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


21.4.3  Interstellar War

Before we can explore the galactography of war, we first must ask whether war is in any sense a "universal" phenomenon.* If the answer is clearly negative, our subject matter may be a null set.

At least to the extent that competition and aggression are recognized solutions to ecological limitations, evidence accumulated to date suggests that the concept of war should not be strange to many sentient extra terrestrial races. Purposive murder, which has been called "individual war,"31 has been observed in countless vertebrate animal species, including lions, hyenas, macaques, chimpanzees, gorillas, baboons, elephants seals, wild dogs, hippos, seagulls, bears, and mountain lions.2946 Organized impersonal murder, or classical warfare, is more rare but has been seen among chimpanzees,2994 lions,2974 rats,455 and many species of social insects such as army ants65 and weaver ants.2993 Zoologist George Schaller observed a randomly selected Serengeti lion population for a total of 2900 hours and observed three murders.2974 As pointed out by E.O. Wilson, this means that lions are excessively violent by human standards:

If some imaginary Martian zoologist visiting Earth were to observe man as simply one more species over a very long period of time, he might conclude that we are among the more pacific mammals as measured by serious assaults or murders per individual per unit time, even when our episodic wars are averaged in. If the visitor were to be confined to George Schaller’s 2900 hours and one randomly picked human population comparable in size to the Serengeti lion population, he would probably see nothing more than some play-fighting -- almost completely limited to juveniles -- and an angry verbal exchange or two between adults.565

In his recent book On Human Nature Wilson expands on this point of view:

Recent studies of hyenas, lions, and langur monkeys, to take three familiar species, have disclosed that individuals engage in lethal fighting, infanticide, and even cannibalism at a rate far above that found in human societies. When a count is made of the number of murders committed per thousand individuals per year, human beings are well down on the list of violently aggressive creatures. Hyena packs clash in deadly pitched battles that are virtually indistinguishable from primitive human warfare. I suspect that if hamadryas baboons had nuclear weapons, they would destroy the world in a week.3198

Xenologists thus have every reason to suspect that alien races exist in this Galaxy both more and less "warlike" than humans.548 (And of course "war" implies only conflict, which need not necessarily involve any actual killing.1000,1541 There may exist stringent rules, codes, or legal requirements of war activity among ETs.933)

When is war most likely to occur? Consider the factors of sentience, dispersion, size and heritage.

Beings having genetic sentience have no concept of the self and thus no empathy for the pain and suffering of others. Genetic warriors should be the most ruthless and persistent, each individual driven on by the community urge with no thought of self-preservation. Similarly, communal sentients should be highly pacific among themselves but instantly reactive to any threat to the community at large. Personal sacrifice may be moderated by personal consciousness, but war will be perceived more as a match between two social organisms rather than as a contest between individual combatants. Patriotism may serve as a primary emotion rather than a vague ethical ideal, so communal soldiers may fight with a unity of purpose unparalleled in all of human experience. Finally, brain sentients such as human beings will fear for the integrity of the self without the matching support of a visceral sense of community. Xenologists expect them to be among the poorest warriors in the Galaxy.2980

High dispersion will make warfare more difficult. The late Quincy Wright, a leading international jurist and political scientist, showed that the frequency of war on Earth is inversely correlated with the number of barriers to mobility.585 Large populations tend to increase technological scale and accumulate excess resources which both permit and demand a larger scale of competitive activity. As heritage becomes more divergent, war between the different social units is expected to become more frequent since, according to Wright:

Cultural heterogeneity within a state tends to involve it in wars of two types: civil revolts of cultural minorities to resist oppression or to establish national independence and imperialistic wars to expand empire or to divert attention from domestic troubles.585

A number of writers have asserted that interstellar war is much too expensive to wage.63 This probably is not true. On energy considerations alone, war may be rather inexpensive. In an earlier chapter we discussed the dispatch of starliners similar in bulk to the Starship Enterprise. Let us convert to wartime status. Our heavy cruiser starvessel is dispatched from Capitol World at a steady 1 gee acceleration, reaching the enemy star system (100 light-years distant) in 9 years shipboard time using a Standard Flight Plan. The warcraft masses 190,000 metric tons and requires 9 x 1026 joules of energy to perform the maneuver.

When it arrives in orbit around the sole inhabited planet of the enemy star system, it hammers the civilization into submission by destroying all major population centers. This is accomplished by fusing into molten slag the top ten meters of 0.1% of the entire planetary surface area, a feat requiring 1022 joules. The equivalent of this in antimatter, if the energy is stored that way, is a mere 120 tons, which could handily be carried aboard a 190,000 ton starship. Similarly, a human-lethal dose of neutron radiation over the entire land surface of Earth probably requires no more than 104-105 megatons of well-placed nuclear explosives, corresponding to an energy requirement of only 1020 joules. Since either mission easily could be mounted by a mature Type II society, a galactic (Type III) civilization should find the effort of interstellar warfare rather trivial. Planetary sterilization might well be a standard instrument of foreign policy among ruthless expansionistic or totalitarian alien governments.

Will ETs experience the same motivations that have driven human beings to war for thousands of years? A desire for more living space is an oft-cited cause of war. There is no reason why population growth could not motivate competitive confrontations between alien races, especially during the initial phase of galactic expansion and colonization. Eventually, of course, even the Galaxy will be filled to capacity.1120 Even if planets and stars are taken apart for mass and energy, and artificial habitats are constructed to house the teeming octillions, relatively low rates of population growth can lead to extraordinarily large numbers in geologically short periods of time (a few million years). At least during the initial portion of galactic enculturation, interstellar lebensraum cannot be ruled out.

Another cause of war is the quest for power and security. Since we know that it is energetically fairly cheap both to attack and to be attacked, natural predatory alien instincts could find a convenient outlet. Defense may command high budgetary priority once the existence of military competitors with advanced starship technology becomes known. There may exist religious motivations for going to war, or the attacker’s cultural mores may have been insulted or disregarded during some past interaction between races. Also there are a variety of economic motives. Xenologists suspect that interstellar freight costs may be unexpectedly low, so lucrative rare metal, alien artifact, or slave/animal piracy and trade may be able to gain a foothold in local "black markets" among close cluster or Core star cultures. Or, on a larger scale of conquest and appropriation, raw planetary mass or stellar hydrogen might be scooped away for use in high technology projects in progress elsewhere. (Local inhabitants may not be asked for permission.)3386

All this is not to suggest that interstellar war is inevitable or that it is necessary or even likely. But the chances are excellent that many highly intelligent but warlike mentalities may exist in this universe. To blithely assert that warmaking is somehow self-limiting or self-destructive is utterly irresponsible.** (See Clarke1103,373 and MacGowan and Ordway.600) As Murray Leinster once pointed out: "It takes two to make trade, but only one to make war."2877 And, according to Wilson, intelligence itself may be preadaptive for warlike behavior:

If any social predatory mammal attains a certain level of intelligence, as the early hominids, being large primates, were especially predisposed to do, one band would have the capacity to consciously ponder the significance of adjacent social groups and to deal with them in an intelligent, organized fashion. A band might then dispose of a neighboring band, appropriate its territory, and increase its own genetic representation in the metapopulation, retaining the tribal memory of this successful episode, repeating it, increasing the geographic range of its occurrence, and quickly spreading its influence still further in the metapopulation.565

In other words, the human predisposition to practice warfare may actually be evolutionarily adaptive.3241

There are a number of strategic considerations pertinent to the practice of interstellar warfare.2995 For instance, Core civilizations and cluster cultures might be expected to have greater opportunity for conflict, since the higher number density of inhabited solar systems decreases dispersion and brings more divergent cultures into contact with each other. Galactic clusters straddling valuable trade routes (e.g., black hole space-ports?) should be more heavily defended, just as mountain passes have always been crucial in Earthly warfare.737

Perhaps the most crucial element from the standpoint of military strategy is the physical configuration of the defending system. Even on Earth it is well-known that compact shape is of tremendous advantage to a state.726,737 Attenuated or fragmented borders are hard to rule or defend. The Square-Cube law is relevant in this context. The smaller the outer surface of the Empire in relation to its internal volume, the less vulnerable it will be to external attack. Simple geometry might predict that the optimum shape of a galactic civilization should be spherical.1474

Of course, matters are rarely this simple. Since most of the Galaxy is empty space, the "volume" of an interstellar Empire is mostly "holes."668 There is the possibility of two or more alien governments being physically interwoven, with or without conflict or even knowledge of the existence of the other. Perhaps one group prefers F and G stars while the other restricts itself to K-class suns. Or maybe one race inhabits jovian worlds and other prefers terrestrials. The possible complications and permutations are virtually limitless.

Capitol worlds would appear best placed at the geometric center of an expanding spherical Federation. However, in view of the possibility of interwoven civilizations and various other tactical and strategic difficulties, some xenologists would advocate a mobile capitol similar in size and construction to the Death Star of Star Wars fame or the Flagship Plesarius from the original-series Star Trek episode entitled "The Corbomite Maneuver."2996 This would help to prevent crippling attacks on the seat of government.

A few have gone even further, totally rejecting any notion of capitols in favor of a decentralized "distributed intelligence" network of control and military command. Such a system would have the advantage of mobility and the security that the destruction of no single part could seriously damage the whole. However, it would suffer the disadvantages of increased delay time between communications, needless duplication of effort at all levels, and relative lack of tactical unity of command.


* According to one writer: "Man is the only warlike animal, and intelligence was selected simply because only the stupid get themselves in a position to get killed in a tribal battle."2930

** Many have suggested that virtually immortal beings won’t risk centuries of future life on the battlefield. Asks one writer: "Would a solider be willing to fight for his country if he were jeopardizing 20,000 years? What cause would justify exposing a patriot to such a sacrifice?"69 Automated warfare may be the answer.


Last updated on 6 December 2008