What Do Stagnant Supercivilizations Do During Their Million Year Lifespans?

Nick Nielsen
Jun 3, 2017 · 6 min read
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In Stagnant Supercivilizations and Another Formulation of Stagnant Supercivilizations (as well in my recent Medium post, Suboptimal Civilizations, which includes some of this earlier material), I discussed the possibility of supercivilizations (in the sense that Kardashev introduced the term) that are stagnant. I think it is more common to think of supercivilizations as growing, viable, and vital entities, so I wanted to explore the possibilities of civilizations that have become very old, very large, and very powerful, but which have ceased to develop.

Let us revisit the idea of a stagnant supercivilization, and let that stagnant supercivilization be a truly accomplished civilization in possession of mature technologies, as well as both the technological and economic wherewithal to pursue any aims that it cared to pursue. I have often mentioned that Carl Sagan speculated on the possibility of million-year-old civilizations (and others have discussed the possibility of billion-year-old civilizations), so let us suppose that our supercivilization is a million-year-old civilization or better.

Scientific Possibilities for a Supercivilization

We shall assume that the supercivilization has become a supercivilization at least partially due to its mastery of science. Such a civilization would be in a position to be able to scientifically observe worlds with mature biospheres in order to watch and wait for the emergence of intelligent life, and perhaps to observe the entire process of the origins and development of civilization from an uncivilized condition. This is because a million-year-old supercivilization would endure over biologically-relevant periods of time, and so could observe the emergence of species and societies in real time.

More than that, such a civilization could terraform worlds at will, seed them with life, and guide them to the development of intelligent life and civilization — in other words, such a supercivilization could be an agent of panspermia, even directed panspermia, and the cognitive and social equivalents of panspermia (say, pancognitivism and pancivicism, to coin two unlovely but potentially useful terms).

Could a stagnant supercivilization remain stagnant and without development if it were in a position to observe the emergence and development of intelligent species and their civilizations? Presumably, observing this macroscopic process would yield truly impressive knowledge about the possibilities of civilization. Could a civilization remain static and stagnant while assimilating such knowledge? It seems unlikely, but we can at least entertain the possibility.

Scenarios for Stagnant Scientific Observation

I can think of at least four possibilities for the stagnant reception of the knowledge of civilization, which is a form of self-knowledge for any other civilization:

  1. A stagnant supercivilization observing the rise and fall of younger civilizations might be in possession of an exhaustive science of civilization such that nothing that they observe is anomalous or novel.
  2. A stagnant supercivilization observing the rise and fall of younger civilizations might be so lethargic and jaded that even the stimulation of observing the emergence of civilizations might leave it as unaffected intellectually as would it would presumably be unaffected morally or emotionally.
  3. The stagnancy of a stagnant supercivilization might be so deeply entrenched in the culture that the civilization is incapable of conceptualizing what it observes as different from its conceptual framework, so that even if it observes anomaly or novelty, it is incapable of recognizing these as such.
  4. A stagnant supercivilization might actively suppress knowledge that suggested intellectual stimulation that could prod that civilization out of its lethargy.

No doubt there are many other possibilities, but I here suggest those that come to mind simply to give a flavor of the kind of scenarios I am entertaining.

Stagnant Supercivilizations of the SETI Paradigm

One could argue that for merely contingent historical reasons it is impossible for even a supercivilization to observe the emergence of other life and civilization. Say, for purposes of argument, that our supercivilization in question conforms to the SETI paradigm (i.e., the assumption that civilizations are trapped within their planetary systems and therefore communicate rather than travel, i.e., that there are hard limits to interstellar travel), and so cannot observe worlds in other planetary systems. Still, this would not preclude megascale engineering within the home planetary system of the supercivilization, which could include panspermia-like initiatives.

If terrestrial civilization became a supercivilization constrained by the scope of its home planetary system, we could still take worlds like Venus or Mars, move them into appropriate orbits, terraform them, and supervise the creation of other biospheres with other life. If the lifespan of this terrestrial supercivilization passed into the hundreds of millions of years or billions of years, we could even terraform other planets within our system, just to see what would happen, and then sterilize them and again start from scratch, over and over again.

While these are interesting ideas, the present point is not that these things are possible, but that even a supercivilization constrained by the SETI paradigm could produce the kind of stimulation I have discussed above within its home planetary system. Moreover, it could be argued (I think persuasively) that a supercivilization constrained by the SETI paradigm would be a candidate for stagnation given this strong constraint. Nevertheless, the possibility of civilizational-scale stimulation remains even for a stagnant and constrained supercivilization.

Stagnant Superciviilzations Surpassed by Developing Civilizations

We can inject another twist into the scenario of stagnant supercivilizations by considering the possibility of stagnant supercivilizations that not only observe the emergence of other civilizations de novo, but, beyond this, observe the emergence of other civilizations that continue to develop and eventually to surpass the stagnant supercivilization that observed their emergence. Could a stagnant supercivilization sit by and watch as a civilization it saw develop from its earliest stages surpasses it and goes on to greater things?

This is one way to interpret Arthur C. Clarke’s great novel Childhood’s End: the Overlords in the novel are essentially a stagnant supercivilization that can assist the Overmind in superintending the development of less advanced civilizations, but the Overlords themselves cannot make this transition. This is a rather melancholy state of affairs, and it is presented as such in the book (the recent television production failed to capture many of the most important themes of the book).

In Clarke’s tale the Overlords are intrinsically incapable of transcending their contemporaneous level of development. This suggests a distinction between stagnant supercivilizations intrinsically incapable to continuing the self-transcendence that marks developing civilizations, for whatever reason, and stagnant civilizations that are capable of transcending themselves, but for extrinsic reasons, whatever these may be, they are held back from further development.

Two Kinds of Stagnant Supercivilizations

We may distinguish, then, between intrinsically stagnant supercivilizations and extrinsically stagnant supercivilizations. For an example of the latter, we can take a supercivilization conforming to the SETI paradigm that finds itself stranded within a home planetary system with insufficient resources to do anything more than survive. Such a supercivilization might be long-lived, and possess an advanced science and technology, but it would be severely constrained in what it could do with its science and technology.

For an example of the former, an intrinsically stagnant supercivilization could structurally incorporate constraints that would limit it as effectively, or more effectively, than any extrinsic constraints, though it may possess resources sufficient to break out of its permanent stagnation. How could a civilization be so constituted? Perhaps this could involve ethical or religious limitations placed upon intelligence or particular activities.

For example, it is easy to imagine that an advanced civilization might choose not to stimulate itself in the way described above, that is, by terraforming worlds and observing the emergence of intelligent beings and civilizations. This might well be viewed as morally repugnant. Many today would likely argue against this, even as a speculative enterprise that we are not now in a position to initiate.

Perhaps truly transformative knowledge that could drive the self-transcendence of a stagnant supercivilization is all or mostly of this character, requiring some radical intervention into the course of nature that no advanced civilization is willing to undertake. The gradual stagnation of science from ethical proscriptions could be a source of the stagnation of scientific civilizations.

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Originally published at geopolicraticus.tumblr.com.

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