Childhood’s End and why a war between us and aliens is profoundly unlikely

ChildhoodsEndLast night, SyFy debuted two shows, ‘The Expanse’, which I’ve already written about, and ‘Childhood’s End’, which is an adaptation of a classic science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke.  With these two shows, along with some other pretty decent ones earlier this year such as ‘Dark Matter’ and ‘Killjoys’, the network seems to be on a mission to return to quality sci-fi.  That, and they’ve actually been showing reruns of good science fiction movies in recent months.  All of which brings them back to being a hub for science fiction entertainment.  It’s a nice change.

Growing up, I enjoyed most of Clarke’s stories, but I can’t say that ‘Childhood’s End’ was one of them.  (To explain why would involve discussing spoilers.)  But I have to say that the first part of the TV adaptation was superb.  And it also did an excellent job of highlighting something I’ve mentioned here before.

Namely, that if aliens capable of crossing interstellar distances did ever show up, the difference in capabilities between them and us would be roughly equivalent to the difference between a squad of naval seals and a troop of baboons.  If the aliens wanted our little speck of leftover stardust, we’d be, at best, a minor hindrance to their plans.

The show does an excellent job of demonstrating just how wide that disparity in capabilities would be.  One of the characters remarks something to the effect that they’re just like us, but with a 30,000 year head start.  In reality, given cosmic timescales, any species we’d likely encounter would be millions of years ahead of us, possibly billions.

Consider what would happen if we went to a world identical to ours but 1% behind us in evolution, about 45 million years.  The most intelligent thing around would be primitive proto-primates.  There would be little the inhabitants of that world could do to prevent us from doing whatever we wanted.  Indeed, the inhabitants wouldn’t even understand most of what they were seeing.

Now consider if someone 1% ahead of us comes here.

As the ‘Childhood End’ miniseries shows, in that situation, we’d be completely at their mercy.  We could only hope that their intentions toward us would be benevolent.

The good news, or depending on your view the bad news, is the simplest answer to Fermi’s Paradox.  The paradox is, if alien civilizations are prevalent, then where is everyone?  The simplest answer is that the nearest extraterrestrial civilization is probably millions, or perhaps even billions of light years away.  Otherwise Earth would likely have been colonized long before we evolved.

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29 Responses to Childhood’s End and why a war between us and aliens is profoundly unlikely

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    CE is based upon our inability to separate someone’s looks from their behavior. But in that case the “looks” are entirely imaginary, making it even more outlandish.


  2. Steve Ruis says:

    The easy answer to Fermi’s Paradox is that the aliens dropped by 200,000 years ago and missed us. (They didn’t bother to leave a card.) Not only is space incredibly vast but also time is. To encounter an alien race, they would have to come by this particular space (quite closely to catch an observation) and in this particular time (within the last 10,000 years if they wanted to observe a civilization.


    • But it would only take an alien species a few million years to put a permanent presence in every solar system in the galaxy. (We can increase that to a few hundreds of millions of years if we want to be conservative with what is possible in interstellar travel.) There may be some races that wouldn’t be interested in doing so, but it would only take one.

      Another possibility of course, is that civilizations are constantly arising, but that it’s in the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself. But to solve Fermi’s Paradox, we’d have to assume that all of them die out without exception. Again, it only takes one to survive and colonize the galaxy.


      • Ignostic Dave says:

        I certainly lean towards your second option, but consider the first. With the difficulties with the speed of communication between star systems, there’s no reason for colonization of disparate systems for the purpose of social expansion. Civilizations so far removed are essentially cut off from one another – no Facebook. They will sooner enact population controls than send off a ship whose children will be so far away. The people who make this trip will be social outcasts and dissidents, who wish to be cut off. Being social creatures though, this isn’t something that will be taken lightly.

        On the other hand, if the civilization doesn’t care about social expansion and instead focuses on domination, then the rapid colonization of the galaxy could totally happen. The fact that we haven’t seen any aliens in this case is refreshing, suggesting that a warlike conquest attitude is quite rare.


        • I used the word “colonize” above, but self replicating probes would accomplish much the same thing. If there are more than a handful of civilizations, it’s hard to imagine that at least one wouldn’t have saturated the galaxy with them.

          I think there would likely be several from many different species already in our solar system, and at least one of them would now be studying us without concern over whether or not we see them. (Of course, it’s always possible that we are seeing them but can’t recognize them for what they are, but down that path lies madness.)


          • Ignostic Dave says:

            Without the will of people to follow the endlessly replicating probes and leave behind an acceptable existence, there’s not much point in sending them in the first place.

            Unless of course, you’re talking about a species that created an AI with an imperative to reproduce and spread, something we’ve known for a while would be pretty dumb, and we can assume other species would figure the same and actively avoid it. Otherwise, if we’re talking about a singular central intelligence hub, then sending the probes off to another system 50 light years away would release its control over the peripheral system. Actually, even light-minutes might be too much of a separation for such a being. If we’re talking about a community of AIs, then the same social restrictions apply as to regular people – why leave?


        • I think simply having a desire to know and catalog what exists throughout the galaxy would be sufficient. I could definitely see us deciding to do that, regardless of whether we’d ever be able to follow behind. And having enough information on all those worlds, and being able to experience them virtually could be as good as the real thing. (Assuming that some form of mind uploading isn’t possible where we follow the probes by being transmitted to them.)

          The idea of self replicating probes going berserk and converting the entire galaxy into probes has become a bit of a science fiction cliche. But it’s not hard to imagine simple safeguards to ensure that doesn’t happen. Probes that couldn’t recognize when to stop replicating would hardly qualify as intelligent, artificial or not.

          (Incidentally, The Expanse will eventually have an interesting take on this, although it doesn’t become evident until the third book, which means it probably won’t show up on the show until the third season, assuming it’s successful.)


  3. Wyrd Smythe says:

    I increasingly think the answer to Fermi’s Paradox is either that [A] if intelligent life turns out to be common, we’re the first — the “ancestors” — because the universe is actually quite young; or [B] Rare Earth Hypothesis: intelligent life is extremely rare, possibly even at a rate of less than one per galaxy (this one just happened to beat the odds).


    • I’d say that I primarily land on [B] but I’m open to the possibility of [A], particularly if we find life in the outer solar system. It might mean that most complex life in the universe will eventually be around stable red dwarfs, or in underground seas on moons where gravitational tidal forces produce energy.

      Of course, if we’re the first and go around uplifting or otherwise engineering intelligent species, the local universe could be a lot more crowded long before the next naturally intelligent species has a chance to evolve.


      • Wyrd Smythe says:

        Indeed. We know from the one data point we have that five billion years is enough time for a space travel capable species to arise. Given the age of the galaxy, the Fermi Paradox suggests the circumstances required for intelligence must be what’s rare, so it really comes down to the factors in the Drake Equation… and that’s the big mystery.

        It might be like coin flipping and trying to get 10,000 consecutive heads in a row.


        • The Great Filter, the unknown factor that most planets (apparently) never get past. Is it the origin of life? Sexual reproduction? Complex life? Dexterous species? Intelligence?

          Or is the Great Filter maybe yet to come? Maybe it’s in the nature of intelligence to destroy itself. The universe could be a graveyard of dead civilizations. (I personally doubt this could be consistent enough to eliminate every civilization, but who knows?)


          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            I know at least on SF writer who’s posited that all intelligent species do kill themselves off, but that’s fiction obviously. As you say, who knows.

            My take on the “filter” is that the circumstances of our moon, the apparent accident of mitochondria, and the evolution of RNA, seem to me major steps along the way. (The moon may account for our strong (protective!) magnetic field as well as tidal pools that may have been instrumental to early life.)


          • Hmmm. Didn’t know that about the moon and the magnetic field. Something to do with the collision between proto-Earth and Theia?


          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            Supposedly the metallic core of Theia merged with Earth’s giving us a very robust and powerful core. The Moon, of course, is just rock.

            There is also that the collision gave us our daily cycle rather than — as supposedly when Venus experienced a collision with one of its Trojans — slowing us down disastrously.

            Here’s a vaguely related question that I’ve been pondering: What if it turns out no other solar system has a ringed planet as spectacular as Saturn? What if all others we find are like Jupiter or Uranus? Wouldn’t that be freaky! 😀


          • What I wonder is what other visually stunning arrangements are out there. What is freaky is that I read somewhere that Saturn’s rings may disappear in a few million years. In 100 millions years, our own solar system may not have a planet with prominent rings.


          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “Saturn’s rings may disappear in a few million years.”

            That’s exactly what got me wondering about other star systems!

            We seem to be here at a unique solar system time (and perhaps seeing a somewhat unique planet). There are a variety of “strange” events that seem to have to have happened for us to be here.

            We seem balanced on a tiny piece of phase space where various physical parameters (apparent constants) allow stars to work and atoms to stay together (both desirable).

            We’re even at a unique universe time, before so much goes out of sight, and yet, if the universe’s age is one trillion years, we’re at roughly 00:20 of that 24-hour “day” (hence my we’re the ancestors hypothesis).

            So my question is: How many such oddities have to pile up before a teleological discussion becomes a serious matter?

            The virtual reality hypothesis seems to be catching on… 🙂


          • “We seem to be here at a unique solar system time ”

            I think we have to be careful to remember that we know more about our own time than other times. For all we know, there may have been breathtaking wonders to behold in the solar system, a billion years ago. Maybe every gas giant once had prominent rings. We also can’t know what we might have seen in the universe if we’d been around, say, 2 billion years after the big bang. The farthest things visible then are now beyond our cosmic horizon, just as much of what we see today will be beyond the cosmic horizon of observers in 100 billion years.

            “How many such oddities have to pile up before a teleological discussion becomes a serious matter?”

            Historically, none. People are predisposed to have teleological discussions. They’re far more ancient than even the oldest proto-science. But they’ve never been a fruitful goal for those seeking accurate explanations of reality. Most of our progress appears to have come after we stopped holding out for teleological explanations, or at least bracketed them while we investigated.

            My view on virtual reality is that it doesn’t matter. If we are in a simulation, that simulation is effectively our reality, and it appears to provide harsh penalties when we don’t take it seriously, so we have no choice but to play the game.


          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “For all we know, there may have been breathtaking wonders to behold in the solar system, a billion years ago.”

            A fair point, although I think we have enough of a sense of the evolution of our solar system to rule it out as being very likely (no nearby supernova remnants, for example). The thing that strikes me — and I’m just saying that I do find it striking; not making some big point here — is that Saturn is very far away, but the rings are visible even in crude telescopes.

            I’ve gazed at the rings through a (fairly decent) backyard telescope, and it really is a breath-taking experience to see them “in person” as it were.

            “People are predisposed to have teleological discussions.”

            Heh! Well, yes, but I’m talking about serious people who’ve been inclined to think the universe happened according to basic physical principles.

            I do agree that a universe built for some purpose seems unlikely, but I try to keep an open mind. (There is also that a strictly physical universe is more boring to me than one with some sort of teleology. 🙂 )

            “Most of our progress…”

            Absolutely. I’m not at all denying the effectiveness of physical science. But, as you say, “most” progress. Perhaps we’re missing a real part of reality by insisting it can’t be there if not evidenced by physical science.

            There has been speculation that consciousness might be a fundamental force. That might some day lead to a testable hypothesis.

            There is some ‘X’ that accounts for how we’re here. So far we can only guess at what ‘X’ might be, so speculation within reasonable bounds is fair game! 🙂

            “My view on virtual reality is that it doesn’t matter.”

            Ah, yes, we do differ in our appreciation for the abstract and strictly philosophical. 😀

            One thing that’s interesting (okay, to me, anyway 🙂 ) about the idea is that it’s spreading. I’ve now heard a number of different people talk about it seriously.

            And, as I wrote about, once you accept the possibility, then it turns out the probability is really high (based on simple reasoning).

            The trick, tying this in to your other post, is finding a way to test the idea. Some think the disconnect between GR and QFT might be a clue (different rules for small- and large-scale phenomena).

            I suppose ultimately, it’s just an interesting flavor to chew on sometimes. 😀


          • “Perhaps we’re missing a real part of reality by insisting it can’t be there if not evidenced by physical science.”

            Could be, but what’s the alternative? As we discussed on the other thread, science’s power comes from testing every proposition, from the reality check. There have been millennia of speculation about non-physical phenomena. From what I can see, there’s no shortage of it today. Other than some psychological comfort (which I don’t discount), I can’t see that it’s demonstrated any enduring insights.

            “There has been speculation that consciousness might be a fundamental force. ”

            Consciousness is undeniably fundamental, to the subjective experience of a conscious system. I can’t see that there’s any evidence that it’s objectively fundamental in the sense of gravity, electromagnetism, or the nuclear forces.

            Of course, many of the people who engage in that speculation also say that objective reality is an illusion, which ties into the simulation hypothesis. I guess the question I always have then is, and so? Does that notion give us any explanatory power we didn’t have before? What follows from it?

            Of course, these are the views of a skeptic, so take them in that light 🙂


          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “Could be, but what’s the alternative?”

            I should have said “not evidenced yet” … speculation may lead to ways of testing. We do know that science has its own biases because science is comprised of people and their ideas, and speculation at least tests those boundaries and sometimes does lead to new directions. (String Theory is filled with such speculation.)

            “I can’t see that it’s demonstrated any enduring insights.”

            I suppose it depends on what you mean.

            “Consciousness is undeniably fundamental,…”

            Is it? I’m not sure it is fundamental (rather than emergent), but I am sure it’s not undeniably so. That’s just your hyperbole circuit kicking in. Probably Trump’s fault. 🙂

            And I did mean, as in a putative fifth force. I read a paper by a guy at MIT many years ago, and I’ve seen the idea mentioned here and there.

            It is speculative but does have some merit. It’s related, really, to panpsychism. Given the mystery of consciousness, it is an iron in the fire.

            And not to pick on you, but dismissive statements like ” I can’t see that there’s any evidence…” speak more to our limitations than to the science. It’s the out of hand dismissal that’s one of the biases of established science against new ideas that I’m talking about.

            I don’t mean to accuse you of it, but the phrase is one that’s often used by established science, often to protect their domain. It’s a line that has to be walked between lack of evidence and lack of willingness to explore possibly unproductive avenues.

            Again, just to be very clear, I’m not saying you’re doing this, but it is a common thing that has happened over and over in science. Fortunately, science proceeds despite scientists.

            300 years ago we never would have imagined that QFT would be the reality. Maybe in another 300 we’ll be contemplating things we can’t even begin to imagine now.

            “Of course, many of the people who engage in that speculation also say that objective reality is an illusion”

            Not in my experience. I think you’re conflating two different views of reality here. Those who speculate about panpsychism and consciousness as a fifth physical force tend to be philosophical realists rather than idealists.

            Philosophical idealism isn’t a view I find very compelling (I’m pretty firmly a realist).

            You’re right that the VR view has some aspects of idealism, but does posit a exterior reality, so really is in the realism camp.

            “What follows from it?”

            Knowledge. Perhaps art. For some of us that’s reason a plenty.

            And, in general, when you explore the world, you never can tell what may come of it! 😀


          • “I suppose it depends on what you mean.”

            I meant any knowledge that stands the test of time, that we can build upon. Something along the lines of F=ma, E=mc^2, or the laws of thermodynamics.

            “I’m not sure it is fundamental (rather than emergent), but I am sure it’s not undeniably so. ”

            You may not have realized the importance of the second half of that sentence: “Consciousness is undeniably fundamental, to the subjective experience of a conscious system.” In other words, consciousness is fundamental to the experience of being conscious. This is a tautological statement. The reason I make it is to highlight the difference between it being fundamental at the subjective scope and being fundamental in the objective universe.

            “And not to pick on you, but dismissive statements like ” I can’t see that there’s any evidence…” speak more to our limitations than to the science. ”

            It’s okay to call me close-minded Wyrd. You wouldn’t be the first after I mentioned not seeing evidence for something. I suspect you wouldn’t be the last 🙂

            Quantum physics is a good example. It’s utterly bizarre, but scientists accept it because they have no choice. Empirical evidence forces it upon them. Some physicists resisted hit (Einstein) but within a few short years, most of the field had come around.

            Could all scientists be biased against evidence of non-physical phenomena? Possibly. But it pays to remember how intensely competitive scientific fields are, and how the most common aspiration of most scientists is to make a discovery that forces a new paradigm. And remember, depending on who you ask, 30-40% of scientist are religious to one degree or another. I’m sure they’re open to evidence of non-physical phenomena, even if their more skeptical colleagues aren’t.

            (I actually dislike using the terms like “physical” or “materialism” here, because I think it blurs the actual issue. The original materialists were initially suspicious of gravitation for the same reason Einstein was suspicious of entanglement, because both seemed “spooky”. I’m not a physicalist or a materialist, but I am an evidentialist.)

            “Not in my experience. I think you’re conflating two different views of reality here. ”

            David Chalmers has expressed sympathy with the idea of consciousness being fundamental and with objective reality being an illusion. Donald Hoffman has explicitly stated he thinks objective reality is an illusion. This is a long video, but it has Chalmers, Dennett, and Hoffman discussing their ideas at length (along with Stuart Hameroff inserting some opinions), with Dennett being the grouchy skeptic in the mix, spoiling everyone’s fun.


          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            “You may not have realized the importance of the second half of that sentence:”

            Maybe, but it doesn’t really change anything for me. It really turns on what one means by “fundamental” and I’d just as soon a passing comment not turn into a long discussion.

            And, OMG, we seem to have turned this into a discussion about consciousness…

            Pass. 😄

            “It’s okay to call me close-minded Wyrd.”

            Are you embracing the concept? ❓

            “Could all scientists be biased against evidence of non-physical phenomena?”

            No, no one is suggesting anything about “all” scientists.

            This all traces back to another passing comment about consciousness being a putative fifth force. It’s just a speculation. Someday it might lead to something more. Or not.

            “David Chalmers has expressed sympathy with the idea of consciousness being fundamental and with objective reality being an illusion.”

            I’m familiar with his thoughts on the former, but not the latter. I’ll listen to the video when I get a chance (and when I feel like diving into those waters again).


          • “Are you embracing the concept? ❓ ”
            No, I’m just used to having the label applied when I mention lack of evidence. 🙂


          • Wyrd Smythe says:

            I’d push back on that one… “closed minded” and “skeptical” are rather different concepts. The former, as I take it, is kind of insulting. The latter, again IMO, isn’t.

            In fact,… now that you’ve got me thinking about it, I’d hope people would see me as a very open-minded skeptic, so, yeah, very different concepts!

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Tienzen (Jeh Tween) Gong says:

    This is an off topic but is a very exciting recent event. I am just trying to get your view on those recent events.
    Particle physics is too technical for the layperson, even for great philosopher. But the discovered FACT (not the discovering processes) of nature should and must be becoming easily understandable by the layperson, even for 8th grader. So, I am trying to get your view point on some of those issues (the facts of nature, not the equations of physics).
    On December 15, 2015, CERN released the RUN 2 (13 Tev) data, and there is a hint about a bump around 750 Gev region. Thus far, no mainstream model is able to explain this.
    In Vacuum Boson Model (VBM), the first excited state of vev (ground state of vacuum energy, about 246 Gev.) sits right around at 750 Gev. The key point of this VBM model is that when 750 Gev bump shows up, the old bump (Vacuum Boson, wrongly named as Higgs boson) will be greatly reduced (if not disappear altogether) in accordance to a dynamic equation. And, this is readily verifiable even with the current (Run 2) available data. See, .
    You can ignore those calculations although they are very simple. But, you are definitely capable of evaluating the arguments of the story.


    • Hi Tienzen,
      I’m not nearly as versed in particle physics as you are, so I don’t have thought out views on it. From what I’ve read, the current confidence of this 750 GeV bump is at 2-sigma, with many physicists cautioning that it could still turn out to be statistical noise, preferring to hold out until it’s at 5-sigma.

      Still, at 2-sigma there’s a 95% chance that something is there. What the significance of that something is, I’ll leave to the physicists. I suspect many in the theoretical community will be happy to see anything unexpected in the data that might lead to new models.

      Looking at some of your linked stuff, I agree that there seems a strong reluctance to let go of SUSY, but the physicists I follow increasingly seem to be coming to terms with it. It’s all the more reason why I find calls from some theorists to judge theories by their mathematical aesthetics so misguided. Without the reality check of experimentation and observation, they’re just engaging in philosophical speculation.


      • Tienzen (Jeh Tween) Gong says:

        “(1)… to judge theories by their mathematical aesthetics so misguided.
        (2) Without the reality check of experimentation and observation, they’re just engaging in philosophical speculation.”

        Thanks for your reply.
        I do not agree with the above two points 100%.
        One, every lie can always find many supporting empirical evidences. Empirical evidences are useful and important but is absolutely not a tool for confirming truth. One great example is the General Relativity (GR) which has verified zillion times with the AVAILABLE tests and observations. But, the fact is that:
        A, it is inconsistent with other realities (such as Quantum world)
        B, it is totally useless (1) in Standard Model, (2) in calculating any nature constant, (3) in dark energy and dark mass issues, 4) in baryongenesis, 5) in ruling out the nonsenses, such as SUSY, Multiverse, etc.
        GR is not only wrong as a correct (final theory) but is stupid (a hindrance for the advancement of physics for almost 50 years), see

        Yes, the CLAIMed mathematical aesthetics of M-string theory has greatly misguided people. But, it is wrong done by those M-string theory devotees, as it is not M-aesthetics at all. The true mathematical consistency (not aesthetics, not knowing what it means of aesthetics) is very important in judging a theory. The key word is SIMPLE, understandable by every 8th grader. This article ( ) provides one example.

        The scientific epistemology (methodology) is a very important issue. I won’t have time to get into it now but will give my two cents later.


        • I would clarify that there’s a difference between verificationism, the old logical positivist standard that said a theory need to be empirically verifiable, and falsification, the Popperian standard that says it only needs to make predictions that could conceivably be observed to be false.

          Both General Relativity and the Standard Model meet the falsification criteria, and neither have yet been falsified. (Although I hope physicists are starting to wonder about the stark failure to observe gravitational waves. It might be time to ask what that could mean.)

          I reblogged a post by Jerry Coyne this morning on the recent conference about assessing untestable theories. There are many things I disagree with Coyne on, but I agreed with just about everything he said in that post. String theories are scientific speculation, and that’s fine, as long as continue to label them as “speculation” and not confirmed.


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