Skip to content

Archive for

Rape Exists Because Society Permits It

By Taylor Marvin

The Wall Street Journal has a thought-provoking profile of the six men accused of killing a young woman in the horrific Delhi rape case. What’s striking is, as Jason Burke notes, how ordinary these men appear to be: all were poor, and two heavy drinkers and migrants. It’s this ordinariness that hints at one of the worst aspects of social misogyny and rape culture: when rape is routine, so are the people who commit it. We like to dismiss rapists and other violent criminals as an alien other that, of course, has nothing to do with us. In the overblown hyperbole of recent NRA rhetoric in the US, crimes are committed by the bad guys, not the good guys — and there’s no question which group we belong to. Of course, these lines aren’t so simple. Social norms that tolerate rape and other forms of violence make everyone their potential instrument.

This extends beyond the rapists — unfortunately, in the Delhi case murderers is the correct term — to social leaders. It took Prime Minister Manmohan Singh over a week to respond to the case, and his call for a “dispassionate debate and inquiry into the critical changes that are required in societal attitudes” does not appear indicative of a top-down drive for social change. It’s not only that politicians and other social leaders appear to completely dismiss that rape and other forms of violence against women; endemic victim-blaming allows them to — as in the US — absolve themselves of responsibility to fix the problem. As Anuradha Roy writes in her brutal take on the routine violence against women in Indian society (via the Browser), this victim-blaming is truly sickening:

“Meanwhile, with reassuring predictability, another man from the ruling party wagged a paternal finger at the raped woman: she should never have been out at that hour. Just because India became free at midnight did not mean she should have been out at midnight.”

Read the whole thing.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Ottoman minerature, 1450-1480. Via Wikimedia.

Ottoman minerature, 1450-1480. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

The Diplomat’s interview with Stephen M. Walt is worth checking out.

Civilian analysts gained Petraeus’s ear while he was commander in Afghanistan. This is… noteworthy.

The Chinese Air Force: Evolving Concepts, Roles, and Capabilities.

Marc Lynch’s reading list.

Navigating Egypt’s political crisis. A very good overview.

Egypt is adopting a Turkish model after all.

Omou Sangare – Sabu.

Small Arms and America’s “First Freedom”

By Taylor Marvin

The recent massacre in Connecticut has once again opened America’s gun laws to public debate, to the chagrin of gun rights advocates. While the NRA and other defenders of gun rights have many arguments in favor of relatively unrestricted access to firearms, one particularly noxious reasoning is that the American citizenry must be well-armed as a defense against government tyranny.

This implicit justification for the 2nd amendment is widespread. In a recent post at Democracy in America, author J.F. recalled Charlton Heston’s famous statement that the second amendment is America’s “first freedom” that guarantees all others, through the credible threat of violence.rem-ad In a Remington print ad highlighted by Mother Jonesthe company warns politicians that the owners of it’s over 5,000,000 bolt action rifles sold constitute “the world’s largest army”. Most dramaticallygun rights advocates frequently attribute the brutal extent of the Holocaust to the Nazi disarmament of European Jews, an argument recently demolished by Michael Moynihan.

At the judicial level, the Supreme Court concluded in District of Columbia v. Heller that in the original 18th century context the right to “bear arms” was “unambiguously used to refer to the carrying of weapons outside of an organized militia,” and the right to own firearms is not dependent on membership in the modern understanding of a militia.  Later in the opinion, this right is explicitly tied to the ability to overthrow a tyrannical government: “There are many reasons why the militia was thought to be ‘necessary to the security of a free state’… When the able-bodied men of a nation are trained in arms and organized, they are better able to resist tyranny.”

Following this reasoning, civilian access to firearms prevents the state from holding a monopoly on violence, ensuring a politically free society. This is an understandable argument — after all, the Revolutionary War was fought with civilian muzzle-loading muskets broadly indistinguishable from the military small arms of the time. But as a dictate of public policy this argument fails on two levels: armed mass rebellions are an uncommon source of regime change, and individual small arms alone are not an effective weapon of modern war. This is by no means an original argument on my part, but bear with me.

The notion that a violent, extralegal change in the any government will come in the form of a mass rebellion where civilian arms play any role is unlikely. Coups are far more likely to result in a successful regime change: in the 1950-2010 period regional coup success rates ranged from 33 to 55 percent. A civil war is particularly unlikely in the United States. America is a very rich country, and civil wars are uncommon in prosperous societies. This logic is governed by the twin”greed and grievance” motivations for violent challenges to state authority — citizens of rich countries are, on average, prosperous enough that greed is not sufficient motivation to motivate violent action, and the prosperity of existing society reduces perceived grievances. As fighting a civil war requires mobilizing comparatively large social and military resources in opposition to the state, the prosperity and durable representative structure of US government makes another unlikely.

The United States is unlikely to repeat a civil war for other, non-economic reasons, as well. As James Fearson notes, “the most common form of civil war in the post-World War II period has been a stalemated guerrilla war confined to a rural periphery of a low-income, post-colonial state.” Obviously, the United States does not fit this criteria. It’s also worthwhile to remember that the United States has already fought a civil war, one where an organized state military, rather than irregular civilians, was the instrument of secessionist military force.

More importantly, arguing that a well-armed citizenry is a credible threat to state power ignores the realities of modern warfare. Irregular forces armed with small arms and lacking external backing are unlikely to be an effective counter to state power. Michael Moynihan ably notes this capability differential in the context of the Holocaust, writing that even if European Jews were heavily armed “it is optimistic to think that revolt from poorly armed, poorly trained, and undermanned citizens against the mighty German military would have substantially altered the fate of German or Eastern European Jews.” This unfortunate logic held in the case of Western European Resistance fighters as well, who were unable to force the German occupiers out despite some degree of external backing. Worldwide, irregulars restricted to only small arms are unlikely to successfully oppose a capable modern military.

No matter what gun control legislation the US adopts, military weapons like squad machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades, and armored military vehicles will always be illegal. This distinction between civilian and military weapons was less pronounced during the Revolutionary War — the benchmark for gun rights advocates’ “resisting tyranny” precedent — when civilian and military personal arms were largely identical. It is doubtful that any modern-day irregular insurgency could mount an effective resistance to the US military without these weapons. Imagining otherwise is a fantasy. District of Columbia v. Heller notes this implausibility:

“It may well be true today that a militia, to be as effective as militias in the 18th century, would require sophisticated arms that are highly unusual in society at large. Indeed, it may be true that no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks. But the fact that modern developments have limited the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the protected right cannot change our interpretation of the right.”

This may be true for a judicial standpoint. But it does not make the argument at hand — that civilian firearms are a bulwark against tyranny — less silly.

The insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan provide an interesting test case. In both conflicts, attacks against coalition forces by IEDs and other explosive devices gradually replaced small arms fire as insurgents’ weapon of choice over the course of the conflict. Insurgents also invested considerable energy in developing more potent IEDs, and in defeating countermeasures. This suggest that even Iraqi and Afghan insurgents, which had ready access to military firearms including squad support weapons, found asymmetrical, indirect attacks with IEDs to be a more effective strategy than small arms fire. Small arms alone are not sufficient to wage modern irregular war, and the prospect of middle-aged men armed with civilian small arms facing a modern military is not an effective political deterrence.

Of course, it is possible that gun rights advocates only mean that a well-armed citizenry can deter political tyranny by retaining a credible threat to assassinate errant leaders, rather than fight a guerilla war. It is certainly true that American presidents face a real threat of assassination — distressingly, four presidents have been murdered in office. But there is little evidence that the fear of assassination in any way influences American political leaders, and in the modern era killing a well-guarded president is a difficult task. Anyway, this is a meaningless debate — if gun rights advocates do think assassination capability is a valid reason to oppose gun control, they are rightly afraid to voice this reasoning in the public sphere.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Mughal portrait, 1670. Via Wikimedia.

Mughal portrait, 1670. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Moral vacuums and chemical weapons.

On Gaza, Goldstone and Israeli policy regarding terrorist enclaves.

The state problem in national security policy.

The “long pole in the tent”: China’s military jet engines.

The Economist on the conflict between traditional and western formalwear in China.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a great discussion of Joe Haldeman’s fantastic The Forever War. Check it out, or the book if you haven’t read it.

Fall on your Sword – The First Time I Saw Jupiter

Street Harassment, Empathy, and Fighting Misogyny with Stories

398px-Brienne_of_Tarth_HBOBy Taylor Marvin

If you’re a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire and have an hour to spare, you could do a lot worse than listening to Sean T. Collins and Stefan Sasse’s excellent Boiled Leather Audio Hour. In their discussion Collins and Sasse raise an interesting connection, linking the routine sexual harassment inflicted on the character Brienne to contemporary street harassment. This is very perceptive, and raises some interesting questions about the power of media to challenge sexism.

First, some cavets. I am male, and have never been sexually harassed. I also have never directly observed street harassment, or at least any that I can recall, and I don’t pretend to understand what it feels like to be harassed. That said, street harassment is absolutely wrong, and is horribly widespread. Part of street harassment’s ubiquity is undoubtably due to our society’s tolerance for wider rape culture that treats women as sexual object without agency. But it’s also due to a profound lack of empathy on the part of harassers, as the vast majority of street harassers seem to genuinely believe that they aren’t doing anything wrong. I don’t think it’s a mischaracterization to say that street harassers think their catcalls and harassment should be perceived as flattering, not the demeaning threat that it absolutely is. Of course, this perception is something approaching willful blindness, because it requires ignoring the objectification, power imbalance, and implicit rape threat inherent in catcalls.

It may be optimistic to assume that street harassment would decline if more harassers empathized with their victims. But we shouldn’t underestimate the power of stories to challenge perspectives. In A Song of Ice and Fire George RR Martin depicts, often through the eyes of female characters, a world where sexual violence and misogyny are ubiquitous. Brienne is a sympathetic character whose bravery and martial skill are endearing, and whose devotion to knightly chivalry is arguably greater than anyone else in the series, male or female. Through Brienne’s eyes the reader experiences an approximation of the psychological damage caused by constant sexual harassment and a society where rape is accepted.

These themes extend throughout the series. Female (and some male) characters are constantly aware of the threat of rape. Institutional misogyny excludes women from civil society. Characters that deviate from their predetermined social roles are often punished by sexual violence. [A Dance With Dragons spoiler] When a female ruler is deposed she is sexually humiliated in a way inconceivable for male leaders [End spoilers]. Perceptive readers can’t help but draw the valid link between the sexism and violence of Westerosi society and the misogyny and rape culture of our own. This is not a flattering comparison. Hopefully it encourages, among potential enablers of rape culture, an awareness of just how corrosive its effects are.

Stories that challenge their audience’s perspective are an enormously powerful tool for building empathy and breaking prejudices — including misogyny. I can’t help but think that if more widely-viewed shows depicted harassment from the perspective of female characters, men would be less likely to engage in it. Of course, these stories are rarely depicted in popular media, a rarity that probably has something to do with the underrepresentation of women in TV writers’ rooms (via The Mary Sue). Hopefully this changes soon, because these stories are important.

Governing Space Transports

By Taylor Marvin

One of the most interesting areas of speculation about prospective spacefaring humanity is Jon Souza’s so-called Jon’s Law: “Any interesting space drive is a weapon of mass destruction. It only matters how long you want to wait for maximum damage.”

Winchell Chung ably explain the problem, using the example of an impatient science fiction author tempted to replace their fictional spaceship’s slow, boring ion drive with a more powerful — and exciting — fusion drive:

“The good news is that the ship can make it to Mars in twelve days flat. The bad news is that the ship’s exhaust is putting out enough terawatts of energy to cut another ship in two, or make the spaceport look like it was hit by a tactical nuclear weapon.”

This implication is most dangerous for relativistic rockets, whose high speed makes them nearly impossible to intercept and gives sufficient energy to destroy an entire biosphere. To some extent, this rule applies to less fantastically powerful ships possible in a reasonable mid-future setting. Take Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent 2312_660novel 2312in this setting, set in the title year, the solar system is extensively colonized. Mars and Venus are both in the process of terraformation, and industrialization and settlement in the outer solar system is widespread. Most intra-system transports are hollowed out asteroids — one described as twenty kilometers long — and spun along their long axis to approximate Earth-normal gravity (the only difference between transports and permanently inhabited habitats is that transports move). These type of transports are extremely ambitious but are readily achievable, and not particularly expensive, for a civilization with self-replicating construction robotics — the only start-up cost is the few initial factory robots, and the asteroid itself. Depending on the propulsion scheme used, these types of transports be able to traverse the inner solar systems in months, and the outer in a few years. Given their enormous interior space, passengers — numbering in the thousands — are awake for the entire trip. Space elevators on Earth and Mars solve the launch costs problem on high gravity worlds.

These transports aren’t particularly ambitious — or fast — by science fiction standards. But even they run into Jon’s Law. If a liners was aimed at a planet, authorities would be very hard pressed to stop it, even with ample warning. Nuclear strikes would just break the transport into lethal debris, still on the same vector as the rogue ship. Other asteroid-defense systems require years of warning, and could be combated by a hostile transport’s defensive systems. If an asteroid-derived transport hurtling along at interplanetary speeds impacted a continent, it could kill millions of people. Chung points out the implications of this destructive potential:

“So one of the logical ramification is that if drives are too powerful, there won’t be any colorful tramp freighters or similar vessels. As a matter of fact, civilian spacecraft will probably by law be required to have a remote control self-destruct device that the orbital patrol can use to eliminate any ship that looks like it is behaving erratically or suspiciously.”

This notion just as applicable to slow, but exceedingly massive, transports.

Robinson avoids this problem entirely. 2312’s space transports don’t appear to be governed by any political authority with its finger safely resting on a megaton self-destruct at all; in fact, in Robinson’s libertarian future specialized liners dedicated to unconventional practices like sensory deprivation or public sex are unremarkable. While these odd-by-modern-standards varieties of transports doesn’t rule out government regulation, 2312 makes it clear that the low cost of establishing liners or stationary habitats makes them available to a bewildering variety of groups unaffiliated with any established polity.

Jon’s Law implies that these transports will be heavily regulated. However, I’m unsure that this type of regulation is even possible in a solar system governed by numerous polities. A single rogue liner represents an existential threat for, say, colonists on Titan. If the Titan government doesn’t have the ability to intensively monitor and remotely self-destruct a Mars-flagged transport subject to Martian regulations, would they ever allow any foreign transports to approach? It would be much safer to only allow transports subject to your own regulations and oversight to come within the danger zone. This threat has teeth because governments could arbitrarily and safely destroy non-hostile transports, but not those on a fast collision course. Each individual government would be better off if they collectively allowed solar system-wide regulated transport, but each also has an incentive to not be the first to make themselves vulnerable. Assuming that separate Sol system polities develop before the advent of routine intra-system transports, this collective action problem could lead to balkanized transport politics that massively restricts trade and immigration.

There are potential regulatory structures that avoid this dynamic. Transports could be operated only by a monopolistic but reliably non-partisan organization, somewhat similar to the Dune universe’s Spacing Guild. Better yet, transports could be required to be governed by AIs, rather than potentially malevolent humans, or required to carry a self-destruct device that could be triggered by any polity, at any time. If intra-system transports are weapons of mass destruction, better to have every finger on the trigger, or none at all.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Pieter Pauwel Rubens, "Portrait of Maria Serra Pallavicino", 1606. Via

Pieter Pauwel Rubens, “Portrait of Maria Serra Pallavicino”, 1606. Via

What I read this week:

Potemkin village in Congo hides M23 rebels’ violent rule (via Laura Seay).

Erica Chenoweth has some great thoughts on how activists’ prior preferences shape their preference for violent versus nonviolent methods of resistance.

Using terms like “civil society” is a distraction from the real problems in authoritarian countries.

Steve Saideman on Canada and the F-35.

What Susan Rice has meant for US policy in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some interesting thoughts on surveys in conflict zones by Jason Lyall.

Corey Robin has fascinating take on Thomas Jefferson and slavery.

Dollar-less Iranians discover virtual currency.

Mitt Romney hanging out in my college area: “Romney has been keeping in shape with bike rides around La Jolla, past the bistros and boutiques that hug the rugged coastline.”

Dark Captain Light Captain – Miracle Kicker

Will Assad Use His Chemical Weapons?

By Taylor Marvin

On Sunday the New York Times reported that the Assad regime had begun to move its chemical weapons stockpiles. These ominous signs were echoed by a Danger Room piece Monday reporting that the Syrian government had begun to combine limited amounts of the precursor chemicals to sarin gas.

Prompted by the news, President Obama repeated his warning to Assad not to use these weapons, warning their use would result in “consequences”. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen seconded the warning, stating that “if anybody resorts to these terrible weapons I would expect an immediate reaction from the international community.” The United States has previously stated that the use of chemical weapons, or belief that their use is immanent, is a “red line” that would prompt international action against the Assad regime. For its own part, the Assad government has stated that it would use chemical weapons against an international intervention force.

It’s debatable whether Assad is actually prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people. Chemical weapons are imprecise instruments of destruction; subject to dispersal by wind and other atmospheric conditions, they are best deployed against massed troops, or as a indiscriminate terror weapon. Given the weapons’ limits in the chaotic urban combat characteristic of Syria’s civil war, Assad is unlikely to deploy them as a tactical weapon. It is more likely that if Assad elects to use chemical weapons, he will do so as a coercive instrument of terror. Barbara F. Walter noted this logic last summer, in the context of regime massacres of children:

“The game Assad is playing is a game of intimidation. Assad wins if he can convince Syrian citizens – especially those whose sympathies lie with the rebels – that he is able to kill any individual who does not fully support him.”

The problem here is that the regime would be unable to even remotely pretend that all of those killed by chemical weapons are rebel sympathizers. It is certainly true that massacring children is not a precise targeting of rebels (assuming that these massacres are actually ordered by the regime, and not just local commanders). But they do send the implicit message that those who do not fully support the regime will have their loved ones horribly killed, and rebel forces cannot protect them. By discouraging people from supporting the rebels, massacres function as strategic coercion. It is debatable whether indiscriminate chemical weapons can send this precise of a signal, because the nature of the Syrian conflict means that their are few geographic areas populated entirely by regime-perceived rebel sympathizers — unlike Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks on Iraqi Kurds. The Assad government has razed Damascus homes and indiscriminately shelled areas of Aleppo and Homs as collective punishment, but chemical weapons really cannot be targeted at the district-level. This has apparently not stopped the regime from considering their use, though — NPR reports that Iranian Quds Force officers have encouraged the regime to use chemical weapons in Homs.

Another possibility is that prospective regime chemical weapons use is a form of hostage taking. The regime possesses chemical weapons; the rebels do not. While these weapons are not suited to targeted collective punishment or tactical use against dispersed rebels in urban environments, they do give the regime the ability to kill many, many more people than the rebels. Given the the rebels value the lives of most Syrians, especially their coethnics, the regime can use its own citizens as hostages at attempt to compel rebels to stop fighting. This threat is one sided — because the rebels lack WMD and can’t kill large numbers of civilians, they can’t take hostages of their own. Of course, unlike a personal hostage situation, the regime can actually use chemical weapons to demonstrate resolve without actually “killing” the hostage. The regime can kill thousands of civilians with chemical weapons, and still threaten the lives of vastly more.

Importantly, this threat — to kill more Syrians than the rebels are willing to see die — is credible because of the regime’s lack of other options. Assad and high-level officials know they cannot flee the country because of the threat of prosecution for war crimes. Other regime coethnics, including Alawite-dominated security units, know that they are unlikely to survive a regime defeat. This lack of an escape route for defeated regime partisans suggests that Assad could be willing to escalate to indiscriminate chemical weapons use against civilians, despite the threat of NATO intervention.

Can Assad be deterred from using chemical weapons? Possibly. The regime hopes to prevent NATO entry into the war; if we accept NATO and the Obama administration’s statements that chemical weapons use is a red line that will trigger intervention, their threat has deterrence value. However, the threat to intervene if chemical weapons are used is not entirely credible. NATO leaders certainly would face increased domestic pressure to end the war and topple the regime if Assad did use his weapons. But Western audiences haven’t demanded a military intervention so far, despite the deaths of over 40,000 Syrians. Chemical weapons use would probably lead to a NATO air campaign targeting regime forces and weapons depots. But actually securing the weapons — the only reliable way to prevent their use — would require a ground invasion, which no one wants.

Importantly, using chemical weapons against his own people is not the last step in Assad’s escalation ladder. The Assad regime would still retain the ability to threaten Turkey and Israel (despite the prospect of deploying Patriot batteries along the Turkish-Syrian border, these systems are not guaranteed to intercept all Syrian missiles in an attack; a single Scud armed with a chemical warhead is sufficiently dangerous to be a powerful deterrent), and it is unclear if NATO’s resolve to punish chemical weapon use is strong enough to overcome this threat. David Blair (via Andrew Sullivan) ignores this regime card when he deems an intervention following chemical weapons use “certain”:

“From his point of view, the only rationale for using these weapons would be if his downfall would otherwise be absolutely inevitable. On the other hand, if he did choose to gas his enemies, that would be certain to trigger a US-led intervention that would seal his fate anyway. So rationality dictates that he should not use these weapons under any circumstances.”

Of course US and NATO officials have an incentive to appear resolute when posturing; it’s an entirely other question whether they would carry out their threats. Any form of entry into the Syrian war is a deeply unattractive prospect leaders will be reluctant to follow through on. If Assad judges defeat at the rebels’ hands to be assured, risking unassured NATO intervention is the rational choice.

This is particularly true because NATO has not been able, to the best of my knowledge, to create any type of commitment device to force their hands in a crisis. Michael Koplow ably highlighted this theory last week while arguing that Turkey should allow non-Turkish NATO troops to operate Patriot batteries deployed to Turkey:

“The reason for this is quite simple; if non-Turkish NATO troops are operating the Patriots and NATO is deciding when they should be used, the likelihood of deterring Assad – assuming that he can be deterred, which is a big if –  from lobbing missiles toward Turkey or from shelling the Patriot positions is greatly magnified. This is the tripwire theory of deterrence, which purposely places troops in harm’s way in order to ensure that an offensive will be met with a forceful response.”

Tripwire commitment devices significantly enhance threat credibility. But there’s no real way for NATO to create a commitment-binding tripwire Assad must trigger to use chemical weapons — there’s no NATO or international personnel that can be put in harm’s way. That leaves only NATO credibility as motivation for following through on their threats; given that NATO isn’t treaty-bound to intervene in Syria, it’s unclear how powerful this motivation is. Obviously NATO leaders will continue to insist that the Assad regime will be punished if it uses its chemical weapons. But observers shouldn’t take it as a given that these threats are credible, or that Assad will be unable to deter international entry into the conflict if he does use his WMD.

Since it remains unclear that the rebels can militarily defeat the regime, it is unlikely that Assad has sufficient motivation to use chemical weapons just yet. But NATO policymakers should be prepared for the possibility that their threats are not sufficient deterrence to prevent their use.

Hiding in a Dangerous Universe?

By Taylor Marvin

Jason T. Wright has a fascinating series of posts discussing the energy and waste heat constraints facing extraterrestrial civilizations, and in his most recent post argues that expansionary alien civilizations are likely long lived. This has interesting implications:

“I am arguing that once a civilization gets going, it’s going to take over the whole galaxy quickly, and that L (the lifetime of a typical civilization) is actually longer than the current age of the Universe. If this means that subsequent civilizations are unlikely to arise, then N= 0 or 1 for most galaxies (0, in fact, since most galaxies don’t look like they’re full of Dyson spheres).”

This is an interesting challenge to the classically understood implications of the Fermi Paradox and explanations for the Great Silence. Even if we accept the Rare Earth argument that the conditions required for the evolution of Earth-like complex life are rare, the sheer number of rocky planets in our galaxy suggests that even intelligent civilizations based on Earth-like biology should be relatively common. This presumed frequency is typically squared with our failure to observe evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations by noting that even if these civilizations are common, they are unlikely to coincide with us in space and time. However, if the first civilization to begin expansion is likely to dominate the galaxy fairly quickly, then this explanation doesn’t hold. As Wright notes, if an intelligent expansionistic civilization had arisen in the past it would be long lived, and we would observe it today. The fact that we don’t is clear evidence that an alien civilization has never begun expanding in our galaxy — or, for that matter, in any other close enough for us to observe a lack of Dyson spheres at our observed time. If we haven’t observed an alien civilization in the local group, it’s likely because there have never been any there.

There are a few ways around this observation. Speculatively, perhaps interstellar civilizations do arise frequently, expand, but quickly evolve into a state that renders them undetectable. Science fiction plays around with this conjecture: Kardashev type III civilizations could exist, but just in some way we’re incapable of recognizing, or advanced civilizations could choose to expand in virtual reality rather than the outside universe.

Another possibility is the classic answer to the Drake Equation: perhaps intelligent civilizations are common, but they universally fail to expand beyond their home system and are short lived. This state is possible even if civilizations do not destroy themselves before expanding. As I have previously discussed, there are reasons to believe that low-birthrate, energy constrained, individually rational species (in short, a species like us) would fail to expand even if it is in their long-term interest. However, this explanation is obviously problematic. Even if a species’ innate characteristics discourage expansion, AIs derived from this particular civilization would not share the same traits: it is easy to imagine a universe where biological species fail to expand, but AI entities descended from their computers do not. Similarly, even if many species destroy themselves before they can expand beyond their home systems, or elect not to, it’s unreasonable to suppose that this tendency is universal. If Wright’s logical conclusion that expansionary civilizations’ L is long and leads to an N=1 galactic outcome, we would only have to be predated by a single expansionary civilization for us to observe alien intelligence. Given that our galaxy has likely been potentially habitable for over ten billion years, this implies that civilizations are extremely rare.

Possible reason for dangerous universe.

Possible reason for dangerous universe.

Even more speculatively, another possibility is that civilizations are common, but universally elect not to expand. Because alien civilizations’ behavior would be governed by vastly different biological and economic constraints, this decision would have to be motivated by outside influence. Specifically, alien civilizations, like us, fail to observe evidence of aliens. Civilizations then face a choice: they can either expand, and enjoy the massive first mover advantage that leads to the N=1 outcome, or not expand. Why not? One possibility is that alien civilizations do exist, but are actively hiding. Alien civilizations may reason that the absence of observable aliens is evidence that the universe is extremely dangerous, and other civilizations are either hiding or extinct. This allows for the original Drake equation’s assumption, in Wright’s words, of a “steady-state of short-lived civilizations” that never move from a Kardashev type II to III. Instead they elect not to expand, or only as much as remaining hidden allows. Importantly, it’s possible that this no first mover equilibrium exists whether or not there is actually a malevolent entity that makes the universe dangerous. Since no civilization can be sure that they’re the first intelligence in the galaxy, the possibility of frightened and hiding extraterrestrials is impossible to rule out.

If the universe is dangerous, then expansion — or being detectable, in general — is risky. Of course, not expanding is the ultimate “risky” choice — civilizations that don’t spread beyond their home star are doomed to die along with it. If humans fail to expand beyond Earth in significant numbers, our civilization will die at most a billion years from now. Given this time frame, the risk detection leads to immediate, complete destruction must be very high for civilizations to choose not to expand. For example, say that humans will be completely destroyed 42,000 years after being detected by whatever malevolent entity makes the galaxy dangerous (the Earth is 26,000 light years from the center of the galaxy; this assumes that a destructive force is dispatched at light speed as soon as evidence of humans reaches the center of the galaxy. I’m spitballing here). Given this assumption, the expected number of years human civilization survives is maximized by not expanding if the risk that the universe is dangerous is >.99996. Obviously, all alien species must be extremely risk averse to make a conscious choice not to expand out of fear, especially since the only evidence of a dangerous universe type is the absence of observable civilizations.

So not particularly convincing! But pretend this is the case, and the galaxy is relatively full of risk averse alien civilizations afraid to expand. This suggests an interesting strategic interaction. The first civilization to expand beyond their home star takes a bet that the universe is not dangerous. If they are wrong, they are exterminated. However, if they’re right their civilization enjoys the first mover advantage that leads to a N=1 galaxy, and survives essentially forever. Given the low likelihood that all civilizations in the galaxy are extremely risk averse, lack of evidence that the universe is a dangerous type, and massive first mover advantage, it is unlikely that universal hiding is a stable equilibrium.

Another problem is that colonization is not necessarily risky. As Robin Hanson has noted, “if this colonization effort could hide its origins from those who might retaliate, what would they have to lose?” For expansion to be risky, the hidden malevolent entity must be so all-powerful that it can arbitrarily destroy colonies separated by many light years and remain dangerous across deep time, but still fail to detect hidden civilizations — a narrow criteria! These requirements, and the likelihood that a galaxy full of hiding, non-expansionistic civilizations is not in stable equilibrium, suggests that the ‘aliens are hiding’ answer to the Fermi Paradox is not convincing.


Previous posts on aliens and human expansion:

Through Struggle, the Stars: What’s a Interstellar Humanity Look Like?

Reconsidering “First Contact”

What Would an Expansionist Alien Species Be Like?

“Putting Your Mind” to Space Industrialization

Battle: Los Angeles, Red Dawn, and Alien Invasions

The Economics of Alien Invasion