What “The Expanse” Can Teach Us about Fermi’s Paradox
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This post is going to draw fairly extensively from The Expanse series. It contains definite spoilers for anyone who hasn’t made it through book 3 of the series or season 3 of the TV show. Also the post will have some vague allusions to what happens after that. (I have not personally had the chance to watch the TV show much past season 1, so the exact amount I’m spoiling there might be more than I think.)
You have been warned.
This blog has been fascinated by Fermi’s Paradox since its inception. As such I’m always interested in the explanations science fiction authors create in the course of tackling the paradox in their books. Some explanations are fascinating and thought provoking, some are implausible and lazy. The explanation given by the Expanse Series, by James S. A. Corey, is fortunately one of the former.
We get Corey’s answer at the end of Abaddon’s Gate, the third book in the series. As it turns out there was someone else out there, and they created a empire of over 1300 planets and knit them together with a network of gates. Earth was supposed to be one of those planets, but the device which would have created the gate (and dramatically hijacked all life on Earth in the process) was captured by Saturn’s gravity and never made it to its final destination.
Eventually people find this device and hilarity ensues. Okay not really, the device (what the series calls the protomolecule) actually turns people into horrible zombie-like creatures who eventually merge with each other into something even more horrible, which then eventually turns into the “Sol Gate” humanity’s very own connection to the ring network. You may have noticed earlier that I said that there was something out there. Well, when the humans travel through the ring they find out that the aliens who built the gates have vanished. Nor is the reason for their disappearance entirely mysterious. It is soon discovered that they were killed off by something even bigger and nastier.
From the perspective of the series the creation of the gate is good and bad. It’s good because now humans have easy access to hundreds of new, habitable worlds. It’s bad because not only do they know that there exists some other awesomely powerful entity—an entity which is horribly, and seemingly blindly malevolent, something like Lovecraft’s description of the elder gods—but they also may have just brought themselves to the attention of this entity.
As I mentioned this all comes out at the end of book three. The series just barely concluded with book 9 (review coming soon!) So based on this mix of good and bad news what do you imagine the humans do in the subsequent books? Well, and I think Corey predicts this accurately, they spend all of their time on the bounty of the 1300+ systems they’ve just discovered, and almost none of it on the giant, horrible elder gods lurking in the shadows. Now to be fair, they’ve got a lot of problems to deal with other than the elder gods. The animosity between Earth, Mars and the Belters has not gone away just because there’s a bunch of new worlds, in fact if anything the discovery has inflamed tensions. But still one would hope that should we be confronted with this situation in actuality that we would spend more time on the giant, horrible alien problem than the people in the book do, but maybe not.
There is however one person in the books who’s different. One person who will stop at nothing to ensure the survival of humanity. This is Winston Duarte. If you have read many books like this, you may have already guessed that he’s the bad guy. Whether this would be so in reality is not the point of this post, and to be clear, in the context of the books he does end up doing some very bad things. No, the point of this post is to imagine what we might do if we were Duarte. If we decided that the problem of the missing aliens was really the biggest problem humanity faces.
Of course to a certain extent there are such people, people who are really interested in identifying and dealing with existential issues, because if we don’t we may not be around to deal with anything else. I’ve reviewed some of their books, for example: Global Catastrophic Risks by Nick Bostrom and Milan Ćirković and The Precipice by Toby Ord. And I will continue to review and read these books. I think they touch on one of the most important subjects people can be thinking about. But while reading the final book of The Expanse I was struck by the similarity between Duarte’s situation and our own. And I wanted to use it as a springboard to revisit the profound implications of Fermi’s Paradox, and how it’s easy to understand those implications when it’s fiction, but far harder when it’s reality.
The insight which prompted me to write this post was the realization that there are a lot of similarities between our position and the position of the humans who have just discovered the gates. There were many, many years when neither was even aware of the problem, and then suddenly, in their case, and almost as suddenly, in our case, we both realized that we had a big problem. Both of us have every reason for believing that there should be aliens out there. And as it turns out (thus far) the rest of the universe is empty.
Of course there are obviously some differences. To begin with you may think that our situation is not as bad as the one Duarte is focused on, but I’m not sure that’s the case. He has the advantage of knowing exactly what the problem is: there is some sort of Lovecraftian elder god which eradicates any civilization above a certain level of technology. Of course this is a very big problem, possibly insoluble, but at least he knows where to direct his attention and his energy. And while it is true that nearly everyone else in the books seems to be ignoring the problem. At least they’re aware of it. And when the time comes it doesn’t take much to get them to throw enormous resources at it. On the other hand, most people today aren’t even aware that there is a problem, if they are aware of it they may wonder whether it’s appropriate to even call it a “problem”, and if they grant all of that, there’s still very little agreement on what sort of problem it might be.
To get more concrete, sitting on a shelf in front of me is a book which contains 75 explanations for Fermi’s paradox, and even this collection of 75 explanations doesn't cover all of the possibilities. Duarte only has to concern himself with one of those explanations: malevolent aliens, and not even malevolent aliens as a general concept, but rather a specific malevolent alien whose existence has already been demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt. This is not to say that all of the questions posed by the paradox have been answered. For example, did the ring builders really wipe out all other life before being wiped out themselves? But as far as Duarte is concerned the part that matters has been solved, and now he just has to deal with the problems arising from the reality of that solution. And he has lots of options for doing just that. The elder gods might have left clues as to their motivations; there might also be precautions he could take; experiments he could run; or at least data he could collect.
Duarte doesn’t have to worry about other possible solutions. He doesn’t have to worry that all intelligent aliens destroy themselves in a nuclear war so humans will as well. Or at least he doesn’t have to worry about this nearly as much as we do. Humans are now on hundreds of worlds, and have gone hundreds of years without such a war. He doesn’t have to worry about the difficulties intelligent species might encounter in making it off their home planet in the first place. Humans (in The Expanse) have already shown that can be done as well. Nor does he have to worry about interstellar distances, not only has the gates made this point moot, but even without the gates a major plot point of the first few books is that the Mormons (Go team!) are preparing to leave the solar system in a generational ship. And the list of things he no longer has to worry about goes on and on beyond these examples.
On the other hand, when we contemplate the silent universe we have to consider all 75 solutions, while also being aware of the fact that this list might not be exhaustive, we have probably overlooked some of the possibilities, perhaps even the correct one.
Some of the potential solutions to the paradox are better for us than the elder gods of The Expanse. Some are worse. You might take issue with the idea that anything could be worse than implacably hostile, nearly omnipotent super aliens, but I disagree. There’s always some chance that we could avoid, placate, or defeat the other aliens. In fact, the chances of avoiding them seem particularly high, since we already managed to do so for tens of thousands of years. But if we consider the entire universe of possible solutions, there are explanations where our chances of survival are much, much lower. As an example, what if the answer to Fermi’s paradox is something inherent to intelligence, or technological progress, or biological evolution itself? Something that hasn’t merely defeated one set of aliens (as was the case with The Expanse) but has defeated all of the potential aliens. Something which because of this inherency will almost certainly defeat us as well.
Back in 1998 Robin Hanson gave a name to this idea of something that defeats all potential aliens, he called it the Great Filter. This is the idea that there is something which prevents intelligent life from developing and spreading across the galaxy in an obvious fashion. Some hurdle which makes it difficult for life to develop in the first place, or which makes it difficult for life, once developed, to achieve intelligence, or which makes it difficult for intelligent life to become multiplanetary. Since Hanson came up with the idea, people have obviously wondered what that hurdle or filter might be, but more importantly they’ve wondered, is it ahead of us or behind us?
Pulling all of this together, I would say the idea that the Great Filter is ahead of us, and not merely ahead of us, but nearby—a built in consequence of technological progress—is a far scarier solution to the paradox than even the elder gods of The Expanse. The only thing that mitigates the scariness of this solution is the fact that it’s not certain. There is some probability that the true explanation for the paradox is something else.
It is this uncertainty, and not the magnitude of the catastrophe which represents the key difference between Duarte’s situation and ours.
This is not the first time this blog has covered potential catastrophes with uncertain probabilities. In fact it might be said to represent the primary theme of the blog. So how do you handle this sort of thing if you’re a real, modern day Duarte, rather than the fictional one a couple of centuries in the future? How do you proceed if the threat isn’t certain, if there’s no data to collect, no experiments to run, no motivations to probe? Are there at least precautions one could take?
There might be, but most people who do end up focusing on this sort of thing spend far more time trying to assess the probabilities of the various catastrophes, the various solutions to the paradox, than in trying to understand and mitigate those catastrophes. And frequently the conclusion they come to is that one can explain the paradox without resorting to catastrophic explanations. It can be explained entirely by the fact that we’re extraordinarily lucky. And I mean EXTRA-odinarily lucky. Since I’ve already alluded to Stephen Webb’s book If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens… Where Is Everybody?: Seventy-Five Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life we might as well look at the account he gives of our unbelievable luck.
I did a very detailed breakdown of it in a previous post, but in essence it assumes that there are 1 trillion planets in the galaxy and out of the trillion places where it could have happened Earth was the only place where life did happen.
That we were lucky enough to be on a planet in the galactic habitable zone.
…which also orbits a sun-like star
…in the habitable zone of that same star
…which turned that luck into life
…that this life was lucky enough to avoid being wiped out prematurely
…developing from single-celled to multicellular life
…and not merely multicellular life, but intelligent, tool-using, mathematical life.
In other words we won the lottery, but actually we did better than that. You actually have a 1 in 300 million chance of winning even a really big lottery, like the Mega Millions. 1 in a trillion is actually 3,000 times less likely even than that.
This explanation and similar explanations for the paradox are given the label “Rare Earth”, and I’ll admit that I’m probably not the best person to talk about them because they strike me as being optimistic to the point of delusion. Similar to the people in The Expanse who look at the gates and only see the hundreds of inhabitable worlds, not the omnicide of the aliens who built the gates in the first place. Yes, it’s possible that Earth, alone out of the trillion planets in the galaxy, has managed to get past the Great Filter. That some species on some planet was going to get lucky, and it just happened to be us. That, now, as the beneficiaries of this luck, a glorious transhuman future stretches out in front of us, where everything just keeps getting better and better. Certainly this vision is attractive, the question is whether it’s true. Of course it’s impossible to know, but many people have decided to treat it as such. Is this because the body of evidence for this position is overwhelming? Or is it because it’s comforting? My money is on the latter. But we’re not looking for comfort. We’re not interested in the hundreds of habitable worlds. We’re Duarte and we’re focused on the danger.
This is not to say, in our role as Duarte, that we entirely dismiss the possibility of a Rare Earth explanation. Only that such an explanation is being adequately handled by other people. Duarte doesn’t need to focus on how to speed up the colonization of the newly discovered worlds. Everybody else is doing that. He’s focused on the paradox, and the potential danger. He doesn’t care whether there are a trillion planets in the Milky Way or only 800 billion. He doesn’t worry about knowing the minutia of astrobiology. He’s just worried about preventing humanity’s extinction, and in that effort, spending all of your time debating probabilities is just a distraction.
Why? Well to begin with, as we’ve seen with people making the Rare Earth argument, people will ignore probabilities when it suits them. And if they were really concerned about assigning probabilities to things, what probability would they assign to the ideas I’m worried about, the ideas I’ve talked about over the course of this blog? For example, the possibility that intelligence inevitably creates the means of its own destruction. Less than 1 in a billion? Less than 1 in a thousand? And yet for reasons of sophistry and comfort they will proudly claim that Fermi’s paradox has been dissolved because we happen to be the result of odds which are much longer than that.
Second, and even more importantly, assigning such probabilities is difficult to the point of basically being worthless. We have no idea how hard it is for life to arise on an earth-like planet, and still less of an idea how hard it is for that life to progress from its basic form to human-level intelligence. And if, despite these difficulties, we decide that we’re going to persist in trying to assign probabilities, it would seem easier and more productive to try to assign probabilities to the potential catastrophes rather than buttressing our illusion of safety. It’s easier because while we have no other examples of complex life developing we have plenty of examples of complex civilizations collapsing (for examples see the Fall of Civilizations Podcast) And it’s more productive because even if everyone who believes in the rare earth explanation is absolutely correct, we could still be in trouble from our own creations.
If the previous parts have been enough to make you sympathetic to the “Duarte viewpoint”, and you’re ready to move from a discussion of probabilities to a discussion of precautions, then the obvious question is what precautions should we be taking?
Here I must confess that I don’t actually know. Certainly there’s the general admonition to gradualism. Also I think we should be attempting to reduce fragility in general. And to the extent I have advice to give on those topics, I have mostly already given it in other posts. What I was hoping to do in this post was to make the whole situation easier to understand by way of analogizing it to the situation in The Expanse and in that effort there are a couple of points I would still like to draw your attention to.
As I said I’m not sure what precautions we should be taking. But I am sure we have more than enough people focused on “colonizing new worlds” and not nearly enough focused on “scary elder gods”. Additionally we seem unwilling to make many tradeoffs in this area. Lots of people give lip service to the terrible power of the elder gods, but almost no one is willing to divert resources from the colonization project in order to better fight, or even just understand their awful power.
Finally there’s the objection I think most people will have, particularly those who’ve read the books, or who are otherwise familiar with totalitarianism. If we do manage to get more Duartes isn’t it possible or even likely that they will go too far? That the neo-neo-luddites will throw the baby out with the bathwater? If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s that reasonable people can disagree about how threatening something is, and whether a given response is appropriate for that threat.
Obviously such an extreme outcome is possible, but thus far it isn’t even clear that we’re going to ban gain of function research despite there being at least some chance that it was responsible for the pandemic. If that’s where we’re currently at on managing the unexpected harms of technological progress I don’t think we’re in much danger of going too far anytime soon.
I suppose the big takeaway from this post is that we need more Duarte’s. I suspect that there are a lot of people who read The Expanse and think: Those foolish individuals! They’re so focused on colonizing the habitable planets, when really they should be focused on the huge malevolent aliens that wiped out the last civilization. If you are one of the people that comes away with this impression then you should come away with precisely the same impression when viewing our own situation.
It’s possible that someone out there is wondering what they could get me for Christmas. Well mostly I want the ability to ruthlessly crush my enemies, just like everyone. But if that seems too difficult to arrange, consider donating.