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Why Do We Fear Aliens? Part 1

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist

Athena’s note: Many readers assumed that I wrote this article, especially those who are familiar with my views on ETI.  I wish I had, but please note the byline.  Though this is superfluous, I should add that I completely agree with Larry.

Part 1

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 here.

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 territorial and predatory nature similar to most creatures on this planet. These behaviors would persist even in species that achieve sentience and technologies that exceed ours.

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. 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 (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 The War of the Worlds being 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 of Hawking when it comes to his chosen career fields, the truth is that on the matter of extraterrestrial life he has no deeper insights 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, to whom Hawking has often been compared, followed the trends of his place and time when it came to aliens. Einstein assumed there were intelligent beings living on Mars and even wrote about an optical method of communicating with the imagined Martians in 1937. Einstein did this despite the fact that by that time most professional astronomers 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, it 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.

So why do Hawking and so many others assume a Universe full of predatory life forms, be they amoebae 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 its life fighting for food, living areas, and mates, through either physical force or more stealthy manipulations.

However, in recent decades, it has been recognized that life forms across the board, especially those that 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 much 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 considered both survivable and winnable not so very long ago.

With this being the case, would future humanity extend its current instinctual 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?

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.

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 or 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 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.

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. Just as the elements which make up this world are also found throughout the Universe, it is equally possible that biological organisms do universally behave just as Hawking predicts. The question remains, however: do 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.

Images: Top, two archetypal hostile aliens — the xenomorph of the Alien tetralogy and the hunter of the Predator series; middle, the truly terrifying Kang and Kodos of Rigel VII and The Simpsons; bottom, the alien fleet approaches Earth’s moon in the V remake.

Part 2

Part 3

15 Responses to “Why Do We Fear Aliens? Part 1”

  1. Caliban says:

    I suppose until we finally know the answer to Fermi’s Question (“Where are they?”) we can’t know how dangerous an alien species would be to us (or we to them). My guess, however, is that physical space travel is much too difficult and energy expensive.

  2. Athena says:

    I suspect you’re right, especially for biologically based sentients. Following that line of thought, if they’re so advanced that they can physically bridge the vast distances, the greatest danger will be that they may step on us the way we step on ants and not even notice.

  3. Neo says:

    Dear Athena,

    You touch upon a very important point. I completely agree with your argument that Hawking’s expertise in physics may not be sufficient to predict behavior of ETI. There may really be much more altruistic, much more culturally and morally evolved Intelligent life forms.

    Having said that, I would also like to remind you that, at stake is not just the correctness of a theory. We are not the center of universe. True. But earth is our universe, for all practical purposes. Our only home. At stake is the survival of our species. There are also chances of the existence of “bad aliens” hunting for resources.

    You see ma’am, when I started mechanical engineering course, our professors first taught us one thing- To predict where things fail. Only then, we were taught how to design things. We can take risks, if it’s only about our career or a research project. But when it comes to the survival of our species, it’s better we be careful and even a bit conservative.


  4. Athena says:

    Dear Neo, if you look at the top of the post you will see that it has been written by a guest, Larry Klaes (a good friend who has contributed to the blog before). I expect that he will respond to the comments, including yours.

    I have my own opinions about this issue, of course. I agree with Calvin that physical contact will not happen because of the vast distances involved. Also, if aliens are resource-hungry, Earth is a rather poor investment (asteroids and comets are much easier to harvest). And, as I said in my previous comment, if they’re so advanced that they can bridge these distances, they may brush us aside and not even notice.

    The back-and-forth about this has been going on ever since humans considered the possibility of life on other planets. It’s the other side of the coin of humanity traveling to and settling on habitable planets. But there’s no doubt that Larry is right about one thing: lacking another sample, we’re extrapolating solely from ourselves. And our conclusions say more about ourselves than about anyone “out there”.

  5. 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.

    This statement made a thought pop into my head. As you mentioned, a lot of the scenarios used in science fiction stories involve the aliens coming to earth to mop up “resources”. Any alien race that has overcome the challenges of doing much with little as you need to do when getting off your planet and trekking around space, doesn’t seem like the kind that needs to hop from planet to planet in a consumption frenzy.

    Unless of course we’re sitting on a huge core of “Unobtainium” in Earth’s core. 😛

  6. Athena says:

    Odin, exactly!

  7. Walden2 says:

    First I want to thank Athena for once again posting one of my articles and for choosing the just right images to go with this piece.

    My article is not trying to say that any and all ETI could not possibly be a threat to humanity. There certainly could be aliens who want to harm us either purposefully or through indifference. What I am trying to say is that while we cannot know for certain the present state of affairs, we can make some logical guesses. Hawking is focusing on just one side of the issue and a rather old one at that.

    Part 2 which I am working on now will address the how and why of various threats from ETI and see which ones are plausible and which ones are just bad science fiction.

  8. Athena says:

    Always a pleasure, Larry! And I already selected some images for Part 2. I couldn’t agree more with you that Hawking’s take is ancient (and hoary). Many prophet-wannabees adore this version because it’s “dramatic” — David Brin has made a career of arguing that the aliens out there are simply poised to crush us as soon as they perceive our signals.

    A while ago, the Discovery channel consulted me about an upcoming program regarding aliens. They said that the network brass wanted it to be “completely realistic and science-based” — as long as the only behavior showcased was invasion. I told them that Orson Welles had already done this very well, to say nothing of more recent imitators (Independence Day, the War of the Worlds and V remakes…). They shrugged and repeated what they had just said. In short, the agenda was straightforward and as flat and trite as it can get, in the mistaken assumption that it will boost ratings.

  9. Neo says:

    I have this strange habit. I don’t look at headlines when I take up a news paper. 🙂


  10. Walden2 says:

    Check out this review of Hawking’s latest work in Scientific American:

    And this amusing and spot-on bit from The Guardian:

    I went to a lecture Hawking gave in Boston in 2000. The reaction from the crowd was nothing less than if they were in the presence of a holy man. And they definitely wanted and expected him to reveal the answers (or questions) to Life, the Universe, and Everything.

    But the kicker of the night is when some Harvard students got to ask Hawking some questions and received answers in real time.

    One of them was Is there a God? Another was should I pursue a career in science (Hawking’s reply was “Do it”, which received wild applause). And the one I won’t forget over all of them was “What is the black stuff between the stars?”

    So when I hear Hawking going out of his professional arena once again to talk about aliens and God, permit me to remain skeptical.

  11. Athena says:

    I agree completely about the anthropic principle — I made the same exact point in my review of Rare Earth. I wonder, though, if Hawking is going back and forth between being serious and playing devil’s advocate.

    Also, I didn’t like Horgan’s sneering tone. For one, he’s a science journalist (which means he has even less knowledge authority than Hawking); for another, he has his own very clear agenda; finally, including personal stuff is decidedly unclassy.

  12. Walden2 says:

    I bet it was personal after Hawking trashed his book.

  13. Athena says:

    I think you’re right. Even more reason that Horgan should leave off sneering and insinuating and simply point out how or why Hawking fails to persuade on the basis of evidence.

  14. Viergacht says:

    This is why I love Octavia Butler’s Oankali so much – they specifically come to Earth because it has a resource asteroids can’t offer, our DNA. They take over in a way that grinds the gears of the human protagonists, but they’re by no means evil. They’re no even destructive, they’re acquisitive, and in a way selfish, although by the end of the trilogy they’ve begun to see our perspective somewhat.

  15. Walden2 says:

    The Myth of Evil Aliens

    Why Stephen Hawking is wrong about the danger of extraterrestrial intelligences

    By Michael Shermer | May 19, 2011 | 41

    With the Allen Telescope Array run by the SETI Institute in northern California, the time is coming when we will encounter an extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI). Contact will probably come sooner rather than later because of Moore’s Law (proposed by Intel’s co-founder Gordon E. Moore), which posits a doubling of computing power every one to two years.

    It turns out that this exponential growth curve applies to most technologies, including the search for ETI (SETI): according to astronomer and SETI founder Frank Drake, our searches today are 100 trillion times more powerful than 50 years ago, with no end to the improvements in sight. If E.T. is out there, we will make contact. What will happen when we do, and how should we respond?

    Such questions, once the province of science fiction, are now being seriously considered in the oldest and one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world—Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A—which devoted 17 scholarly articles to “The Detection of Extra-Terrestrial Life and the Consequences for Science and Society” in its February issue.

    Full article here: