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E.T. or Alien? The Character of Other Intelligence
by David Darling, Ph.D.
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Science fiction has envisaged the possibility of everything from kind, wise, and even cute extraterrestrials, like E.T., to utterly malicious, scheming monsters, like Giger's Alien. On balance, ever since H. G. Wells unleashed his marauding Martians, the fictional creatures from "out there" have tended to be of the usurping, death-ray variety - not surprisingly, since this makes for a more compelling plot. But if we do encounter other intelligences among the stars, will they in reality prove to be friendly or hostile?

A poll conducted by the Marist Institute in 1998 suggested that 86% of Americans who think there is life on other planets believe it will be friendly. Similar optimism has been expressed by many prominent figures in SETI, including Frank Drake, Philip Morrison, and Carl Sagan. An argument in favor of alien beneficence is that any race which has managed to survive the kind of global crises currently facing humanity (and which presumably confront all technological species at some stage in their development) is likely to have resolved the sources of conflict we still have on Earth. Morrison, for instance, doubted that advanced societies "crush out any competitive form of intelligence, especially when there is clearly no danger." Similarly, Arthur C. Clarke has stated that: "As our own species is in the process of proving, one cannot have superior science and inferior morals. The combination is unstable and self-destroying."

However, there can be no assurance on this point. After all, human beings appear to have made little progress, over the past two millennia or so, toward eliminating or controlling their aggressive tendencies. And there is no reason to suppose we shall change much in this respect over the next few centuries, during which time we may well develop the means of reaching the stars. Those who are pessimistic about the general nature of extraterrestrials argue that Darwinism, and its fundamental tenet "survival of the fittest", virtually guarantees that any advanced species will be potentially dangerous. Michael Archer, professor of biology at the University of New South Wales, Australia, has put it this way: "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."

Perhaps the most reasonable assumption, in the absence of any data, is that, just as in our own case, the potential for good and evil will exist in every intelligent extraterrestrial race. Civilization is unthinkable without some measure of compassion, and yet how could a species that had emerged successfully after several billion years of live-and-let-die biological competition not also possess a ruthless streak? The question is surely not whether any advanced race we may meet among the stars is capable of aggression - it certainly will be unless it has genetically or otherwise altered itself to be purely pacific - but whether it has learned to override its more basic instincts. Bear in mind, too, the variation in character that can exist between individuals within a species. Will the first representative of an alien race that we encounter be a Hitler or a Gandhi?

More on such matters in my new book "The Extraterrestrial Encyclopedia" (Three Rivers Press, New York) and my website

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