentrated and therefore defensible resources intuit their relative ease of travel and focus instead on aggressive domination of their region of space, and the technology that would make such aggressive domination possible. Thus a civilization may already begin to be shaped by the selection pressures of its galactic neighborhood even as a nascent spacefaring civilization. An obvious instantiation of this phenomenon would be a single planetary system in which more than one planet produced life and civilization. These multiple civilizations expanding into a single planetary system would immediately be in conflict over the resources of that planetary system. In our exploration of our own planetary system, we have not had to compete with another civilization, and so our earliest spacecraft have gone into space without armor or armaments. We have a free hand in expanding into our planetary system; that may not be true for all nascent spacefaring civilizations, and it may not be true for us at spacefaring orders of magnitude beyond our planetary system.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Technological Succession

25 January 2011


Knives constitute a perennial technology

Reflecting on what I wrote some time ago about mature technologies, stalled technologies, and perennial technologies — whether hardware technologies or social technologies, i.e., whether a structural innovation or a functional innovation — I realized the inadequacy of throwing together these categories of technological institutions. For particular technologies have their distinctive institutions no less than particular peoples have their distinctive institutions.

Bicycle technology has improved significantly, but the basic design has not changed in more than a hundred years. Bicycles, then, would seem to be a perennial technology, though they emerged much later in history than knives.

An appropriately fine-grained account of technological institutions would recognize that while mature and perennial technologies are both robust and durable technologies, they nevertheless represent robustness and durability for different reasons. Indeed, there is a sense in which perennial and mature technologies are opposed, and that sense is rooted in the natural history of both technologies. A perennial technology derives from the first stages of the succession of technological institutions, while a mature technology derives from the latest stages of the succession of technological institutions.

Nuclear warhead design is now a mature technology that reflects a period of rapid development followed by a plateau of incremental development.

Perennial technologies are those which perennially emerge even under adverse conditions. These are the hardiest, and their appearance in the historical record is a response to perennial needs. Mature technologies emerge from stable societies with stable institutions that allow for continued and continuous development of a given technology over time. Such mature technologies do no necessarily correspond to a perennial social need, although changed social conditions that make use of available technologies create needs previously unanticipated.

Most of our strategic weapons systems are mature technologies.

A perennial technology matures early and remains useful despite having attained a plateau. It is useful precisely because it cannot be improved upon in any essential way. A perennial technology may change in inessential ways, and later iterations may make use of indirect technological innovations, but direct technological innovations to essentials are not possible for a truly perennial technology. Perennial technology could be defined in terms of its imperviousness to essential improvement.

I have argued previously that tire chains are a perennial technology, although I will allow that they are a little more problematic since they are contingent upon automobile technology, which is now a mature technology. However, tire chain design is not likely to change any more significantly than bicycle design.

Sometimes it is quite difficult to improve upon a perennial technology, even if it has direct origins in the earliest stages of technological succession. A knife, for example, is a perennial technology, and knives date back to the earliest human technological innovations. While the construction and composition of knives have changed as technology has changed, this is just an improvement in the way to produce essentially the same thing. It should also be noted that there is a great diversity of knives, some of them highly specialized for a particular purpose, and some of them useful precisely because they are not specialized. (It is interesting to observe that a tool or technology produced without a specific use in mind cannot properly said to be exapted by any unanticipated use in the future.)

A mature technology, on the other hand, derives from the later stages of technological succession. A mature technology has achieved a plateau in its development, with most of its aspects having been explored for their possibilities to further extend and exploit the technology. The technology of nuclear weapons is a mature technology. There are many designs for many different varieties of nuclear weapons, most designs have been tested repeatedly, and most of the possibilities of the technology have been explored. The technology of automobiles is also a mature technology.

Some technologies are more difficult to classify, and perhaps deserve a category of their own. It is to be expected that there will be problematic cases, which is not a counter-example to the clear cases that are easy to classify. (And this latter observation is a clear example of what I have called an unnamed principle and an unnamed fallacy and later called the truncation principle.)

It can now be seen that what I previously formulated in terms of the Law of Stalled Technologies has an alternate formulation in terms of technological succession. That is to say, we could formulate a law of technological succession, and it would look a lot like the law of stalled technologies.

The overtaking of a stalled technology that remains at a given plateau by another technology that fulfills a similar need but by way of a distinct method is an extension of a society with stable institutions that was able to bring to fruition a mature technology. With a mature technology in place, and stable economic and social institutions built upon this technology, there emerges an incentive to continue or to expand these institutions to a greater extent, at a cheaper cost, more efficiently, more effectively, and with less effort. This attempt to do previous technology one better is, in turn, a spur to social changes that will call forth further innovations. It could be argued that the Industrial Revolution emerged from just such an escalation of social and technological coevolution.

By analogy with microevolution (evolution within a species) and macroevolution (evolution from one species into another) in biology, we can see the microevolution and macroevolution of technologies. Perennial technologies exhibit micorevolution. No new technological “species” emerge from the incremental changes in perennial technologies. Technological macroevolution is the succession of a stalled technology by a new, immature technology, which latter still possesses the possibility of development. Mature technologies experience adaptive radiation under coevolutionary pressures, and this macroevolution can result in new technological species.

In Political Constraints on Weapons Systems I attempted to demonstrate some ways in which weapons systems, presumably constructed on a pure “form follows function” principle, with the function understood as winning battles, in fact are deeply embedded in a social context that dictate what tactical imperatives will be embodied in weapons systems. The idea of technological succession tied to coevolution with evolving social institutions gives us an alternative formulation of the same basic idea. Social institutions that govern the fighting of battles and the waging of wars spur particular developments of tactics and weapons systems, and these tactics and weapons systems, once employed in the battlespace, constitute a changed condition that will, in the fullness of time, make itself felt in the social institutions that influenced their development.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Civilization and war go together like a horse and carriage.

Before being interrupted by a snowstorm, in The Lethality Peak I wrote, “The evolution of society is driving an evolution in the warfare that emerges from changing societies… we find that civilization and war are in a relationship of co-evolution, each driving the development of the other, and each being driven in turn.” This is an observation worth considering at greater length.

evolution in the dictionary

Coevolution has been defined in many ways, though all refer specifically to biological evolution. Here is a good example:

“coevolution is a change in the genetic composition of one species (or group) in response to a genetic change in another. More generally, the idea of some reciprocal evolutionary change in interacting species is a strict definition of coevolution.”

Here is a less biologically specific definition:

“The term coevolution is used to describe cases where two (or more) species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution.”

This latter definition is technically not biologically specific if we admit what chemists and geologists call mineral species. The above should be sufficient to give the reader a general idea of what I am talking about, and any similar definition can be generalized to cover the descent with modification of entities other than biological entities. Thus a generalized definition of coevolution might involve, “where two (or more) entities reciprocally affect each other’s evolution.”

A graphic illustration of the coevolution of life with its environment.

A graphic illustration of the coevolution of life with its environment.

Civilization and war are two such entities engaged in reciprocally affecting each other. Also, both civilization and war are temporal phenomena, so that both have histories and exhibit descent with modification. In the case of coevolution, histories are intertwined, and I don’t think it is in any sense a controversial claim to assert that the histories of civilization and war and profoundly intertwined. The social organization of civilization makes war possible; one could construct a Kantian transcendental argument to demonstrate that the very existence of war depends upon the existence of civilization.

Which came first? The chicken of war or the egg of civilization?

Which came first? The chicken of war or the egg of civilization?

Any attempt to separate the histories of civilization and war and to see them in isolation creates a chicken-and-egg scenario in which one goes round in a circle fruitlessly attempting to show that either civilization or war emerged first in human history. In prehistory, we can identify both proto-civilized institutions (such as art, as evidenced by the material culture of a people) and proto-military institutions (such as raiding parties that hunter-gatherer peoples might send out against rival bands of hunter-gatherers). By the time human history laboriously makes its way into the historical period proper, among the earliest texts are inscriptions commemorating conquests.

Akkad, Sumer, ca. 2217-2193 BC, 1 partial tablet, 10,0x11,5x4,7 cm, (originally at least ca. 20x25x5 cm), 2+2 columns (originally 5+5 columns), 18 compartments remaining in a formal archaizing cuneiform script of high quality.

ROYAL INSCRIPTION OF KING SHAR-KALI-SHARRI OF AKKAD, DESCRIBING HIS CAMPAIGNS AND CONQUESTS: Akkad, Sumer, ca. 2217-2193 BC, 1 partial tablet, 10.0x11.5x4.7 cm, (originally at least ca. 20x25x5 cm), 2+2 columns (originally 5+5 columns), 18 compartments remaining in a formal archaizing cuneiform script of high quality.

The steady advance of technology throughout the historical period has lent its power both to civilization and war, making possible both the raising and the razing of great cities. Cities have growth in size and magnificence, while war has grown in scope and ferocity. It has long been a point of fascination for me that civilization creates the forces that make possible the destruction of civilization. (1) (2) That is because war is impossible without the organization provided by civilization (allowing for the phenomenon of proto-war in pre-historical societies). And it may be equally true that civilization (as we know it today) is impossible without the spur to action provided by war. War may be seen as one of many challenges (in a challenge and response theory of civilization) that prompts a people to greater efforts and achievements.

Besides being involved in a relation of coevolution, civilization and war are both what I call social technologies. Several times in this forum I have referred to “social technologies”. This is a concept, like that of the coevolution of civilization and war, that deserves further expansion.

What is technology? It could be defined adequately in many ways, but I will take the definition from Frederick Ferré’s Philosophy of Technology as a convenient place to start. He defines technologies as, “practical implementations of intelligence.” (3) Primarily when we think of implementations of intelligence we think of what an archaeologist would call “material culture”. But human forms of social organization are as much implementations of intelligence as are machines. Indeed, there is a sense in which human institutions are social machines. (The historian John Roberts said that the Byzantine Empire was “a machine for getting people into heaven” — this captures our meaning of social technology quite nicely.)

the Byzantine Empire was a machine for getting people into heaven.

Civilization as social technology: the Byzantine Empire was a machine for getting people into heaven.

Both civilization and war arise from and require in turn extensive social organization, that is the say, the implementation of intelligence in the organization of human activity as well as the creation of special institutions devoted to particular purposes. This makes them social technologies. Moreover, two social technologies in coevolution are two sets of practical implementations of intelligence with their histories intertwined. The coevolution of civilization and war together constitute human history.

Hittite chariot archer: war and civilization were born twins.

One practical consequence of this observation is that civilizations will make war based upon the assumptions, presuppositions, meanings, values, and purposes of that civilization. In other words, war is a cultural expression. We find this most obviously exemplified in highly isolated civilizations and the forms of ritualized violence that they have perfected when spared the immediate pressure of an external enemy (I am thinking, inter alia, of the Aztec “Flower Battle”, Samurai swordsmanship, and the Mandan Sundance). However, even in cases in which an external enemy demands a strictly utilitarian approach to warfighting, a given civilization’s way of making war is still profoundly specific to its culture.

an Aztec Jaguar Warrior

Ritualized violence as a cultural expression: an Aztec Jaguar Warrior

This observation in turn has profound implications for strategic thinking. External enemies that derive from distinct civilizations present not only a military danger, but also the special danger of the unexpected. When Germany and France bled each other white during the First World War, such unexpected dangers were not part of the strategic calculus as both nation-states came from the same civilization. But when the US was attacked on 11 September 2001, it came like a bolt from the blue. Both the methods and the motivations of the attackers constituted a strategic shock of the first order.

A paradigm case of 'strategic shock' as well as of the clash of civilizations.

To fight such an enemy effectively, we would need to understand their civilization, and we may need to fight their civilization as much as their warriors. If taken seriously, this proposal would be controversial in the extreme. It has become a commonplace for politicians to reassure both their constituents and the world that, when they take military action, they are not acting against a people or a culture or a civilization, but only against violent militants whose grievances have turned deadly. But the controversial nature of war against an enemy civilization should not be rejected tout court simply because it is controversial.

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(1) Poetically, one can say that civilization carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. Psychodynamically, one can say that civilization, like the individuals who bring it into being, has both a life force, a creative urge, as well as a death drive, a destructive urge.

(2) I should point out that war is not the only force that can threaten the existence of civilization. Probably most civilizations have met their end due to incremental environmental degradation leading to a collapse of food production.

(3) Frederick Ferré, Philosophy of Technology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988, p. 23

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Grand Strategy Annex

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