The Dark Forest Theory is a possible explanation for the Fermi Paradox, albeit a darker and unappealing possibility. The Fermi Paradox, named after physicist Enrico Fermi who conceived the idea, poses a simple yet dauntingly perplexing premise:

1)      If there are billions of Sun-like stars in the galaxy, many of which are billions of years older than our Solar System

2)      If taken into account the high probability that these stars possess Earth-like planets

3)       If some of these planets might at one point have developed intelligent life

4)      If at least some of these civilizations progressed to develop interstellar travel, which our civilization currently investigates…

5)      Even with the slow pace of space travel, the Milky Way could be traversed in a few million years….

Then “Where is everybody?”

The Drake Equation fuels the fire further, combining all the elements the greatest minds of our species have compiled to estimate what might exist in the Cosmos.

In a galaxy housing estimates of over 200 billion stars supporting hundreds of billions of potential planets, it’s difficult to argue against the sheer magnitude for the possibility of advanced civilizations to develop. With evidence of water appearing all over the Solar System, neighbors like Mars and at its far fringes in the Kuiper Belt, the idea that life could exist elsewhere seems obvious, though frustratingly difficult to identify a single piece of promising evidence. Serveral proposed explanations exist to resolve this enigma, though none have yet reached a widely accepted scientific consensus.

A summary of Frank Drake’s 1961 examination of how common life in the Milky Way Galaxy should be. Credit: SETI

COne proposed idea is called the Dark Forest theory, popularized by the novel of the same name by Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin, who presents a thought experiment comparing the Milky Way Galaxy to a forest at night, where advanced civilizations capable of interstellar travel take the role of many hunters, each unbeknownst to the others’ existence. Announcing one’s presence harbors its share of risk, as the lonely hunter simply bears no preconception whether anything he encounters, if anything at all, will react friendly or hostile, and must determine how to deal with any ‘surprises’ the hunter comes into contact.

The Dark Forest is based on the concept that it may be too dangerous to communicate with advanced civilizations, for either us or them. Many examples in world history illustrate disastrous outcomes when civilizations collide, evident when the Europeans discovered the Americas, bringing disease, technology, and conquest with them. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca with a force of less than 200 soldiers equipped with fire arms, horse, and cannon, in all respects “Alien technology” to the most advanced society on the continent, though strikingly comparable to its European counterpart (we are all human, after all). I would image the scale increases astronomically when dealing with space faring civilizations, and perhaps a single flying saucer or devious alien malware could bring the entire Earth to its knees.

An image of the Milky Way, our galaxy, taken by astronomer Yuri Beletsky at the Cerro Parnal Observatory in Chile. Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky 

Imagine Earth as the hunter in this dark forest. Our behavior on this planet, with our televisions, phones, computers, and radio stations, are akin to the hunter marching his way through the dark brush, stomping on branches, screaming “Call Me Maybe” into the dark lumber-verse, broadcasting to anyone and anything within earshot. Perhaps a kind hunter will hear him, and share her resources with the eager broadcaster, or his curious call awakens a monster from deep hibernation, whose loud whistles are more than just music to its ears, hunger rumbling as it prowlers closer to the source. In a galaxy where the distance between star systems is in the millions of light-years, this stealth advance on an unbeknownst civilization broadcasting its location could take generations, where the element of surprise could produce devastating results at the victim civilization’s expense. Perhaps our planet already awoke something, and they’re already here. Please excuse me while I bestow upon myself my tinfoil hat, as this would explain the iPhone and Social Media to a degree…

…I digress…

The Dark Forest remains but a simple thought experiment, and no evidence exists yet to offer credibility to the theory, for better or worse. In the Dark Forest, survival becomes the sole driving motivation. In this scenario, when stumbling upon the unknown, instinct demands its elimination before it can respond in kind. Any existential risk could therefore be viewed as threat in this winner-takes-all assessment, and as we wander through the vast silent Cosmos, encountering technology even comparable to us could raise countless questions and possibilities, including the necessity for a first strike in the event of contact. How could we know if the first civilization we encounter responds friendly? Do we risk everything by leaving our guard down, and broadcasting our presence to the entire Universe? Is it too late? Since the dawn of radio, our species has streamed massive amounts of information into the Cosmos, and continues to do so at an exponential rate. Perhaps a super advanced race or being or *cough* some Grand Designer… has developed some sort of barrier or filter to prevent advanced civilizations from finding each other until they reach a certain point… but that’s a theory for another day.

Without a doubt, if an advanced civilization superior to ours happens to reside in our vicinity, all things considered, they certainly know we are here.