A password will be emailed to you.

Is the advance of science ultimately a good thing for humanity? It’s a difficult question to resolve – on the one hand, there have been undeniable benefits on a massive scale on account of progress in science, such as the millions saved by vaccines over the years. On the other hand, however, advances in nuclear physics have led to the creation of weaponry that has the capability of extinguishing millions of lives in an instant.

Researcher John G. Sotos, MD certainly sees advances in science and technology as a clear and present danger to humanity. In a paper on arXiv.org, “Biotechnology and the lifetime of technical civilizations“, he points out that so far, “control of endogenous factors that could destroy civilization – namely, Malthusian resource exhaustion, nuclear weapons, and environmental corruption” has rested with just a few people on the planet, those who command nuclear arsenals or steer economies. But now, in the modern age, emerging technologies such as biotechnology and nanotechnology are changing this, offering “the prospect of self-replicating elements able to spread autonomously and calamitously worldwide, at low cost and without heavy industrial machinery”.

On Earth, microbial pandemics have ended non-technical civilizations. Antimicrobial drugs mitigate such risks only partially. Advisors to the President of the United States have already warned that biotechnology’s rapid progress may soon make possible engineered microorganisms that hold “serious potential for destructive use by both states and technically-competent individuals with access to modern laboratory facilities”. Indeed, small research groups engineered proof-of-principle demonstrations years ago and evidence supports a precedent not only for a laboratory-preserved organism causing a worldwide pandemic, but also for the organism’s descendants circulating for 30 years in the global population.

As Sotos notes, scientific advances in biotechnology may soon put civilization-ending tools in the hands of “thousands to millions of people”. So in order to investigate the ramifications of this dangerous shift of responsibility, Sotos created a model to “predict human civilization’s median survival time”. The result was not good: he concluded that we likely have just “decades to centuries, even with optimistic psychosociological parameter values”. He therefore concluded that biotechnology is “a proximate threat to human civilization”.

Given the pace of biotechnology’s progress, the irresistible pressure to continue that progress for universally-desired medical purposes, the dual-use potential of the technology, and its potential worldwide reach, many humans could soon have the capacity to end Earth’s technical civilization… In a recent eight-year span, more than 1.5 million people participated in the “genetic techniques” enterprise at a level sufficient to warrant authorship on a scientific article. Almost 180,000 of them authored five or more such articles. The number actually engineering artificial organisms today is certainly far smaller, but clearly a large reservoir of hands-on molecular genetics competence already exists on Earth.

Sotos also believes his model might answer questions about the lack of evidence so far for extraterrestrial civilizations – that biotechnology might act as the so-called ‘Great Filter‘, bringing alien civilizations to an end before they can communicate with or travel to other planets with intelligent life. “[A]ssuming that the technology of interstellar colonization is far more daunting than biotechnology,” Sotos writes, “and that the self-preservation drives of individual intelligences far exceed any elective desire to migrate off-planet, it is reasonable to expect that, as a rule, civilizations will develop and use sophisticated biotechnology before dispersing themselves on other planets”. Thus, he says “it is reasonable to hypothesize that all planetary civilizations will face existential threats from contagious microorganisms – whether engineered or not – before they become vigorous interstellar colonizers”.

For an ensemble of civilizations having some median calculated survival time, the model predicts that, after 80 times that duration, only one in 1024 civilizations will survive – a tempo and degree of winnowing compatible with Hanson’s “Great Filter.” Thus, assuming that civilizations universally develop advanced biotechnology, before they become vigorous interstellar colonizers, the model provides a resolution to the Fermi paradox.

Sotos believes that, given these predictions, if SETI are to find extraterrestrial civilizations, they should look in specific areas: those places where life-hospitable planets are clustered closely together, allowing civilizations to spread beyond the one location, which would mitigate the possibility of the entire population dying from one biotech attack. Therefore, he says, “galaxy centers and stellar clusters would be predicted as the most fruitful zones for SETI”.

In summary, Sotos advises that civilizations such as our own should be prioritizing the development of defences against “individually-possessable self-replicating existential threats, such as microbes or nanomachines”. But is it realistic that we can curb these technologies now that they are “in the wild”.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that Pandora has well and truly opened her box…

(Thanks Norman)