Civilization progress has many dimensions, for example technological, moral/ethical, happiness/subjective quality of life, etc. For each such dimension we could state a purpose that reflects it, e.g.

  • to obtain high technological advancement,
  • to have high (average, minimal?) moral/ethical values of the inhabitants,
  • to have high (average, minimal?) happiness.

However, when designing an alien civilization (perhaps a conglomerate of different races/species) what would be the dimensions of the civilization progress and purpose? Certainly technology works and so does morality (even if it is blue and orange one). But what about happiness, is there even such a concept for them?

Certainly, whatever these would be, they would have a huge impact on the civilization progress and where it went and will go as time passes. In other words, it has quite a big impact on designing aliens for your world (esp. if the time-span is huge).

The question: What are the progress/purpose dimensions that we could use for creating an alien civilization?

To give some examples:

Energy efficiency: whatever you do, it is not important what it is or what are its implications, but what it does with regard to energy efficiency, e.g. whether you are energy efficient doing it, or whether by doing it you improve your energy efficiency; for example if somebody makes you lose energy (causes you to be less energy efficient), he would be your enemy.

  • Spread:

The ultimate aim of that civilization would be to have the highest number of their inhabitants on the largest number of planets/star systems/galaxies possible. You increase it (in the long run): you are a friend, you decrease it: you are an enemy. It could measure the progress of human civilization using the mass of all the humans currently alive.

  • Alien-adjective-42-ness (meta example):

We could make the alien race to optimize something which is impossible to translate/express in our language, something which is impossible for us to observe or measure, and the plot won't ever explain what it is.

  • $\begingroup$ Are you thinking of the backdrop for a novel or something that would be built into the mechanics of a game? $\endgroup$
    – Abulafia
    Oct 20, 2014 at 11:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Abulafia More like the backdrop. Our progress as humans was shaped a lot by how we see ourselves and what we think our aim is. To design a convincing alien civilization that plays some part such a backstory is in my opinion necessary. On the other hand, if it would be nice enough for a game mechanic, then it should be ok for a novel too. $\endgroup$
    – dtldarek
    Oct 20, 2014 at 12:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Be careful not to over simplify, unless the species in question is fairly small in population, or a hive/shared mind then a single driving force doesn't really seem realistic. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Oct 20, 2014 at 15:42

3 Answers 3


In human civilization, "greatness" is usually with reference to imperialism. e.g "the height of the british empire", "the height of roman civilization", "bringing Russia back to its former glory". Even when moral values are expressed, it's usually with imperialist power or economy in mind. For instance uniting muslims under true islamic law (by IS conquering and plundering), throwing off capitalist suppressors (and joining the Soviet Union sphere of power) or introducing democracy at gunpoint. So it wouldn't be too far-fetched for any "progress goal" of the aliens to also be a power struggle in disguise. Ideas include:

  • "Peace and intercultural understanding".

    -We are fundamentally different. The humans will only understand us if we make them more like us!

  • "Utilitarianism on the Kardashev Scale".

    -Dear Earthlings. We have registered and duly considered your complaint. However, from a universal utilitarian ethical standpoint, which we can both agree on, the perceived cost of our actions for your 6 billion short-lived inhabitants, is dwarfed by the inconvenience that would be felt by our 8 quadrillion individuals, should we fail to monetize what you refer to as "your" star.

  • "Living in harmony with nature". Through massive genetic and geo-engineering, until the planet(s) provides an ideal habitat for the species, with nature producing a maximum of useful goods.

    -We know that earthlings value your planet's biodiversity but struggle at maintaining it. We are therefore happy to inform you that your biodiversity will be greatly increased following project BioKarma. As a token of respect we will even offer each earth city its own custom-made and unique species of hardy beetles. Know also that we are as concerned as you about losing native species. It therefore delights us to announce that we are now re-introducing dinosaurs to North America.

  • "Refinement of art". In Alan Moore's sometimes god-awful "Miracleman", there is a species who's preferred form of art is "creating bodies and then wear them". Some bodies more powerful and nastier than others I seem to recall.

  • "Creating a safer, better world for our children". The children of this species is like the seeds of some pines, which can lay dormant in the ground for years, only to wake after a forest fire makes conditions favourable for sprouting. The civilization perfects suspended animation for their children into millennia of sleep and is torn between building and protecting the world of the living and letting it be razed for the benefit of the unborn, who will inherit a post-apocalyptic or pristine planet, depending on time-scales. Who's children inherit the planet depends on how long they can sleep and when the razing occurs, which for some will be sooner rather than later. A civil war occurs, where one side's goal is simply the complete destruction of society.

  • $\begingroup$ While I really enjoyed reading this answer, and I agree that it has some good points. The first sentence concerns me. I would agree that is true in western thought. There are however other ways to measure greatness. For the sake of a book or game of course this answer makes a lot of sense. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Oct 20, 2014 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ @James That's the point of the question: what else could be understood in terms of greatness or progress(after all aliens{noun} are alien{adj}). BTW it's not "measure", because for example when you measure/quantify energy, the answer is technology. $\endgroup$
    – dtldarek
    Oct 20, 2014 at 18:07

There are a lot, but besides the ones mentioned in the question, here are a few:

  • Power: This is a big one. Power drives much of human politics, and a lot of human history. I think it is highly likely aliens would also want to obtain power too.
  • Entertainment: Maybe the alien species just wants to have fun :D. Aliens could put an even higher value on pleasure than humans do, and so they might try to develop techniques and equipment to get pleasure.
  • Utopia: The aliens could want a perfect world. They could have a drive to either convince or subdue other species to their "plan."
    • Kindness: Aliens may be perfect and just want to be kind and pleasant to other species around them (or to themselves).
  • Knowledge: This one is related to technology, but is slightly different. Alien species may have a drive to know as much about the universe as possible. This would result in a focus on more exploration technology

Jaqminqi - Selfless curiosity

We, the people of Zhark prime, hold these truths to be self-evident: that all Zorks are created equal; that they are endowed by the Vraaagh with certain obligations; that among these are the participation in experimental studies of axiology, the sharing of knowledge, and selfless curiosity.

To humans, "curiosity" is a positive emotion, adding enjoyment to non-repeating tasks, as well as something to pursue in your free time. The Zorks have a different viewpoint. They evolved as packs of hunter-gatherers a few steps down in the food chain, on a planet with wildly changing climates and many small continents and islands, with unreliable food sources. The pre-historic Zorks were continually on the move into new biotopes and curiosity and inventiveness were vital when the group were to learn how to survive in their new home. However, curiosity came at a cost.

Would you spend a month going hungry, trying out new techniques for hunting that elusive prey we havn't named yet, or play it safe by digging up those roots we are familiar with? What will motivate the first group of hunters to attack that heavy-looking grazer with a new hunting strategy? Who's curious enough to learn the taste of those berries which may or may not be poisonous? Who's curious enough to cross that mountain into unseen territory and report back, instead of maybe surviving where we are?

The Zorks have thus evolved to treat lack of curiosity in an individual with the same disgust that humans reserve for freeloaders in a group. To the Zork, the very concept of "curiosity", or "jaqminqi" in their language, is just a subset of "altruism", on par with sharing ones food or throwing yourself on a grenade.

As Zork civilization arose, the concept of jaqminqi were applied to trying out new forms of government, rules for social conduct and even new ethics. The latter, an experimental axiology in human terms, demanded that groups of zorks should force themselves to shift their very notions of right and wrong, to see if new ethical frameworks would help the group fare better than before. Zork breakthroughs in medication, mass-media industry, brain-computer interfaces and Zhark Prime wars III to VII are generally attributed to experimental axiology.


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