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Scientific American

The Myth of the Evil Aliens

published June 2011 | comments (33)
Why Stephen Hawking is wrong
about extraterrestrial intelligences
magazine cover

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. The myth, for example, that society will collapse into fear or break out in pandemonium—or that scientists and politicians will engage in a conspiratorial cover-up—is belied by numerous responses. Two such examples were witnessed in December 2010, when NASA held a very public press conference to announce a possible new life-form based on arsenic, and in 1996, when scientists proclaimed that a Martian rock contained fossil evidence of ancient life on the Red Planet and President Bill Clinton made a statement on the topic. Budget-hungry space agencies such as NASA and private fund-raising organizations such as the SETI Institute will shout to the high heavens about anything extraterrestrial they find, from microbes to Martians. But should we shout back to the aliens?

According to Stephen Hawking, we should keep our mouths shut. “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet,” he noted in his 2010 Discovery Channel documentary series. “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 colonize whatever planets they can reach.” Given the history of encounters between earthly civilizations in which the more advanced enslave or destroy the less developed, Hawking concluded: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

I am skeptical. Although we can only represent the subject of an N of 1 trial, and our species does have an unenviable track record of first contact between civilizations, the data trends for the past half millennium are encouraging: colonialism is dead, slavery is dying, the percentage of populations that perish in wars has decreased, crime and violence are down, civil liberties are up, and, as we are witnessing in Egypt and other Arab countries, the desire for representative democracies is spreading, along with education, science and technology. These trends have made our civilization more inclusive and less exploitative. If we extrapolate that 500-year trend out for 5,000 or 500,000 years, we get a sense of what an ETI might be like.

In fact, any civilization capable of extensive space travel will have moved far beyond exploitative colonialism and unsustainable energy sources. Enslaving the natives and harvesting their resources may be profitable in the short term for terrestrial civilizations, but such a strategy would be unsustainable for the tens of thousands of years needed for interstellar space travel. In this sense, thinking about extraterrestrial civilizations forces us to consider the nature and progress of our terrestrial civilization and offers hope that, when we do make contact, it will mean that at least one other intelligence managed to reach the level where harnessing new technologies displaces controlling fellow beings and where exploring space trumps conquering land. Ad astra!

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33 Comments to “The Myth of the Evil Aliens”

  1. Ylmer Aranda Says:

    Excellent article.You have explained a very important topic,about ETI,in less words than I thought about.If we consider extraterrestrial life,we should think on science and rationalism,not in UFOlogy or myths.

    Greetings from Venezuela.

  2. Will Says:

    By the time, a species takes to the stars they will no longer be what natural evolution made them. So any attempt to extrapolate their behavior based on humanity starts with a false premise.

    In addition, the idea that resources would ever be scarce for an advance race is absurd. The resources just in our system alone are inexhaustible.

  3. gdjsky01 Says:

    Allen Telescope Array needs money or it will be shut down. http://tinyurl.com/3ut4v54

    Good Article. Thanks.

  4. Mike W. Says:

    I suppose with regard to this item we’re talking strictly about the face-to-face meeting of two civilizations but this doesn’t cover non-face-to-face meetings. As far as I can figure, we’re much more likely to encounter a probe of some nature from a civilization possibly long gone by now. IT would be like someone picking up voyager a million years after we’ve gone extinct.

    Or from a more transhumanist view, a biological civilization could well end up creating a technological kind of “life” that survives the species that created it. I wouldn’t be so sure how concerned a technological life will be with the well being of biological intelligence.

  5. WeatherServo9 Says:

    So, all of the hyper-advanced alien species roaming the universe are vegans? I certainly hope so.

  6. WeatherServo9 Says:

    (Some of them might be from Vega, of course.)

  7. John Says:

    If you want to look for “aliens” look no further than on this planet. After all who do you think created humans?

  8. Bill Dietrich Says:

    The only Aliens we need to fear are those in the Intelligence Agencies. Especially the Deep Cover ones who walk among us and pretend to be one of us.

  9. Dimo Says:

    “Colonialism is dead”? I beg to differ. With the Western powers intent on creating a permanent presence in the middle east (and elsewhere) it is under the guise of protecting our interests and the ‘war against terrorism’. It is covert colonialism, or colonisation gone underground.

    “Slavery is dying”? I beg to differ. Third World exploitation means that the poor in those countries work for a pittance, and many live in abject poverty. Even in Dubai, immigrant workers live in appalling conditions not fit for swine.

    Much respect to you but my impression is that you have a gilt-edged impression of present humanity.

  10. Brian Says:

    With all due respect, surely the intent of this piece is to co-opt Hawking’s and others’ musings for Shermer’s own brand of optimistic and, in this case, partially serious, partially self-lampooning, speculations?

  11. Kirth Gersen Says:

    Hawking in his old age has become an eccentric, crank scientist. His views on physics & cosmology are no longer taken seriously in the scientific community. Maybe it’s Hawking’s private joke on the world, that he promotes these views, and the lay-people will ooh and ahh.

    I wouldn’t worry about invading aliens – as Enrico Fermi famously asked some 70 years ago, “Where are they?”

    Fermi’s Paradox posits that if other intelligent, space-faring life exists in our galaxy, they should already have arrived. The reasoning behind the “paradox” can be found via any web search.

  12. E. Darryl Barnes M.D. Says:

    I agree with Stephen Hawking’s pessimistic assessment about the interaction of an alien species with humans. While it is possible aliens would be friendly, I think it is much more likely that they would look upon us and our planet as a resource to be exploited. The Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man” is a fictionalized representation of a real threat.

  13. Eric Says:

    Even if the aliens, which evolved to be the dominant species on their planet, are somehow too ‘civilized’ to be outright hostile to any life they encounter, our track record would probably trigger a response that would be less-than-friendly. If you were an alien, who evolved as a top-of-the-food chain animal and still had those instincts, faced with a planet full of humans…. You’d rather be safe than sorry too.

    More importantly, what is the risk vs reward? Passively listening is fine, but actively trying to bring possibly hostile aliens seems a little naive. Even if they don’t want to kill us, they won’t want to teach children how to play with fire….

  14. almost there Says:

    I have to watch the last two episodes of season 9 of the X Files to figure this whole alien thing out and then I understand David Icke’s latest book “Human Race Get Off Your Knees” explains it all. Happy viewing. But that is on hold as tonight is the Jethro Tull 40th Anniversary tour presentation at Red Rocks. Sitting on a Park Bench…

  15. Majority of One Says:

    When I read Dr Hawkings words I thought he was referring to the diseases the Spaniards brought with them not their personalities or (non)canibalistic tendancies.

    I hope you’re right about our first encounter but unfortunately I doubt I’ll be around to see it. I really really want to though, oddly enough, even if it goes badly for us. It does seem more likely that we’ll encounter some relic of a civilization that they sent out long ago which I think would be extraordinary and I hope this happens in my life time.

  16. Dr. Sidethink Hp.D Says:

    Some time ago Martin Gardner published the idea amounting to something like

    *******
    If they are even out there, there is a slim probability that
    they would be interested in us even they knew how to read our SETI Stuff.

    this is in addition to assuming that a sufficiently advanced civilization would waste their time /resources ;ooking for stuff that there is a zillion to one chance of finding it on top of a zillion to one chance of it existing .
    ******

    I recall some analogy (not Gardner) that if we discovered a race of ant-like mini-mammals on earth, would we set up loudspeakers and yell at them in English??

  17. Same as it ever was Says:

    The authors perception of us now and predictions as to what we will become morally or otherwise are one for Micheal Shermer’s pattern recognition theory. Rather when it comes to humans I would not want to predict anything. Having said that there are some predictions we can make:

    I suspect that extraterrestrial life (advanced or not) is typical of the vast majority of life forms on earth:
    1) they become extinct
    2) they do not last long (cosmologically) before extinction…

    as >99% of life has so far on earth. I for one do not believe that being “advanced” or not has any bearing whatsoever on whether a species becomes extinct.

    Even if advanced they are probably extinct before they can travel any great distance.

    Us for example, are not even 100 years with the ability to send / detect radio signals. We currently steeped in debate whether we are on the brink of rendering our habitat unliveable.

    Being of the position that, we are not special.

    So I would conclude a very very (did I say very) few of them conduct any real “space trucking” before their demise.

    For those worried about something visiting us for any reason. Could you imagine walking a few hundred miles to investigate a common anthill? Which is probably representative of what they would be doing to visit us.

    Aliens visiting is anthropomorphic.

  18. Kirth Gersen Says:

    The recent, excellent scifi movie “District 9″ — it was the visiting aliens that became the oppressed ones!

  19. Jerry Tourte Says:

    They would have to be able to overcome the constraints of a lot of physical barriers, and expend ridiculous resources to exploit the Earth. We don’t seem to be very close to side- stepping the local laws of physics, so it seems fanciful to assume that they would be any better off in that regard. I can’t imagine it’s really worth worrying about.

    But would we taste like chicken?

  20. Cris Putnam Says:

    I can’t help but find it amusing that the atheist bastions of reason and science, Hawking and Shermer, are publicly arguing over the disposition of mythological aliens while ridiculing belief in a creator God. “Claiming to be wise, they became fools,” (Ro 1:22)

  21. ttch Says:

    Dr. Hawking’s suggestion that alien civilizations might use up their home planet’s resources and roam the stars in search of other planets to exploit is exactly the motivation of the aliens in the sci-fi flick, “Independence Day”. Dr. Shermer’s position that civilizations capable of interstellar travel would more likely be able to live within their means makes more sense, though I suppose some disaster might require an alien culture to leave their home.

    Curiosity, both scientific and personal, are among the reasons intelligent aliens might wish to contact or visit worlds such as ours. But they are only two of the irrational urges that might motivate such contact. Greed, religious fervor, or outrage at the mere existence of an “other” might equally apply. Our weapons and technology would be no match for a civilization just one century in advance of ours. Dr. Hawking’s caution makes sense.

  22. Copernican Says:

    Hawking must assume technologies (based on unknown exotic scientific advances ) that we can’t even imagine. There’s a much more concrete reason to severely doubt his scenario than Schermer’s assumption of advanced alien benevolence — the problem of power projection. The distances involved make significant power projection incredibly costly. We are far more likely to face a planetary crisis due to a supervolcanic eruption.

  23. Lynda Says:

    The idea that our silence will in any way prevent an alien civilization from noticing our existence seems very naive. Stephen Hawking’s cautionary statements are laughable. To use Hawking’s example, did the American natives send out messages to alert Europeans of their existence? No.

    Advanced alien civilizations with technologies greater than our own should be able to find livable planets, such as our astronomical technologies have been able to find. I suspect that civilizations intercepting our purposeful signals floating through the galaxies will be more likely to treat us as an intelligent species, rather than a vegetable life form. Communication fosters understanding between intelligent life forms.

    If alien cultures are not as intelligent as human cultures, but still have technologies that allow them to traipse around the universe and annihilate less technologically advanced civilizations, well, so be it. We lose. C’est la vie.

  24. Dale Headley Says:

    There is no more evidence for life elsewhere in the universe than there is for a god. It is an essentially religious paradigm based upon wishful thinking. Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, among others indulged in this internal desire that there be others like ourselves out there somewhere. The only thing approximating “evidence” is Frank Drake’s “equation.” Admittedly, the variables cited in his equation are strongly suggestive of the statistical likelihood of life not being unique. The problem is that the “Drake Equation” is highly selective and biased in terms of the variables it evaluates. For instance, nowhere in his equation does he include the fact that, despite almost infinite opportunities for evolving life to have arisen on earth, all empirical evidence suggests it happened only ONCE. All those people in SETI who are scanning the heavens for an intelligent message from our cosmic cousins are basing their beliefs on faith, and nothing else.

  25. becke Says:

    And, wouldn’t it be a service to mankind if there was intelligent life similar to humanity that developed their intelligence without religion? However, I can understand why humanity couldn’t have, given our slow brain development and the many natural disasters that faced the emerging human. He had to have a god to explain the why’s and how’s of his world. But we could learn a great deal from a benign being who could have by-passed religion altogether.

  26. andtheworldisflatagain Says:

    Yes Shermer may be right that in the course of evolution humans have evolved to become inclusive, and yes the war death rate has gone down etc. etc. but look at the fact here, the reason for war was to conquer other territories, to look for more resources and proving dominance. So with the further advancement of humans the rate at which we are using up the resources is going up and once it is finished on Earth the next thing to hunt for left will be space.
    So i might have to agree with Hawking here that alien civilizations will be better left untouched.
    Given the position we are in with our resources it wont be an option for us to trade it with the life of planet and for a hyperadvanced civilization as it is said, it would only take two undergraduate students with laboratory equipment to destroy earth as their project work.
    SO better watch out.

  27. Glenn Davey Says:

    But, is the social state of the universal community at the same stage as Human progress? It would be foolish to think that the state of the politics in the universe is anywhere near the stage that Humanity has reached. For one thing, there has to be a dialogue, and there are no parties currently at the table. So, in these terms, the state of the Universe is VERY MUCH like historical earth. Therefore, Hawking is correct to advise caution.

    More and more I disagree with Shermer on just about anything except the basic reasons I started reading, although I’m struggling to remember them. Is he just contrary for the sake of it?

  28. Glenn Davey Says:

    On the other hand, any civilization capable of interstellar travel PROBABLY doesn’t need earth’s resources OR real estate.

  29. Broughton Spence Says:

    This is like arguing about if Santa Claus could beat the Easter Bunny in a fist fight. That said, we know that any advanced civilization will not contain altruistic secular humanists. Since environmentally responsible secular humanists don’t have enough children to replace themselves, they quickly go extinct and are replaced with less clever but more Darwinianly fit religionists who value children.

  30. Robert H. Pike Says:

    Headley says SETI base their beliefs on “faith”? Spence says only religionists value children? How did such unscientific statements get their way to this forum?

    No one spoke of Sagan’s “Contact”…a fiction based on a great deal of fact and logic.

    Don’t you think we’ll talk to them first before we actually physically meet them?

    We constantly talk about reducing risk by sending robots rather than humans in to space…and the Discovery channel already produced a delightful fiction of our advanced civilization sending elegantly complex robot probes to the first “Goldilocks” planets discovered in the 21st century.

    (see this; http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/alienplanet/splash.html )

    THAT will be the way we will meet our first aliens. Radio, ie listening, viewing electronically will far precede any physical face to face. We will know them well before we shake their “hands” and send (or receive) delegates of good will.

  31. Mike Lindsay Says:

    I have always been a big skeptic myself. However, as much as I enjoyed your viewpoint on what contact with an extraterrestrial race maybe like, I find myself skeptical about this as well. You state that the trends you see point to a more inclusive developing species. I don’t see it. It’s true that more people in other countries are demanding basic human rights and freedoms and that’s encouraging. It may be possible someday that this will happen, but as long as these same people hold irrational religious beliefs that reinforce stereotypes, racisim, sexism, etc., and as long as people in developing countries fall into the materialistic view of wanted more “stuff” beyond basic necessities, or following false leaders who promise them one thing and then once they obtain power do a “bait and switch” on them, we are going to continue on the same path following our animal survival instinct of hoarding and protecting our “stuff” (resources, material goods, beliefs, etc.) over being altruistic. Morally, we are still not to far acended from our ape relatives, and worse, we have developed the technological capacity to wipe ourselves out (chimp with the laser guided missile or H-bomb). It maybe true that any aliens advanced enough to obtain interstellar travel are morally advanced. I also think it maybe true that there may be some that have the transportation capability, but will still be underdeveloped morally. I reach that conclusion based on how fast we have not developed altuistically as a species in realtion to the speed of our technological advancement. We went from throwing spears and foraging on the savannah to splitting the atom, cloning animals, sending satellites across the galaxy and creating the internet in the evolutionary equivalent of a blink of an eye, yet still murder people in ridiculous numbers and engage in sex slave and drug abuse while continuing to poison our only atmoshphere to maintain and continue a lifestyle based on carbon resources. That to me just goes to show there is no reason that if our culture survives long enough to develop cosmic travel (by bending spacetime or some other advanced means), we still won’t be morally advanced enough to not by militaristic, because we probably will be able to obtain this feat within a very short time frame based on how fast our technology has developed so far. We could also then apply this to any other civilization that developed as we did, though who may have had a jump start on ours by a hundred years or two. Then there are others who may be more advanced morally, but because their culture may be as alien to ours as ants are to us, they may view us the way WE view ants. A fascinating species to admire in some ways, but in others just a nuisance that is either so primitive that we are to be ignored or even “stepped on” if we happen to be too much of a nuisance or even a threat (as army ants can be). When I see a spider – an insect I feel is a beneficial part of nature – trapped in a room and I have the capability of saving by moving it back outside I don’t hesitate to do so. However, if it is the type that is extremely toxic to humans (like the Brown Recluse) I do not hesitate to kill it. I don’t enjoy it, it is merely out of survival, because it could accidently harm me or another. Another alien species may have the same attitudes towards us.

  32. Broughton Says:

    OK, we’re perfectly happy without aliens. Why would we want to chance bringing them here to conquer and enslave us?

    Mike, spiders aren’t insects they are arachnids.

  33. Gruesome_hound Says:

    The argument of Michael Shermer looks a lot like the concept of irreducible complexity advocated by Michael Behe: since we cannot currently conceive how a biological structure might have evolved, it probably didn’t. Likewise, according to Shermer, if we cannot conceive how an alien civilization with a morality radically different from ours evolved, it didn’t and such beings most likely don’t exist.

    May I propose to Shermer to join the discovery institute?

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