Alien Civilizations & the Arc of Technological Development

The SETI project has me wondering just how similar alien civilizations might be to our own, thus inspiring this question: would you imagine that the general arc of technological development we have witnessed on Earth reflects something of a universal constant?

That is, would you expect to find roughly similar progressions from spear and catapult to rifle and missile? Would radios and radio telescopes look essentially the same, barring certain aesthetic refinements, in said extraterrestrial societies? Computers and telephones? Modes of transportation?

My thinking is that technologically inclined civilizations pass through a standard, perhaps predictable, learning curve, allowing for some variations, of course. The difference I would expect is one of speed of innovation and its transfer to related (or unrelated) applications.

Obviously, I do not want to tread into the disciplines of art, music, literature, philosophy, religion, etc. Variations within each seems certain and significant.

Your thoughts are encouraged.

I would assume that if other civilizations needed technology for the same purposes that we needed it, then their technology would be somewhat similar to ours. However, your post makes some big assumptions. You say “spear to catapult to rifle to missile”, but what if a civilization developed without the need for warfare? The question of telephones is interesting; if a species didn’t communicate with sound, then a telephone would be fairly useless. And differences in physical environment could also affect tachnology. For example, on a planet with lots of rivers for easy transportation by sailing, the wheel might not even be necessary.

one of my sisters told me that a nun said to her that “science and religion don’t mix.” i think religion tends to produce traditionalist mentalities. people that oppose change or thinking outside the approved rut. so an alien civilization would be working with the same laws of physics and would develop some technologies in the same sequence since one level of technology requires tools from the previous level, but the development rate might be faster without religion, but it could be slower without war. war tends to give people incentive to fund research that might otherwise be regarded as useless. werner von braun wanted to go to the moon but hitler would fund bombing london.

“vunce ze rockets are up who cares vhere they come down.
nazi, smazi says werner von braun.”

                                Tom Leher

Dal Timgar

I will agree with dal and say that war is probably good for technological growth and not religion, and I will also agree with the implicit assumptions that societal development of an intellectual race is probably somewhat similar to ours. The specifics of religion, nations, and so on will vary, but I think we’ve pretty much followed a course that is bound to be followed by a race of intelligent territorial creatures.

I also agree with ITR that the environment may be different enough to facilitate different technology, but I disregard the non-development of the wheel. Though it may come later, it is one of the simple machines and any technological civilization is probably bound to happen upon it.

In summary, I agree that much of any intelligent civilization will follow a somewhat similar path. what will vary is the specific steps along the path, and the time taken to travel along said path. But because, again as dal pointed out, the laws of physics (we assume) are the same everywhere, it seems that end results will have high similarities.

Substitute “in Western Culture” for “on Earth” and you may have some of your answer. You don’t have to go to Alpha Centauri to see stone age tribes existing within a short flight of the most modern cultures. So, reducing your question to terrestrial models, we can witness firsthand great gaps in technological development.

The reasons? Geographical isolation can prevent sharing of technology. The presence or absence of food and large domesticate-able mammals are markers of whether a culture moves from nomadic hunter/gatherer lifestyles to agricultural lifestyles. Farming cultures tend to develop into larger populations with more of the diversity and feedback loops that lead to technology.

As technology develops, the presence and tenets of religion can definitely affect its progress, as can war/invaders.

It’s not exactly on point with your OP, but take a look at Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jard Diamond for discussions on how peoples developed around the world, who succeeded, who failed, and why.

Thinking about things here on Earth might help you figure out if the jellyfish creatures on Sirius have their own version of Britteny Spears and Palm Pilots.

They will probably have advanced according to need and ( this is a biggie ! ) dependant on genetic mutation which produces the ‘bright’ ones we all depend on i.e. some smart arse is born with an iq of 200 and invents writing, pottery, maths etc. and then 600 years later another one is born and does something else.

I have no doubt when we do discover E.T. he will be really strange, well ok, i reckon they MAY have different pizza toppings and try and sell us there version of friends.

War vs Technology …mmm… it does produce incentive but it also produces the ability to destroy themselves.

I think the sequence of inventions would likely NOT be the same. Think about the different ways China and Europe developed.

What if there was an equivalent of Charles Darwin back in the days of the Roman empire? The theory of natural selection doesn’t require any advanced technology, it can be understood by anyone.

Or imagine if there were advances in understanding electricity, or optics. The romans made lots of glass, there’s no reason they never developed telescopes or eyeglasses, its just that they never did.

Yes, there are dependencies…chemistry advances mettalurgy advances machine tools etc, but I think there are fewer than we suppose.

Also, it is possible to have releatively high technology without science, again witness China. Or think about the ways different religions can influence science differently. Monotheism spurred a lot of European science because they believed the universe must be lawful. If you are poly/pantheistic you might not bother to look for such a thing as “the laws of physics”.

And that’s just humans.

When you get to aliens, you have to consider many new things. What environment do they live in? Is most of their planet uninhabitable to them? What senses do they have? Maybe more smell-oriented aliens would have developed chemistry more easily. Some animals have electrical sensors, imagine what THAT might do to spur technology. What sort of social structure do they have? Can they live in groups? Science is pretty much impossible for solitary creatures, no matter how smart they are. What sort of reproductive cycle do they have? Think about how parental care and male-female pair bonding have shaped human history.

Even with the same laws of physics, even if they lived on a similar planet to us, they would be very very different mentally and physically. Why then would we expect them to develop identical technologies?

Lemur, I guess we should clear something up, then…

At what time frame are you willing to look at the problem? Sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution as a concept could be understood by many people, but so what? What does it get us without some intermediate biology?

As well, of course within the planet there will be technological discrepancies because of the warlike nature of our civilizations (and, as I posited, any civilization). One might lose the war, but then steal the technology from the other side and get on with things. Or, of course, aquire it peacefully through trade. There are a number of ways to aquire technology from someone else without having a strong science program yourself.

I still feel that growth along a path is pretty set, and that there are quite a few stops in technology where no advancement is possible until some are made in some other area, keeping the playing field pretty level overall.

Of course, that could just be CivII talking :wink:

Well, lets say you understand evolution by natural selection. That gives you the key to biology, even at the level of the Romans. So imagine a Roman Empire with recombinant DNA technology but still using swords and catapults. OK, maybe not, since you need lots of tools for that like electron microscopes and such, but still. Imagine where biology would be today if we’d have had 2000 years of evolutionary theory rather than 100.

We expect something like an industrial revolution to occur before all sorts of advances. But that doesn’t have to happen. We could get the germ theory of disease, darwinism, genetics, etc long before then.

Or we could get advances in chemistry, or electrics, long before we get much advance in machinery.

*Originally posted by Icarus *

Yes, yes, I realized all this. Regrettably, my externally-imposed PC programming is such that I dared not use “Western Culture” for fear no one would ever focus on the question at hand. As for Diamond’s thesis, I’m familiar with it.

My interest is not so much ancient technologies/cultures, as much as where the, um, developed world is today and whether more sophisticated alient civilizations would exhibit a similar trajectory in technologic innovation and application. Burke’s fine PBS series in the 80s, “Connections,” buttresses what many of us are saying.

One can go almost any direction with this, but I supppose I’m looking at these questions:

(1) Given the assumed universality of physical laws as we know them, would alien technologies look similar to our own
–telescopes, radar, computers, jets, etc.? Is there likely to be some universal constant, something of a “blueprint”? (The sailboat as means of transport seems unlikely for any advanced society–inefficient in every way, though quite romantic.)

(2)Do you believe that innovation is an imperative of (most)cultures/civilizations–the striving to do things better, cheaper, bolder, and faster?

(3)Religions–a topic I had wished to avoid–are what we make them. Any culture could develop a religion is very technology friendly.

Lemur866 and aynrandlover, you both are clearly addicted to CivII. Can I get a hit off that?*

Getting back to the thread, there’s a very interesting show called Life Beyond Earth, available at the PBS website. The host points out that any aliens would have to have sort of similar technolgy to our SETI program to be able to receive and respond to our signals.
As for rate of technology advancement, there’s a science fiction series called In the Balance by Harry Turtledove. It’s not great but it’s not bad either. In these books, lizardlike aliens send a probe to Earth circa 1200 AD to take pictures. Lizard society has been stable and slow developing for about 50,000 years, because of their cautious psychology and the fact that their first Emperor conquered their whole planet way back when. The Lizards had previously conquered two other planets, and found the natives similar in temperment to themselves. So they organize a conquest fleet, armed with weapons on a par with 1990s military hardware plus spaceships, expecting to find knights on horses and instead finding WWII. Anyway, the point is that if there are aliens out there, they may have vastly different rates of development in different areas.

CivII—oh yeah. Never have nuked the French yet… they never play as the computer! sigh

But we wouldn’t, you see. Without a way to test either the theory itself or the ramifications it is of little use to the scientific community.

I’m sure we could explain non-euclidean geometry and calculus to Euclid and then go on about general relativity, but what would that get us? They are useless theories at that stage of technology. Consider the Copernican revolution, as some call it. Did that usher in a stage of great science? Possibly. But not like the telescope itself.

Don’t get me wrong, its not like I don’t feel that alien civilizations won’t develop differently than ours. I am sure of it. I just feel that as time goes on we will find striking similarities in our respective stages of growth, simply because certain technology is a precursor to other technology.

I strongly disagree. Without empircal data such a theory is very suspect. They might be there, sort of floating in the background, but until other advances catch up it is of little use to science or civilization.

Industry makes technologies accessable to a wider range of individuals than it would be under the previous system of production. Without it, much of science would continue at what we feel would be a painfully slow rate.

And we do develop such theories, but they are barely even testable. Maxwell developed his equations over 150 years ago, just at the dawn, IIRC, of the industrial revolution. But electricity was not utilized until Edison went nuts and popularized it. Then we also had Tesla’s alternating current theory which proved to be the preferred method of delivering electrical power due to smaller losses.

I think it was Tesla. Might have been someone else, now that I think about it.

At any rate, the theories themselves are largely useless until production catches up, or the production might seem to be trivial until a theory develops which utilizes it. Nevermind having to grow and harvest market analysts and advertizers. :wink:

However, to give you some credit, I strongly agree that a theory may help foster production in a specific area.

Still, I am almost dogmatic about what I feel is the case here: give or take a few eras of time, all civs follow the same growth plan.

However, this is also assuming that life on other planets will be humanoid. Forget CivII, that’s Star Trek talking. I don’t know that this is necessarily the case. If not, then perhaps their perception is different, in which case they don’t need telescopes as we do, and other ramifications which I’m not prepared to ramble on about.

sail boats are quite efficient, it is just a matter of how fast do you want to get there. if the journey is more important than the destination a sailboat could be ideal. considered buying one once.

to me it looks like the purpose of this civilization is to keep most people running on a treadmill going nowhere in particular. so the anvance of technology isn’t particularly important at the moment, but what to do with what we have.

i run into people competing over how FAST their computer is, but they are not doing anything particularly interesting with their computers or that couldn’t be done on a slower computer. we need to get our egos out of our technology so we can make better decisions on how to use it.

Dal Timgar

As a slight hijack:

Does anyone think it’s possible for a species to reach human-level intelligence and not be warlike? Most large mammals are pretty territorial, and fight over mates and food. Even insect colonies, which seem like the ideal of a non-fighting society working all in harmony, nonetheless have massive conflicts with OTHER colonies and likewise kill prey for food.

Even herbivores fight with each other over mates (deer, rams, etc.), though they don’t have to hunt and kill their food.

It seems to me that violence is pretty endemic in all of nature. Hence, I think it’s pretty likely that warfare, and all of its innovations, could be quite similar among intelligent species.

Can’t disagree with that.

Not if evolution has a say in anything, since all life forms compete for limited resources. I don’t think alien life would be able to be different on this one.

As depressingly right as dal may be, technology is what shifts what we consider resources into a new light, thereby easing the strain of natural competition and turning it over to politics instead. Doesn’t stop wars, of course, but it does use more resources more efficiently.

To what end? :shrug: Treadmills and hampster globes :smiley:

Well, according to Star Trek, not only will all alien species look like us and act like us, they will also possess exactly the same technology as we do. Every civilization discovers warp drive and deflector shields at exactly the same time. :rolleyes:

Not to nitpick, but Star Trek does not assume that…hence the Prime Directive. Also, out of the three large cultures (humans klingons and romulans), humans were the last to discover faster-than-light travel.

I know nothing about the rest of the universe, like the cardassians(sp?) and the Bajorans(sp? again) and all the other people.

But this does sort of bring up an interesting point. Since technology seems, by all indications, to grow exponentially, the odds of two races having a similar development at the same time are very slim unless there is some serious sharing from one party to the next.

If it’s an ALIEN civilization, then no it won’t have the same learning curve as humans. We humans aren’t as civilized as we’d like to think, and if aliens have any capacity for intelligence, then they wouldn’t try to emulate the inhumane things that human beings have done to other humans, other species, or the environment. I’d imagine that aliens would define “intelligence,” “civilization,” “technology,” and “progress” differently than we do. If they are alien, then that most likely means that they would not physically look like us. For example, if they have an ameoba shape or are pure energy, then they wouldn’t need spears or swords. Perhaps for them, “intelligence” and “civilization” would mean actually living in peace and not killing others to acquire their possessions. But then again, they may view “intelligence” and “civilization” as total domination over others on a scale that humans can’t begin to conceive.

aynrandlover wrote:

In the Delta Quadrant – where contact with the humans, Klingons, and Romulans has been practically non-existent over lo these many centuries – almost every alien civilization the Starship Voyager has encountered has had warp drive, shields, and weapons of similar power to their own.