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 16.  Xenobiotechnology


"If man does not use his tools, his tools will use him."
          -- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

"But here is still more of the truth and all I’ll try to say about it. Although long life can be a burden, mostly it is a blessing. It gives time enough to learn, time enough to think, time enough not to hurry, time enough to love."
          -- Lazarus Long, in Time Enough For Love (1973) by Robert Heinlein2601

Larry’s irritation showed. "You are just a machine! Don’t talk about a mechanical recharge as if it were an act of lovemaking."
"Why not? My neural apparatus is at least as complex as yours. My experience -- well, I’m over a thousand years old. Why shouldn't I sound like I enjoy a good recharging? It does give me renewed strength."
          -- from T. J. Bass, The Godwhale (1974)2644

"I cannot understand your description of the biped’s interior," Hundred said practically. "Soft, porous material soaked in sticky red liquid; acrid vapors -- how do they work? Where is the mechanism?"
"They are perhaps not functional at all," Seven proposed. "They may be purely artificial devices, powered by chemical action."
"Yet they act intelligently," Zero argued. "If the monster -- or the monster’s masters -- do not have them under direct control -- and certainly there is no radio involved -- "
"There may be other means than radio to monitor an auxiliary," Seven said. "We know so little, we persons."
          -- from Poul Anderson, "Epilogue" (1962)983



Sir Peter B. Medawar, British Nobelist in medicine and a pioneer in immunology and transplantation research, once remarked that "people are so constituted that they would rather be alive than dead."1646 A trivial observation, perhaps, but significant nevertheless because it highlights the importance of the survival instinct in all living creatures -- sentient, extraterrestrial or otherwise.

Indeed, medicine is one of the oldest technologies known to man. Aboriginal peoples who have never seen a wheel or struck a fire guard their lives by employing "medicine men." These specialists in incantation and retaliatory voodoo perform curative rituals to relieve suffering among the sick and the dying, and dole out primitive herbal preparations (some of which work quite well) to alleviate pain. Virtually all human societies have been concerned with biotechnology, and there is no reason why alien cultures on other worlds shouldn't display similar interests.

Scientists increasingly tend to speak of the concept of "participative evolution," the notion that a race of technically-oriented sentient beings can seize a certain measure of control from Mother Nature and alter their physiology as they wish. With advanced genetic techniques, mankind is learning to control its own biological destiny. It is unreasonable to expect ETs to lag far behind.

Admittedly, the arguments for advanced xenobiotechnology are not compelling. It may be that some alien species have biochemical hereditary mechanisms that are not easily susceptible to intelligent tampering. Other races may inhabit planets poor in the materials necessary in the research and development of artificial bionic devices and mechanical prostheses. Still others may have the native ability to evolve in direct response to the environment by the inheritance of acquired characteristics or by xerography, and thus would view biological technology as irrelevant.

Still, the arguments are persuasive. As a general rule, science "evolves" as a whole. There are few cultures on record that display grossly disparate or uneven technical development. (One notable exception was the Mayan civilization, which apparently had some skill in surgical techniques yet never developed the simple wheel.) On timescales of millennia, the methods of chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology and engineering usually mature at roughly comparable rates. We might expect, therefore, that all Type III galactic cultures-having either sophisticated interstellar transportation or advanced transgalactic communications -- most likely will have developed their medical and biological sciences to an equivalent superior level.

What about Type II stellar cultures? It is certainly possible that early spacefarers might lack advanced biotechnology, but this situation would not seem likely to continue. To remain alive and healthy in the environment of space, a great deal of radiological, physiological, biochemical and ecological information must be available. It’s probably safe to assert that the survival of planet-evolved beings in space should be viewed as prima facie evidence of a developed biotechnology.

As for Type I planetary civilizations, the arguments for advanced biotechnology are still valid but become a bit more complicated. Random short-term factors may enter the picture. Some sciences may lag far behind others for peculiar environmental or cultural reasons. The very philosophy of participative evolution itself may be rejected as unholy, inelegant unnatural or unwise by some planetbound alien societies. But if we consider only those races among whom heredity proceeds genetically and whose population swells exponentially (as with humans), a strong case for high xenobiotechnology may be made.

The virtually inevitable development of some kind of medical science, coupled with the gradual loss of challenging physical frontiers (due to the inherent finiteness of planetary surfaces), may eventually lead to a weakening of the gene pool of the population. Genetic load -- the slow accumulation of maladaptive genes among members of tool-using, protective species -- will become acute within a few millennia following the introduction of medicine and the disappearance of frontiers (as the planet fills to capacity).

Symptoms of genetic disability may be masked by quick medical fixes, but congenital defectives will no longer be culled by the rigors of frontier existence. Eventually, the population as a whole will become so dysfunctional that only four alternatives will remain:

1. Do nothing, become more dysfunctional, and ultimately become extinct as a species.

2. Eliminate a root cause of genetic load by rejecting all medical science. Nature can then cull defectives and maintain a healthy, vigorous gene pool.

3. Eliminate a root cause of genetic load by expanding physical frontiers and becoming spacefaring. Although stay-at-home defectives won’t be culled, the rigors of space living will ensure a staunch pioneer gene pool.

4. Eliminate genetic load by taking direct control of biological evolution. Gene defects are remedied prenatally, so that every newborn is a perfect (but nonstandardized) genetic specimen.

Societies which choose (1) aren’t around any longer. Those which choose (3) go on to become Type II cultures, whom we have argued will have biotechnology just as those who choose course (4). Alternative (2) is unlikely, both be cause the fruits of medical science are sweet and addictive, and because such a solution will reduce the population-carrying capacity of the planet by several orders of magnitude -- which means death on a massive scale.

Participative evolution among any sentient race will progress primarily along two major fronts: the genetic and the cybernetic. Biological organisms may be improved either by genetic engineering (repairing, replacing, or augmenting body organs with other new ones) or by cybernetic or bionic engineering (exchanging living parts for mechanical ones). In either case, the extraterrestrial sentients become masters of their own heredity.


Last updated on 6 December 2008