Dark Forest Or Vacant Paradise?

A thought by Isaac Petrov

I recently wrote a darn depressing microstory, an exploration of the science-fiction concepts of Varelse and Dark Forest packed in a tiny, bitter-sour jar of literary excellence (of course!). [Click here to read it.]

The story delves into one of the biggest questions regarding the search for extraterrestrial intelligence today: should we establish contact with them? Or is it too risky?

As you might guess, even if you haven’t read the microstory, the conclusion of the story is that it is, indeed, very risky to announce our presence in what is possibly a Dark Forest (that is the terminology used by science fiction author Liu Cixin in his “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” trilogy – a must-read, by the way!).

The Dark Forest is a dangerous environment, filled with unimaginably powerful entities, hidden but in constant search of others fool enough to announce their presence. They are paranoid, or hungry, or whatever, and will exterminate without blinking whoever they encounter.

Thus, if you want to survive in the Dark Forest, you hide.

It is a depressing perspective, but one pointed out as a possible solution to the Fermi Paradox. If everybody is either hiding or dead, is there any wonder that we see nobody out there when we point our telescopes to the stars?

But then the sun began to shine the sweetest warmth on my little corner of the world, filling the air with the buzz of hungry insects and the songs of horny birds. Ah, life takes on another tint when winter recedes, huh?

I got back to thinking about how realistic the Dark Forest Hypothesis really is. At its core it requires that everybody is scared of everybody else. 

Let’s think about that for a minute.

The hypothesis requires that everybody – Everybody! – develops some sort of technology that, unleashed against anybody else, exterminates them in the blink of an eye, or at least quickly enough to avoid retaliation.

Now, how realistic is that, really?

So we have a bunch of aliens in a bunch of systems scattered around the galaxy. All of them somehow evolve simultaneously. All of them reach the galactic stage at roughly the same time.

But there is more! All of them have independently developed some sort of doomsday weapon able to sterilize the worlds of others.

Those are too many unlikely conditions for my taste. Let’s assume that a civilization’s path is roughly similar to our own (or at least how we project our own to be in the next millenia if we’re sensible enough to survive). In the 13.7 billion years the universe has been around, our civilization popped up into existence in, what, a few thousand years? That’s nothing! Then we peek into the stars and decide we want to do what we’ve always done (and what every living organism does): to expand. Give us a few more thousand years, and we’ve surely absorbed a few neighboring stars into the human sphere. Give us a couple of million years, and the galaxy is a human island.

A couple of million years! That is, again, nothing compared to the age of the universe.

What are the chances two civilizations collide in the galaxy in the same couple million years? Pretty slim, I would say, because there is probably just one at a time making the leap. But, hey, let’s say the galaxy is so vast, that it is teeming with civilizations always reaching that space-faring stage at the same time.

Okay, that’s a hard pill to swallow, but let’s go with it. Let’s assume that happens to us: we are colonizing star after star and then, we find an alien species doing exactly the same. So, instead of talking to each other, trading and researching and doing all those things that we humans particularly enjoy, we decide to exterminate each other on sight.

Okay, let’s go with that too. How do we do that? Easy! We have a magical weapon that trascends the speed of light, and we can aim it at all systems of our enemy. And we press the button. We humans enjoy our pinch of genocide too, don’t we?

Or worse, it is the enemy that has the weapon and uses it against us. Bye bye humankind.

Sorry, that logic is going too far. I don’t buy the existence of such weapons. No. Impossible. I’m pretty sure we understand how the universe works, at least roughly, even if we don’t understand why. And such weapons are impossible. Light-speed and all that.

Furthermore, did you notice how in my projection humans (and aliens) happily expanded wherever they could? That’s in our nature, and in the nature of every living organism that evolved through natural evolution. In my projection neither us nor they were hiding! We would only hide (and, crucially, stop expanding!) if the galaxy was already occupied by a hostile species (Varelse!).

But that’s not what we see when we look up into the cosmos. We see nothing at all – not an all-encompassing AI evil empire bent on killing all life at sight.

My point is that if we look up and see nothing, the most likely explanation is not a frightening Dark Forest, but, simply, that there is nobody out there. The galaxy is empty… Awaiting…

And we are first in line.

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