Aliens Friendly Or Hostile?
September 27, 2009 17 Comments
One variable in the equation of human contact with aliens is of course the intent of the aliens. Would they be hostile of friendly? Would they seek to conquer earth and either enslave the human population or even wipe us out completely as so many science fiction movies project? Or would they be cute and cuddly like ET? Ultimately we cannot know. Aliens would be alien and outside of previous human experience.
But if we take the possibility of contact seriously we have to guess. And rather than guess randomly, driven by images taken from Hollywood, we should think seriously about the issue. Although as I will argue later, the initial form of contact is likely to be the interception of some communication rather than a face-to-face encounter with aliens, it is probably simpler to begin by assuming the less likely scenario of physical contact because it is easier to imagine.
Whether relations with aliens would be friendly or hostile of course depends on both the nature of the aliens and the reaction of humans. On the human side, we know that some people look forward to contact with aliens assuming a new era of peace and friendship while others expect aliens to arrive in warships and initiate a war of the worlds. In the movie Contact Jody Foster’s dreamy faith in alien benevolence was matched by James Woods’ paranoid war preparations, and that is a reasonable representation of the range of human reaction to a scenario in which alien intentions were not immediately clear. We know the range of human responses to human strangers running from friendly curiousity to implacable hostility.
If the range of potential human response to alien contact is wide, the range of possible alien nature is even wider. Ultimately we cannot know with any level of certainly what aliens would be like. However, humans do know something about intelligent life-forms–we know what humans are like. One approach is to assume that although aliens would be different from us in many ways, they might think about us roughly as we think about them. They might have roughly the same mix of hostile and benign characteristics as humans. If that were the case then relations between humans and aliens would be roughly like those between different human nations. Among human nations relations are largely contingent upon how we think about each other and how our leaders handle contacts and relations. If aliens have roughly the same propensities toward compassion and violence as humans, it would be very important how humans handled early contact. Whether we reacted like Jody Foster or James Woods might in fact determine whether we could live in peace with the aliens or whether we would become cosmic enemies. It might determine the difference between a future of peaceful cooperation and wars between worlds.
Humans also have experiences that help us project situations of contact with aliens of lesser technological development than us. On earth, we encounter countless life forms less intelligent than ourselves, from mindless viral automata to apes and dolphins of considerable intellectual, social, and emotional development. The way we treat these species on earth give us a rough rule of thumb for expectations of how humans would treat less advanced species we encountered in outer space.
Of course, we have no direct experience with a species more intellectually and technically developed than ourselves. But in this case we can look at different levels of human development. We can compare human societies that are more technically and scientifically backward with those that are more advanced, see what the differences are, and project that more advanced aliens would likely have even more of the characteristics that separate highly technological and scientific human societies from less advanced ones. Depending on exactly how we make that comparison, we might come to different conclusions.
If we simply compare more technologically advanced societies with less advanced societies on their propensity toward violence and compassion, we would probably have to conclude that technological development makes little difference in moral development. Modern Europeans colonizers, the former Soviet Union, and the contemporary United States have proven just as capable of barbarity as technological “barbarians,” as one can see from the era of European colonialism, the Soviet gulags, and the joy Americans take from bombing foreigners from Hiroshima to Hanoi to Belgrade. It sometimes seems that technological advance only increases the technical capability of humans for barbaric actions.
But if one looks more closely at the qualities that make for scientific and technological advancement, one sees that science advances in societies and environments that are relatively free of physical conflict. A less developed society can “advance” materially by simply conquering another society, but the gains of science cannot be seized like physical property. Science advances only through ever broader peaceful, intellectual cooperation. Technology does show spurts of advance during wartime crisis exertions, but in the long run the science which makes technological development possible flourishes only in peaceful environments. Thus the more scientifically advanced beyond a human level an alien civilization was, the more likely they would have evolved in a more socially benign direction. This is at least some cause to think the more technically advanced an alien civilization might be, the more likely they would be to be benign rather than hostile.
But since aliens would in fact be alien, the only thing we can know for sure is that they would have a different character than humans. The following chart considers different possible alien contact scenarios based on two variables: 1) level of technological advancement and 2) level of friendliness/hostility. Lets start with the extreme cases first.
SCENARIOS OF CONTACT BASED ON POSSIBLE CHARACTERISTICS OF ALIENS
TENDENCY TOWARD CONFLICT
BENIGN MIXED HOSTILE
Very High They are gods We are pets We are toast
or mere ants
Higher than Human They are teachers They control us They rule us
or parents or ignore us or ignore us
Similar to Human We are friends We are competitors There is war
Lower than Human We are teachers We control them We rule them
or parents or ignore them or avoid them
Very Low We study them We study them We exterminate
and control them or avoid them
If life is widely dispersed throughout the universe or at least our sector of the galaxy and intelligent life is more rare than non-intelligent life, then our first contact with extraterrestrial life could easily be with very simple life forms lacking intelligence. If such life forms were benign we would simply study them. However it is possible that these life forms would have some self-protection mechanisms that would be harmful to humans, for example some toxic emissions upon contact with foreign organisms. They might even be sentient enough to resist human will. Even without intention, extraterrestrial organisms might have virus-like properties that would upset human physiology. In such cases such life forms would also have to be controlled so as not to harm human beings. If the defense mechanisms were dangerous enough to human beings they might have to be rigorously avoided and even exterminated in situations where they might come into contact with humans.
At the other end of the spectrum of possibilities would be life forms that are so highly advanced we could not even comprehend their civilization. If they were benign, such advanced beings would appear like gods or angels to us. Their technology would be like magic, almost inexplicable except in terms of the results. They could revolutionize the human species if they chose to. If they were hostile, human resistance would be futile. We would simply be toast, vulnerable to whatever they chose to do with us. If their attitude toward humans were mixed they might choose to treat us like pets or zoo animals. Or they might choose largely to ignore us, as we do with ants.
What if the technological development of aliens were roughly the same as that of humans? If technologically equivalent aliens were benign we could become friends and cooperate in our development. If they were hostile, there would probably be war, perhaps prolonged, perhaps over quickly. If technolgically equivalent aliens had a similar mix of compassion and hostility as humans, then relations would be highly contingent on how early contact was handled. Smart and friendly handling of early relations would positively influence how each species regarded the other. Stupidly hostile responses would only encourage enmity and increase the possibility of war. Like relations between human nations, some form of competition mixed with cooperation would be the most likely outcome of contact with aliens much like us in their social and emotional propensities and level of technological development.
What if the aliens were more technologically advanced, but not overwhelmingly superior? Then the form of contact would depend primarily on the character of the aliens. If they were benign they could become our teachers, leading us into a new age. Or they might treat us more like parents with mentally handicapped children who will never “grow up” intellectually. If they were hostile they could rule us, either colonizing us or ruling from afar. Depending on the degree of their superiority they might or might not be able to wipe us out completely or they might have so little to fear from us as to safely ignore us. If their motives were mixed they might choose to control us so that we did not interfere with their activities, but leave us largely alone in our enclaves where our activities did not encroach on theirs.
The most interesting test of human character would be encountering a species that was clearly intelligent but significantly less technologically developed than us. In that case, humans would control the development of inter-species relations. If we are as benign as we like to think, we could be the teachers of our new friends. If the hostile side of human nature won out, we might dominate them much as European colonizers ruled the natives of the American “new world.” Most likely we would try to control them in some manner, although the degree of control would vary depending on their biological similarity to us, the degree of their social and technological ability to resist us, and the way we came to think about their species. Managing relations with a less developed but intelligent species would be an intersting challenge of the human spirit. However, our behavior toward somewhat intelligent species on our own planet, such as apes and dolphins, leads me to think we would fail such a challenge miserably.
It is interesting to note that only one of these 15 scenarios clearly leads to a “war of the worlds” that is the most popular science fiction movie scenario. It is true that some of the other scenarios might devolve into some type of guerilla war of resistance as humans resisted domination by the more technologically advanced aliens or less technologically advanced aliens resisted domination by humans. But the image of all out war between worlds so popular in cinema tells us more about ourselves than it does about the likely form of contact with aliens. The probability that aliens and humans would be at such equivalent levels of development that each could effectively fight the other on a massive scale seems highly unlikely.
However, the above scenarios of human-alien contact are all oversimplications in at least one respect. Initial contact with alien civilizations is unlikely to be in the form that has been popularized by science fiction. Highly technologically developed aliens are not likely to simply appear unannounced on earth nor are human space explorers likely to suddenly bump into a hidden city of aliens. The first sign of the existence of alien civlization is likely to be the interception of some communication, either directly sent to us or simply picked up by us through random scanning.
Why is interception of some form of untranslated communication the most likely scenario? Because other scenarios are simply implausible. The sudden arrival of benign English-speaking alien messengers assumes a long period of unannounced, undetected alien study of us in which they go to the trouble of learning our biology, our language, our customs, etc., yet they do not make the obvious step of communicating directly with us. The sudden appearance of alien warships in our skies assumes a level of impacable hostility that also seems unlikely from a truly advanced species.
A scenario in which we accidently stumble onto a hidden city of aliens is also unlikely. It assumes that we are unable to first recognize some signs of alien civilization until we are close enough to see it with our eyes (or our technological extensions). We may in fact discover an alien civlization by accident, but more likely from picking up their communications from a long distance away rather than bumping into them on a trip of interstellar exploration.
Unless the aliens are carbon-water life forms with an improbably similar evolutinary history to ours or unless the aliens are sending a message directly and only to humans, the initial pick up of a communication is likely to be limited to a simple recognition that it is some form of communication. That is, it would be like a message written in an unknown, initially untranslateable, foreign language. It would take a long time to decode, perhaps on the order of decades or even centuries. Much would depend on just how “alien” the aliens were and on whether the communication was one deliberately sent to us with the intent of being understood and thus included some “map” to guide in its decoding. There might even be heated debate in the scientific community about whether what was being observed was a form of alien communication or a natural phenomenon that was being misinterpreted as an intentional communication.
In other words, we are likely to have some evidence of the existence of alien civilization before we have direct face-to-face contact (assuming the aliens even have faces) or even before we have established clear communication. We are likely to recognize the existence of a message long before we are able to know what the message says or even if the message was intended for us. We may even have a long period of debate whether the observed phenomenon is even a message or some exotic natural phenomenon. In the movie Contact, there was a brief period of a few weeks from the time of the initial receipt of the message and the decoding of the message. If the initial communication were intentionally sent to us, and if it contained a primer on how to decode it, it is perhaps possible that it could be translated so quickly, although even in that case years or even decades might be necessary. But if we simply stumbled on alien communications sent within their own civilization but escaping out into space as our radio and TV do, then decoding would likely take decades or even centuries. Calling them up directly would not likely speed up the process since even communication travelling at the speed of light would take years to reach the closest stars and centuries or millenia to reach even most “local” neighbors. When our message reached them, they would face a similar problem of decoding our message.
Thus there is likely to be a long period of uncertainty about the nature and intent of aliens long after the initial communication is received. Even in the case of face-to-face contact there would be some period of mutual adjustment until the basic nature of the aliens became clear. Even in the case of face-to-face contact there would likely be wide-ranging human debate about whether the aliens were friendly or hostile, unless their behavior clearly showed implacable hostility. But the more likely scenario of communication without physical contact would leave the human race in even more of a quandry, without any direct evidence of alien intentions, only uninformed speculation.