Hawking on Aliens: Not as Silly as You'd Like to Think

I'm a little surprised at the vehemence of some of the negative reactions to Stephen Hawking's comments about aliens. Not so much in blogdom-- Ethan's response is pretty reasonable, for example-- but there was a flurry of Twitter traffic yesterday of the form "Where does Stephen Hawking get off pontificating about aliens?" which strikes me as kind of silly.

As all the news stories point out, Hawking's comments were made in the context of a Discovery channel series based on filming Stephen Hawking pontificating about stuff. And, really, if the Discovery Channel called me up and offered to film me holding forth on whatever damn fool thing I felt like talking about, it's not like a lack of relevant professional expertise would stop me. I mean, look at the archives of this blog... (Next on Discovery: Uncertain Principles: The Series... It could work, guys. Call me.)

And despite the numerous attempts to paint this as just "Hawking thinks aliens are all bug-eyed monsters," his position doesn't need man-eating space bugs to be reasonable. Even contact with the sort of benevolent aliens that are a staple of a certain class of SF could be really wrenching. The "Columbus meeting Indians" example is really unfortunate as it's too loaded, but even historical examples that didn't result in subjugation and exploitation of the lower-technology society show serious consequences. Look at Commodore Perry and the Black Ships, for example-- Japan never got stomped on in a colonial manner, but that first contact set in motion of chain of events that brought down the Tokugawa shogunate, led to wrenching changes in Japanese culture and society, and set them on the course that led to WWII and the utter devastation of their country.

Contact with any alien civilization capable of reaching us would be a dramatic change, and might very well involve things getting worse before they get better. History shows lots of examples of major societal disruption brought about by the discovery of new technologies here on Earth-- imagine what would happen if we instantly got access to alien technology vastly beyond our own. Things could get really messy.

This is an issue that is sometimes dealt with in SF-- the only examples that come immediately to mind are John Barnes's A Million Open Doors (Jo's review doesn't emphasize it, but that's the aspect I remember from that book), and there's kind of a gonzo variant in Charlie Stross's Singularity Sky. I'm sure people will suggest a half-dozen other books on the subject in comments.

So, in the end, I'm probably with Sean on this one. I think the faith Ethan and Paul Davies have in the ultimate benevolence of aliens is charming, but probably a bit naive, but it doesn't require the aliens to be monsters or imperialists for contact with them to be problematic in the short term. It's probably prudent to not make any more noise than we already do.

(On the other hand, if Hawking really does base this on a "used up resources" argument, as Davies says, that's just silly. Any civilization capable of traveling interstellar distances at sub-light speeds doesn't need Earth's resources to survive. And if we're going to allow magic FTL drives, we might as well go ahead and posit the magic ability to create breathable air out of vacuum energy and pixie dust.)

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Greg Bear seems to do a lot of work around this kind of topic, though I can't think of anything that's spot-on for the Perry scenario you describe. There's the The Forge of God that really argues the Hawking point -- the "baby bird chirping in its nest" analogy is pretty striking. You also have Eon which presents as an "alien technology will change us" story and ends up... well, I'll say "it's complicated" to avoid spoilers.

If "Uncertain Principles: The Series" existed I would watch every second of it

In the Star Trek story, first contact with the Vulcans caused a majority of humans to realize that religion was nonsense, because we were certainly not the center of the universe. That could certainly go either way but in that story it went the way of; "we realized we all had to work together" or something like it. In other words, Socialism.

People confuse motivations with results. they think if aliens are altruistic their actions will automatically be good for us.

What if the aliens are (as Charles Stross often advocates) uploaded consciousnesses or AIs? their idea of helping us may very well be to upload our consciousnesses against our will, and put them in long term storage (as a paused program), this would not be so fun if it was a destructive scanning method.

Or what if they overcame their selfish tendencies through reprogramming their genome to remove individualism, and decide to help us reach enlightnment by doing the same? Again against our will, it's for our own good. maybe some think that's good, but again could you call us human anymore? We wouldn't be "us" anymore.

Or if it's by choice, some humans will accept whatever changes the aliens propose. The ones "left behind" might think the rapture just happened, or that they missed out on the Singularity, ala Marooned in Realtime by Vernor Vinge. Basically if a transhumanist movement starts, it will look like mass murder/dieoff to the people who don't undergo it. (like A C Clark's story ... the one about psychics where the children disappear at the end)

If aliens are altruistic and also share the values some of us have of individualism and liberty, they will have a Prime Directive, and we'll never see them.

If they don't have a prime directive, it means they think interfering is ok. And, altruistic or not, interference will destroy every social network, our ethics, our philosophy, all upheaved at once. Maybe that means progress, maybe chaos, maybe mass death, maybe mass enlightenment. But either way it means massive change where, even if we like where we end up, going through it will be painful, just like all life changing events.

By plutosdad (not verified) on 28 Apr 2010 #permalink

Isaac Asimov wrote a short story ("Blind Alley" IIRC) about the interactions between spacefaring humans and an alien race which had not developed space flight. The aliens have a reservation of sorts on their native planet, and they are dying out because they are, in a way, depressed (some similarities here to interactions between Europeans and some tribes of First Peoples in North America) due to the realization that they have been technologically surpassed. A bureaucrat working for the young Galactic Empire works within the system to try to change the aliens' fate.

As matters now stand, the setup of that story may well resemble our interactions with a benign alien race. There is no guarantee that some bureaucrat in the alien Galactic Empire will try to save us from fading away.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 28 Apr 2010 #permalink

There was a science fiction story where the aliens landed. They were friendly and congenial, but were here to visit with the dolphins.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 28 Apr 2010 #permalink

I agree. There does not need to be any malevolent intention on the part of the hypothetical aliens. Let say, for the sake of argument, that they are a billion years more advanced than us. All we have to do is look at Earth a billion years ago. Life then was little more than sophisticated bacteria, nothing we could communicate with. A civilization a billion years more advanced could be as removed from us as we are from bacteria. They might not even recognize us as intelligent, and they might be right. Their understanding of the universe might have no parallel to our way of knowing. They might not mean any harm; they might no even realize they were destroying us. To them we might be the equivalent to their Phthirus pubis, we might be wiped out to ease their itchiness.

One major effect of the contact of Europeans with North and Central American Indians was the introduction of various infectious diseases, which certainly killed off many Indians, independently of the latter's (often bad, colonialist) intentions.
(See Jared Diamond's book, Guns, Germs, and Steel). So if aliens from outer space happen to have a similar biology to ours, their germs might kill us off, or ours might kill them.
But perhaps a new swine flu strain or similar might achieve killing off humans anyway.

Then, evolution of intelligent aliens in other places in the universe may be seriously limited by the time it takes (order of 10 billion years, with no guarantees that the most advanced life form is not something like dinosaurs), and the abundance of supernovae, which clear their neighborhood of most life.

It's easy to imagine aliens as having human minds and thus having similar motivations to us. In a way this is how science fiction tends to portray them even when it moves away from the idea that intelligent aliens would be humanoid.

It's not particularly clear they would have minds that would be particularly similar to ours though. Blindsight by Peter Watts postulates intelligent species (both terrestrial and extraterrestrial) with very different styles of consciousness to our own.

I think #8 makes a great point. It is unlikely that aliens will have biology similar to ours; in fact if star travel over long distances is possible at all it might require a post biological species. So I do not think viruses are anything to worry about, but there could be something more deadly than viruses. A far advanced species will likely make use of complex nanotechnology. In fact they might be made entirely of nanotechnology. Such a technology might function like viruses. It might try to interface with us and in the process create all kinds of damage. The aliens themselves might be totally oblivious of our demise.

Yeah -- he (Hawking) actually went there. He seems to think they'll be looking for resources, having used up everything in their home system. No. Just... no. Of all the lame reasons for aliens to visit us, this barely ranks above crop circles and anal probes.

By Neon Sequitur (not verified) on 28 Apr 2010 #permalink

I wonder what the "advanced western civilization" analog of a cargo cult would be like.

Correct me if I am wrong. I do not think Hawking meant resources such as fossil fuel, gold, or whatever other resources humans traditionally fought each other for. I think what he had in mind is more like a Von Neumann probe, aliens that dismantle entire planets in order to build a Dyson spheres around the star. Such a species might have no use for a planet, not a whole one in any case, just its constituent parts. They might not be able to recognize species that need an actual planetary surface to dwell in.

I agree with this article, because I've watched "V" and they are not as nice as they want us to believe, and they want to use humans.

Even if they are not as hot as Anna and mere microbes, it doesn't mean they are safe.

Another vote for Hawking.

Since 99% of what humans believe is irrational, the concept of aliens as furry puppets headed for a vacation on planet Earth is ridiculous. Our biggest fear ought to be that they might be JUST LIKE US: violent killers out for blood, snacks of the Homo sapiens variety, and loot. Why would any human being advertise to the predators of the universe that we have a beautiful little planet, defended only by idiots, that is just waiting for an alien invasion? Because he's an idiot.

I've lost track of it, but there's a still-running annual conference called Contact which role-plays alien contact. The referees would give the general parameters (do aliens come to earth, or do humans go out and find aliens, are the travelers awake, frozen, or shipped as genetic material only, etc.) and divide the group into two teams. They would each go off and brainstorm up plausible societies, and then they'd get together and role-play the first contact and subsequent events.

Despite the fact that participants were strongly self-selected for desire to make alien contact work, well over half the time it was a disaster for at least one side.

I remember one where a relativistic generation ship filled with friendly aliens shows up in Earth's sky. Hi, we'd like to trade some of our knowledge for consumables. And if any earthlings are interested in a one-way trip to the stars (we won't be back in your lifetime), we're accepting applications.

They didn't want living space, they weren't going to be staying permanently, were asking nicely and offering to pay for what they took, and had no religious or political axe to grind. Seems easy, right?

The humans had a nice little nuclear war over access to the technology. :-(

By Xenophile (not verified) on 28 Apr 2010 #permalink

I was thinking. Is there anything the aliens need to fear from us? What if they possess and inquisitive nature that drives them to learn unsavory behavior from us? We are assuming they have nothing to fear from us, but if they manage to survive through cosmic time they likely abandoned self-destructive behavior, otherwise they wouldnât be around. We could short cut our way to of advanced technology without learning the skills for long-term survival, becoming a threat to them. This scenario might be unlikely, but worth thinking about, and a great sci-fi plot.

I just don't understand the notion that we should keep our heads down because contact with another species might be bad. Thee analogy to Japan seems particularly ill-founded - they certainly aren't another species for starters! More to the point for every Japan you can think of there are plenty counter-examples, namely every single person who decided to step outside his tribe's own lands to transmit ideas, technology and DNA. We wouldn't have the world we enjoy today if it weren't for such interactions.

I can understand the fear of the unknown but I'd rather take my chances and not fall into the frankly silly and pointless trap of assigning probabilities to the psychological make-up of an as-yet unencountered species and the possible negative consequences of their dropping by for a cuppa.

Our planet offers multiple interlinked ecosystems that have evolved over billions of years. It is rich with life, with beauty, and with natural wonder. We don't know how rare or common that is in the universe.

In the event that it is rare, then Planet Earth has a significant value and humans add nothing to it. An alien equivalent of manifest destiny could very well see primitive humans as an infestation ruining prime real estate

I seem to recall a rather famous sf story where the resource in question was sunlight. The alien who came to harvest it was so powerful that it had to take enormous pains not to causally wipe out life on Earth, either by heating it up pass the boiling point or putting it into a subzero deep freeze.

I speak of course, of Hoyle's "The Black Cloud". As people may recall, the Cloud was passing surprised that there was intelligent life on a planet - an occurance exceeding rare in such a hostile, resource-limited environment.

By ScentOfViolets (not verified) on 29 Apr 2010 #permalink

As someone who has done extensive research in the field of pixie dust, I can assure you that it is quite improbable to convert it into any sort of "breathable air". The fact of the matter is that the sulfur base of pixie dust makes it far more suited to inverse energy fields than any sort of environmental conditioning. Of course that is why we have beazor filters, because what good is a forcefield without being able to breath in it (am I right or am I right). So before you go about tossing out alchemy formulas all willy-nilly I suggest you get your facts straight.

Don't trust humans!!
What if the well intentioned, naive aliens, become the victims?
Greenpeace new motto in the 2450: Save the aliens!

I haven't seen anyone blogging on this who hasn't turned the aliens into humans with human thoughts, human needs, human motives. Oddly, these are the same bloggers who whine that Star Trek anthropomorphises its aliens. Go figure....


Aliens showing up in our solar system would be extremely bad news. A species that can travel between stars and goes to the effort to pay us a visit would clearly be a huge threat to us. How likely is it that anyone coming all that way would just be stopping by to bestow their advanced technology on us? Assuming no magic FTL technology, the most likely thing to show up would be a machine intelligence or AI emissary, and would likely have some type of Von Neumann technology at its disposal and motives we couldn't begin to understand. We would have to hope it was very careful with us, even if it didn't directly mean us any harm.

I say the US Gov. has the right idea: kill them and steal their technology, (if we can) although even that would cause huge upheavals.

By Tom Boedeker (not verified) on 30 Apr 2010 #permalink

Since human lives contain significantly more suffering and frustration then happiness a benevolent alien race bent on improving the cosmic balance between positive and negative emotions would want to wipe humanity out as a failure.

I think most people are failing to accept that contact with extra-terrestrials is very unlikely. The fact of the matter is the faster an alien ship can travel, the more technologically advanced they are and the less likely they would be compelled to visit the earth. Maybe there are some low tech aliens with ion drives that would jump at the chance to ransack our planet. Luckily, the odds that their homeworld would be close enough to ours such as to make contact within our great grandchildren's lifetimes is next to zero.

On the other end of the spectrum. ETs that zip around a 99.9% light speed are more than likely able to synthesize all their needs from raw matter or maybe even from the vacuume of space itself. They could do a fly-by, take some snapshots for fun, but in my mind they would probably avoid us. Not for fear of tampering, heaven knows our failure as earth's dominant species can be seen from outer space. No, I'll just bet they could see what a pain in the ass we would be. Always asking for stuff and then fighting over it. We would simply be no use to them (unless they find us sexy).

As far as I'm concerned if a giant tumourous space amoeba phagocysed our planet and sucked the surface dry of all life-forms in search off fresh DNA to keep itself afloat we'll have gotten what we deserved!

By Johannes Roy (not verified) on 18 May 2010 #permalink

This discussion brings in mind the old joke. The best evidence of intelligent life out there, is the fact that they have not contacted us. :-D

Frankly, if an alien civilization was advanced enough to somehow intercept our first radio transmissions, and then travel fast enough to rescue us from ourselves, they must be an advanced civilization indeed. And if they were able to actually COMMUNICATE with us (even if they just existed in the same three dimensions and same state of matter as us) then they must once have gone through our current growth pains. Given how advanced they are, they must have conquered their self-destructive tendencies, and therefore live in a world where deceit, malice, and selfishness are unheard of. Our culture would be more dangerous to the aliens than any amount of our technology, and we would probably take advantage of their trust and subjugate them as a lower form of life. Then we would rampage through the universe and fry big cities in giant saucers. So maybe, by that logic (and the theory of relativity), future us could pay us a visit and kill us. Plus, future us would have a reason for salivating over bikini clad female protagonists. More of a comedy (a morbid one) than a dramatic sci-fi saga if you ask me.

By FluffyBunny (not verified) on 10 Nov 2010 #permalink