Late Adopter Spacefaring Civilizations:


The Preemption that Didn’t Happen

Wernher von Braun's design for a rotating space station that could simulate gravity.

Wernher von Braun’s design for a rotating space station that could simulate gravity.

Generalizing the Preemption Hypothesis

In The Preemption Hypothesis I advanced the idea that civilizations are sometimes suddenly preempted and rapidly supplanted by another kind of civilization. The paradigm case of this is the industrial revolution, which preempted a gradually emerging scientific civilization — a civilization I sometimes call Modernism without Industrialism — in favor of a radically different kind of civilization that changed the basic structure of life wherever the industrial revolution arrived.

A generalization of the preemption hypothesis suggests that any civilization is vulnerable to sudden preemption and rapid supplanting, should historical circumstances happen to line up — i.e., the ground is prepared for an innovation that arrives, which in the case of the industrial revolution meant that the legal and institutional framework of a commercial society was in place when the steam engine was invented, allowing this invention to be rapidly exploited, which in turn drove rapid social change.

The iconic space station featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey was an elaboration of von Braun's wheel space station.

The iconic space station featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey was an elaboration of von Braun’s wheel space station.

Unfulfilled Preemptions

If the generalization of the preemption hypothesis holds good, we would expect to be able to identify unfulfilled preemptions in history, and while any such judgment is inherently open to question, past preemptions that did not occur are not unfamiliar. On several occasions I have written about how Hero’s steam turbine did not trigger an industrial revolution in classical antiquity, nor did Taqi al-Din’s turbine trigger an industrial revolution in medieval Islamic civilization (cf. The Industrial Revolution and Scientific Civilization, Historical Disruption, and Hero’s Steam Engine and the Apollo Space Program).

In more recent history I would argue that an unfulfilled preemption occurred in the second half of the twentieth century. The industrial-technological civilization of the middle of the twentieth century (itself the consequence of preemption of the industrial revolution) might have been preempted by the sudden emergence of a spacefaring civilization. The technology was present, the ideas were in circulation, and even the economic basis of such an effort was in place. Nevertheless, this did not happen.

Often in the case of unfulfilled preemptions we find that a technology was present, but it is not yet fully exploited because a comprehensive conception of its use simply did not exist. I previously pointed this out in relation to the cluster of technologies that rapidly came into use during the Second World War (cf. Counter-factual Weapons Systems), when, during a period of five years, ballistic missiles, digital encryption, digital computers, radar, nuclear weapons, and jet propulsion all became available. While these technologies were individually put into use, the full comprehensive vision of how these technologies would function in concert was lacking, and it took several subsequent decades to draw out the consequences of these discoveries.

Another historical analogy: the first heavier-than-air powered human flight took place in 1903; the First World War began a decade later. The development of aircraft technology during the less than five year period of the First World War was in some ways as rapid as the technological developments that characterized the Second World War, and, moreover, by the end of the war the idea of strategic bombing had emerged, large fleets of airplanes communicating by radio were launching coordinated attacks on targets across national borders. It is arguable, on this basis, that the technologies available during the First World War reached a greater level of integration, and achieved that integration earlier, as compared to comparable technological innovations of the Second World War.

The NASA Integrated Program Plan (IPP) was an ambitious program that didn't get funded.

The NASA Integrated Program Plan (IPP) was an ambitious program that didn’t get funded.

What makes the transition to spacefaring civilization so fraught?

Spacefaring, as we know, is difficult. It is also dangerous and expensive. But it is not more dangerous or expensive than any number of routine human activities — though it may well be intellectually and technically more difficult than just about anything else accomplished by human civilization. If we had experienced a spacefaring preemption in the second half of the twentieth century, it is almost certain that many lives would have been lost in the effort to establish a demographically significant human presence in space. But we must place these casualties in context. We routinely accept automobile casualties in the tens of thousands every year (in the United States alone; global figures are much higher). A major spacefaring effort would have involved an increase in the loss of life, but it is unlikely that this figure would have even approached the 40,000 or so highway fatalities experienced every year, year on year. The commercial spacefaring industry is likely to mirror the commercial aviation industry, which does experience catastrophic failures and loss of life, but is statistically far safer than travel on any highway.

Similar arguments to those above could be made regarding the expense of a major spacefaring effort: it would have been expensive, but not radically more expensive than any number of other initiatives undertaken in human history. It would be difficult to argue that funding the space program at a level that would have made a spacefaring preemption possible would have “broken” the economy of either the US or the USSR, though this is often suggested. I would suggest, on the contrary, that if significant funding had followed the Apollo Program, rather than collapsing after the “space race” was won, that the unintended and unexpected technological spin-offs of a major space program would have transformed the terrestrial economy. However, counter-factuals are difficult if not impossible to prove, so I doubt I would convince anyone who did not want to be convinced on this score.

Probably among the least likely factors to be cited regarding the difficulty of the transition to spacefaring civilization would be the intellectual forces that shape history, but I think in the case of the spacefaring preemption that did not happen that it was the intellectual infrastructure that was the decisive element that derailed this potential historical disruption. Humanity was not ready to become a spacefaring species in the second half of the twentieth century; our concerns remained overwhelmingly terrestrial concerns, and those who tried to get their fellow Earth-bound human beings (Earth-bound in mind as well as in body) to see the possibilities for humanity beyond Earth were largely ignored. It was and still is routine to dismiss large-scale spacefaring as an impossible dream, notwithstanding proven technology and numerous space exploration successes, including human spaceflight.

Gerard K. O'Neill's conception of a spacefaring civilization with current technology was widely discussed, but never funded.

Gerard K. O’Neill’s conception of a spacefaring civilization with current technology was widely discussed, but never funded.

Crossing the Spacefaring Chasm

The absence of a relatively rapid spacefaring preemption of industrial-technological civilization in the recent past does not mean that terrestrial civilization will never make the transition to spacefaring civilization. This transition could come about as the result of a later preemption — perhaps as the result of new newly available technology that drastically reduces the cost of transport to Earth orbit — or as the result of a gradual and incremental transition that involves no preemption incident. In the latter case, it is entirely possible that planetary industrial-technological civilization might continue for hundreds or thousands of years, and hundreds or thousands of years of gradual transition would characterize the eventual emergence of a spacefaring civilization.

In several contexts (e.g., Getting to Starships and The Zoo Hypothesis as Thought Experiment) I have emphasized that human terrestrial civilization cannot be thought of as an “early adopter” spacefaring civilization. An early adopter spacefaring civilization would be a spacefaring civilization that came about as a result of a preemption episode in the early history of space travel. In the case of spacefaring, this did not happen; we did not widely adopt spacefaring technologies as soon as they were available and employ them to begin a human diaspora in the cosmos.

If our civilization does become a spacefaring civilization (we cannot yet say if that will happen), it will do so decades or centuries after having possessed the technological capability to do this, and so must be considered a late-adopter spacefaring civilization, if it is (or will become) any kind of spacefaring civilization at all. Spacefaring civilization has experienced is symbolic firsts, but it has not experienced its horizon — at least, not for human civilization (if there are other civilizations in the cosmos, there may be a civilization or civilizations that have experienced a spacefaring preemption). The temporal distance between spaceflight symbolic firsts and a spaceflight horizon is yet to be determined.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .



Joseph Wright orrery

Scientific civilization changes when scientific knowledge changes, and scientific knowledge changes continuously. Science is a process, and that means that scientific civilization is based on a process, a method. Science is not a set of truths to which one might assent, or from which one might withhold one’s assent. It is rather the scientific method that is central to science, and not any scientific doctrine. Theories will evolve and knowledge will change as the scientific method is pursued, and the method itself will be refined and improved, but method will remain at the heart of science.

Pre-scientific civilization was predicated on a profoundly different conception of knowledge: the idea that truth is to be found at the source of being, the fons et origo of the world (as I discussed in my last post, The Metaphysics of the Bureaucratic Nation-State). Knowledge here consists of delineating the truth of the world prior to its later historical accretions, which are to be stripped away to the extent possible. More experience of the world only further removes us from the original source of the world. The proper method of arriving at knowledge is either through the study of the original revelation of the original truth, or through direct communion with the source and origin of being, which remains unchanged to this day (according to the doctrine of divine impassibility).

The central conceit of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to be based upon revealed eternal verities has been so completely overturned that its successor civilization, industrial-technological civilization, recognizes no eternal verities at all. Even the scientific method, that drives the progress of science, is continually being revised and refined. As Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air…”

Scientific civilization always looks forward to the next development in science that will resolve our present perplexities, but this comes at the cost of posing new questions that further put off the definitive formulation of scientific truth, which remains perpetually incomplete even as it expands and becomes more comprehensive.

This has been recently expressed by Kevin Kelly in an interview:

“Every time we use science to try to answer a question, to give us some insight, invariably that insight or answer provokes two or three other new questions. Anybody who works in science knows that they’re constantly finding out new things that they don’t know. It increases their ignorance, and so in a certain sense, while science is certainly increasing knowledge, it’s actually increasing our ignorance even faster. So you could say that the chief effect of science is the expansion of ignorance.”

The Technium: A Conversation with Kevin Kelly [02.03.2014]

Scientific civilization, then, is not based on a naïve belief in progress, as is often alleged, but rather embodies an idea of progress that is securely founded in the very nature of scientific knowledge. There is nothing naïve in the scientific conception of knowledge; on the contrary, the scientific conception of knowledge had a long and painfully slow gestation in western civilization, and it is rather the paradigm that science supplants, the theological conception of knowledge (according to which all relevant truths are known from the outset, and are never subject to change), that is the naïve conception of knowledge, sustainable only in the infancy of civilization.

We are coming to understand that our own civilization, while not yet mature, is a civilization that has developed beyond its infancy to the degree that the ideas and institutions of infantile civilization are no longer viable, and if we attempt to preserve these ideas and institutions beyond their natural span, the result may be catastrophic for us. And so we have come to the point of conceptualizing our civilization in terms of existential risk, which is a thoroughly naturalistic way of thinking about the fate and future of humanity, and is amenable to scientific treatment.

It would be misleading to attribute our passing beyond the infancy of civilization to the advent of the particular civilization we have today, industrial-technological civilization. Even without the industrial revolution, scientific civilization would likely have gradually come to maturity, in some form or another, as the scientific revolution dates to that period of history that could be called modern civilization in the narrow sense — what I have called Modernism without Industrialism. And here by “maturity” I do not mean that science is exhausted and can produce no new scientific knowledge, but that we become reflexively aware of what we are doing when we do science. That is to say, scientific maturity is when we know ourselves to be engaged in science. In so far as “we” in this context means scientists, this was probably largely true by the time of the industrial revolution; in so far as “we” means mass man of industrial-technological civilization, it is not yet true today.

The way in which science enters into industrial-technological civilization — i.e., by way of spurring forward the open loop of industrial-technological civilization — means that science has been incorporated as an integral part of the civilization that immediately and disruptively followed the scientific civilization of modernism without industrialism (according to the Preemption Hypothesis). While the industrial revolution disrupted and preempted almost every aspect of the civilization that preceded it, it did not disrupt or preempt science, but rather gave a new urgency to science.

In several posts I have speculated on possible counterfactual civilizations (according to the counterfactuals implicit in naturalism), that is to say, forms of civilization that were possible but which were not actualized in history. One counterfactual civilization might have been agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization undisrupted by the scientific or industrial revolutions. Another counterfactual civilization might have been modern civilization in the narrow sense (i.e., Modernism without Industrialism) coming to maturity without being disrupted and preempted by the industrial revolution. It now occurs to me that yet another counterfactual form of civilization could have been that of industrialization without the scientific conception of knowledge or the systematic application of science to industry.

How could this work? Is it even possible? Perhaps not, and certainly not in the long term, or with high technology, which cannot exist without substantial scientific understanding. But the simple expedient of powered machinery might have come about by the effort of tinkerers, as did much of the industrial revolution as it happened. If we look at the halting and inconsistent efforts in the ancient world to produce large scale industries we get something of this idea, and this we could call industrialism without modernity. Science was not yet at the point at which it could be very helpful in the design of machinery; none of the sciences were yet mathematicized. And yet some large industrial enterprises were built, though few in number. It seems likely that it was not the lack of science that limited industrialization in classical antiquity, but the slave labor economy, which made labor-saving devices pointless.

There are, today, many possibilities for the future of civilization. Technically, these are future contingents (like Aristotle’s sea battle tomorrow), and as history unfolds one of these contingencies will be realized while the others become counterfactuals or are put off yet further. And in so far as there is a finite window of opportunity for a particular future contingent to come into being, beyond that window all unactualized contingents become counterfactuals.

. . . . .


. . . . .

I have written more on the nature of scientific civilization in…

David Hume and Scientific Civilization …and…

The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .


One of the most famous thought experiments of twentieth century philosophy of mind is presented in Thomas Nagel’s paper “What is is like to be a bat?” Nagel’s point was that consciousness involves a point of view, and that means that there is something that it is like to be in being some conscious organism. Here is the opening paragraph of Nagel’s paper:

Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life, though we cannot be sure of its presence in the simpler organisms, and it is very difficult to say in general what provides evidence of it. (Some extremists have been prepared to deny it even of mammals other than man.) No doubt it occurs in countless forms totally unimaginable to us, on other planets in other solar systems throughout the universe. But no matter how the form may vary, the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism. There may be further implications about the form of the experience; there may even (though I doubt it) be implications about the behavior of the organism. But fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is to be that organism—something it is like for the organism.

Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?”, Mortal Questions, Cambridge University Press, 1979

The choice of a bat for this thought experiment is interesting. As a mammal, the bat shares much with us in its relation to the world, but its fundamental mechanism of finding its way around — echolocation — is sharply distinct from our primate experience of the world, dominated as it is by vision. Thus while what it is like to be a bat overlaps considerably with what it is like to be a hominid, there are also substantial divergences between being a bat and being a hominid. A bat has a different sensory apparatus than a hominid, and the bat’s distinctive sonar sensory apparatus presumably shapes its cognitive architecture in distinctive ways.

bat echolocation

As a philosopher I have a great fascination with the sensory organs of other species, which seem to me both to pose epistemological problems as well as to suggest really interesting thought experiments. In my post on Kantian Critters I argued that if human beings must have recourse to the transcendental aesthetic in order to sort out the barrage of sense perception that the brain and central nervous system receive, then other terrestrial species, constituted as they are much like ourselves, must also have recourse to some transcendental aesthetic of their own (or, if you prefer Husserl to Kant, and phenomenology to idealism, other species must employ their own passive synthesis). This interpretation of Kant obviously presupposes a naturalistic point of view, which Kant did not have, but if we grant this scientific realism, the Kantian insight regarding the transcendental aesthetic remains valid and may moreover be extrapolated beyond human beings.

Can the Kantian transcendental aesthetic be reinterpreted in the light of contemporary natural history?

Can the Kantian transcendental aesthetic be reinterpreted in the light of contemporary natural history?

Distinctive transcendental aesthetics of distinct species would follow from distinct sensory apparatus and the distinctive cognitive architecture required to take advantage of this sensory apparatus. This implies that distinct species “see” the world differently, with “see” here understood in a comprehensive sense and not in a purely visual sense. Although bats rely on sonar, they “see” the world in his comprehensive sense, even if their eyes are not as good as our hominid eyes, and not nearly as good as the eyes of an eagle. A couple of ethologists, Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth, have written several books on the Weltanschauung of other species, How Monkeys See the World: Inside the Mind of Another Species and Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind.

how monkeys see the world

Does a primate have more in common, Weltanschauung-wise (if you know what I mean), with a flying mammal such as a bat (since any two mammals have much life experience in common) or with a terrestrial reptile such as a serpent? Primates don’t know what it is like to fly with their own wings, but they also don’t know what it is like to move along the ground by slithering. Does a primate have more in common, again, Weltanschauung-wise, with a reptile that has given up its legs or with an octopus that never had any legs? We might be able to refine these questions a bit more by a more careful consideration of particular sensory organs and the particular cognitive architecture that both is driven by the development of the organ and makes the fullest exploitation of that organ for survival and reproductive advantage possible.

Pit Viper 2

Among the most intriguing sense organs possessed by other species but not by homo sapiens is the pit of the pit viper, which is a rudimentary sensing organ for heat. Since pit vipers are predators who typically eat small, furry animals with a high metabolism and presumably also a high body temperature, being able to sense the body heat of one’s prey would be a substantial selective advantage.

pit viper pit

Because the pit of the pit viper represents such a great selective advantage, one would expect that the pit will evolve, driven by this selective pressure. To paraphrase what Richard Dawkins said of wings, one percent of a infrared sensing organ represents a one percent selective advantage, and so on. Thus a one percent improvement of an existing pit would represent another one percent selective advantage. While it would be difficult to observe such subtle advantage in the lives of individual organisms, when in comes to species whose members number in the millions, that one percent will eventually make a significant difference in differential survival and reproduction. A statistical study would reveal what a study of individuals would likely obscure.

pit viper triangulation

There is a sense in which the pit of the pit viper is like an eye for perceiving infrared radiation. The infrared radiation spectrum lies just beyond the visible spectrum at the red end, so having a pit like a pit viper in addition to color vision would be like being able to see additional colors beyond red. Having a slightly different visible spectrum is not uncommon among other species. Many insects see a little way into the ultraviolet spectrum (at the opposite end of our visible spectrum from red) and flowers are said to present colorful displays to insects in the ultraviolet spectrum that we cannot see (except for the case I heard about some years ago about a man whose eye was injured and as a result of the injury was able to see a little way into the ultraviolet beyond the visible spectrum).

em spectrum

The eye itself, whatever portion of the electromagnetic spectrum it accesses, is a wonderful example of the power of an adaptation. The eye is so useful that it has emerged independently several times in the course of evolution of life on earth. I don’t know much about the details, but insect eyes, mollusc eyes, and vertebrate eyes (as well as several other instances) are each the result of separate and independent emergence of the eye. The mollusc eye and the vertebrate eye represent an astonishing example of convergent evolution, since the structure of the two instances of eyes is so similar. The eye is of course a provocative evolutionary example because of a famous passage from Darwin himself, who wrote about “organs of extreme perfection”:

“To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.”

Of this quote Richard Dawkins wrote in The God Delusion:

“Darwin’s fulsomely free confession turned out to be a rhetorical device. He was drawing his opponents towards him so that his punch, when it came, struck the harder. The punch, of course, was Darwin’s effortless explanation of exactly how the eye evolved by gradual degrees. Darwin may not have used the phrase ‘irreducible complexity’, or ‘the smooth gradient up Mount Improbable’, but he clearly understood the principle of both.”

Partly due to this Darwin quote, the evolution of the eye has been the topic of some very interesting research that has helped the clarify the development of the eye. There is a wonderful documentary on evolution, the first episode of which was titled Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (presumably intended to echo Daniel Dennett’s well known book of the same title), which an excellent segment on the evolution of the eye which you can watch on Youtube. In this documentary the work of Dan-Eric Nilsson of the University of Lund is shown, and he demonstrates in a particularly clear and concrete way the step-by-step process of improving vision through the increasing complexity of the eye. When I was watching this documentary recently I was thinking about how the pit of the pit viper resembles the early stages of the evolution of the eye.

eye evolution

The pit of the pit viper is a depressed, folded area lined with infrared sensitive nerve endings that allows limited directional sensitivity. In the long term future of the pit of the pit viper, which at present seems to correspond to the earliest stages of the evolution of the vertebrate eye, sometimes called a “cup eye,” there would seem to be much room for improvement. Of course, the details of infrared (IR) perception are different than the details of human visible spectrum perception, but not so different that we cannot imagine a similar series of stepwise improvements to the infrared pit that might, in many millions of years, yield sharp, clear, and directional infrared vision. If this infrared vision became sufficiently effective, it is possible that brain and body resources might be redirected to focus on the pits, and the eyes could eventually degrade into a vestigial organ, as in bats and moles. After all, snakes gave up their legs, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t also give up their eyes if they have something better to fall back on.


There is another possibility, and that is the evolutionary advantage that might be obtained through adding a pair of fully functional IR “eyes” to a pair of fully functional visible spectrum eyes. Such a development would be biologically costly, and it would be much more likely that a pit viper would chose one evolutionary path or the other and not both. Yet there are some rare instances of biologically costly organs (or clusters of organs) that have been successful despite the cost. The brain is a good example — or, rather, large complex brains that evolve under particular selection pressures but which later are exapted for intelligence.

Encephalization Quotient

Encephalization Quotient

Natural selection is a great economist, and often reduces organisms to the simplest structure compatible with their function. This is one of the reasons we find the shapes of plants and the bodies of animals both elegant and beautiful. The economy of nature was resulted in the fact that a large brain, and the intelligence that large brains make possible, are rare. Despite their rarity, and their biological expense, large complex brains do emerge (though not often), and, like the eye (which has emerged repeatedly in evolutionary history), large brains have emerged more than once. Interestingly enough, complex eyes and large complex brains are found together not only in primates but also in molluscs.

The octopus (among other molluscs) is bequeathed a large, complex brain because the octopus went down the evolutionary path of camouflage, and the camouflage of some molluscs became so elaborate that almost every cell on the surface of the organism’s skin is individually controlled, which means a nerve connected to every spot of color on (or under) the skin, and a nervous system that is capable of handling this. It requires a lot of processing power to put on the kind of displays seen on the skin of octopi and cuttlefish, and an evolutionary spiral that favored the benefits of camouflage also then drove the development of a large, complex brain that could optimize the use of camouflage.

The octopus also has remarkably sophisticated eyes — eyes that are, in some respects, very similar to yet more elegant in structure than primate eyes. Our eyes are “wired” from the front, which gives us a blind spot where the optic nerve passes through the retina; mollusc eyes are “wired” from the back and consequently suffer from no blind spot. (“Wired” is in scare quotes here because it is a metaphor to refer to eyes being wired to the nervous system; while electrical signals travel down nerves, the connection between distinct nerve cells is primarily biochemical and not electrical.)

cephalopod eye

How an octopus sees the world is as fascinating an inquiry as what it is like to be a bat — or a serpent, for that matter. Both the octopus and an arboreal primate live in a three dimensional habitat, and this may have something to do with their common development of sharp eyesight and large brains, although there are vastly greater number of organisms in the sea and in trees with far smaller brains and far less cognitive processing power. (A recent study reported in The New York Times suggests a link between spatial ability and intellectual innovation, and while the study was primarily concerned with the ontogenesis of creativity, it is possible that the apparatus of spatial perception and the cognitive architecture that facilitates this perception is phylogenetically linked to intellectual creativity.) This simply shows us that intelligence is one strategy among many for survival, and not the most common strategy.

Life in an arboreal niche would make spatial ability a significant selection pressure.

Life in an arboreal niche would make spatial ability a significant selection pressure.

A large, complex brain is very costly in a biological sense. In a typical human being, the brain represents less than three percent of total body weight, yet it consumes about twenty percent of the body’s resources — that’s a very big chunk of metabolism that could be directed toward running faster or jumping higher or reaching farther. Nothing as unlikely as the brain’s disproportionate consumption of resources would come about unless this expenditure of resources bequeathed some survival or reproductive advantage to the organism possessing such a high cost of ownership. The brain isn’t a luxury that produces poetry and art; it is a survival machine, optimized (in hominids) by more than five million years of development to make human beings effective hunters and foragers. The brain was so successful, in fact, that it made is possible for human beings to take over the planet entire and convert it to serving human needs. Thus the relatively rare and costly strategy of developing a large, complex brain paid off in this particular case. (One may think of it as a high risk/high reward strategy.)


If the evolution of the brain and the exaptation of intelligence to produce civilization did not result in the disproportionate evolutionary success of a single species, it seems likely that we would see intelligence emerge repeatedly in evolutionary history, much as eyes have evolved repeatedly. On other worlds with other natural histories, under conditions where intelligence does not allow a single species to dominate (possibly due to some selection pressure that does not operate on Earth), it is possible that evolution results in the repeated emergence of intelligence just as on Earth evolution has resulted in the repeated emergence of eyes. On Earth, intelligence preempted another developments, and means that not only human history but also natural history were irremediably changed.

Mass extinctions have repeatedly preempted developments in terrestrial life, and now it seems that an anthropogenic mass extinction event is again preempting the development of life on Earth.

Mass extinctions have repeatedly preempted developments in terrestrial life, and now it seems that an anthropogenic mass extinction event is again preempting the development of life on Earth — further demonstrating human dominance of the planet.

In The Preemption Hypothesis I argued that industrialization preempted other developments in the history of civilization (for more on this also see my post Human Agency and the Exaptation of Selection). This current line of thought makes me realize that purely biological preemption is also a force shaping history. Consciousness, and then intelligence arising from biochemically based consciousness, is one such preemption of our evolutionary history. Another preemption of natural history that has operated repeatedly is that of mass extinction. But whereas historical preemptions such as the development of large, complex brains or industrialization represent a preemption of greater complexity, mass extinctions represent a preemption of decreased complexity.

Some weedy plant species...

Some weedy plant species…

It seems that “weedy” species that are especially hearty and resilient tend to survive the rigorous of mass extinctions; the more delicate and refined productions of natural selection, which are dependent upon mature ecosystems and their many specialized niches, do not fare as well when these mature ecosystems are subject to pressure and possible catastrophic failure. One could think of mass extinctions, and indeed of all historical preemptions that favor simplicity over complexity, as a catastrophic “reset” of the evolutionary process. Events such as mass extinctions can favor rudimentary organisms that are sufficiently hardy to survive catastrophic changes, but, as we have seen, there is also the possibility of historical preemptions that favor greater complexity. The Cambrian Explosion, for example, might be considered another instance of an historical preemption.

The Cambrian explosion, or Cambrian radiation, was a preemption of historical continuity.

The Cambrian explosion, or Cambrian radiation, was a preemption of historical continuity.

There is a tension in the structure of history between continuity and preemption. In the particular case of the earth, the continuity of natural history has been interrupted by the preemption of intelligence and then industrialization. These preemptions of greater complexity — in contradistinction to preemptions of lesser complexity, as in the case of mass extinctions — may provide for the possibility of the continuity of earth-originating life beyond the terrestrial biosphere. In the case of an otherwise sterile universe, the intelligence/industrialization preemption would be a basis of a new explosion or radiation of earth-originating life in the Milky Way. In the case of a universe already living, it may be only intelligence and industrial-technological civilization that is a novelty in the natural history of the universe.

Milky Way

Whatever happens on the largest scale of life, as long as life continues to evolve on the earth, its development is likely to be marked by both continuity and preemptive developments. In thinking about the pit viper, I suggested above that the pit viper might eventually, over many millions of years, develop a fully functional pair of IR eyes in addition to its visible spectrum eyes. This suggestion points to an interesting possibility. In so far as complex life is allowed to develop in continuity, with a minimum of preemptions, specialization and refinement of existing mechanisms of survival may give rise of species of greater complexity than what we know today. While mass extinctions have repeatedly cleared the ground and given a more or less blank slate for the radiation of resilient weedy species, this may not always be the case.

An event of this magnitude becomes less likely as the solar system ages and settles down into a routine.

An event of this magnitude becomes less likely as the solar system ages and settles down into a routine.

As our earth and the solar system of which it is a part becomes older, catastrophic events may become less common. For example, stray bodies in the solar system that might collide with the earth, while once common in the early solar system, eventually end up colliding with something or getting swept out of the path of the earth’s orbit by the gravity of Jupiter. If, moreover, civilization expands extraterrestrially and seeks to protect the earth as an existential risk mitigation measure, life on earth may become even more secure and even less subject to disruption and preemption than in the past. New species might eventually come into being with a delicate complexity of sensory organs and accompanying cognitive architecture that facilitates these senses. Imagine species with a whole range of sensory organs that complement each other, without former mainstay sensory organs being reduced to vestigial status, and this might possibly be the future of life on Earth.

pit viper striking

Eventually the most interesting question may not be, “What is it like to be a serpent?” but, “What will it be like to be a serpent?”

. . . . .

The reader can compare my earlier post, The Future of the Pit Viper, which was the origin and inspiration of this post.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

The Preemption Hypothesis

20 October 2012


Three Little Words: “Where are they?”

In The Visibility Presumption I examined some issues in relation to the response to the Fermi paradox by those who claim that a technological singularity would likely overtake any technologically advanced civilization. I don’t see how the technological singularity visited upon an alien species makes them any less visible (in the sense of “visible” relevant to SETI) nor any less likely to be interested in exploration, adventure, or the quest for scientific knowledge — and finding us would constitute a major scientific discovery for some xenobiological species that had matured into a peer industrial-technological civilization.

The more I think about the Fermi paradox — and I have been thinking a lot about it lately — and the more I contextualize the Fermi paradox in my own emerging theory of civilization — which is a theory I am attempting to formulate in the purest tradition of Russellian generality so that it is equally applicable to human civilization and to any non-human civilization — the more I have come to think that our civilization is relatively isolated in the cosmos, being perhaps one of the few civilizations, or the only civilization, in the Milky Way, and one among only a handful of civilizations in the local cluster of galaxies or our supercluster.

Having an opinion on the Fermi paradox, and even making an attempt to argue for a particular position, does not however relieve one of the intellectual responsibility of exploring all aspects of the paradox. I have also come to think, while reflecting on the Fermi paradox, that the paradox itself has been fruitful in pushing those who care to think about it toward better formulations of the nature and consequences of industrial-technological civilization and of interstellar civilization — whether that of a supposed xenocivilization, or that of ourselves now and in the future.

The human experience of economic and technological growth in the wake of the industrial revolution has made us aware that if there are other peer species in the universe, and if these peer species undergo a process of the development of civilization anything like our own, then these peer species may also have experienced or will experience the escalating exponential growth of economic organization and technological complexity that we have experienced. Looking at our own civilization, again, it seems that the natural telos of continued economic and technological development — for we see no natural or obvious impediment to such continued development — is for human civilization to extend itself beyond the confines of the Earth and the establish itself throughout the solar system and eventually throughout the galaxy and beyond. This natural teleology has been called “The Expansion Hypothesis” by John M. Smart. Smart credits the expansion hypothesis to Kardashev, and while it is implicit in Kardashev, Kardashev himself does not formulate the idea explicitly and does not use the term “expansion hypothesis.”

Aristotle as depicted by Raphael in the Vatican stanze.

Aristotle as depicted by Raphael in the Vatican stanze.

The natural teleology of civilization

I have taken the term “natural teleology” from contemporary philosophical expositions of Aristotle’s distinction between final causes and efficient causes. We can get something of a flavor of Aristotle’s idea of natural teleology (without going too deep into the controversy over final causes) from this paragraph from the second book of Aristotle’s Physics:

We also speak of a thing’s nature as being exhibited in the process of growth by which its nature is attained. The ‘nature’ in this sense is not like ‘doctoring’, which leads not to the art of doctoring but to health. Doctoring must start from the art, not lead to it. But it is not in this way that nature (in the one sense) is related to nature (in the other). What grows qua growing grows from something into something. Into what then does it grow? Not into that from which it arose but into that to which it tends. The shape then is nature.

Aristotle is a systematic philosopher, in which any one doctrine is related to many other doctrines, so that an excerpt really doesn’t do him justice; if the reader cares to, he or she can can look into this more deeply by reading Aristotle and his commentators. But I must say this much in elaboration: the idea of natural teleology is problematic because it suggests a teleological conception of the whole of nature and all of its parts, and ever since Darwin we have understood that many claims to natural teleology are simply the expression of anthropic bias.

Still, kittens grow into cats and puppies grow into dogs (if they live to maturity), and it is pointless to deny this. What is important here is to tightly circumscribe the idea of natural teleology so that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. The difficulty comes in distinguishing the baby from the bathwater in which the baby is immersed. Unless we want to end up with the idea of a natural teleology for human beings and the lives they live — this was the “human nature” that Sartre emphatically denied — we must deny final causes to agents, or find some other principle of distinction.

Are civilizations a natural kind for which we can posit a natural teleology, i.e., a form or a nature toward which they naturally tend as they grow and develop? My answer to this is ambiguous, but it is a principled ambiguity: yes and no. Yes, because some aspects of civilization are clearly developmental, when an institution is growing toward its fulfillment, while other aspects of civilization are clearly non-developmental and discontinuous. But civilization is so complex a whole that there is no simple way to separate the developmental and the non-developmental aspects of any one given civilization.

When we examine high points of civilization like Athens under Pericles or Florence during the Renaissance, we can recognize after the fact the slow build up to these cultural heights, which cannot clearly be distinguished from economic, civil, urban, and military development. The natural teleology of a civilization is the attainment of excellence in its particular mode of being, just as Aristotle said that the great-souled man aims at excellence in his life, but the path to that excellence is as varied as the different lives of individuals and the difference histories of civilizations (Sam Harris might call them distinct peaks on the moral landscape).

Now, I don’t regard this brief exposition of the natural teleology of civilization as anything like a definitive formulation, but a definitive formulation of something so complex and subtle would require years of work. I will save this for another time, rather, counting on the reader’s charity (if not indulgence) to grant me the idea that at least in some respects civilizations tend toward fulfilling an apparent telos implicit in its developmental history.

Early industrialization often had an incongruous if not surreal character, as in this painting of traditional houses silhouetted again the Madeley Wood Furnaces at Coalbrookdale; the incongruity and surrealism is a function of historical preemption.

The Preemption Hypothesis

What I am going to suggest here as another response to the Fermi paradox will sound to some like just another version of the technological singularity response, but I want to try to show that what I am suggesting is a more general conception than that — a potential structural failure of civilization, as it were — and as a more comprehensive concept the technological singularity response to the Fermi paradox can be subsumed under it as a particular instance of civilizational preemption.

The more general conception of a response to the silentium universi I call the preemption hypothesis. According to the preemption hypothesis, the ordinary course of development of industrial-technological civilization — which, if extrapolated, would seem to point to a nearly inevitable expansion of that civilization beyond its home planet and eventually across interstellar space as its natural teleology — is preempted by the emergence of a completely different kind of civilization, a radically different kind of civilization, or by post-civilization, so that the expected natural teleology of the preempted civilization is interrupted and never comes to fruition.

Thus “the lights go out” for a given alien civilization not because that civilization destroys itself (the Doomsday argument, Solution no. 27 in Webb’s book) and not because it collapses into permanent stagnation or even catastrophic civilizational failure (existential risks outlined by Nick Bostrum), and not because it completes a natural cycle of growth, maturity, decay, and death, but rather because it moves on to the next stage of social institution that lies beyond civilization. In simplest terms, the preemption hypothesis is that industrial-technological civilization, for which the expansion hypothesis holds, is preempted by post-civilization, for which the expansion hypothesis no longer holds. Post-civilization is a social institution derived from civilization but no longer recognizably civilization.

The idea of a technological singularity is one kind of potential preemption of industrial-technological civilization, but certainly not the only possible kind of preemption. There are many possible forms of civilizational preemption, and any attempted list of possible preemptions is limited only by our imagination and our parochial conception of civilization, the latter being informed exclusively by human civilization. It is entirely possible, as another example of preemption, that once a civilization attains a certain degree of technological development, everyone recognizes the pointlessness of the the whole endeavor, all the machines are shut down, and the entire population turns to philosophical contemplation as the only worthy undertaking in life.

Acceleration and Preemption

I have previously argued that civilizations come to maturity in an Axial Age. The Axial Age is a conception due to Karl Jaspers, but I have suggested a generalization that holds for any society that achieves a sufficient degree of development and maturity. What Jaspers postulated for agricultural civilizations, and understood to be a turning point for the world entire, I believe holds for most civilizations, and that each stage in the overall development of civilization may have such a turning point.

Also, the history of human civilization reveals an acceleration. Nomadic hunter-gatherer society required hundreds of thousands of years before it matured into a condition capable of producing the great cave paintings of the upper Paleolithic (which I call the Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm). The agricultural civilizations that superseded Paleolithic societies with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution required thousands of years to mature to the point of producing what Jaspers called an Axial Age (The Axial Age for Jaspers).

Industrial civilization has not yet produced an industrialized axialization (though we may look back someday and understand one to have been achieved in retrospect), but the early modern civilization that seemed to be producing a decisively different way of life than the medieval period that preceded it experienced a catastrophic preemption: it did not come to fulfillment on its own terms. In Modernism without Industrialism I argued that modern civilization was effectively overtaken by the sudden and catastrophic emergence of industrialization, which set civilization on an entirely new course.

At each stage of the development of human society the maturation of that society, measured by the ability of that society to give a coherent account of itself in a comprehensive cosmological context (also known as mythology), has come sooner than the last, with the abortive civilization of modernism, Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution derailed and suddenly superseded by a novel and unprecedented development from within civilization. Modernism was preempted by accelerating events, and, specifically, by accelerating technology. It is possible that there are other forms of accelerating development that could derail or preempt that course of development that at present appears to be the natural teleology of industrial-technological civilization.

The Dystopian Hypothesis

Because the most obvious forms of the preemption hypothesis, in terms of the prospects for civilization most widely discussed today, would include the technological singularity, transhumanism, and The Transcension Hypothesis, and also because of the human ability (probably reinforced by the survival value of optimism) to look on the bright side of things, we may lose sight of equally obvious sub-optimal forms of preemption. Suboptimal forms of civilizational preemption, in which civilization does not pass on to developments of greater complexity more technically difficult achievement, could be separately identified as the dystopian hypothesis.

In Miserable and Unhappy Civilizations I suggested that the distinction Freud made between neurotic misery and ordinary human unhappiness can be extended to encompass a distinction between a civilization in the grip of neurotic misery as distinct from a civilization experiencing ordinary civilizational unhappiness. I cited the example of the religious wars of early modern Europe as an example of civilization experiencing neurotic misery (and later went on to suggest that contemporary Islam is a civilization in the grip of neurotic misery). It is possible that neurotic misery at the civilizational level could be perpetuated across time and space so that neurotic misery became the enduring condition of civilization. (This might be considered an instance of what Nick Bostrum called “flawed realization” in his analysis of existential risk.)

It would likely be the case that neurotically miserable civilization — which we might also call dystopian civilization, or a suboptimal civilization — would be incapable of anything beyond perpetuating its miserable existence from one day to the next. The dystopian hypothesis could be assimilated to solution no. 23 in Webb’s book, “They have no desire to communicate,” but there many be many reasons that a civilization lacks a desire to communicate over interstellar distances with other civilizations, so I think that the dystopian lack of motivation deserves its own category as a response to the Fermi paradox.

Whether or not chronic and severe dystopianism could be considered a post-civilization institution and therefore a preemption of industrial-technological civilization is open to question. I will think about this.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

%d bloggers like this: