Virulence as a model for interplanetary and interstellar colonization-parasitism or mutualism?

Jonathan Starling, Duncan H. Forgan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


In the light of current scientific assessments of human-induced climate change, we investigate an experimental model to inform how resource-use strategies may influence interplanetary and interstellar colonization by intelligent civilizations. In doing so, we seek to provide an additional aspect for refining the famed Fermi Paradox. The model described is necessarily simplistic, and the intent is to simply obtain some general insights to inform and inspire additional models. We model the relationship between an intelligent civilization and its host planet as symbiotic, where the relationship between the symbiont and the host species (the civilization and the planet's ecology, respectively) determines the fitness and ultimate survival of both organisms. We perform a series of Monte Carlo Realization simulations, where civilizations pursue a variety of different relationships/strategies with their host planet, from mutualism to parasitism, and can consequently 'infect' other planets/hosts. We find that parasitic civilizations are generally less effective at survival than mutualist civilizations, provided that interstellar colonization is inefficient (the maximum velocity of colonization/infection is low). However, as the colonization velocity is increased, the strategy of parasitism becomes more successful, until they dominate the 'population'. This is in accordance with predictions based on island biogeography and r/K selection theory. While heavily assumption dependent, we contend that this provides a fertile approach for further application of insights from theoretical ecology for extraterrestrial colonization-while also potentially offering insights for understanding the human-Earth relationship and the potential for extraterrestrial human colonization.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-52
Number of pages8
JournalInternational Journal of Astrobiology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2014


  • Colonisation
  • Fermi Paradox
  • Mutualism
  • SETI
  • Symbiosis
  • Virulence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physics and Astronomy (miscellaneous)
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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