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February 2003
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The Clement Problem

This article (by yours truly, Richard Harter) appeared in Proper Boskonian #5 dated August 1969. The article presents an interesting topic for speculation; however it has serious flaws, some which are discussed below in a retrospective. The reader may think of others.


Hal Clement, L. Sprague De Camp, and other writers have implicitly assumed in their stories that there are many worlds in our local patch of the galaxy with intelligent races whose cultures and technologies are at approximately the same level as our own. A casual consideration of the enormous spans of time involved, the diverse factors affecting the evolution of life, and the shortness of recorded history suggests that even one other intelligent race at our level is staggeringly implausible. The Clement Problem is: Suppose there are - how come?

Actually, there are two versions of the problem. The original problem is to account for a number of intelligent races at about the same level of development in our immediate interstellar neighbourhood. The more general version of the problem is to suppose that the entire galaxy is filled with races at about our level and ask why. An example of such a galaxy is Poul Anderson's Van Rijn-Flandry galaxy. There is quite a bit of difference between the two problems since it is a great deal easier to concoct explanations that account for the local star group than it is for the entire galaxy.

Now we know, of course, that the real reason that there are so many intelligent aliens (all conveniently slightly behind us) is that intelligent aliens make for good plot lines and lots of gooey good symbolism. However the rules of the game are that we suppose that this most unlikely state of affairs is actually so and try to justify it.

There are two basic ways in which we can account for this apparent miracle. We can either postulate a mechanism whereby there is a sudden increase in intelligence over a wide area or we can postulate some common mechanism that transforms intelligent but uncivilized races into civilized races. The postulated mechanisms can, in turn, be one of two types. Either it is a direct consequence of the general laws of physics, or it is a local and accidental feature.

As an example of the former type of mechanism suppose that intelligent life is impossible unless some physical constant (say, the speed of light) is greater than a critical value that depends on the age of the universe (or something related such as its radius. Now this has some plausibility. It could easily be the case that biological intelligence of a high order depends upon a critical chemical reaction that only recently became possible. One nice thing about a theory like this is that it allows us to populate the entire galaxy with intelligent aliens.

The main lines of this theory are:

(a) The physical constants of the universe change slowly over time.

(b) As a consequence the energy required for chemical reactions changes slightly over time.

(c) There is essentially only one possible biochemistry for life.

(d) There is a chemical reaction that is critical for constructing high order organic brains. We ave to be careful on this point. The thing that characterizes a high order brain is its information transfer characteristics - an abstract property that is independent of biochemistry. It is plausible, however, that organic brains have to be constructed in a very specific way because of biochemical restrictions.

It is also plausible that there is a critical factor in constructing brains. Low order organic brains have been around for a long time; high order brains are quite new and there seems to be a difference in kind. (Skeptics who say that high order brains have not yet shown up speak for themselves.) If there is a critical factor it could be a specific chemical reaction.

(e) This critical chemical reaction has only recently become possible. This is plausible; any such reaction would be quite complex and hence sensitive to slight variations in the physical constants.

It is worth noting that this variation in physical constants might be relatively local. With a few modification of the above theory we have something like the mechanism postulated in Brain Wave.

The theory outlined above operates by postulating a sudden increase in intelligence. The main things required for such theories is some mechanism that accounts for increased intelligence and that operates over a large reason of space.

There are at least three general ways for account for a sudden increase in intelligence. The first of these is by mutations, the second is the presence of a critical factor, and the third is that is the consequence of the introduction of tools.

Theories that postulate increased intelligence due to mutations assume that at some time in the past here was an event that caused a lot of mutations, including intelligence. Examples of such possible events are a supernova in the immediate neighbourhood, passage of the solar system through an energetic dust cloud, and artificial mutations induced by galactic dogooders.

We have already discussed a theory depending upon a critical factor. Another such theory would be that intelligence depends on a chemical that was not present on Earth until it drifted in from space, presumably borne by a life form that survive in space. Still another theory is that the critical factor was supplied by our old friend, the intergalactic Johnny Appleseed.

The tool theory says that our present type of intelligence is a consequence of our using tools and seeks to account for our using tools. A good example of this theory is given in the movie 2001.

There is a basic objection to theories depending upon increased intelligence; they don't account for enough. There is every indication the race become intelligent hundreds of thousands of years ago. In fact it is quite reasonable that prehistoric man lived an existence something like that of the American Indian and did so for a very long time.

If that is the case one not only has to account for intelligence but also why Homo sapiens all of a sudden stopped being a stone age nomad and became civilized. In this line of thinking we can assume that it is normal for an intelligent race to remain in a precivilized nomadic existence (complete with clothing, language, religion, and stone tools, but without agriculture, metal, and cities.) We then ask what happened to jar the race from its normal state. What is the cultural event that accounts for civilization?

One possibility, of course, is our ubiquitous friends, the interstellar missionaries of the good life and the cocktail hour.

Another possibility is that the solar constant for all of the stars in our immediate neighbourhood has changed recently. There are a lot of ways that this could have happened, such as the local star group having emerged from a dense dust cloud.

The assumption here is that the change in solar constant would result in major climactic changes, with a consequent cultural shock. A strong point in favor of this hypothesis is that this actually seems to be what happened. The ice ages were a major climactic event and they did seem to have had a strong bearing on the development of civilization..

If we put some of these theories together we get the following scenario: Some millions of years ago the local star group entered a dense dust cloud. As a result a supernova was triggered in one of the stars in the local star group. The radiation burst from this supernova caused large numbers of mutations in the local life forms and, in particular, caused the development of intelligence on many worlds. Recently the local star group has crossed the edge of the dust cloud, causing variation in the solar constant for most of the stars in the group. These variations were responsible for widespread climactic changes that provided the cultural shock that started the development of civilization on a number of worlds.

In conclusion, there are a number of possible solutions for the Clement problem, some of which are discussed here. No doubt an ingenious mind could concoct many more. It seems, therefore, that a scrupulous SF writer need have no real qualms about assuming the concurrent development of civilization in the worlds nearby.


In retrospect the speculations seem a bit naive, although not far removed from the bafflegab often used by SF authors. The entire notion of a subtle change in physical constants enabling intelligence is quite unsound. Likewise the notion that an increased rate of mutation will speed up evolution bespeaks a misunderstanding of the way evolution works. The extant rate of mutation is sufficient for a rapid pace of change, a pace much greater than that actually observed. A rapid pace of change is not observed (except in special situations) because species usually are already well adapted to their environment.

Likewise the treatment of intelligence is naive. The history of our species and its extinct cousins is one of a slowly increasing encephalization quotient (EQ, the normalized ratio of brain size to body size).

And, of course, the final scenario does not particularly match the known history of life on this planet.

The article does, however, does (more or less) identify a key problem with such speculations - they do not account for enough. We were a tool using, fire making species for millions of years. Our species became essentially what we are today about one hundred fifty thousand years ago - with the possible exception of speech, the temporal origin of which is an open question. At some point, perhaps as long as seventy thousand years ago, perhaps only forty five thousand years ago, there was an increase in the complexity of culture so marked that it was a difference in kind. Again, about ten thousand years ago we took of the practice of agriculture and living in cities. Note that agriculture was not an invention made in a single place; it was independently invented in several places around the world. And then, a few hundred years ago, we started on the path to the industrial revolution.

In short, the path to the technological society is filled with long periods of little change interrupted by state transitions occurring at and lasting for unpredictable lengths of time. Without some form of synchronization the various species of sophonts in an area will inevitably be at wildly different stages with most being in the local equivalent of nomadic pre-civilization.

However there is one mode of synchronization that would be drastic and reliable - contact with star travellers. It would have only taken cro-magnon man a generation or two to make the transition from cave dweller to interstellar barbarian. And barbarian he would have been, cutting the throats of goats on bloody altars as he installed nuclear reactors in his star ships.


This page was last updated July 29, 2009.
Copyright © 1969, 2003 by Richard Harter

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