May 22, 2004


One of the items on my never ending list of things to do before the Singularity is my desire to expand on the idea of exosociobiology (yes, another idea that came to me in the shower. Praise be the facilitative powers of the almighty shower!). Exosociobiology is the convergence of exobiology and sociobiology.

Exobiology is the speculative field within biology that considers the possible varieties and characteristics of extra terrestrial life. Exobiologists, also known as astrobiologists or xenobiologists, speculate about the possible ways that organic life could come into being in the Universe and the potential for artificial life. The excellent journal Astrobiology regularly puts out fascinating articles that chronicle the latest developments in this field.

Sociobiology attempts to explain animal behavior, group behavior and social structure in terms of evolutionary advantage or strategy and using techniques from ethology, evolution and population genetics. Sociobiologists are especially interested in comparative analyses, especially in studying human social institutions and culture. Prominent sociobiologists include E. O. Wilson, Jared Diamond, and Richard Dawkins.

What got me interested in combining these two disciplines is the concept of convergent evolution, the evolutionary process in which organisms not closely related independently acquire some characteristic or characteristics in common, usually a reflection of similar responses to similar environmental conditions. Examples include physical traits that have evolved independently (e.g. the eye), ecological niches (e.g. pack predators), and even technological innovations (e.g. language, writing, the domestication of plants and animals, and basic tools and weapons).

In order for us to embark in the speculative field of exosociobiology we need to start with some basic assumptions which may or may not be true. These assumptions are that
1. extra terrestrial civilizations exist
2. extra terrestrial civilizations must in some part resemble our own, both in terms of
a) the physical and cognitive characteristics of the extra terrestrials themselves, and
b) the characteristics of alien society

In other words, we need to assume that intelligent life arises from similar environmental factors and selectional/developmental processes.

It's hard to tell if these are valid assumptions. For example, the Rare Earth hypothesis and the Fermi Paradox suggests that we might be alone in the galaxy. Or, aliens and their civilizations may scarcely resemble our own. There's also a lot of environmental determinism inherent in my assumptions -- but this may in fact be the case! Still, all of these points can be countered by the Copernican Principle and the self-sampling assumption. We shouldn't assume that we're unique. In fact, if anything we should probably assume that we are very typical.

That being the case, we can start to make some predictions about those characteristics that are common to all alien societies. For example, based on our own experience, we can conclude very broadly that all civilizations go through similar developmental stages, including agrarianism, industrialization, democratization, globalization, and an information age.

What about technological innovations? I have a strong suspicion that innovations and scientific advancements happen in roughly the same sequence that we've witnessed. For example, every advanced civilization will have its own Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein in basically that same order. Science is a cumulative discipline, so it's hard to imagine it arising out of order. As for technological innovations, I wonder if all extra terrestrials develop functionally equivalent technologies, what futurist John Smart refers to as universal archetypes. For example, are swords, telescopes, trains, nuclear weapons, and automobiles universal archetypes? Probably.

And what about the future of intelligent life? Unfortunately, engaging in that discussion would be a highly speculative endeavor, primarily because we haven't gone through the next developmental stage ourselves. Here's a scary thought: We currently have no data to support the idea that human civilization will continue on into the foreseeable future. Actually, if you consider the Fermi Paradox, we may actually have a data point suggesting a limitation to how far advanced civilizations can develop.

But as far as exosociobiology is concerned, with each advancing step that our species takes, we can assume that our extra terrestrial counterparts -- both past and present -- have gone through similar stages. For some reason I find a lot of comfort in that thought.

Addendum May 24, 2004:
I received an email from John Smart today who made an interesting suggestion:
Excellent stuff. In the future I'd suggest renaming Exosociobiology to Astrosociobiology, as the "Exo" term is being outcompeted by Astro, and it will help the growth of the field for us to hew to the new standard.

Exo- also has a boogeyman, other, alien connotation that is really unnecessary (a false start on naming the field, IMHO) if the world is constrained to some degree by a bunch of universal developmental archetypes, as we are now beginning to suspect.

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