I have some observations about pre-industrial civilization and their relationship to why we don't see evidence of aliens. These observations, which in my opinion were consistent across human history despite very diverse cultures, can apply even to alien cultures. 

Because this Great Filter isn't biological, temporal, or even technological -- it's structural and inherent to how civilizations develop in the first place.

The road from Stone Age to Iron Age seems pretty obvious. Humans have independently experienced this phenomenon several times in history. So is the road from Industrial Age to Information Age; not as obvious or dramatic, but going from steamships to spaceships seems to be a pretty inevitable progression, done by polities of varying political and economic situations.

The problem is that event between Stone Age and Information Age, the Industrial Age. Unlike pre-industrialization or post-industrialization societies, which seem to come about in all sorts of political conditions, industrialization only came from a very specific set of circumstances that may be impossible to replicate on other planets.

The Industrial Revolution was not kicked off just from having a handful or even plethora of inventions.   We had the technological powder keg for the Industrial Revolution for centuries, what was needed was a political situation that allowed society to use the pieces in a way to change our mode of production. Because the lead-up to the Industrial Revolution saw some deeply, deeply profound changes that I think were both necessary and also very unlikely. And not just improbable, but 'straight-up most civilizations will never have the prerequisites, because the path to Iron Age civilization opposes the path to industrialization'.

Any pre-industrial civilization of sufficient size relative to its neighbors was an autocracy, and even the smaller ones such as the North American Confederations and the Swiss Republic had more autocratic than democratic elements.

You cannot begin the process of industrialization without a sizeable middle class, but throughout history the middle class was very small and under the thumb of the nobility. Even in times of surplus the middle class barely grew. And note that you can't technologize your way to the middle class.

Pre-industrial autocracies don't want to innovate or change. They want to expand, yes, but not in a way that makes them relinquish power. In fact, the idea of innovation being a good thing to cement your power is a notion particular to industrial civilizations. If Cortez wasn't able to exploit the political situation AND wasn't backed by a deadly disease, his expedition would've been doomed -- his technology gave him a decisive edge, but it didn't win the conquest for him. It's only until well into the 19th century did we get the hint of the notion of 'technology uber alles'.

And here's another notion peculiar to industrialized civilizations: 'war is good for innovation'. Not so. Pre-industrial civilizations devote from an absurd to a literally ruinous amount of resources to warfare. This leaves little surplus and constantly resets civilization. So even if your planet isn't unified under some huge stagnant autocracy who sees innovation as a threat to its power, the more hungry, newer, and aggressive civilizations can't actually produce any breakthroughs because they run the same playbook as the Ancient Empire. Indeed, it's more likely that a planet covered with dozens of independent Iron Age civilizations would see less technological progress than one ruled by some stagnant, indolent hegemony.

So as far as the Fermi Paradox is concerned: I really don't think there could've been a meaningful Scientific Revolution without an Industrial Revolution. After all, humans didn't start unifying those two fields until well into the Industrial Revolution. And not just because these two revolutions complimented each other, but because the surpluses of the Industrial Revolution allowed society, for the first time, to support a class of engineers and scientists who weren't drawn from the nobility. But alas, I don't think there could've been an Industrial Revolution in the first place without the very specific set of circumstances that led to the conquest of the Americas, the rise of the European middle class, and the rush for colonization forcing the autocrats to loosen their leash.

For example, if the Americas had been conquered in the 900s (long before such a conquest could lead to industrialization) or if Earth had just been one supercontinent, it's very likely that we'd still be toiling under the equivalent of the Roman or Mongol Empire, inventions like calculus and the spinning jenny largely just amusements for unlanded nobles who have no vested interest in advancing their technological base beyond enjoying the trickle of inventions that cement the status quo, like firearms and double-entry bookkeeping. And those are for ideal civilizations, which assume that they have access to our resources and our intelligence levels. Lacking things like dry land or hydrocarbons or metals can hurt your ability to industrialize, but having these things doesn't help you.

So what's the upshot of this? It may be the case that our galaxy is teeming with technological civilizations, but they're all stuck in their pre-industrial eras because their autocracies conquered the planet early on and choked out any room for an innovative middle class.

Also note that this analysis makes zero assumptions about the aliens' biology or culture. I wrote it in a way so that it would apply equally to 80-IQ pacifistic aliens and 350-IQ warrior aliens that have a fast-breeding/low-survival strategy. The commonality between them and us is that the very first, indeed ONLY, government that could get us from the Stone Age to Iron Age are autocracies. And the structure of autocracies don't give a damn about the individual capabilities of its subjects; both Spock, Jar-Jar, and Commander Shepherd's ancestors all had to bend the knee to a king who had way more resources and powers than any collection of lone geniuses ever could.

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So your claim is that the transition to Industrial Age is so unlikely, only one civilization out of billions or trillions or whatever made it so far, and we are it? That's not a very interesting claim, or very original.

Looking at human history:

The transition from Stone Age to Iron Age is fairly straightforward. It's been independently achieved all across the world in very different conditions, there's no reason to think it wouldn't be the same for xenos.

The transition from Industrial Age to our modern age is the same. It hasn't happened as often, but given the wide variety of governments and economies that got there from very different starting conditions, it's not much of an obstacle. And I assume that it would be the same for aliens.

The transition from Iron Age to Industrial Age is the pisser. Despite the technological and population prerequisites being there for centuries, it only happened in a very specific political condition. That is, an unprecedented economic surplus for the conqueror that required them to hastily and more importantly passively grow the middle class in order to capture and shoo away other conquerors. The unprecedented economic surplus was only possible because of a huge difference in technological levels difficult to achieve without industrialization and of course diseases.

I can say one thing for sure: the transition was NOT caused by a technological, biological, or cosmological trigger. It was purely political, and what's more, the political situation required a very specific geographical history in order to achieve.

First, there were industrial nations which were autocracies and lacked significant middle class. For example, Russian Empire of early 19 century. So the argument "no industry without middle class" is simply wrong.

Second, this chain of logic relies on every alien species having such social group as nobility. This is utterly absurd. For heritable social status, it is necessary that upper classes have the same (or lower) number of (surviving) children as commoners, otherwise in a few generations everybody would be a nobleman. This only happened because humans are poorly adapted to civilized life. For civilizations that exist for millions of years, evolution would definitely fix this.

The Industrial Revolution seems largely the result of a particular positive feedback singularity, that the steam engine, which converts iron, coal and water into mechanical energy that can be used to pump water, was concocted in England, where high quality veins of coal and iron ore happened to be located deep underground beneath the prevailing water table. The steam engine pumping out mines, with steadily increasing power and efficiency, facilitated access to more iron ore and coal, which could be more efficiently transported by steam locomotives riding iron rails and by steamships, to foundries fired by coal to make more iron used to make steam engines, trains, rails and steamships. And off we went to the stars.

Once you get steam engines, you get mechanical engineering as everyone races to figure out how to do even more with less. Feedback control theory comes directly from the steam engine too (James Clerk Maxwell analyzing Watt's Flyball Governor). The alien planetary autocrat surely wants better steam tech to out-monument the last guy. So steam plus self-interest probably gets you space travel independent of democracy or free markets.

One can't prove a negative, of course, but on an iron-nickel planet in the habitable zone with carbon-based life using water as a solvent, steam engines do seem inevitable once you get large scale adoption of iron tools. There's an interesting paper or three to be written about Drake's f_c for the mechanics and thermodynamics of alternate steam engine triples (metal, fuel, fluid) potentially available on classes of exoplanet by formation and composition.

I disagree heavily with a technological perspective to the Industrial Revolution. For a few reasons:

  • It ignores how the Industrial Revolution wasn't just late to and concurrent with the Scientific Revolution -- it specifically fueled its existence. Without the surpluses enabled by the Industrial Revolution, you couldn't support a large enough middle class to draw future waves of engineers and scientists from. Military officers and noblemen are overrepresented in pre-industrial sciences for a reason. The Scientific Revolution would straight up not have happened without a huge middle class. What allowed the creation of the Middle Class?

    So, there's a problem with your feedback loop right there. It has the relationship backwards in my opinion.
  • The technological prerequisites for an Industrial Revolution have been in place for centuries. Why didn't it happen? You say it was a feedback loop, how could the feedback loop sustain itself to begin with? Or even get started? What was the nature of this trigger, and how could it be replicated?

Maybe going from the iron age to the industrial revolution was a very hard step, but it only took 2-3k years for us to do it, implying that it's unlikely that it's super hard or we would have taken longer. This doesn't seem like a case where you only get one shot at an industrial revolution -- it seems to me that you can keep trying to break through to steam engines even if you fail the first time.

There were maybe 4 shots at such a breakthrough: the height of the western Roman empire; China after their 4 great inventions, circa 1100 CE; the Islamic golden age; and the Renaissance. Of course it's hard to know how long it would have taken if it didn't work out, but if it were so small that millions of alien iron age civilizations couldn't make the leap, it would be very unlikely for us to see it happen a quarter of the time.

In other words, this is a try-try step, and it looks like an easy one rather than a hard one, given the time frame we observe.

There were maybe 4 shots at such a breakthrough: the height of the western Roman empire; China after their 4 great inventions, circa 1100 CE; the Islamic golden age; and the Renaissance.


I strongly disagree. Let's say A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court visits those eras and attains supreme political power and has knowledge of all the wonders of the late 19th century and how to recreate them sequentially from stone tools.

His attempt to create an Industrial Revolution in all four cases would explode in his face. The explosion comes in the form of a sword jammed in his eye from an angry nobleman who, while appreciating the revolvers and electric furnaces, has a few issues with the emperor's plan to use taxes to create new middle-class competitors capable of furthering the sciences. Not unlike what happened in the book, really.

And that's ultimately the problem I have with the 'the Industrial Revolution was a direct extension and synthesis of pre-scientific technologies into something more organized'. Because it ignores how if you don't have the political prerequisites for an Industrial Revolution, whatever they are, it's not happening. The Great Empire doesn't give a damn about human evolution or the 500 million year time limit for the sun or even making sure its people can secure their own existence. It, as with all other autocracies without exception, cares about perpetuating itself and views political conditions such as 'a legal system that protects entrepreneurialism' or 'a middle class with enough economic power to drive society' as an existential threat.

Well, fair enough, how do we extract the Great Empire's grip on Iron Age technological progress from humanity? In the real world, it happened quite by accident, over a period of centuries. And what's more, the accident could only happen in the first place because of Earth's unique geographic and evolutionary history.

So extracting the grip of Iron Age Empires off of its species' throat is probably impossible without an extremely lucky black swan that checks the autocracy's power in such a way that they don't cannibalize and re-enslave the emerging middle class necessary for an Industrial Revolution.

You say you strongly disagree but then said things that I think are actually in agreement with my take?

I identified that there were perhaps four times where the technology was such that an industrial revolution was possible, but in the first three it didn't happen, perhaps because of the things you cite.

But then it did happen the fourth time. That's really not very many tries, was my point. And I don't see that anything you say here is all that responsive that that key observation.

I identified that there were perhaps four times where the technology was such that an industrial revolution was possible, but in the first three it didn't happen, perhaps because of the things you cite.

We are NOT in agreement, because I claim that those other three times were NOT possible. They were false dawns that only appear plausible because people think that technological progress, given enough time, can overcome any systemic political barriers.

If you have a biology and/or technology-centered view of civilizational progress, what I say seems nonsensical. Nature finds a way and all and you have so many chances over millions of years. I am telling you that those chances NEVER existed and could never led to industrialization on their own terms.