Should We Fear the Aliens?

I once heard a great quote that went something like this: “Humans are either alone in the universe, or we are not. Either way, it’s a wonderful thing.” Not everyone agrees.

Specifically, one of the headline articles – “Study: If We’re Not Alone, We Should Fear the Aliens” – at Space.com last week believes that unless humans are alone, we are should be afraid. Very, very afraid. Needless to say, I don’t agree with the sentiment.

A lot of the discussion in the article quotes a “study”* that says that the differences between humans and aliens we encounter would likely be only skin-deep. In order to survive and become spacefaring, they would have had to thoroughly exploit their homeworld in a way only possible if they had an innate ability to compete with other life forms.

Therefore, the article suggests, any aliens we encounter would be just as likely to be interested in our resources as our persons. Even Stephen Hawking agrees that it’s something we should be concerned about. That seems a little unrealistic to me. Given the huge quantity of resources elsewhere in the Solar System – to say nothing about other stars – why would we have to worry about Earth being devoured by malicious or indifferent aliens?

Even suggesting that aliens tend toward violence in the same way as humans is to unfairly anthropomorphize them. The ability of humans to cooperate in arbitrarily-sized groups is an underappreciated aspect of our biology and psychology I think, but it is easy to imagine ways that an alien might cooperate differently.

If they possessed the natural weapons to do significant harm to other members of their species without tools or weapons, they would have to develop a more extensive psycho-social means of preventing violence from breaking out at all. If they didn’t, then they would presumably never become spacefaring (or civilized at all). Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids series dealt with a species where such a means had evolved, and lack thereof was one of the criticisms leveled at Larry Niven’s Man-Kzin Wars series.

Now, all this is not to say that I don’t believe we should be worried about contact with aliens. In fact, I think it’s something that we should devote significant thought to; it’s like the afterlife. You’re going to die eventually, so it bears thinking upon one way or another. Alien contact isn’t as inevitable as death, but it could very easily be as sudden, and at that point it might be too late to create a plan.

One way or another, you can bet that the day that humans realize they’re entirely alone in the universe will be a singular one in the history of mankind. I, for one, am looking forward to it.

*Can you really call it a study when it deals with a sample size of one? It’s more of a scholarly opinion than a true study if you can’t do the quantitative or qualitative analysis. Anyway.

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