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Why Do We Fear Aliens?

By Larry Klaes

Just how we would react to the reception of a signal from an extraterrestrial civilization is an increasingly controversial question, and one filled with import as we take the SETI search in proposed new directions. The ongoing Royal Society meeting in Chicheley (UK) probes the issue, with panel discussions on whether or not we should be sending our own broadcasts to the stars, and presentations exploring the import of extraterrestrial life on the future of humanity. It seems a good time, then, for Larry Klaes to have a look at the question in this, the first of a two-part essay that analyzes our attitudes not so much about signals from the stars as their senders.

Several months ago, the famous British physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking shared his views on extraterrestrial intelligences (ETI) with the intelligent beings of the planet Earth. This was done in no small part as a way to gain publicity for his new television science series, Stephen Hawking’s Universe, video clips of which may be seen at the site.

The Scenario and Its Problems

Hawking thinks that if biological life evolved elsewhere in the Cosmos as it has here on Earth, then there is a good chance it will have a similar territorial and predatory nature as do most creatures on this planet. These behaviors would instinctively remain even for species that achieve sentience and technologies that exceed humanity and our civilization.

Sounding very much like the alien invaders from the 1996 science fiction film Independence Day, Hawking’s advanced ETI would roam the galaxy in massive starships that serve as both transportation and home to these beings. Having used up the resources of their home world (and presumably the rest of their solar system), Hawking’s ETI would search for suitable worlds to “conquer and colonize,” using them up as well (and subduing and/or removing any living native competition in the process) and then moving on to the next set of viable targets.

There are numerous issues with Hawking’s scenario, which even a modest student of science fiction knows goes back over a century, with the invading Martians of H. G. Wells classic work The War of the Worlds being among the most notable of the premise that alien intelligences might treat us the way most human cultures have treated others on Earth for millennia, right up to the present day. The numbers of novels, books, films, television series, and articles that have been made about this subject since Wells’ day would fill a decent size library. So why are Stephen Hawking’s views on this matter receiving so much attention from the media and public?

The most obvious reason is that Hawking is a famous and brilliant scientist, one of the few whom the general populace recognizes with ease, like Albert Einstein, even if they don’t always know or understand his work and ideas. These factors combine to make the public and media think that professionals like Hawking are therefore experts on virtually every subject in existence, including the nature and behavior of hypothetical ETI.

While few would dispute the high intelligence and knowledge levels of Hawking when it comes to his chosen career fields, the truth is that on the matter of extraterrestrial life, Hawking has no deeper insights on that subject than any other human on Earth, past or present. Hawking is still subject to his culture, era, and species when it comes to ETI. Even Einstein, who Hawking has often been compared to, followed the trends of his place and time when it came to aliens. Einstein assumed there were intelligent beings living on the planet Mars and even wrote about an optical method of communicating with the imagined Martians in 1937. This Einstein did despite the fact that even by that time most of the professional astronomers of his day seriously doubted that the Red Planet either had or could support complex, intelligent life forms.

This is not intended to be a putdown of these great thinkers. Instead this shows that when it comes to predicting the forms and motivations of ETI, after two millennia of contemplation on the subject and just a few decades of actually searching for them, all we really have to go on for solid evidence are the inhabitants of a single planet called Earth and the tantalizing clues slowly popping up across the rest of the Universe.

Overcoming Humanity’s Instinctive Drives

So why do Hawking and so many others assume a Universe full of predatory life forms, be they amoebas or beings of superior intelligence and technology? Going along the theme that even great scientists are subject to the knowledge limits of their time, culture, and profession, life on this planet has long been viewed and portrayed as one which is in a constant struggle for survival against both the environment and other creatures, including and especially one’s own species. There is of course a great deal of truth to this, as virtually every terrestrial organism spends much of their lives fighting for food, living areas, and mates, either through physical force or more stealthy manipulations.

However, in recent decades, it has been recognized that life forms across the board, especially those who exist in societies, are far more altruistic and cooperative than it may seem on the surface. Even humanity, despite its abilities to make war on a globally destructive scale and despoil entire ecosystems, is far more cooperative and conscientious of ourselves and our surroundings than we tend to give ourselves credit for. We have finally begun to recognize and act upon the fact that Earth is not some limitless playground that will tolerate our ancient instinctual needs and behaviors indefinitely. This has brought about our efforts to preserve and protect the remaining resources and biota of Earth – imperfectly, of course, but at least a global response is underway – and we have so far succeeded in avoiding a nuclear war or other similar form of drastic artificial catastrophe, something our military and political leaders once considered both survivable and winnable not so very long ago.

Image: Predatory aliens run amok. An illustration from a 1906 French edition of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.

With this being the case, would future humanity extend its current instinctive drives in an uncontrolled manner into the rest of the galaxy once we begin expanding our species beyond the boundaries of its home world? Would our children become what Hawking fears about ETI?

Space: Pulling Together to Survive

While no one can guarantee absolute certainties in either direction with our limited knowledge and experiences in these areas, I will say that I think living in space and on the other worlds of our Sol system, none of which are presently survivable upon without either dwelling inside protective enclosures or being heavily modified (which could take centuries if not millennia to work for the latter case) will force our space-residing descendants to work together for their mutual existence and evolution. The very harsh nature of reality beyond Earth will not tolerate the excesses and foolishness our species has been largely able to get away with for most of its existence.

Of course it is possible that future science could create a form of humanity genetically tailored to occupy just about any corner of the Sol system, on-worlds and off, or they could abandon biology altogether and place the human mind in a mechanical form and/or create a new kind of mind-being called an Artilect.

Granted, these scenarios are not something that will happen next week to be sure, plus they have numerous hurdles to overcome even if they are possible. However, they do illuminate the point that the best kinds of beings to survive and thrive on a cosmic scale are not necessarily the type of humanity that exists on Earth now, or any other form of life suited for one world only. Add to this fact that a spacefaring society would find vast amounts of resources among the planetoids and comet which we know exist throughout the stars and perhaps a species that spends its time marauding inhabited planets makes a bit less sense, if not as enthralling for the entertainment of our species.

An Earth-Centered View

Perhaps what Hawking and others fail to completely grasp is that any alien intelligences which do emerge in our galaxy will come from a world that is not a carbon copy of Earth and may in many cases evolve on a Jovian type moon, or a Jovian type world itself, or perhaps in some other kind of environment that current science would not consider to be a place for any kind of life. There is no certainty that even the behaviors of organisms everywhere are literally universal, including the kind that devour their home worlds and then have the ability and will to pack up and do the same thing again and again across the heavens. To be even more specific, the kind of actions and goals that may work for a creature confined to its home world may not be feasible if at all beyond their domain of origin.

The fact that even someone as educated and intelligent as Stephen Hawking should view other societies in the Milky Way galaxy with fear under the presumption that all intelligences evolved in similar ways and will continue to behave in an instinctive manner even if they achieve interstellar travel shows how much of humanity still thinks and lives as if the whole of existence revolves and focuses around our one planet.

Image: This poster from the 2005 version of War of the Worlds is heavy with menace, befitting a film about alien invasion. Credit: Paramount Pictures.

Accepting the fact that the vast majority of us have remained Earthbound and will continue to do so for at least a few more generations, our species nevertheless has been intellectually aware for centuries now that we dwell on a rocky planet circling one of hundreds of billions of suns in a vast celestial island. And just as the elements which make up this world are also found throughout the Universe, it is also just as possible that biological organisms do universally behave just as Hawking predicts.

The question remains, however, whether they evolve into beings of higher intelligence who still retain certain instincts or do they eventually move away from them? Or does something completely different happen and is it unique for every species? That will be the focus in Part 2, along with a look at how events might go and why if an ETI ever did attack us and our world.

Copyright © 2010 by Larry Klaes

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Bill B. October 5, 2010, 10:29

    I am guessing that an extremely advanced alien civilization’s only interest in us would be to observe us discreetly.

    It is possible that an alien race could develop very limited short distance interstellar travel and only be ahead of us in a few key technologies, in this case they would probably be wary of us upon arrival.

    Chances are with the stage we are at the first alien life forms or civilization we will ever encounter in person (not counting the more advanced ones that could be discreetly watching us) will be on our terms when we travel to their world (<20LY away?) in the next few centuries. In this scenario we would be the wary travelers.

    On the other hand a truly alien civilizations motives and intentions could lie anywhere from malice, indifference, curiosity to benevolence, we just wont know until contact happens.

  • Carl Keller October 5, 2010, 11:03

    ‘However, in recent decades, it has been recognized that life forms across the board, especially those who exist in societies, are far more altruistic and cooperative than it may seem on the surface. ‘

    This concept was entertained in Classical times. The following was written early in the Common Era:

    “For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

    “…[T]here is besides necessity, and that which is for the advantage of the whole universe, of which thou art a part. But that is good for every part of nature which the nature of the whole brings, and what serves to maintain this nature. Now the universe is preserved, as by the changes of the elements so by the changes of things compounded. Let these principles be enough for thee, let them always be fixed opinions.”

    Excerpted from George Long’s translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, II, 1 and 3. The author was an eminent follower of the Stoic school, which held logic, physics, and philosophy as a way of life.

    Fear, Larry’s theme for the article, was part of the subject matter of the Stoics as an irrational contraction of the mind; the bottom line is that it can be recognized and replaced with rational thought. Can such a philosophy take hold in modern life?

  • William Blight October 5, 2010, 11:10

    I note that in Klaes’ article that he admits that aliens may have the same predatory and territorial drives as Earth life. This seems reasonable since life anywhere in the universe should be subject to evolution and the laws of nature. On the other hand, his musings about post-earth life is purely conjectural. Had Germany won World War II, the colonization of space might have occurred faster and with definite predatory force. Also, science fiction writers have frequently written about space-based empires. Hawkins is absolutely correct: Prudence demands that we remain silent and wary of any communications from ET. (And by the way, the many defects in human nature and defects in globalization may prevent us from ever colonizing space. Furthermore, at this point, the environment is increasingly being degraded. Perhaps, Klaes is too subject to wishful thinking; a defect that aliens may find amusing as well as inviting for full exploitation.)

  • Tulse October 5, 2010, 11:31

    So we’re counting on aliens to act better than we do? Humans regularly commit genocide, and that’s to members of the same species — why should organisms that are biologically completely unrelated to us feel any moral obligation to us?

  • Marcel F. Williams October 5, 2010, 11:53

    It will depend on how they arrive. If they visit us in light approximating star ships then there is very little they would need from us. However, if they arrive in a generation ship (interstellar ark) that has probably taken hundreds of years to get here, then they probably came to colonize the Earth, probably not knowing initially that the Earth was inhabited by a native tool using civilization. Since its unlikely that they could return to their world and unlikely that we’d allow several hundred or several thousand aliens to immigrate to Earth, they may have to attack us from space in order to take possession of the Earth or they could simply keep us confined to the Earth while they colonize the rest of the solar system.

  • kzb October 5, 2010, 13:20

    I apologise for going over all this once again, but you’ve got to wonder WHY evidence for ET technological civilisations is so non-existent. Yes it’s the Fermi paradox again.

    Perhaps we are all intentionally hiding from each other in fear ?

  • Eric October 5, 2010, 14:11

    I’m an archaeologist by training and background, and I since I specialize in the comparative study of human societies over long time spans, I guess I have as much right to comment on these issues as anyone.

    I have similar reservations about these discussions of possible alien motivations. Mainly, most discussions imply too much of a predetermined direction to evolution. The idea that alien civilizations would tend toward altruism and benevolence, because that’s the “natural” outcome of becoming an advanced society sounds far-fetched.

    Altruism and cooperation are indeed an aspect of social complexity, but group distinctions and other factors greatly complicate the formation of cooperative ties. I wouldn’t necessarily expect it right away from an alien.

    It also comes down to diversification. The time and space scales of the galaxy are vast. Aliens (if they exist) would have had plenty of time to explore all sorts of niches and strategies for making a living (biological, cybernetic, machine, aggressive, passive, flamboyant, stealthy, rapacious colonizers, resource misers, etc., etc.,). Even if altruistic and cooperative, alien ideas of altruism may be very, er, alien and not especially welcome.

    Even our own society has people and organizations that occupy similarly diverse sets of niches, and we’re tightly integrated on one planet where the hegemony of central authority (and a measure of peace) is easy to enforce. On the scale of the galaxy, with the limits of light speed, I’m sure the tendency to diversify will be even stronger.

    It could be a jungle out there.

  • Ron S October 5, 2010, 14:15

    I am once again troubled by the use of the word “fear” in this context. It is too often used as an ad hominem intended to demean the person holding a position on a topic of some importance. This is unjustified and quite simply wrong.

    Regardless of Hawking’s view on this (I happen to disagree with his reasoning) whether you label an action or opinion as driven by fear, caution, prudence or cold, calculated logic is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is whether the conclusion and its consequences are justifiable.

    Let me give a personal example. Without going into specifics, I have deliberately undertaken certain activities in my life where a wrong move, sometimes as simple as a misstep, would have been lethal. As in certain, immediate death. Was I fearful? Yes, of course. However I did not avoid what I felt was an important task, but instead assessed the risk and took a course of action, armed with the necessary tools and coworkers, that would ensure success. I call this prudence, which employs fear as a tool. It is when fear leads to panic that criticism is perhaps more applicable.

    So…am I fearful of ETI. Yes, but I am not panicked. There is risk and that requires careful consideration of any action or inaction; inaction can be as destructive as action. We don’t know ETI and must recognize that we have no data to work with, just extrapolation and supposition. We have no evidence of destructive interaction between ETI civilizations, but then we also have no evidence of neutral or beneficial encounters.

    What I find incredible is the sweeping aside of caution by some under the assumption, or conclusions reached from no data, that an encounter with ETI cannot be detrimental. That isn’t reasonable. Neither is inaction a proper strategy, although our options to act are at present very limited. Some prudence and deliberation are appropriate.

    If we can worry about the highly improbable risk (i.e. fear) of an impact by a NEO within the next century surely we can at least intelligently, without pasting labels on people, address a risk that is unknowable and unquantifiable at present.

  • Mark Wakely October 5, 2010, 14:23

    We seem to have an innate fear and fascination for the unknown and unexpected, which is why haunted houses, horror movies and filmed disasters on the news are both compelling and repelling at the same time. Erring on the side of caution- given the potential for world wide genocide, no matter how infinitesimally slim- seems prudent. Since no one can say with any degree of certainty how aliens might treat us should contact be made, ascribing motivations and attributes to them is an interesting but ultimately pointless exercise. Their behavior might be bewildering and forever incomprehensible, or if they arose from some primordial Universal slime and arrived to where they are by the survival of the fittest route as we did, then it’s not unreasonable to think that their motives might be less than honorable, given or own penchant for conflict on just about every level. It’s possible that they’ve managed to mute or channel any aggressive tendencies into more productive behavior (to a much larger degree than we’ve managed so far) but survival instincts could still drive some alien “fight or flight” response that makes them cautious too. If it turns out that distrust on both sides is inevitable, then limited contact- tentative “feelers”- might be our first introduction, with more substantial contact to follow if initially all goes well. That could be a delicate dance, with one misstep spelling disaster or permanent alien withdrawal, with little chance for future contact if we get our introductions wrong

  • Bounty October 5, 2010, 14:26

    Wouldn’t advanced aliens already know we’re here? Considering the planets we’ve detected. Radio silence is pointless. The Earth isn’t camouflaged or anything. If they have any way of reaching Earth in a reasonable time, why haven’t we already eaten a relavistic rocket? Call it the Evil Fermi Paradox. If the galaxy is teaming with evil aliens why are we still here?

    I’m guessing the galaxy isn’t teaming with evil aliens. The few regular aliens that might exist are scraping out existance as best they can just like us. If any of them have managed star flight it’s basic, “slow” and severely constrained. Space is hard, and never gets easy. Or we’re being protected by Star Fleet, who are now debating first contact since we keep trying to beam signals to the Klingons.

  • Interstellar Bill October 5, 2010, 14:27

    Hawking shows his ignorance and lack of galactic education in adhering to a hoary cliche: ‘Having used up the resources of their home world (and presumably the rest of their solar system)’. Has this guy looked at all 26 of those zeroes in the Sun’s Wattage? Only a Dyson Swarm could use all that up, but we haven’t seen any stars (or galaxies) go Dark. Even if there were any aliens, they wouldn’t be coming here for ‘conquest’, since planets aren’t resources – asteroids are. A Rare Earth such as ours has value only when left unvisited by anything but sterilized robots. Anyway, why would an ant scientist want to ‘conquer’ an ant colony? Hawking is stuck in obsolete SF.

  • NS October 5, 2010, 14:31

    Here in Hawaii the native Hawaiian population dropped 90% in the century after contact with the outside world, even though the contact was almost entirely peaceful. On the other hand, in Central and South America where there was outright conquest and enslavement, the percentage of native peoples in the population is still very high.

    The actual effects of contact with aliens may have little connection with their intentions.

  • Andrew W. October 5, 2010, 14:45

    There’s yet another way to view this through an anthropocentric lens that doesn’t result in the hostile alien force that Hawking and others fear. Maybe it’s naive or idealistic, but I think that if our species were to achieve interstellar flight and stumble upon another civilization that’s at our current technological level, we’d have no intention of destroying it. In fact, we would probably walk on eggshells to make sure we don’t take any missteps.

    This would be assuming, though, that our exploration and discovery weren’t driven by a need for resources. I think if this civilization had a resource we wanted or needed, whether they were “lesser” or not, we would attempt to get it from them through one method or another. I doubt we’d willingly (or knowingly) bring about the death of a civilization, but I don’t doubt our own drive to survive.

    But then again — and I may be wrong about this — this still doesn’t sound like a very likely scenario because perhaps the only “resource” that we could only find on a habitable planet would be just that: a habitat. It seems that many other useful resources can be found in abundance in places that are far closer to us and that would not require us having to negotiate the presence of another civilization (assuming, again, that this other civilization would have the same standards of habitability that we have). Sure, the acquisition of these resources through mining or some other means may be easier to carry out in a habitable atmosphere, but that’s only if we’re doing it ourselves and not using machines.

    I just think that, short of finding a new place to settle, there would be little to no reason for us to wipe out another civilization. And even then, would we as a species really obliterate an entire civilization? Especially if we’ve gotten to the point that we need to abandon our home, wouldn’t we have an even greater appreciation for the fragility of life in this universe? So even if we want to think of aliens from a self-centered perspective, it does not seem very likely that we’d have to fear for our future existence.

  • Carl Keller October 5, 2010, 14:55

    Hi, kzb,

    Concerning the lack of evidence for ETI, Doctor Shostak is on this one: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38727371/ns/technology_and_science-space/

    He breaks it down to the probabilities in reduced numbers, and a positive finding is possible in the very near future.

  • Tulse October 5, 2010, 14:58

    “Even if altruistic and cooperative, alien ideas of altruism may be very, er, alien and not especially welcome.”

    Indeed, just ask India about British colonialism. Perhaps the aliens have their own Rudyard Kipling: “Take up the Green Glork’s burden!”

  • John Freeman October 5, 2010, 15:11

    There are a broad spectrum of possibilities, but looking at the trends in more technologically minded cultures here on Earth; they are for greater observing and communication power at a distance, minaturisation, energy efficiency, and reducing the amount of personnel and hardware that must make a journey to perform a given task.

    If these trends hold true then an advanced civlisation, at the point where interstellar travel is a realistic prospect, may be able to accomplish many goals without needing to send more than a few very small probes, or perhaps without having to leave their star system at all.
    Given the energy intensive nature of even the most efficient proposed interstellar propulsion systems, and that the range of possible cultures includes very aggressive- perhaps even insane seeming- ones ,this approach would have avantages in the exploratory phase of an encounter.
    It would allow a benevolant race to minimise the danger of cultural damage, a curious one to observe their subjects without any form of contamination, as well as giving an aggressive one the element of surprise, and possibly the ability to launch an attack without risking threat to themselves – assuming that war over interstellar distances is even possible.

    In benevolant, aggresive, and indifferent cases developing sophisticated methods of action at a distance, using minimal physical presence, and maintaining the lowest profile possible would have any advantages until an overriding motivation to break their silence or engage in two way contact became apparent. The most obvious one would be that culture developing the means to observe them in their own star system, which might prove to be trigger for contact.

    I think where this rambling line of reasoning is leading me is : I think its unlikely we’ll need to fear or embrace advanced aliens until we have reached the point where we can at least detect them on our own. But we should keep an open mind- nothing more- on the possibility that they really are already here.

  • Andrew W October 5, 2010, 15:16

    It’s usually the assumption that in an intensely competitive environment the elimination of the weaker leads to less diversity, but if we look at ecologies on Earth we find that the ones with the most competition in them are the ones with the greatest number of species, eg the Amazon. I’d go with the same principle if there’s ever a galactic civilisation.

  • tesh October 5, 2010, 15:17

    There is no reasons for intelligent beings to contact us – at least not yet. If they do contact us within the next 1000 years or so, then their intentions can only be suspect. We, as a species, are not mature enough to be made contact with and for there to be contact prematurely, will only lead to chaos – for us or them or for both parties.

    Wishing for contact now or in the very near future, is an extremely childish notion and is akin to wishing for god (or a magic fairy) to come down to earth and solve all of our problems. There is no magic wand that will solve all our problems. Why else would one wish for contact now, other than for hoping that that knowledge will solve our problems some how. That knowledge right now, would only cause problems.

    I’d rather we find out a little later than sooner. I’d rather we get our house in order before we invite guests…

  • Andrew W October 5, 2010, 15:22

    Ouch, just noticed another Andrew W posted a little earlier.

  • Bill B. October 5, 2010, 15:38

    Eric said:
    “It could be a jungle out there.”
    I agree. Every type of life form and civilization imaginable is probably out there somewhere, kept apart only by the vastness of space. If we run into an ETI it is likely a complete crapshoot what kind of attitude they have towards us and what kind of race they are.

    Ron S. said:
    “What I find incredible is the sweeping aside of caution by some under the assumption, or conclusions reached from no data, that an encounter with ETI cannot be detrimental. That isn’t reasonable. Neither is inaction a proper strategy, although our options to act are at present very limited. Some prudence and deliberation are appropriate.”

    Aside from the imense distances that make it difficult to detect them, it is probably only the prudent ETI that survive a very long time. This could explain the Fermi paradox, prudent races aren’t deliberately broadcasting their presence. The act of broadcasting doesnt have to be what does in imprudent civilizations, it is just a symptom of their recklessness and lack of common direction that could be the root cause of their early demise.

  • NS October 5, 2010, 15:53

    India and China were damaged by colonialism. But having adopted the colonials’ technology, it’s possible that in a century one of them will be the world’s largest economic power. This is certainly not what the colonials intended. Another example of the effects of contact having little to do with the motives of the cultures involved.

  • John Freeman October 5, 2010, 16:55

    If it is a matter of chance what flavour of ETI we encounter, and a matter of chance what the long term effects the encounter has on us, then it would not be surprising to find ETIs are, at least, extremely catious in contacting each other.

  • Jean D October 5, 2010, 17:35

    I side along Hawking, it’s a jungle out there, and it’s ruled by Darwin. However hard we try to deny the evidence that our “intelligence” is an evolutionnary advantage that took us atop of the food pyramid by devising ever more efficient killing methods to compensate for our physical weakness, inadequate defense mecanisms and armor, natural toxicity or whatever is deemed an evolutionary advantage, it’s there. Life, as it evolves, is tasked to conquer new territories, in ever harsher environments, and it’s Darwin again who tells us why we really long for outer space. I see no reason why it would be any different for another intelligent, yet, alien race.

    But I ask you, science people: If an alien race, out of the darkness of space was to point the nose of their ships toward the blue marble today, do you sincerely think they would deem us being an “intelligent” specy? Honnestly, I don’t think they’d have any reason to place us any higher on their intelligence scale than we put apes on a good day. Nor any reason either they should treat us any better than livestock at best, a darned pest building artefacts no more “evolved” than termites on the worst side.

    Now altruisitic aliens? Way worst, I tell you!!!

    Zlorg speaking to Xzoid: See? It’s the most complex ecosystem we found after 34-87334 cycles at travelling around the Orb. If it wasn’t for that bipede specy with prehensile ends at the extremity of their upper apendices, it would be astoundingly glorious! Lets eradicate them!!!
    Xzoid: Of course! It’s our Prime Directive to protect life… Do I have to tell you again?

  • Chris T October 5, 2010, 17:54

    *Sigh* Yet another essay that gives far more insight into the author’s own beliefs and biases than into a possible alien’s intentions.

    The simple fact is: we don’t even know if there are any ETIs, much less what a hypothetical civilization can or would do.

  • Athena Andreadis October 5, 2010, 18:29

    If anyone here truly believes that we can do anything to hide from/deflect beings that have interstellar travel capabilities, I have a lovely bridge on Rigel IV that I want to sell. The likeliest outcome from such an encounter is equivalent to someone kicking over an anthill — accidentally or in play. A further valid comparison is the inadvertent devastation of ecosystems from influx of outside species. The rest is anthropomorphizing: the equivalents to terrestrial colonialism do not obtain, since they will be completely different from us. If they resemble us enough, they will have the same biological problems with interstellar travel as we do.

  • NS October 5, 2010, 21:03
  • ljk October 5, 2010, 21:59

    Wow, I have to admit I am a bit surprised at the paranoia and pessimism I am reading here, though maybe I shouldn’t be. I will blame it on the current era we live in. I’m afraid my mind was polluted by the era of Apollo and the original Star Trek.

    Wait until Part 2, where you will learn that I find few good reasons for aliens to travel all the way to Earth just to destroy us – but if they do, they will be able to do so with relative ease and we won’t be able to do much about it.

  • Dave October 5, 2010, 22:22

    I don’t think we have any thing to fear from communicating with ETIs. If they want an Earth-like planet to colonize they won’t need our radio signals to find the Earth. Their observations will tell them it’s a rocky planet in the habitable zone of its star with liquid water and oxygen in the atmosphere.

    ETIs knowing there is already advanced life here would discourage them from colonizing, if anything. It seems like a planet that has the conditions for life(habitable zone, water, magnetic field, etc.) but hasn’t yet developed life would be the ideal planet to colonize. You could bring life from your native planet with you to develop a biosphere over time without having to worry about being killed by bacteria for which you have no resistance. Remember the World of the Worlds story?

  • ljk October 5, 2010, 22:36

    Chris T said on October 5, 2010 at 17:54:

    “*Sigh* Yet another essay that gives far more insight into the author’s own beliefs and biases than into a possible alien’s intentions.”

    If you read my article again you will see they are not just my biases and beliefs but come from numerous sources. And if I could have interviewed an actual alien for its intentions, trust me I would have. And besides, I think I have at least a couple of good, reasonable insights garnered from thinking about and studying this very topic for most of my life.

    Then Chris T said:

    “The simple fact is: we don’t even know if there are any ETIs, much less what a hypothetical civilization can or would do.”

    This is true, but I found that an article on what would happen in a galaxy lacking in any spacefaring intelligences besides those on Earth would be a very short one.

  • Athena Andreadis October 5, 2010, 23:02

    For those who are dying to see more of Larry’s article or tongue-in-cheek accompanying images, you can indulge here and here. I split it in three because of its length, so only half of part 2 is there (I plan to post the final third this weekend). Previewers will thus be able to formulate deep comments for the time when Part 2 appears on Centauri Dreams. *laughs*

  • TK October 5, 2010, 23:07

    One of the key question I believe is how “they” would perceive us. The vast majority of humans thinks it’s normal to breed other living beings in order to kill them and eat them. Even between cultures we don’t really agree on which species we can eat : Koreans think that eating dogs is normal yet most occidental people think this is cruel and barbaric. Even “worse” if I may say is the way we kill insects without a though when they get in our way. On the other hand killing another human to eat him is seen by most as an atrocity.

  • John Q October 5, 2010, 23:33

    Hawking’s speculations have been reported many times in the media, but at no time (as far as I know) has anyone tied them to the far more appropriate Dr. Who episode (written by the late, great Douglas Adams), The Pirate Planet. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pirate_Planet

    I confess to finding Hawking’s speculations silly, but one has to understand the perspective of Austrian economics to agreet: we never run out of resources because the ultimate resource is knowledge and the free market is a knowledge generating engine par excellance.

    Note in passing: It would really be nice if the intellectuals of the world could get over colonial guilt, but that seems as remote a prospect as ships the size of planets devouring other planets for their jewels and minerals while timelords and their cute companions struggle hard to prevent it.

  • Ronald October 6, 2010, 7:21

    I tend to agree with Bounty, Interstellar Bill, Andrew and also Athena, that the fear of aliens seems rather injustified, even irrational:

    – Advanced intelligence, capable of interstellar travel, must be exceedingly rare, even if biological life in the broadest sense is common.

    – If such a civilization, capable of physically reaching us, indeed exists, they must have known for a long time already that we are here, since detection is vastly easier than interstellar travel.

    – Very aggressive and destructive civilizations are unlikely to survive and advance very long, since they will be self-destructive long before being able to destroy anything off-planet.

    – The idea that aliens might want to come here for our resources is economically naive. It is always cheaper to get your resources much closer to home than interstellar. And if advanced intelligence is indeed so rare, they must have a wealth of choice of other, unoccupied, planets to settle and terraform.

    We may be very interesting for study though and perhaps (biological) sampling.

  • kzb October 6, 2010, 7:34

    Carl Keller: the point I was trying to make was that (like on that web site you linked to), there may well be ET’s out there, but the reason we don’t detect them is because they are hiding. And they might be hiding with good reason.

  • Elf M. Sternberg October 6, 2010, 10:26

    No, it is a jungle out there. Compared to planets, most of space is uncompromisingly brutal; to a first approximation, there is no life in the universe at all. What little life you experience is the exception, not the rule.

    Any spacefaring species will have mastered the fine art of war– even it is just war with the environment as they experience it. After all, a species with no need to fight anything is one with no need to develop technologies. Species in benign environments don’t expand to evolve; evolutionary forces overwhelmingly create species for which, if everything is going well, the species themselves must create disruption, alter environments, and attempt to expand territory and niche coverage. We humans are, without a doubt, the best-equipped species on the planet to do that.

    Technologies, once a species develops them, inevitably wind up possessed by those intellectually best equipped to use them to make war.

    There’s also no reason to assume that extraterrestrial, technological life will be anything like ours. We privelegize, we make a virtue of, our experience as conscious, ethical beings. Assuming that ETs are ethical, conscious beings (I repeat myself, as the former requires the latter) is a fatal mistake. My favorite take on the idea is that, because we are conscious of ourselves and our modeling of others in ways that more mechanistic systems don’t have to be, human speech is so recursive and self-referential that trying to decode it wastes resources; only attackers try to cause a species to waste precious resources; radio signals carrying the attack seem to be coming from right about there.

  • Darrell E October 6, 2010, 12:52

    Can I play devil’s advocate for a moment?

    All quotes are excerpts from the post by Ronald October 6, 2010 at 7:21.

    I tend to agree with Bounty, Interstellar Bill, Andrew and also Athena, that the fear of aliens seems rather injustified, even irrational:

    It seems like a major logical error to conclude that people who think that caution should be exercised when the risks include events that have a very high probability of causing major, and largely unpredictable, changes to society, are irrational. And your use of the word fear in the present context is inaccurate. Though I am sure that some people do fear aliens, the large majority of people discussing these topics do not. Many are simply countering the equally unsupported scenarios of altruistic beneficent aliens that abound. Others are merely attempting to point out that it would be better to err on the side of caution when data is so lacking, and the stakes are, possibly, existential.

    – Advanced intelligence, capable of interstellar travel, must be exceedingly rare, even if biological life in the broadest sense is common.

    Why “must” it be? Don’t answer that, I know the arguments well. And agree that it is likely to be the case. But we sure don’t know this.

    – If such a civilization, capable of physically reaching us, indeed exists, they must have known for a long time already that we are here, since detection is vastly easier than interstellar travel.

    Very likely to be the case.

    – Very aggressive and destructive civilizations are unlikely to survive and advance very long, since they will be self-destructive long before being able to destroy anything off-planet.

    Completely unsupported supposition. You could reasonably argue that this may be true for some alien civilization somewhere. But, to argue this as the general case is not reasonable because there is zero data to support it. And it is very easy to conceive of numerous ways that an aggressive civilization might exist at a starfaring level, and to find examples in our existing knowledge base that lend support to such models.

    – The idea that aliens might want to come here for our resources is economically naive. It is always cheaper to get your resources much closer to home than interstellar. And if advanced intelligence is indeed so rare, they must have a wealth of choice of other, unoccupied, planets to settle and terraform.

    A few counterpoints. We have no data to work with to determine with any confidence what the motivations of an alien intelligence might be. What if there are resources on Earth that can be had nowhere else? For example, some of the products of 3.5 billion years of biological evolution playing out within the Earth’s biosphere. And if advanced intelligence is so rare (uhm, you are presupposing your conclusion here), maybe that is what would attract some particular alien species.

    We may be very interesting for study though and perhaps (biological) sampling.

    Perhaps. Let’s hope they are nice about it.

  • Ron S October 6, 2010, 14:10

    ljk: “If you read my article again you will see they are not just my biases and beliefs but come from numerous sources.”

    Let’s stick to data and reasoning. We all know that a false proposition cannot be made true by a large number of people, authorities even, asserting its truth. Perhaps there will be more explanation in your follow-on article that will convince me to reconsider my opinion.

  • bigdan201 October 6, 2010, 16:18

    While Stephen Hawking is brilliant, this doesn’t mean that his ideas or statements are beyond question and argument. We should give him plenty of consideration, but once you take the stance of “Hawking said this, how can you argue with that?” you are then making the mistake of relying on authority. An important tenet of science is to not follow authorities – rather, you should always be willing to figure things out for yourself. This is not to say that strong theories should be rejected, rather that nothing is beyond question, testing, or disagreement – especially in the realm of conjecture. Science was greatly limited in past centuries by the reliance of Europeans on the writings of Aristotle. I’m not taking away anything from Aristotles brilliance, but he was limited and sometimes incorrect. It was the scientific revolution which called an end to faithfully relying on authority, whatever its merits might be.

    There are many more issues and questions relating to this, which I will address in part 2.

  • Chris T October 6, 2010, 16:43

    If you read my article again you will see they are not just my biases and beliefs but come from numerous sources. And if I could have interviewed an actual alien for its intentions, trust me I would have. And besides, I think I have at least a couple of good, reasonable insights garnered from thinking about and studying this very topic for most of my life.

    The opinions of everyone on this topic are of equivalent value for the simple reason that there is no knowledge base. It doesn’t matter how many people hold the same beliefs, they are all still based on zero data. Until we have such information, no possibility can be excluded, including ones that pose existential threats.

    For me, caution is highly advisable until we can exclude that set of possibilities.

  • ljk October 6, 2010, 18:19

    John Q said on October 5, 2010 at 23:33:

    “Hawking’s speculations have been reported many times in the media, but at no time (as far as I know) has anyone tied them to the far more appropriate Dr. Who episode (written by the late, great Douglas Adams), The Pirate Planet. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pirate_Planet

    My viewing and knowledge of Doctor Who is sporadic at best, so I am not terribly surprised with myself that I was unaware of this episode (though I do recall seeing part of one episode where The Doctor came upon people aboard a multigenerational starship that reminded me a lot of Heinlein’s classic SF novel Orphans of the Sky), but seeing how popular this series is in the UK and with Hawking being English and all that, the episode may indeed have been one inspiration for his idea on ETI.

    I know Hawking is a big Star Trek fan and was actually on an episode of ST:TNG, so I suppose why not something closer to home for him, as it were. I appreciate your bringing this to the discussion.

    Although I have to say that his depiction of aliens in giant starships stripping planets bare one by one still seems to be more heavily derived from what happens in Independence Day. Go view the clip from Stephen Hawking’s Universe that is linked to at the beginning of my article to see for yourself.

  • Bounty October 6, 2010, 18:36

    “It seems like a major logical error to conclude that people who think that caution should be exercised when the risks include events that have a very high probability of causing major, and largely unpredictable, changes to society, are irrational. ”

    There is a difference between caution (looking both ways) and not leaving your house and trying to hide from cars. Right now, we’ve been looking both ways for 100 years. Time to cross the street.

  • ljk October 6, 2010, 19:58

    Ron S said on October 6, 2010 at 14:10:

    ljk: “If you read my article again you will see they are not just my biases and beliefs but come from numerous sources.”

    Let’s stick to data and reasoning. We all know that a false proposition cannot be made true by a large number of people, authorities even, asserting its truth. Perhaps there will be more explanation in your follow-on article that will convince me to reconsider my opinion.

    I had a feeling I would regret that statement, but let me clarify. While I am a big fan of quality over quantity, I simply wanted to point out that my views are not alone on this planet, and that people smarter than me have said them before. I know, I know.

    And yes, please do read Part 2 of my article which goes into much more detail as to why I think aliens won’t be a big threat to us, but if they do want us gone they can do so with relative ease and we won’t be able to do much about it, including hide. Thus my other stand: Let’s get out there first and found out what’s going on!

  • ljk October 6, 2010, 20:10

    Chris T said on October 6, 2010 at 16:43:

    “For me, caution is highly advisable until we can exclude that set of possibilities.”

    And you are quite correct, sir. There is just one little problem with your remark: No matter how hard we try to regulate the flow humanity into the galaxy (by this I mean with transmissions, probes, and one day people themselves), there will always be at least a few group who will defy any sense of caution and barrel headlong out into the Milky Way in one form or another to meet their destinies.

    They will do this because they feel the need to “connect” with the Cosmos, or that there are a bunch of “heathen” aliens out there who need converting, or they are escaping some authoritarian regime that is repressing them, or they will do it just because they want to be contrary to all society.

    They may get lucky and find an Edenic world to settle. Maybe some higher beings will let them into their collective and they will achieve cosmic Nirvana. Or maybe encountering an ETI will be the last thing they ever do. Nevertheless, no matter how much we may fear what is out there, some folks will not be afraid and they will spread into the galaxy, hostile aliens be darned!

    So the real point here is, how do we prepare for this eventuality? Let’s face it, the Universe itself is not worried if the third-order chimpanzees of Sol 3 are prepared for the Big Cosmos and we are not going to be shielded by it from whatever comes our way, and especially not if we go out to meet it, which is what will happen one day unless we really mess ourselves up.

    And by all means, please read Part 2 for the details!

  • Bounty October 6, 2010, 21:31

    I feel like we’re debating whether camping is advisable in Big Foot territory.

    I’m glad our ancestors didn’t have nearly as bad a phobia of exploring or communicating with ‘aliens.’ Sure Native Americans were never the same, but I’m much happier (~1/3 Cherokee) not having a life expectancy of 25-30 years and having to struggle for food every day.

  • Ron S October 6, 2010, 22:14

    Larry, I get the impression (perhaps I’m mistaken) that you believe anyone who speaks of “prudence” is implying that we should hide and contemplate our navels for a while, maybe a long while, until some future enlightenment, greater strength or whatever. I know that isn’t my position.

    When I speak of prudence I mean that we should not assume that only good will come from an encounter. A low, non-zero risk, just like from an unwelcome visit from a NEO, because it can be catastrophic demands that we take some precautions. We can continue to operate our planetary radar, explore space to the extent of our abilities, and so forth. But we should also allocate resources to SETI and continue looking for life so that we gather some useful data which is sadly lacking at present. In the unlikely event we do receive a visit or message from ETI in the near future we will also want to consider alternatives to a blindly enthusiastic welcome.

    No undue fear, no hiding, no fretting, just a data gathering program and some prudent enumeration of alternative contingency plans.

  • WLM October 7, 2010, 0:56

    What this article suggests to me is: the supposed interstellar traveling aliens *are not there*. And those who are sure of otherwise … well, I don’t know … perhaps they watched a little bit too much Star Trek when they were growing up.

    If they were: we would not be here in the first place. Instead, these aliens would long ago have sterilized the galaxy of any potentially threatening life-bearing planets such as ours, using something like Berserker probes.

    Personally I don’t think they’re out there. I believe the reason they’re not is: about 90% is rare Earth /rare intelligence / rare tool-using-species. The remaining 10% is the kind of scenarios described by John Smart and Paul Hughes, where they have evolved in ways incomprehensible:

    http://www.accelerating.org/articles/answeringfermiparadox.html
    http://astranaut.org/library/exotic-civilizations-beyond-ka.php

  • Ronald October 7, 2010, 6:49

    Again I agree with Bounty (time to cross the street, always with caution, but without fear).
    In response to Dallell E: thanks for your elaborate reaction. You make a lot of sense, however (risk of partly repeating myself or others, but I am trying to emphasize);
    – If any civilization is capable of relatively fast star travel (i.e. not generational), they are so vastly superiot, that a) there is no hiding, b) there is no escaping, c) they most probably do not *need* our planet and resources to solve their own problems (and there are easiere, faster and cheaper ways to achieve that closer to home).
    – Concerning biological resources, evolutionary products: if they don’t have them on their home planet, afeter their own long evolutionary history, then they do not need them for their survival. And if those biological resources here on earth are still interesting to them (e.g. genetic resources) then some modest sampling will be sufficient.

    Similarly, the US or the EU do not need to conquer an Amazon indian’s tribal territory and completely destroy the tribe in the process, for its own survival. The destruction of such a tribe might in the worst case take place as an accidental side-effect of other activities (such as ill-considered resource exploitation), but not intentionally.

    The only rationale that I can not entirely refute for an alien civilization to take over our planet is to actually settle here, after very great investment of time, energy and resources, and for their sheer survival: such as the generational (or suspended animation) ships. But even then one has to wonder whether such a civilization would not rather go for an unoccupied planet.

  • Ronald October 7, 2010, 6:50

    “Dallell E”: sorry, typo, of course I meant “Darrell E”.

  • ljk October 7, 2010, 8:16

    WLM said on October 7, 2010 at 0:56

    “What this article suggests to me is: the supposed interstellar traveling aliens *are not there*. And those who are sure of otherwise … well, I don’t know … perhaps they watched a little bit too much Star Trek when they were growing up.

    “If they were: we would not be here in the first place. Instead, these aliens would long ago have sterilized the galaxy of any potentially threatening life-bearing planets such as ours, using something like Berserker probes.”

    Of course it is certainly possible that the reason we don’t seem to have any evidence of an alien visitation on Earth is that we are pretty much alone in the galaxy. As I said before, though, this would have made for a very short article.

    I would also like to point out that if there were evidence for aliens in our Sol system, would any respectable archaeologist report such thing? Of course not, for he or she would be ridiculed out of the field. Same with any astronomer who thought he or she had seen evidence of intelligence in the Universe. While science needs such conservatism to avoid joining the ranks of the UFO fringe, I have to wonder what we have missed and lost because we are still so young in our thinking about the Cosmos.

    And are you sure that an alien species would just automatically sterilize the galaxy just to keep it for itself? There’s lots of room and worlds out there, you know.