Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Paul Davies
When British cosmologist Stephen Hawking warned against contact with extraterrestrials in a new Discovery Channel documentary, he was repeating a well-worn argument. "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."
But Hawking's reasoning is flawed on a number of counts. First, we can ask why the aliens would come here with guns blazing. What could they possibly want? Hawking suggests that Earth's resources might be a reason. "I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach."
It is a chilling image, reinforced by science fiction stories from War of the Worlds to Independence Day, but the argument doesn't really wash. A super-civilization capable of making starships would certainly have the means to observe Earth in detail from many light years away, and they would have known all about our planet's resources for as long as they had possessed advanced technology.
Here we hit another common misconception. Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and there were stars and planets around long before the solar system even existed. Assuming intelligent life is likely, as Hawking suggests, then some alien communities would have emerged a very long time in the past. If resources are the motivating factor, then at least one group of aliens would surely have spotted Earth as a desirable destination millions of years ago, and come here when they could have had the planet for the asking, without pesky humans to complicate the takeover.
Another problem with Hawking's picture is the sheer distances involved. The galaxy is huge by human standards. The nearest star is over four light years away - about 25 trillion miles. Within the scientific community, even the optimists believe the nearest civilization could well be hundreds of light years away. Because nothing can travel faster than light, the Hollywood image of aliens plying the vast interstellar voids in star fleets is absurd. It's far more likely that alien civilizations would limit contact to radio communication rather than engage in the sort of close encounters favored by movie makers.
But suppose by some fluke aliens did come to visit Earth in the near future, then comparisons with Columbus are in any case wide of the mark, and reflect the rampant anthropocentrism that pervades much speculation about alien life. Just because we go around wiping out our competitors doesn't mean aliens would do the same. A civilization that has endured for millions of years would have overcome any aggressive tendencies, and may well have genetically engineered its species for harmonious living. Any truly bellicose alien species would either have wiped itself out long ago, or already taken over the galaxy.
By comparison, humans would quite likely be considered dangerous warmongers, posing a possible menace to our galactic neighbors in centuries to come. If so, then ET may act to eliminate the threat if we didn't mend our violent ways. Ironically, the greatest danger from an alien encounter may be ourselves.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.
entire website copyright © The SETI League, Inc.; Maintained by Microcomm
this page last updated 6 November 2010
Top of Page