Is the universe really a ‘dark forest’ full of hostile aliens hiding?

We have no good reason to believe that aliens have ever made contact with Earth. Sure, there are conspiracy theories, and some rather strange reports of harm to cattle, but nothing believable. Physicist Enrico Fermi found this odd. His formulation of the puzzle, proposed in the 1950s and now known as “the Fermi Paradox”, is still crucial to the search for extraterrestrial life (Seti) and the sending of messages by sending signals into space (Meti).

The Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and life is at least 3.5 billion years old. The paradox says that given the scale of the universe, conditions favorable to life must have occurred many, many times. So where is everyone? We have good reasons to believe that life must exist, but no one has come calling.

This is an issue that character Ye Wenjie grapples with in the first episode of Netflix’s 3 Body Problem. While working at a radio observatory, she finally receives a message from a member of an alien civilization – telling her that they are pacifist and urging her not to respond to the message or Earth will be attacked.

The series will finally provide a detailed, elegant solution to the Fermi Paradox, but we will have to wait until the second season.

Or you can read the second book in Cixin Liu’s series, The Dark Forest. Without spoilers, the explanation laid out in the books is as follows: “The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter walking through the trees like a ghost, pushing gently on branches that block the path and trying to walk without a sound.”

Ultimately, everyone is hiding from everyone else. Differential rates of technological progress make a constant balance of power impossible, leaving the most rapidly advancing civilizations unable to destroy any other.

In this ever-threatening environment, those who play the best survival game are the ones who last the longest. We entered a game that was going on before we arrived, and the strategy everyone has learned is to hide. No one who knows the game will be foolish enough to contact anyone – or reply to a message.

Liu depicted what he calls “the worst of all universes”, following a trend within Chinese science fiction. He is not saying that our Universe is an actual dark forest, with a single survival strategy of silence and predation prevailing everywhere, but that such a universe is possible and interesting.

Liu’s dark forest theory is also plausible enough to reinforce a trend in scientific discussion in the west – away from concern about mutual understanding, and towards concern about direct threat.

We can see its potential impact in the protocol for what to do on first contact proposed by the famous astrologers Kelly Smith and John Traphagan in 2020. “First, do nothing,” they concluded, as d Disaster could come from doing something.

In the event of alien contact, Earth should be notified using pre-established signaling rather than anything improvised, they argue. And we should not do anything that might reveal information about who we are. Defensive behavior would show our experience of conflict, so it would not be a good idea. Messages would give away Earth’s location – also a bad idea.

Again, Smith and Traphagan did not think that the dark forest theory is correct. Benevolent aliens may actually be out there. The idea is simply that the first contact would involve a high level of civilizational risk.

This is different from the assumptions of much of the Russian space literature of the Soviet era, which suggested that advanced civilizations would progress beyond conflict, and therefore have a comrade attitude. It appears that this is no longer considered a credible guide to contact protocols.

Darwin’s misunderstanding

The interesting thing is that the dark forest theory is almost certainly wrong. Or at least, it’s wrong in our universe. It sets up a situation where there is a Darwinian process of natural selection, a competition for survival.

Charles Darwin’s account of competition for survival is based on evidence. In contrast, we have no evidence of alien behavior, or competition within or between other civilizations. This makes guesswork rather than good science entertaining, even if we accept the idea that natural selection could work at the group level, at the level of civilization.

Even if you were to accept that the universe worked according to Darwinian evolution, the argument is questionable. There is no actual forest like the dark one. They are noisy places where co-evolution takes place.

Creatures develop together, in mutual dependence, and not alone. Parasites depend on hosts, flowers depend on birds for pollination. All creatures in a forest depend on insects. Combinations lead to bad, brutal and short encounters, but there are other forms as well. That’s how forests work in our world.

Interestingly, Liu acknowledges this interdependence as a counterpoint to the dark forest theory. The audience, and the reader are repeatedly told that “it is not for nature alone” – a quote from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). This is a text that tells us that bugs can be our friends and not our enemies.

The four galaxies within Stephan's Quintet.

There are many galaxies out there, and possibly plenty of life. X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO;

In Liu’s story, this is used to explain why some people immediately go over to the side of the aliens, and why the urge to make contact is so strong, despite all the risks. Ye Wenjie finally responds to the foreigner’s warning.

The Carson allusions do not restore the old Russian idea that foreigners should be promoted and therefore comradely. But they help paint a more diverse and realistic picture than the dark forest theory.

For this reason, the dark forest solution to the Fermi Paradox is not certain. Since we don’t hear anyone, it is as likely to indicate that they are too far away, or that we are listening in all the wrong directions, or that there is no forest and nothing else to hear.

This article from The Conversation is republished under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Tony Milligan does not work for, consult with, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article this, and has not disclosed any relevant connections beyond their academic appointment.

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