Are We Living in the Dark Forest? | Unveiled
VOICE OVER: Noah Baum
In this video, Unveiled takes a terrifying journey into the Dark Forest! Why don't you come along??
We're guided by one question... Where are all the aliens? Humanity has puzzled over the Fermi Paradox for decades now, but is this finally the answer?? The Dark Forest Theory is an all new way of approaching the question of extraterrestrial life... and it might just be the one that finally opens our eyes!
Are We Living in the Dark Forest?
Where are all the aliens? It’s a question that humankind has seriously grappled with for decades, but we’ve yet to find a truly satisfying answer. Now, though, there’s a new approach in town. A new way of addressing the issue of those apparently absent extra-terrestrials. And it might just be the one that finally opens our eyes.
This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; are we living in the Dark Forest.
In fiction and often in real life, forests are seen as mysterious places. As shadowy and intimidating worlds, full of beauty but also fear and doubt… and sometimes monsters. There’s the mystical Old Forest in “The Lord of the Rings”, the aptly named Forbidden Forest in the “Harry Potter” books, and there are countless examples used in horror movies - such as in “The Blair Witch Project”, which is mostly set in the woods. It’s so often a case, then, of trees, trees everywhere, but still no place to hide.
The Dark Forest theory takes this idea and applies it to the universe as a whole. We’re not still talking trees here… but we are still thinking about vast, unknowable and potentially dangerous landscapes, this time stretching from star to star and planet to planet. The theory first appeared under its current guise in the 2008 novel, “The Dark Forest”, by the award-winning sci-fi writer, Liu Cixin. And it offers one solution to that most pressing of scientific predicaments: The Fermi Paradox.
The Fermi Paradox was first posed by the physicist, Enrico Fermi, in the 1950s. It highlights the contradiction between the number of alien civilizations we expect there to be in the universe, and the number we’ve actually found evidence of. Based on various estimates, we expect there to be thousands of alien species. But, based on various studies, we’ve found none of them. Zero. Not a single, otherworldly being, anywhere. So, what gives? Well, according to the Dark Forest theory, fear gives. And caution is the key. And whenever any advanced enough civilization moves through space, it does so slowly. And it’s ready to defend itself at a moment’s notice.
Imagine, again, that you find yourself travelling through an unknown stretch of woodland. Imagine, if you like, that you’re a Hobbit walking past trees that legend says might be enchanted. You might feel exposed? Or apprehensive? Or ready to turn back around and head in the opposite direction. The Dark Forest theory suggests that this is similar to how intelligent enough extra-terrestrials feel, too. And that’s why we’ve never heard or seen anything from them… because they simply don’t want to make themselves known. They tread super carefully through space, shuffling through the leaves and branches of the cosmos, hoping never to attract the attention of anything else.
In many ways, it goes against most stereotypical science fiction. The Hollywood storylines usually involve aliens that aren’t exactly shy to reveal themselves. They come, they see, they capture and destroy everything in their path. But is an all-guns-blazing mothership really the best way to go about conquering galaxies? Wouldn’t the lights and sounds and signatures of something like that actually render you a sitting duck to anybody else looking in? The Dark Forest theory says that any alien civilization seriously hoping to survive doesn’t want to be quite so… loud.
But that doesn’t mean that the Dark Forest is safe. It certainly isn’t. Mostly because of that other key aspect to it: Survival. Survival at all costs. To exist in this universe, any alien civilization has to be prepared and able to swiftly eliminate any other civilization that they encounter. It’s kill or be killed, in this particular version of the cosmos. So, while a Dark Forest civilization tries its best to avoid detection first of all, it’s also ruthless. And it presumably carries instant, existence ending superweapons, too. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty frightening prospect... It means that any alien civilization that’s clever enough to succeed in the Dark Forest a) is invisible, and b) could kill us all at any time. Any time like now. Or now. Or… now.
Hopefully we’re all at least still here for this next part of this video, though. Because what does this all mean for humans and life on Earth? And should we more seriously consider the Dark Forest theory, as we move forward with space travel?
For some, we really should. In the twenty-first century, Earth is a noisier planet than ever before. For any alien species that’s passing through the Milky Way, this green and blue marble, this world that’s three worlds away from the sun and in the habitable zone, is emitting various signals to let everyone know that we’re here. That we exist. So, why not drop by to visit sometime, and annihilate us all while you’re at it? Sure, that’s a somewhat irrational and inflated conclusion to reach… but it is true that we are making ourselves more and more noticeable.
First off, to some degree, there’s the oxygen. Earth’s oxygen levels are high, and continually refilled by all the plant life that covers our planet. Should an alien civilization ever clock our particular atmospheric setup, then, they could quickly realise that the chances of life existing on this rock are good. As a result, they might decide to take a closer look… at which point they’d find further, even stronger evidence that we’re here. We’re now talking radio signals.
Over the last one hundred years or so, Earth has been beaming radio signals across its own surface, but also out into space. As our technology has advanced, so too has the size of our cosmic footprint… with scientists calculating that our earliest radio signals are now detectable literally hundreds of trillions of miles away from us. A few hundred trillion miles actually isn’t especially far in the grand scheme of the entire universe, but those distances are always growing… and the whispers of our existence are reaching further and further out.
There’s also the physical evidence that a sufficiently advanced alien civilization might spot. One scenario is that, somewhere out there, there’s an ultra-ultra-powerful telescope, zooming into our towns and cities, and even into our homes. The idea being that even our buildings and roads could give us away, if anything is watching closely enough. Failing that, there’s the growing fleet of satellites that now circle our planet - with around three thousand of them at the last count. Or there are specific, targeted space missions that we’ve set off… like the Voyager probes, which famously carry Golden Records containing various pieces of information for any alien species that might discover them.
For aliens conforming to the Dark Forest universe, all of this information - all of these signs and signals - are priceless because they allow them to safely watch us from a distance, without risking revealing their own selves. They remain hidden in the forest. They can proceed with caution, a key aspect to the Dark Forest theory, and they need only decide what to do with us if we ever get too close to discovering them. So, if they really are intent on quickly destroying any civilization which poses a potential threat, it’s really better to hope that we never discover alien life. Because if we do, we’re dead.
But let’s finish with a slightly less gloomy outlook. Because it’s not as though the Dark Forest theory is definitely correct, and there are plenty who go against it. Perhaps the strongest counterargument is that it doesn’t allow for much by way of co-operation. In the Dark Forest universe, every single hypothesised alien species is solely out for itself, and is hell bent on removing everything else from its path. But… for that society to have become advanced enough to even attempt interstellar missions at all, it’s a good bet that first it will have had to have learnt the value of co-operation within itself. So, why wouldn’t it prefer to at least try to peacefully communicate with another species, rather than just blasting it away by default?
Perhaps the strangest thing is that the Dark Forest theory doesn’t allow much time at all for first contact. It does provide one solution to the Fermi Paradox, and it implies that there could be countless alien civilizations out there… it’s just that they’re all tentatively hiding away from each other, biding their time for the best moment to strike. But, when it comes to actually crossing paths with and recognising extraterrestrial species, the suggestion is that it would all be over before it had even begun.
It’s an idea which forces us to consider our own position and impact on the universe around us. Should we, the citizens of Earth, take more notice of the Dark Forest theory? Or could it be that we’ve already been spotted by some far-off group, and we’re doomed anyway… so, in the meantime, why worry? Or is there yet another, better solution to the Fermi Paradox… one that doesn’t require quite so much existential paranoia?