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Are We Panspermia or Not? Does Knowing Matter?
Gabriel Rothblatt   Aug 24, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Did life on Earth arrive from outer space? Are we spawned by Von Neumann Probes sent from distant solar systems? Here’s pro and con arguments for both possibilities.

For those readers familiar with the Fermi paradox, panspermia and Von Neumann Probes you may skip this brief introduction to what they are, but note that I interchange panspermia and Von Neumann Probes freely here although I am aware that some find panspermia to suggest random chaos and Von Neumann Probes to imply intelligent design. I welcome those thoughts in comments.

Panspermia: The theory that life on the earth originated from microorganisms or chemical precursors of life present in outer space and able to initiate life on reaching a suitable environment. [1]

Von Neumann Probe: Hypothetical space probes capable of self-replication. [2]

Fermi Paradox: The apparent contradiction between high estimates of the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations. [3]

Embedded in an article from Lincoln Cannon on [4] was a presentation by Stuart Armstrong to the Oxford Physics Department. [5] The 48-minute presentation is actually quite entertaining, with comical anecdotes and thoughtful questions peppered throughout - I recommend it. The presentation was mostly directed at how we could create Von Neumann probes. But when you consider what we are capable of achieving if properly motivated, then take in account all the time that has passed and all the possibility for like life to have developed why haven’t we encountered alien life? That’s the Fermi Paradox and why Lincoln asks “Do Dyson Spheres and Von Neumann Probes make the Fermi paradox worse?”

I don’t intend to solve the Fermi Paradox, nor even debate the possibility that future technologies increase the strength of the Fermi Paradox, minus contact with an alien species. I do feel that there are a few justifiable arguments and a few stretches of the imagination that may explain away Stuart Armstrong’s (and many others) doubts that we ourselves are not already products of Von Neumann
probes. Most importantly I want to open a discussion and increase awareness of the Fermi Paradox and it’s implications. The closer we become to a space-faring civilization the more relevant the Fermi Paradox becomes but what if the answers have been here all along?

My top reasons we are panspermia and don’t know it:

Knowledge isn’t Necessary

Some of the most efficient systems developed utilize a central processing unit that collects, interprets and decides. The hands and feet themselves do not know what they are doing; they just do what they are told. If we were all cogs in a larger machine, it wouldn’t be necessary for us to know the goal, only the task we need to complete to achieve that end. Lets look at ants, armies and corporations. All have individual moving parts capable of performing independent actions, but none of those parts needs to know what the entire machine is made of or for to do its individual task.
I find this point to be an umbrella that covers just about every other scenario as well. Many believe that if we were to create Von Neumann Probes then we would want to program them to know where they came from. I disagree and explain why the opposite may be true in a number of the following points.

Simple Data Corruption

Nothing is perfect, even the best manufacturing leaves a margin for error. Even at a fraction of a percent, when multiplied a billion times there are a fairly significant amount of scenarios where something did not work properly. Are we amongst that .0005% (500k planets) margin for error? Is that why we do not know? Is that why they never came back? Is that why we are killing our host?

Blowback Precaution

Throughout our own colonial history you may notice a trend of revolutions casting off the chains of an oppressive relationship. It is important to note how these revolutions are generally not lead by the indigenous but by the children of the colonial power that were born and raised in the colony. If the desire to colonize is assumed to be an interstellar phenomenon, then it is reasonable they shared a
similar history to our own. If that is true, then programming the knowledge of us all as servants on a colony is not a sound strategic decision.

Aside from the colonial rebellion issue that actually being aware of our roots could be harmful to the father race, there are other reasons to make your Von Neumann probes self-replicating but not self-aware. What if your probe lands in a hostile environment, or is mistaken as an act of aggression? (Star Trek: Voyager Season 7 Episode 21 Friendship One depicts the mistaken act of aggression well.) Would you want to leave a road map to your house? Do you post a picture of yourself and your address on every place you visit? (Maybe a bad example, I just realized I actually do that with foursquare, doh!)

The Multiple Origin Explanation

By some accounts there should be a thousand or more competing efforts to colonize the Universe. By even discussing our own attempts to colonize the Universe, it is rational to assume that eventually we will try and that other life has or will done the same as well. In the presentation, the probability of multiple intelligent civilizations’ quest for an intergalactic empire was introduced with the prisoner’s
dilemma, [6] but it is only discussed inasmuch as to open the door to the Fermi paradox. If other space-faring species are coming to these same conclusions then it should also be rational to conclude that some Von Neumann Probes are programmed with defensive and/or offensive capabilities.

In this explanation our evolution would have been influenced from multiple panspermic sources. With bits of code from different probes competing for dominance within us and other earth life, any one programming would have been corrupted, leaving us unaware of our origins. Interestingly this may mean that although we may not have instinctual knowledge of our interstellar ancestry, perhaps our
Dolphin cousins do know the whole story?

Its Here, Just Not in Us

There is the possibility that there is panspermia on Earth, it just isn’t us! Perhaps it has evolved, not been discovered or become extinct. There is an enormous diversity of life on this planet and any one or even a large number could have originated from a far off galaxy. We like to think that because of our engineering skills we are an intelligent race, or even that it takes intelligence to colonize the Universe, we could be wrong on either or both accounts! Like I stated under multiple origins, we may have developed certain skills but lost instinctual knowledge of other things as well.

The God’s must be Lazy

There are many ancient accounts and theological references to beings very alien like in nature and technologically advanced. A number of religions and cults believe their god to be an extra-terrestrial life or race. Perhaps the message is there for anyone who cares to accept it. The concept of Gods and the creator are not unlike that of a Von Neumann Probe. It is actually quite plausible that religion itself is
the vessel by which we were meant to maintain our connection to the creators.

This point also revisits the multiple origin explanation. The presence of so many different religions could be the memes of each different attempt to colonize Earth. After all, life evolves and adapts to it’s environment, and information traverses space better and faster than matter. Look at the difference in appearance someone from Nigeria has with someone from Norway, how we look compared to Homo Erectus, an intelligent race must know that their genetic code on a foreign planet may not thrive and would definitely change while adapting and evolving in its new environment. Religion or some other transference of information over time is a better way of being influential in a foreign environment than genetic imperialism.

Plausible Deniability

Perpendicular to the religious argument that God was a Von Neumann Probe and our dismissal of religion is why we feel we don’t know we are panspermia, is the political argument. It is possible that we have/are/will be contacted by an alien race and that information is not made public. I won’t speculate as to why that may be hidden from the public, another paper in itself, but take the historic precedent
of how we recovered Russian and German submarines and neglected to mention we found them. Better yet who coined the term “Plausible Deniability” [7] in the first place?

Everything I Need to Know About Being Panspermia I Learned from Star Wars

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… Von Neumann Probes! Episode 10: In an attempt to escape the rampant egalitarianism brought on by the re-birth of the Jedi movement the last of the Sith [8] lords identifies a rift in the force and creates a probe to search the galaxy for more, cloning herself at every location. First stop a small wet planet on the outskirts of a distant galaxy.

That was a few good reasons we may be Von Neumann Probes and not know it, primarily based on the objection that if we were then we would know it. I really don’t think knowing matters and if anything conscious knowledge is not a benefit. I always like to be skeptical and objective, especially of my own observations, so I have also compiled here a oppositional arguments:

Why we may not be panspermia or Von Neumann Probes and still not know it.

Non-intelligent life

We like to think of ourselves as intelligent life, but are we? The definition of intelligence we use is a bit biased, as we are describing ourselves. I believe we do possess intelligence but would not go as so far as to call us an intelligent species. We are still debating whether or not there is life on other planets and just beginning to discuss what types of life would exist on other planets. A species with interstellar capabilities likely resolved to accept life existed elsewhere before sending probes none-the-less manned missions across the galaxy.

I think the question is less about if life exists elsewhere but what life exists. There is plenty of life on Earth we cannot communicate with. There are plenty of people we do not care to meet. What is so special about us as a species of life that would make an alien race expend the resources to reach us for contact? Perhaps it is our failure to conquer disease or our affinity for xenophobic and resource
wars? It could certainly be the widely held belief that our environmental policies are not killing the planet.

Galactic Boondocks

Earth is in the outer rim of the Milky Way Galaxy, maybe too far out for galactic civilization to have spread yet, or care to. Perhaps our alien neighbors are from this galaxy and thought it smarter to look at another galaxy rather than scour this one, which had obviously, filled its quota for intelligent life. A probe would likely start at the center of a galaxy where star density is more massive and work out. Visiting a billion different stars within one galaxy is actually much harder than sending one probe to the next galaxy. We may just be too far off the grid or need to sit and wait our turn.

Prime Directive

No hypothetical exercise is complete with out a consultation of the U.F.P. Star Fleet Rules and Regulations. [9] General Order #1 “Do no interfere with the internal development of alien civilizations.” Unwaveringly one of the best solutions to the Fermi paradox is the possibility that we are not ready to join the interstellar community. For Starfleet officers and crew it is unlawful to make contact with pre-warp civilizations or interfere with local politics. Interestingly enough there are no laws (or even much in the way of policy) addressing a first contact scenario. Although all countries have made quite clear legal precedent that foreign humans are not welcome, what chance would an alien being much less the more likely synthetic intelligence have?

There are definitely good reasons to believe either way about whether or not we are connected to a far off possibly long gone civilization. Knowledge of our existence either way is not one of them. If we are the result of a Von Neumann Probe from another galaxy launched a million or more years ago, is that civilization even likely to still be existent? Is the species they were then still the species they are now? From our own observations of life and evolution, probably not, and even if they were and we are genetic clones wouldn’t we have evolved differently given this alien environment? Perhaps our connection to the Von Neumann Probe was a fish like ancestor, or our evolution is being guided to a future like form. Anyway you look at it there is no clear reason why we would need to be programmed with the knowledge of who created us, just to have been created.

[1] Panspermia

[2] Von Neumann Machine 

[3] Fermi Paradox

[4] Lincoln Cannon’s Article 

[5] Stuart Armstrong’s Presentation

[6] Prisoner’s Dilemma

[7] Plausible Deniability

[8] Sith 

[9] Prime Directive

Gabriel Rothblatt is an Ambassador for the Seasteading Institute, a member of the Board of Directors for Terasem Movement Incorporated and the Lifeboat Foundations Futurist Board of Advisors. He is a former US Congressional Candidate in FL-8, the Space Coast of Florida.


Here we encounter the same problem as in explicitly supernatural creation stories. If intelligent beings caused all of this, they’re a bunch of jerks. That doesn’t discredit the theory - quite the contrary - but any group capable of seeding the galaxy with life presumably didn’t have to consign us to so much suffering. I guess it’s possible some society knew how to engineer your basic probe without possessing the whiz-bang nanotechnology to obviate scarcity and degeneration. Assuming compassionate creators, this reasoning could even lead one to doubt the possibility of the almost magical technology we transhumanists always dream about.

If immortal godlike minds just decided to start evolution on Earth for laughs, though, I’m going to be angry.

It takes Sol about 250 million years to orbit Sag A and make a lap of the Milky Way.  Life on Earth has a 3.7 billion year history that begins as soon as the surface temps permit it, or 15 laps around the Milky way galaxy, and considerable mixing has occurred.  We know for a fact that rocks have collided with Earth and carried away life as far as the nearest stars recently in our geologic history.  Given the pernicious nature of life it’s safe to assume we’ve recently polluted our local neighborhood with it and would have to go a good ways before we found some unpolluted space.  Since these collisions were not less common, but more common and more energetic earlier on, it’s safe to assume that the entire ring of our orbit around Sag A is equally polluted with life, extending in and out for a good bit.

What I’m getting at here is that Panspermia looks to be a forever unanswerable question, or at least one that escapes resolution in my lifetime.  If Earth was the Genesis point doesn’t seem to matter since over 3 billion years ago Earth life was already colonizing the Galaxy, and should permeate it by now even if we were that point.  If there wasn’t life there before, there likely is now, in all the places that support life as we know it.

There was a biogenesis point in our galaxy.  I’m not sure we were it.  I’m sure though that absent some advance in physics that allows us to discover the age of life on planets orbiting other stars and so find one with life older than ours with confidence, we’re not going to know the answer to this question.

It may be that life is an inevitable minor conclusion of the immense masses thrown off by a supernova, or in the collision between two supernova wavefronts, as in that vast soup most of the potential links between molecules must be made, and random distribution demands that one trivial root be primitive Life often enough that it must take root.  That would make life not just local, but universal.

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