What If Humanity Were a Class 3 Civilization?
When we consider how humanity and technology have evolved together, there are some patterns to be found. Generally, for example, as we’ve developed better technology, we’ve also become more visible. Lights illuminate our planet in the darkness, radio waves created by us are constantly being broadcast into space, and we now have swarms of satellites and a space station moving around our planet in orbit. To anyone else in the stellar neighbourhood, we shouldn’t be hard to spot. But will that always be the case?
This is Unveiled and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; What if humanity were a Class Three civilization?
When we imagine finding alien life in the universe and trying to quantify just how advanced that life is, we so often default to the Kardashev Scale. And not without good reason. Introduced by the astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev in the 1960s, it famously ranks a civilization's level of advancement based on how much energy they’re able to harness. But there are other ways of thinking about it, even if Kardashev’s method is still widely used in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Arguably the strongest counter-Kardashev scale has been jointly proposed by the scientists Valentin Ivanov, Juan Carlos Beamín, Claudio Cáceres, and Dante Minniti. They first put forward a new approach toward ranking advanced life in May 2020, using a qualitative classification system instead, which sees life adapt to its environment over time.
On this alternative scale there are four Classes - Zero to Three. A Class Zero is similar to most animals alive today, simply living and existing within its environment. A Class One can manipulate its environment to build and use things like tools and houses. For the most part, this is where human civilization ranks. More so than with the Kardashev Scale, however, this system does allow for overlaps between its levels… and parts of humanity have already moved into Class Two, and sometimes significantly. Class Two involves us manipulating ourselves to suit our environment, rather than changing the environment to suit ourselves. We can best see our progress with this through gene editing and CRISPR technology. In essence, the gene editing tools that we are now developing have the capability to harness evolutionary power within very short time frames. And that’s pretty advanced, wouldn’t you say?
Looking to the future and applying this system to humanity’s ambitions with space travel specifically, we might say that a Class One being would strive to terraform another planet, or build human-friendly bases there, and wear human-friendly spacesuits. All of these innovations will one day help us to establish our civilization in space. But a Class Two goes one better, and no longer needs to rely on spacesuits, or artificial habitats, or even artificial air… instead, a Class Two alters itself so that it can survive unaided on an alien planet. It changes its own biology for the sake of its future survival.
You might imagine that there’s no beating this? But actually, there is one final level to the model. And the reaching of Class Three is nothing less than the ultimate goal in life and the universe. Get to this topmost level, and you will truly be a master of existence. So, what does it look like?
A key theme put forward as part of this scale is that life’s main objective is to spread itself as much as possible. That all beings live to reproduce. And, in fact, some animals (known as semelparous species) do actually die immediately after reproducing, as if in doing so they’ve completed their sole purpose. Semelparous species include within their ranks many types of plant, some spiders, praying mantises, some salmon, and the mouse-like marsupial the Antechinus, the males of which reproduce furiously for weeks but kill themselves in the process.
At Class Three, however, the spreading of life (or, at least, of intelligence) has become even more all-consuming than that. At this stage, the line begins to blur and disappear between what’s biological and what’s environmental, with those behind the model highlighting how the final aim is to convert all matter in the universe into thinking matter. That is, nothing should be dead. Everything should be alive to some degree, because that’s how well a Class Three civilization is able to integrate itself into its physical surroundings. At this stage, it hasn’t just adapted to the environment… it is the environment.
So, what would humans be like if we were Class Three? For one, we’d be essentially invisible to lesser species, completely blending into the world around and within us. We might still be able to recognise ourselves, but we’d be so very far removed from the humans of today that it’s difficult to even define the form we’d be taking. It’s one of the most significant clashes between this and the Kardashev Scale, because while Kardashev asserts that technologically advanced beings should be increasingly easy to spot thanks to their endless, guzzling power and cosmic mega machines… here they could be so advanced that they’re actually harder to spot. Advancement is no longer about expansion, but assimilation.
Naturally, then, one way of looking at the Class Zero-to-Three classification system is that, if it’s true of all civilizations, then it’s possible that we will have come into contact with advanced species before now, but we’ve simply missed or mistaken them for the world around us. Again, this is hard to imagine, but the 2020 paper proposing this idea opens with an interesting variation on the famous Arthur C. Clarke line. Regarding Class Three, it says, “sufficiently advanced civilizations are indistinguishable from nature”. So, what in nature could be right in front of our eyes, but also totally invisible to us? One possibility could be dark matter.
Dark matter is still an almost total mystery in astrophysics, even though it accounts for around eighty-five percent of all matter in the universe. It’s definitely there, but we definitely can’t see it. Even so, it builds connections throughout the universe, as part of what’s known as the cosmic web. And what’s interesting about this web is that, in a 2020 study, researchers found that the patterns within it are remarkably similar to the patterns found in a simple lifeform known as slime mold - a tiny organism that can live in multicellular structures. It’s interesting because the slime mold patterns aren’t simple, they’re complicated… so, because they’re so similar to dark matter, we can reasonably ponder just how powerful (and intelligent) dark matter could be. In the context of today’s question, could it be the “thinking matter” that a Class Three civilizations aspires to turn everything into?
At this stage, the idea of technological advancement truly moves onto a higher plane. We’re so far beyond physical machines and energy sources now, as we begin to deconstruct reality itself. But could humanity ever really learn to get there? To change itself so dramatically that it ascends dimensions? It’s a tricky concept to grasp. Carl Sagan famously gave an example of it during an episode of his TV series, “Cosmos”, in which he described a people known as Flatlanders. These flatlanders only live in two dimensions, and therefore cannot perceive up or down… meaning that if a three dimensional being were to talk to them, they would simply hear voices in their heads seemingly without a source. At Class Three, humans would be just as indistinguishable to anything else below them on the scale.
Still, this is how many models of advancement - including this one and the Kardashev Scale - pitch the natural progression of intelligent life… as one day being able to live in higher dimensions, and thereby gaining greater control over the universe. String theory famously posits at least ten dimensions to reality, while extended versions of the Kardashev Scale suggest that a Type Six or above would exist as though outside of the universe, with cosmological levels of power in their god-like hands. The descriptions of Class Three on the 2020 scale never go quite this far, but the idea that a civilization could ultimately blend so seamlessly with the environment so as to be an invisible influencer… does force us to take a major shift of perspective.
Finally, at its highest level the 2020 scale also offers a reasonably solid solution to the Fermi Paradox - the apparent contradiction between the number of aliens science predicts there should be (which is many) and the number we’ve actually found (which is none). Now, we might argue that the reason we haven’t found any is because only the most advanced survive, and they’ve all become indistinguishable from nature as a result of their advancement.
So, could humankind’s fate be to one day join their ranks? At this stage, this new scale is but one theory on where we go from here… but, still, that’s what would happen if humanity were a Class Three civilization.