Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


Chapter 15.  Energy and Culture


"Other factors remaining constant, culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased. The energy factor is the primary and basic one; tools are merely the means that serve this power. And, since increase of energy fosters improvement of tools, one may say that it is energy that, at bottom, carries the culture process onward and upward."
          -- Dr. Leslie A. White, in The Science of Culture (1949)36

"As soon as {a sentient race} begins to master and transform the solar system, {their} energy and material resources will increase incomparably. The value of 1026 watts is not a limit, since part of the mass of the planets can be utilized as fuel. Based on various criteria, we can consider that the time scale for the mastery and transformation of the solar system is of the order of several thousands of years, in any case less than 104 years, that is, negligibly small compared with cosmic times."
          -- I. S. Shklovskii (1972)25

"It is highly improbable that civilizations will develop to a stage where they have harnessed power resources on the galactic scale, of the order of 1037 watts. If intelligent beings occupy a galaxy in 1-10 million years, most of the galaxies should have been inhabited by now. This is obviously not so. The spread of intelligent beings in galaxies, if at all feasible, is apparently an extremely slow process."
          -- V. A. Razin (1964)28

"And, as a bird each fond endearment tries
To tempt its new-fledg‘d offspring to the skies,
He tried each art, reprov‘d each dull delay,
Allur‘d to brighter worlds, and led the way."
          -- from The Deserted Village, by Oliver Goldsmith (1728-1774)



It is only in the last decade or two that a true "science of culture" has begun to emerge. The systematic and rational treatment of human civilization as a process has passed in and out of vogue on several occasions during this century. There is considerable hostility in many quarters to the basic notion that cultures must conform to certain basic rules of construction, expression, and evolution, and frequently this has led to what one "hard science" science-fiction writer grumblingly describes as "a couple of anthropologists sitting in a semi-dark room and dictating great thoughts."2857

But progress is now being made. One of the best efforts to date has been by Dr. Leslie White, a social anthropologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In his book The Science of Culture (1969), he presents the beginnings of a theory of culture which is utterly fascinating from a xenological point of view.36

Dr. White suggests that all civilization is founded upon, and determined by, the sources of energy which it controls. The processes of society are in some sense "powered" by energy. He goes on to propose that any cultural system -- human or extraterrestrial -- may be divided into three fundamental subsystems; the technological, the sociological, and the ideological.

The technological subsystem is comprised of all the physical, mechanical, biological, and chemical instruments that are available to sentient members of the culture, for the purpose of manipulating matter. Technology is the sum total of a race's material environment, together with the instruments of manipulation and the techniques of their use.

The sociological subsystem consists of the various interpersonal relation ships between members of a culture. These may be expressed in collective as well as individual patterns of behavior, psychology, and modes of social conduct.

The ideological subsystem is made up primarily of symbolic articulations of ideas, beliefs, attitudes and knowledge. Cultural ideology encompasses the philosophy, artistic forms, patterns of logic, and epistomologies peculiar to a given society.

How are these three cultural subsystems interrelated? According to Dr. White, the rigors of existence (the demand for food, shelter, protection, companionship) can only be met by resorting to technology. This technology may be extremely primitive -- stone knives, bearskins, and a blazing campfire -- but it is technology nevertheless. Social systems are subsidiary, described by White as "the organized effort of {sentient} beings in the use of the instruments of subsistence, offense and defense, and protection." Philosophical systems are the means by which technological and social experience finds its interpretation. In fact, there is a type of philosophy appropriate to any conceivable class of technology:

A pastoral, agricultural, metallurgical, industrial, or military technology will each find its corresponding expression in philosophy. One type of technology will find expression in the philosophy of totemism, another in astrology or quantum mechanics.. . .Social systems are therefore determined by technological systems, and philosophies and the arts express experience as it is defined by technology and refracted by social systems.36

We may imagine a pyramid, grounded in energy and constructed in three tiers (Figure 15.1).


Figure 15.1 The Cultural Pyramid Theory of Civilization36

Cultural Pyramid Theory of Civilization



Each tier represents one of the basic cultural subsystems which, in the aggregate, comprise the entire civilization. Leslie White elaborates on the idea:

We may view a cultural system as a series of three horizontal strata: the technological layer on the bottom, the philosophical on the top, the sociological stratum in between. These positions express their respective roles in the culture process. The technological system is basic and primary. Social systems are functions of technologies; and philosophies express technological forces and reflect social systems. The technological factor is therefore the determinant of a cultural system as a whole. It determines the form of social systems, and technology and society together determine the content and orientation of philosophy. This is not to say, of course, that social systems do not condition the operation of technologies, or that social and technological systems are not affected by philosophies. They do and are. But to condition is one thing; to determine, quite another.36

As Freeman Dyson has often pointed out, a sharp distinction may be drawn between intelligence and technology. One needn‘t imply the other. That is, it's easy to imagine a society of intelligent lifeforms with little or no particular interest in advanced technology.80 But White's cultural subsystems must be given broad interpretation if they are to be applied to extraterrestrial races. "Technology," for instance, may have an organic rather than an inorganic basis.389 Instead of mechanical devices and machines, alien technology may consist of trained animals, slave labor, architectural coral and so forth.

How does this relate to energy?

The business of life is to accumulate information and complexity. This is accomplished by using energy to suck in data from the natural environment and build the elaborate structure represented by a living organism. The process of culture, though on a different plane, serves an analogous, function. By absorbing information from the social environment, an aggregation of organisms can build an intricate social structure by the proper application of energy and tools. Just as a living being is a highly complex arrangement of individual molecules, so is a society an intricate association of individual organisms. The process of civilization, as of life, is negentropic.

Cultural development, in the very widest sense, thus is a product both of energy and of technology:

Culture confronts us as an elaborate thermodynamic, mechanical system. By means of technological instruments energy is harnessed and put to work. Social and philosophic systems are both adjuncts and expressions of this technologic process. The functioning of culture as a whole therefore rests upon and is determined by the amount of energy harnessed and by the way in which it is put to work.36

The remainder of this chapter is devoted to the general evolution and utilization of sources of energy by extraterrestrial cultures and races anywhere in the Universe. The following four chapters detail many of the possible alien technological advances, thus completing our discussion of the foundation of Dr. White's three-tiered "cultural pyramid." The last four chapters in Part Three consider the more speculative -- and perhaps more interesting -- social and philosophical upper strata we may discover among extraterrestrial civilizations elsewhere in space.


Last updated on 6 December 2008