Now That’s Diversity!

David Brooks had a daring item in the Times today, in which he came awfully close (though stepping back from the brink) to saying some awfully unsayable things. But I’m not in the mood for more of this stuff tonight (if I were I’d likely be rounding on Mayor Bloomberg, too, for his flurry of idiotic and insulting remarks over the past few days.) If you’d like to read some commentary on the Brooks piece, Steve Sailer did a good job here, and it was picked up at the National Review as well, here.

No, tonight I’m thinking about aliens, but not the ones you might imagine.

Recently Stephen Hawking expressed the opinion that making contact with extraterrestrials might not go well for us:

“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

Well, this is hardly an original idea, but given our present-day culture’s Polyanna-ish faith in the natural goodness of all living things, perhaps it’s good to be reminded. But is Dr. Hawking right? Robert Wright thinks he may not be.

In a post at the Times’s website, Wright argues that advancing civilizations tend to form an expanding circle of moral inclusion. In his view advanced societies generally learn to appreciate the benefits of building a network of what he calls “non-zero-sum” relationships with other communities, and he thinks that this universally profitable viewpoint would likely make any alien visitors more inclined to do business with us than do us in. (This idea is the theme of his book Nonzero, which I mentioned in these pages four years ago, here and here.) The philosopher Peter Singer also thinks that sufficiently developed cultures always tend toward increasing moral inclusiveness, but he sees it happening as a natural process whereby evolutionarily adaptive instincts for within-group altruism becoming universalized through a process of “reflection, reason and discourse”.

Wright also argues that the technology for planetary self-destruction would precede that required for interstellar travel (as it has in our case), so any civilization that makes it out of its home system will necessarily have passed through a difficult ethical and existential chokepoint. Before they have the opportunity to conquer us, in other words, they will first have had to conquer themselves.

Well, I dunno. Sentient cultures develop, early in their history on a habitable planet, in relative geographical isolation, and then, as their populations swell, or natural forces compel, they bump up against each other. Wright’s view is that although these encounters are often sanguinary (and occasionally annihilating), sooner or later it becomes clear that reciprocally beneficial arrangements are more profitable than war, and eventually the world should settle into a stable and relatively peaceful equilibrium. It’s sort of a pan-cultural “basin of attraction”.

I’m not so sure. I can just as easily imagine a single, homogeneous population developing, through some sort of cultural or genetic saltation, such an overwhelming superiority that it simply subjugates or exterminates every other sentient population on its planet. It would never have occasion to reflect on the best “zero-sum” strategies for getting along in a mosaic of culturally and racially diverse populations of equal strength; it would simply be itself, and would never have any occasion to doubt its puissance. There would be no hard lessons. By the time such a race took to the stars, they could be a Big Problem for any glittering and relatively backward planet, such as ours, that happened to catch their eyestalks.

But I suppose it’s not worth worrying about; que sera sera. Anyway, the first thing they are likely to notice are our TV broadcasts; maybe a few reruns of The A-Team will be sufficient to scare them off.

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