This week celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking suggested that alien life almost certainly exists, and humans should do everything we can to avoid contact with it.
He reasons that contact with aliens would probably be fatal to us, likening it to the European conquest of the New World:
“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. […] We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”
Ouch. I’m not sure why I was so surprised to hear this point of view from Dr. Hawking.
I suppose, in the absence of any actual information about alien species, my entire concept of them is built from movies and TV shows. In those shows, aliens tend to do one of two things: extend a gesture of cosmic friendship and love, or violently abduct/dissect/probe us and vaporize our cities. I always thought the movies that portrayed aliens as senseless killers (Independence Day comes to mind) were not as “realistic” as ones in which the aliens strike some sort of rapport with us humble homo sapiens (think Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)
One ridiculous feature of movie aliens is that they almost always look something like us — bipeds with eyes, nose (or at least nostrils) and mouth. Sometimes they add some slime or mucous to make them a bit more foreign. These depictions are dazzlingly unimaginitive — it’s really incredible how we can’t seem to let go of the idea that sentient aliens would just be “men from outer space.” Truth is stranger than fiction, and since we have no real knowledge of extra-terrestrial life, we have no starting point for imagining them, other than ourselves.
But that’s movies, and I guess I never really thought one of the world’s top scientific minds would conclude that aliens would indeed try to kill us if they had the chance.
It made me think: is that what humans would do with aliens if we found them? Sure, we’ve destroyed all sorts of terrestrial species (usually without trying) and sure, we destroy our own kind on a regular basis, but I think humanity at large would regard an alien encounter as an opportunity to connect, rather than conquer.
No, I don’t think we’d be as cold-blooded with our galactic neighbors as Hawking believes they would be with us. For all the nasty things humans can do, there is an earnest quality in us that respects life and wants to see it do its thing. We are fascinated to witness rare earth animals in their natural habitats, and I think we’d be more likely to value and study alien life than to barbecue it. Read More