Stephan Hawking, the famous physicist and cosmologist, has a known stance on whether or not we should try and contact alien life and invite them over for tea: “Don’t.” I was excited when I learned that a famous intellectual giant had the same opinion about contacting aliens as I did. I hadn’t read much about the reasons for his stance until I was doing a bit of homework for this post. Here’s a link to a well done article summarizing his rationale. The best distillation is in this quote:
“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” he said. “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”
While speculating about the nature of alien life is extremely difficult (because it’s hard not to anthropomorphize) I am prepared to make a couple of deductions and few inferences, all of which are open to modification in light of good arguments or evidence. First off, I think it is uncontroversial that all complex life in the universe evolved from simpler beginnings. There is only one mechanism that has ever been discovered or plausibly hypothesized that creates complex life: evolution. I am willing to wager that all life in the universe started out simply and was forged into more complex machinery over time. The details are known about life here on Earth, but I don’t want to presume that all life in the universe reproduces in a way that would be recognizable as reproduction to us. The only thing I am saying is that any complex life on other planets didn’t pop into existence in a flash of complexity arising out of simplicity. It must have evolved from simpler beginnings – the alternative is too improbable to take seriously.
There are good reasons to think that life everywhere would need resources, just like life here needs them. Organisms on Earth need a steady stream of chemicals to keep them going. I wouldn’t presume to fathom the details about an life that originated independently on another planet but I think it is safe to say that, if those organisms did stuff like move or think, they would need energy to do it. Whether they would get it from chemicals in their environment the way animals do or from utilizing photons the way plants do or in some other way isn’t really important for this discussion. If they need resources, and they are to survive, they’ll need to compete for them like plants and animals do here on Earth.
As long as that’s the case, it isn’t a completely unreasonable leap to assume that, once the life on that other world attains a level of complexity that it develops consciousness, it will have some of the same resource-hoarding and selfish behavior hardwired into it that we have hardwired into us. And as long as that’s the case, inviting them over to visit might not be the best idea. They probably wouldn’t just jump out of their ship guns blazing, but if they saw something they liked or needed and we weren’t willing to surrender it, they could just take it by force. Sort of like the movie Avatar, except backwards. Oh, and I should mention that, unlike every movie with aliens in it, it is unlikely that through sheer human will we would be able to stop them. Unfortunately, technology trumps will-power. And if they have the technology to traverse the universe and find us, they would probably be able to wipe us aside with very little trouble.
Of course, they might be more humane than that. I certainly hope so, but I wouldn’t want to stake the future of our species on it. There is a chance that we too will develop into being humane, instead of just human. Still, food for thought!