Are We Friends or Food?

May Zarquon be with you, and also with you.
May Zarquon be with you, and also with you.
You know how it goes. One minute you’re sitting in your favorite watering hole happily discussing the quantum irregularities of the space time continuum with a roving gypsy band of cosmologists who just happened by when someone brings up the subject of aliens. Why is it always the person who’s been sampling the newest tequila? Anyway, like the proverbial turd in the punch bowl, it just can’t be ignored. Sadly, no matter what, you know where this conversation is going to end. One the one hand you’ll have the supporters of Stephen Hawkings’ theory that any encounter with an advanced civilization, no matter how benign, will end in the utter subjugation of mankind – in much the same way that early European settlers decimated the indigenous Americans. There are others who feel we are technologically, and emotionally, developed enough now to withstand such an encounter and, as time goes on, we will only be stronger. Then there are the fringe theorists who argue that we’ve already been visited and, for some reason, aliens are quite fond of human anuses.

For our purposes here today, and to maintain my sanity, we’re going to ignore that last group.

Our new pal, Ian O’Neill from Discover Magazine, tends to side with the Hawkings’ camp and delivers some very salient reasons as to why you should too.

We’re an inquisitive lot, we humans. But could our inquisitiveness ultimately kill us?

In a new Discovery Channel documentary “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking,” the world’s most recognized physicist speculates about different forms of alien life and explores efforts under way to search and communicate with intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations. However, he cautions that perhaps we shouldn’t be advertising our location; perhaps we should just sit back and listen instead.

Earth Brand™ Life

So, Hawking takes us on a thrilling ride through some potential shapes aliens may take, but using life on Earth as the blueprint.

At one point in the documentary, Hawking describes how feet would be useful for any life form that has evolved on a solid surface. He also points out that eyes are handy too.

Eyes and feet have been optimized to function on our planet, so perhaps some variation will be found attached to a life form thriving on a distant world.

When speculating about alien life, it’s open season; anything goes. But we only have experience of Earth Brand™ Life, so that’s an obvious place to start. We know (to the best of our ability) that the laws of physics are universal, it seems logical to assume life is too (apart from some variations in detail).

If there’s life, there’s the potential that in some world orbiting some star in some galaxy, an intelligent space-faring race may be as inquisitive as we are, pondering their place in the cosmos and looking for other civilizations like their own.

Listening Out for the Neighbors

In an effort to find intelligent civilizations, we have to assume that they’re a bit like us, so the first thing we look for are radio waves. The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has been doing this for 50 years, carefully listening for any ET call home. If humans communicate via radio waves, there’s a good chance that another intelligent civilization has done the same.

Alas, apart from one isolated case, SETI has turned up zero evidence for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. This means we are either wrong to be listening out for ET’s radio transmissions, we haven’t given it enough time or (and this is the downer) there’s no other intelligent life out there.

I strongly suspect that given the sheer scale of the universe, and the mind-boggling quantities of exoplanets orbiting countless stars in countless galaxies, there’s intelligent life other than us. Granted, there’s no evidence of ET, but as Hawking points out in his documentary, his mathematical brain cannot discount the possibility of alien intelligence when there are endless possibilities inside the hundreds of billions of galaxies we know are out there.

Attracting Too Much Attention?

So we continue to listen out for the signal from aliens through ever more ingenious methods. But we are transmitting too.

There have been numerous attempts at “Active SETI” or Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI), where we transmit our presence to the cosmos. The most basic of these methods was to attach our information to the Voyager and Pioneer probes in the 1970s.

This space-age “message in a bottle” has a very limited probability of ending up in the hands of an alien species. However, more recent modes of communication have included beaming our own radio waves into space attempting to make contact.

It’s also worth remembering that our planet started to get “radio noisy” when we started transmitting radio and television signals about 100 years ago. Some of these transmissions will have “leaked” into space.

Therefore, if anyone is looking for us within 100 light-years from Earth, they might have already heard us. However, 100 light-years is very small in cosmic distances. For a galaxy measuring 100,000 light-years across, our signal has only reached 0.1 percent of the Milky Way.

Okay, so what if we start blasting out signals advertising our presence? To assume alien civilizations will be friendly and welcome us with open arms seems grossly naïve. As Hawking points out, if there’s one thing we’ve learned from our own evolution, although we might have the best of intentions, we’ve rarely “come in peace.”

The Human Menace

Could we be viewed as nothing more than an infection that needs eradicating? (NASA)
Mankind is all about resources; imagine if a more advanced civilization sees Earth as a bountiful supply of sustenance and sees our civilization as nothing more than ants crawling over a big juicy apple. Wouldn’t they just wash us off?

And so this is where Hawking leaves us, pondering our fascination with broadcasting our presence into space. Wouldn’t it just be better for us to stay as quiet as we can, listening rather than shouting from the rooftops?

Personally, I think Hawking has a point. Although it might take hundreds, thousands or even millions of years for our signal to reach an intelligent “ear,” if that ear isn’t a friendly one, we’ve basically decided our future-Earth’s fate.

If there are any human decedents beginning to spread beyond our planet, it would be a real downer for an aggressive alien invasion to suddenly appear in response to our ancient transmissions. I’m sure we’d look back at our idiotic past-selves with anger when we realize we are living in the backyard of a vastly superior alien race intent on eradicating the human infestation that’s spreading down their garden path.

On the other hand, we might contact a race of “huggy” aliens who genuinely want to be our friends. But on the off chance that we might get eaten, I’m with Stephen Hawking. Let’s be careful about how we advertise ourselves, shall we?

Since that genie’s already out of the bottle, there’s not much we can do. Ever since the Nazi’s first broadcast the Olympics in 1936 we have been sending complex signals into space announcing our presence.

Even so, according to Ian’s worthy colleague Ray Villard, the whole point may be moot. After all, who the heck knows we’re here anyway?

The esteemed astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has assured us that even the biggest and baddest black holes will just evaporate away. But he’s not so optimistic about the mood of any advanced civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy that we might encounter someday.

“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet,” he said on the Discovery Channel’s “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking.”

Hawking extrapolates from anthropology to point out that the inferior culture — us in this case — would get the short end of the stick in any such close encounter of the rude kind. Thirty-seven years ago Nobel laureate biologist George Wald expressed similar worries: “I can’t conceive of a nightmare as terrifying as establishing communication with a so-called superior technology in outer space.”

I’ve mulled over these warnings and have converged on what I think are some simple truths, from a purely astronomical perspective. The bottom line is that I’m not losing any sleep worrying about awaking one morning to see an alien mothership hovering over Washington D.C.

Here are my top five reasons why an intelligent alien species will never invade our planet:

5. It’s Unlikely Anyone Knows Intelligent Life is on Earth

As my colleague Ian O’Neill pointed out in an earlier article, electromagnetic waves from telecommunications leaking off the Earth have now expanded out to a radius of merely 100 light-years. This volume encompasses over 2,000 stars, roughly 200 of which are sun-like. But it covers a feeble one ten-millionth the volume of the galaxy. Even by very optimistic estimates from the Drake Equation, the nearest super-civilization is well over 1,000 light-years away. And they won’t know about us, if they can detect a signal at all, until after 3,000 A.D. Earth will show up as having a biosphere in spectroscopic studies taken by very advanced civilizations at farther distances, but that data doesn’t give evidence for sentient beings.

4. An Improbable Time Intersection

If you were walking along the Appalachian Trail, what are the odds the first person you came across was your same age and was born a day before you? Though the nearest inhabited planet could be only 30 light-years away, it is equally unlikely that anyone living there just happen to be close to us in technological evolution (say by a few centuries or even a millennium). The galaxy is very old. Therefore it’s more probable that there are intelligent species that are 10,000, 1 million or even 10 million years more advanced than us. Perhaps they abandoned the plodding vagaries of biological evolution eons ago to engineer a new form of existence, one likely to be practically immortal. Therefore, we have as much in common with them as an amoeba has with us.

3. No Need for Our Resources

Even if we consider there might be civilizations closer to us in evolution, there is absolutely nothing on Earth they need. The stars and planets are made from the same chemical bricks and mortar. There is nothing so exotic as unobtanium, a plot contrivance of the film “Avatar.” Transporting any cargo between the stars is infinitely more complex and expensive that simply fabricating whatever you need at home.

Equally implausible is the notion that an extraterrestrial race would want to colonize Earth. First they’d have to clear us out and then clean up our pollution mess and rework the entire biosphere to accommodate them. That’s a lot of work to foreclose on an 8,000-mile-in-diameter ball of molten iron and rock. And, the idea of a space ark carrying a boatload of colonists here is a quaint 16th-century notion. It would be much cheaper to undertake a long-term program of terraforming their own planetary system. This would include building huge structures in space such as a Dyson sphere or a star-girdling “ringworld,” as envisioned in the 1970 Larry Niven sci-fi story of the same name.

What’s more, If a supercivilization had initiated a wave of colonizing other planetary systems across the Galaxy, then they would have likely swept through the solar system tens or hundreds of millions of years ago. The fact that it hasn’t happened yet means that it is very improbable colonists will ever arrive at all. This idea is embodied in the Fermi Paradox.

In Damon Knight’s 1950 short story “To Serve Man,” aliens befriend us only to eat us. If aliens think humans are a rare and tasty delicacy, they can easily replicate our taste — or DNA — artificially. Old science fiction movies fantasized about aliens wanting our Earth women (like the 1959 “Teenagers From Outer Space”). But the infinite pathways in evolution virtually guarantee that any remotely humanoid extraterrestrials would be very unlikely. So the idea of any cross species romance (as described in some UFO tall-tales) is beyond the impossible.

2. No Cultural Imperative

Altruistic aliens? Forget it. We’d get about as much altruism from an ant colony. As H.G. Wells wrote in his 1898 novel, “War of the Worlds,” I’d expect their intellects to be “vast, cool, and unsympathetic.”

But what about being malevolent too? Anything smart enough to build starships cannot be pathological, even if they are descended from carnivores as Michio Kaku predicts in the Discovery Channel documentary “Alien Planet.” My colleague, radio astronomer Eric Chaisson, has written at length that only “ethical” civilizations avoid destroying themselves.

One might imagine a culture where mysticism and ritual encourage subjugating entire planets in a missionary conquest of the galaxy. But religious zealotry would also get in the way of rationality and therefore scientific advancement. This is a prerequisite for having the technical smarts to achieve interstellar travel. Carl Sagan once mused that, if not for the superstitious Dark Ages, we’d be flying to the stars today.

At best, studying our civilization could be some alien child’s science fair project on exo-anthropology.

1. God’s Quarantine

The distances between stars is so unimaginably vast it cannot be crossed by beings of flesh and blood — and certainly not entire armies. Artificial life could do it, but such entities would be indifferent to us.

This was parodied in a piece written by sci-fi author Terry Bison in Omni Magazine, where two non-biological aliens receive a signal from Earth:


“They [humans] use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”

“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”

“They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”

“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”

“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in the sector and they’re made out of meat.”

“It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?”

“I agree one hundred percent. What’s there to say?” ‘Hello, meat. How’s it going?’

“Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat?”

If you bust out a map of our galaxy you’ll note that we live in bu-fu nowhere. It isn’t like someone could pop off around the corner and say hi.

But, if we were to meet aliens, what would they be like? Well, according to the renowned author David Brin, there’d be some similarities. Whether insectoid, retiloid or whatever-oid, they’d need something resembling hands for grasping and creating technology. They’d also need a means of communication. Since science shows us, thus far, that nature tends to take the easiest path, we can reasonably assume that they would use a variation of vocalization. That may be mixed with gestures, in the same manner several Earth cultures do, but we’d have that in common as well. Lastly, they wouldn’t leave their world in the first place unless they were curious. As Ray notes (may I call him Ray? I guess so since I already did), there’s no need whatsoever for any race to come here looking for supplies since the raw materials are common the universe over.

Despite the brain dead rantings of L. Ron Hubbard there’s no evidence whatsoever to support the concept that we have materials no one else has. If, by some chance, we do have more of something than others do, that would be the basis for trade, not conquest.

However, all of this is contingent on our knowledge of things as they are now. If faster than light travel is possible, and there are several serious theories that say it is, then those distances may not be too cumbersome to cross.

Or, maybe, interstellar communication can be done on a quantum level where beings from world A talk to the inhabitants of world B, using a variant result of string theory, without ever leaving their homes. It would require far less energy to send a message than it would a spaceship, so that suddenly becomes possible.

We just have to figure out who to call first.

Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG AM 1280, every Thursday morning around 9:10!

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