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.
Whoever they are, they must be quite different. Evolution would have taken an entirely different course on a different planet. This made me wonder if that human quality — let’s call it compassion — that makes us smile inside while we witness, say, an elephant wading across a river, would ever evolve anywhere else in the universe. Could our alien visitors possibly regard us with the understanding that we are not fundementally unlike themselves — just some hardworking beings trying to make it in this crazy universe?
I suppose I always thought they would. But now I’m not so sure. I think it’s time to drop the idea that alien life is going to be anything like us.
In Nature’s Dominant Creature, I sung the praises of history’s most successful life-form, the single-celled microbe. These microscopic creatures are far more resilient and adaptable than our vulnerable, tempermental species. If the purpose of life is to stay alive, they are way better at it. They’ve been around a thousand times as long as we have, and they will be here when the sun explodes.
Bear with me for a second here. Through whatever cosmic happenstance, we human beings became staggeringly more complex than our tiny co-earthlings. And what for? We are more vulnerable, more needy, more destructive and more self-destructive, and we aren’t really any more “alive” than less complex creatures. But we’ve developed some fascinating traits — not the least of which is the ability to be fascinated.
Compassion and fascination, the qualities that would keep us from machine-gunning alien beings on sight, could very well be unique to earth creatures. Given that humans have only been around a miniscule fraction of the time life has, and given that we seem to be headed toward all sorts of self-administered disasters (overpopulation, global warming, resource depletion, nuclear war) it is looking more and more likely that we’re just a bizarre and colorful — but quite temporary — offshoot of evolution’s grand tree.
It would seem astronomically unlikely that a similar offshoot, with similar values (to say nothing of similar facial features and silvery space-suits) is occurring with similar timing somewhere else in the universe, having begun on a planet similar enough to lead to a creature with a consciousness so similar to ours that upon arriving here they’d be more likely to give us a high-five than to eat our brains.
Steven Spielberg warmed our hearts with lanky, bipedal aliens who played music and phoned home, but after hearing Dr. Hawking’s sobering assessment, I think it’s more likely that H.G. Wells had the right idea.
Should it ever come down to it, I don’t want to avoid contact. I am too curious about who they are.
I would die to find out.
Photo by woodleywonderworks