Note: This is the first of three-part series.
Among my favorite films are War of the Worlds (1953) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). I’ve also been deeply influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Solaris (1972), and Alien (1979). This short list of movies represents two dominant themes in science fiction: peaceful aliens vs. hostile aliens. At David Darling’s Internet Encyclopedia of Science, we find an interesting article on the possible character of alien intelligence.
Suppose one day aliens do arrive at the Earth. Will they be peaceful or hostile? Much good-natured speculation exists among astronomers, science fiction fans, and philosophers. As best I can gather, the following two outlines encapsulate both sides of the issue.
An outline of the argument for peaceful aliens
(1) An alien civilization probably faces (or did face) the same moral, political, economic, environmental, and technological problems that confront humanity.
(2) It is apparent we can solve our problems only through peaceful cooperation. The same would be true for an alien civilization.
(3) If any civilization is to survive for long, it must move toward peaceful interactions—else it will perish.
(4) Any alien civilization that contacts or visits us will be much older than we are, and therefore will have long ago reached a state of peaceful interactions (else it simply wouldn’t exist).
Darling quotes respected science writer Arthur C. Clarke in support of this conclusion. Clarke writes,
“As our species is in the process of proving, one cannot have superior science and inferior morals. The combination is unstable and self-destroying.”
An outline of the argument for hostile aliens
(1) The evolutionary processes at work on the Earth are also at work on other planets (same laws of chemistry and physics everywhere).
(2) Evolution implies “survival of the fittest.” To survive, a species must be hostile toward something—for example, humans survive by being deadly toward a large number of organisms, such as chickens.
(3) An advanced alien civilization will be composed of the most intelligent, fittest survivors on their planet.
(4) Any alien civilization that contacts us will be just as dangerous as we are, and thus at least potentially hostile.
Darling quotes Michael Archer, professor of Biology at the University of New South Wales in support of hostile aliens. Archer writes,
“Any creature we contact will also have had to claw its way up the evolutionary ladder and will be every bit as nasty as we are. It will likely be an extremely adaptable, extremely aggressive super-predator.”
I wish to point out again that these are the outlines of arguments. On both sides, a great deal of work is needed to formulate a good argument. For my part, it’s difficult to imagine an overtly hostile alien race attacking the Earth, a la Independence Day (1997). We have little to offer a civilization capable of interstellar travel. A common sci-fi assertion, that aliens will attack us for our water, is particularly outlandish when one considers the amount of water available in solid form throughout the solar system. There is simply no need to invade the Earth when a path of lesser resistance is immediately available. What else might we possess that a fantastically-advanced civilization could obtain only from us, and only by force?
So perhaps more likely than an Independence Day scenario is that aliens will either leave us alone, or take pity on us and offer to share their wisdom. But how can we be sure an alien civilization wouldn’t find us frightening or repulsive? And will the entire alien culture make this decision? Or could we find our fate in the hands (?) of the alien commander? What fears and prejudices will he bring to bear on his decision of how to deal with us?
Next part: What aliens might look like.