Aliens – Friends or Foe?

The image of visiting aliens as ruthless invaders hell-bent on destroying mankind in order to colonise our little blue planet for themselves, may be good for the Hollywood box-office, but how likely is it to reflect reality?

The deeper we delve into the cosmos, the more likely it appears that we are not alone. Even if bio-genesis – the appearance of life from non-living chemical components – is a mind-numbingly rare event, the Universe is so vast, and the numbers of potential star systems so large, that even the slimmest odds could result in millions of occurrences.

Of course, even assuming they’re out there, there’s no guarantee they’ll come knocking at our door. For this to happen, they would not only need to have evolved enough intelligence to have mastered interstellar travel, but would need to have done so in a part of the Universe not too distant from our own (unless faster-than-light travel is one day found to be possible).

We know that it in our case it took 3.5 Billion years for life to evolve to the point of starting to explore the cosmos and although we’re not quite there yet, we’re probably not more than a few hundred years or so from achieving interstellar travel.

So back to the original question: Is ET likely to be friendly or hostile?

Back in 2010, Stephen Hawking, in a series he did for the Discovery Channel, said,

“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet. I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach.”

But I’m not so sure about this.

First of all, consider the kind of international collaboration that would be required to launch an interstellar colonisation effort. Also given that this is probably still hundreds of years off if not more, can you really imagine the presiding international committee agreeing to a directive to destroy anything that stands in its way?

For those of you who would answer, “Yes, just look at our own history,” I refer you to the data pulled together by Stephen Pinker in this surprisingly encouraging TED lecture, and elaborated further in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes, in which he argues that, contrary to popular belief, humankind has become progressively less violent, over millennia and decades, in fact over almost any time-scale you choose.

If his findings are correct (and the data seems irrefutable) and if the trend continues (and I don’t see any good reason why it shouldn’t) then by the time the human race reaches for the stars, it should be a gentler and wiser one than exists today.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that violent psychopaths will not continue to exist hundreds of years from now. But outside of James Bond story lines, such people are never likely to have access to the resources necessary to for interstellar exploration. Even the ISS took the combined efforts and finances of multiple nations.

Okay, but what’s to say that this trend will also apply to Alien races?

Well of course it might not, but I believe there is good reason to suspect it will.

The reason for the comparatively recent (last few million years) expansion in brain size in the evolution of our species is not known with certainty, but most theories involve the move to coexisting in larger groups. Those able to communicate and socialize fared better than those who didn’t, and the set of cognitive tools such as language, theory of mind and empathy, which enabled this required more neuronal complexity and real-estate.

But could a non-social species still develop the technology for interstellar travel?

I don’t think so. Only through collaboration on a massive scale, could such technology arise.

The process of random mutation and natural selection through which evolution on Earth proceeds, is simply too elegant and efficient for it not to apply in some form or other to alien worlds also (though maybe not though genes as we know them) . And this process only ever equips species with adaptations that improve their survival or reproductive success. This means that non-social species will always be too busy surviving to engage in science.

Only through social cohesion and collaboration on a scale so far only achieved by humans (at least here on Earth), can enough time be set aside from hunting, gathering and mating, to start exploring the cosmos.

Of course, these conclusions necessarily rely on many assumptions, which may well prove unfounded, but if I had to put money on it, I would personally bet on any first encounters being friendly ones.

In the words of Captain Steven Hiller, in the movie Independence Day,

Look, I really don’t think they flew 90 billion light years to come down here and start a fight.

What are your thoughts? Am I being overly optimistic and naive?

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Author, musician, science nut, & IT marketing pro. My first novel, CONNECTED, is a mystery thriller with a touch of speculative science & philosophy.

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  1. My best guess is that an alien visit to the Earth would peacefully and gracefully extract exactly what they needed from the Earth, either giving us a friendly greeting, or leaving us little clue as to where our valuable resources went. Maybe they would be far enough along their evolutionary path to put us “humanely” out of the misery of living on a resourceless planet.

    I think if it’s ever up to us, we should seek out beings close enough to us on the evolutionary scale for their curiousity to override their rationality, beings that we could offer something to as well as learn from.

    My greatest hope hope as that we come across some technology that allows us to discover myriads of life forms all over the universe, so that some day we have this choice.

  2. Can you imagine, though, a highly-evolved, socialized, NON-empathetic mind, and how it might coexist with us (or others)? I’m thinking of that staple of science fiction, the ‘hive mind’, and of the evolution of insect-equivalents on a mammal-free planet somewhere. Would such a mind even recognize our existence? [Orson Scott Card wrestled with this from a positive mindset, and any number of others from a more negative one, I know. If you can argue with Stephen Hawking, Card shouldn’t over-impress you!]

    I have to admit that I’m a bit less sanguine about the good natures of ‘unearthly species’. It isn’t just the issue of violence innate to humanity or space-faring races. There is also the fact that, to other carbon-based, oxygen-breathing life forms, we may appear, well, tasty…

    1. Hey, so sorry it’s taken such a long time to acknowledge this eloquent and thought-provoking comment. I think I saw it come in and thought, hmm, must reply to that when I have more time…
      Yes, you may be right that to some alien races we may appear little more than dumb livestock to be consumed with inter-galactic relish.
      However, I still (perhaps wishfully) believe that with the science necessary to conquer interstellar travel would come an appreciation for all other living things – both great and small – beyond the gastronomic 🙂

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