IEET > GlobalDemocracySecurity > Vision > Fellows > David Brin > Futurism > Military > Resilience
The Other Kind of Aliens
David Brin   Apr 30, 2010   Contrary Brin  

In response to a flurry of interest that’s been stirred by Stephen Hawking’s new Discovery Channel show—specifically, his lead-in episode about extraterrestrials, wherein he recommended against our calling attention to ourselves—I’ll offer a hurried little riff here, about Hawking and aliens, with added contributions by and about Paul Davies, Robin Hanson, and others.

On his show, Professor Hawking said that aliens are almost certainly out there and that Earthlings had better beware. Instead of seeking them out, humanity should be doing all it that can to avoid any contact. His simple reasoning? All living creatures inherently use resources to the limits of their ability, inventing new aims, desires and ambitions to suit their next level of power. If they wanted to use our solar system, for some super project, our complaints would be like an ant colony protesting the laying of a parking lot.

Want an irony? I am actually a moderate on this issue (as I am regarding Transparency). My top aim, in these recent arguments, has been pretty basic; I want more discussion. And for arrogant fools to stop blaring into space “on our behalf” without at least offering the rest of us the courtesy of first openly consulting top people in history, biology, anthropology—and guys like Hawking—in an honest and eclectic way. Their refusal to do this constitutes just about the most conceited and indefensible behavior by scientists that I have ever seen.

Now, everybody and his cousin appears to have an opinion about aliens. In fact, I know almost nobody who seems willing to wait and entertain a wide variety of hypotheses, in this “field without a subject matter.” It seems that the very lack of data makes people more sure of their imagined scenario, rather than less. And more convinced that those who disagree are dunderheads.

Renowned science philosopher Paul Davies has weighed in with a new book, The Eerie Silence, which seems a bit of a take-off my own classic “The Great Silence” paper—(still the only overall review-survey that has ever attempted to cover more than 100+ hypotheses that are out there, to explain our loneliness in the universe.)  Alas, Paul seems never to have heard of that paper, or most of the hypotheses in question—he cites me only as a grouch toward METI (“message to ET.”)  And, while I have long admired Paul’s work and consider him to be quite amazing, I feel he got a bit lazy with this one.

Space Law scholar Nicholas Szabo is much harsher on him than I am, I’m afraid:

Paul Davies’s arguments are pretty lame, and possibly quite disturbing; for example saying: “Just because we go around wiping out our competitors doesn’t mean aliens would do the same.” But that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t, either. The example of life on earth is all we have to go on, and life on earth is Darwinian.

Szabo continues:

Davies also says: “A civilization that has endured for millions of years would have overcome any aggressive tendencies” But I (Szabo) find that utopian nonsense. By the same reasoning humans should have “overcome any aggressive tendencies” that chimpanzees have. Davies adds: “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…”

Um, so much for their peacefulness. George Mason University economist and philosopher Robin Hanson responds:

Many species here on Earth have endured for millions of years while retaining “aggressive” tendencies, and even very “mildly” bellicose aliens, ones who would only exterminate us if they could make a plausible case that we might pose a future menace, should still be of great concern to us. I sure don’t want to be exterminated “just in case.” Wouldn’t it make more sense to shut up until either we don’t look so menacing, or until we are strong enough to defend ourselves?

Another quotation from Szabo:

Davies continues: “...if we didn’t mend our violent ways. Ironically, the greatest danger from an alien encounter may be ourselves.” In other words, ETI really does pose a threat after all, but it’s our own fault, so we shouldn’t (we are presumably left to conclude) try to protect ourselves from this threat beyond taking a profound moral lesson from this flight of imagination and mending our own ways. This “reasoning” from splendidly fashionable PC attitudes combined with his own imputation of human psychology to imaginary entities leads to a rather grotesquely self-loathing conclusion: Davies puts humans on trial against aliens he has conjured up from his imagination and find the humans guilty and deserving of genocide. Fortunately, we have much better reasons to try to be more peaceful than the conjectured attitudes of hypothetical ETI. A good start to achieving human peace would be to withdraw moral support from people who hate their fellow human beings.

While I react less pungently than Szabo… and in fact see a bit of merit in Paul’s point… it remains rather tiresome for the reflex to always be to assume that aliens will automatically be more elevated than us. (Yet, willing to judge and crush us, rather than help us get better.)

In fact, out of sheer ornery contrariness and a habitual wish to avoid limits on thinking, I’m tempted to wonder if humanity may be among the MOST pleasant sapient races in the galaxy!

Just imagine a high tech species descended from solitary stalking carnivores, like tigers, or loner infanticides, like bears, or pack carnivores, or paranoid herd herbivores, or mammoth harem-keepers like elephant seals. We come from tribes of long-lived, relatively patient and contemplative, reciprocal-grooming, gregarious apes, whose male-female differences are relatively small…

...all traits that mitigate toward some degree of otherness-empathy, which may not happen very often, across the stars. And STILL we are violent MoFo’s!
Furthermore, suppose we concede the common SETI talking point that aliens “would have to have learned to avoid much war, given the destructive power of advanced weaponry.” Hm, well, maybe. But is the only way to avoid Armageddon massive racial reprogramming to pacifism? A far more likely way for aliens to stop war and save themselves from self-destruction is the method implicitly commended by Jared Diamond, in his book COLLAPSE


The creation of a perfectly stable and perfectly repressive oligarchy that protects itself by maintaining a rigid status quo. 

And yes, that kind of stable hegemony can become internally “peaceful” as in Ming China… and more-briefly in many other human cultures. And yet, a perfect, control-freak autarchy ain’t exactly utopian by our terms, or altruistic. Moreover, it remains capable of violence, especially when it sees something outside of itself that it may not like.

Oh, but the most frustrating thing is this. When people leap to their own “pat” explanations for the Great Silence, sighing that “of course” the answer is this and such, and then dismissing all contrary views as foolish, they are cheating themselves, and the rest of us, out of what could be the most fascinating and wondrously open-ended argument/discussion of all time!

A marvelous set-to that juggles every science, every bit of history and biology and astronomy and… well everything! It is the great puzzle of who we are, how we may be different, or the same as those mysterious others, out there.

THAT is what makes me sad, when nearly everybody in this field leaps so quickly—on almost zero evidence—to say “of course the answer is….” 

I am, above all, a lover of the greatest enlightenment invention—argument—and its accompanying virtues, curiosity, experimentation, reciprocal accountability, and even the aching joy of being forced, now and then, to admit “Okay, you got me, that time. I may have been wrong.”

David Brin
David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


obviously it’ s aprovocation for childrens. no because in 50 years we will able to create anything from atoms, so the resources will be endless and any other kind of civilization that could travel the galaxies would surely have this kind of nanotech fabrics, , watch the FREITAS new books to have a glance of our little future

I think this discussion is silly.  If they’re out there they’ll find us whether we want them to or not; if they want to destroy us then we’re already deader than the dinosaurs.

An interesting possibility, if von Neumann’s speculations obtain, is that a future encounter with aliens may simply be an encounter with enormously powerful, amoral machines going about their appointed tasks, oblivious of, and uncaring about, our existence. Perhaps this scenario is the most troubling of all.

Humans are not typical “intelligences with technology” as we have only had technology 150 years i.e. applications of electromagnetism theory and experiment. For intelligence widespread in our galaxy, we probably sit within effectively the first few “seconds” of intelligence on a clock of one year (say) in duration. It’s a powerful idea I find difficult to refute and once applications of “future physics” are realised maybe whoever they are, they can do quite a bit e.g. new space travel methods.
Beatriz Gato-Rivera, a particle theorist, deals with this idea beautifully where she reasons that we may be unknowing citizens of a galactic civilization, but one where these intelligences would have widely different abilities and may actually avoid each other! Seems reasonable. Could account for some of the best sightings, Belgium (1989/1990), Nash-Fortenberry (1952) and some of the best radar-visual cases.

Based on the recent advancement of planetary detection, we seem to be within a few decades of being able to pick-out water worlds on our side of the galaxy.  If we are able to see them then a civilization at or above our capability would be able to see us.  There appear to be two basic cases to consider if liquid water is required for a thriving ecosystem:  1) Water worlds are rare or 2) Water worlds are common.  If the former is true then we stick out like a sore thumb.  If the latter is true then we may blend into the background.  If the former is true then a) they have already been here and are watching from a distance (they don’t need our resources) b) they can’t get here (can’t get to our resources) c) they aren’t there or don’t want to look up (minimal hazard to our existence).  If water worlds are common, then in addition to the above three cases the following options exist a) they don’t know we are here but would mean us no harm (moderately hazardous, we could get stepped on by accident)  b) they don’t know we are here but would get rid of the cockroaches if they found us (very bad).

Therefore, if water worlds are common then we need to be vary cautious about crying out in the jungle.  Unless the dominant intelligence in our galaxy is not water based and then all bets are off.


I’ve been following astrobiology since it began in 1958, and the trend line continues to this day that nearly every discovery about the origin of the solar system and the history of the Earth and of its life have reduced the Bayesian probability of our own occurrence.  For example, the astrophysicist Jorge Martinez has found that only 10-15% of solar stars have the elemental spectral-depletion ratios caused by terrestrial planet formation:
This is but the latest in a long string of bottenecks (filters) discovered over the decades, against getting another Earth.
Most terrestrial planets will have the wrong mass, the wrong spin, or the wrong amount of water, and most probably no obliquity-protecting moon.  ‘Rare Earth’ is more than a motto.

Just getting a good planet is only the first step, moreover.  The consensus among biologists is that intelligence is extremely unlikely.  The vastness of prehistoric time shows that civilization is hardly a sure thing either.  And then we need only look at the unlikely confluence of inventions and ideas that generated our civilization to know that getting science and high technology is quite chancy as well.  This piling up of unliklihoods is the true reason for governments’ indifference to SETI. 

It’s also, however, why we would be utterly shocked into panic if ET was nearby (under 100 ly), whereas finding them in another galaxy would make ET be just another pleasant coffee-table topic.  Either way, SETI should continue indefinitely, since the continuing negative result will be reassuring to a civilization going into space with excruciating slowness.  If nearby aliens had been discovered in 1960, we’d have a million people and billions of pounds of stuff in space by now.  Taking our time implicitly assumes we are Alone.

I’ll have to disagree with you on one thing, Bill: I’d say most people that are actually aware of SETI’s existence are indifferent because they don’t take that “Star Wars stuff” seriously rather than because they have any real notion of the changes in “Bayesian Probability.”

Hanson and Szabo’s arguments strike me as rather weak tea because animals, you know, lack WMDs. Let’s train chimpanzees to use AK-47s and give them a steady supply of ammo and we’ll see just how long they survive as a species. Nobody is arguing that a non-technological humanity is in any fundamental risk of exterminating itself: it’s when you combine atomic weapons (or worse) with bone-deep irrationality and easily aroused hostility that things get worrisome. Sarah Palin. Nuclear football. Repeat that to yourself for a while.

How the heck does a species of “loners” manage to accumulate the capital necessary to develop a technological civilization? I’d put my money, if we’re talking about dangerous aliens, on a species _more_ collectivist than humans: more able to co-exist with others of their own species in large numbers, but with a unified hostility towards anything outside the “nest” or “colony.”

Humans combine oddly a strong tendency towards the pathetic fallacy with a remarkable skill for demonization of our own kind: we attribute human reason and intent to animals or even inanimate phenomena such as winds and rivers, but easily reduce almost identical humans to sub-human monsters. An alien race might have less of both: less of a tendency to label as “other” a member of their own species (they smell right, perhaps) but finds it much harder to feel any empathy to something clearly alien.

I don’t really believe in BloodThirsty Thugs From Space. I’m more worried about cool, rational beings who have no malice towards us but do not consider us as rational beings or posessing any value worth saving us for.

To a sufficiently alien and advanced race, we might look like a basically non-rational species whose intelligence mainly operates as a tool to rationalize actions based ultimately on emotion, instinct and appetite…we can’t really assume that an alien race at peace with _itself_ would automatically extend their ethical system to a genuinely alien race. Historical human exterminationist views were based on a division of humans into fundamentally “superior” and “inferior, unfit” races which was objectively as well as morally wrong. But would a race genuinely superior and better-adapted after long evolution to a civilized state feel the force of a _solely_ moral argument, especially if they could, say, quickly and mercifully put us out of our “misery?”

And even if the aliens are kind, we might find their kindness even more alarming than hostility. “Good News, earthpeople. We’ve figured out how to upgrade your primitive brains to eliminate some of your evolutionary drawbacks! No longer will you suffer from irrational fear of the “other”, suffer from the poor grasp of statistics that leads to so much miscalculation and gambling debt, suffer from irrational hostility to same-gender sexual activity, fall prey to the destructive memes of “religion”, or find your ethics and love of family and friends overcome by the irrational power of “romantic love!” No worries about the procedure - we have already released the nanomachines in the atmosphere - and no need to thank us.”

I’m not sure repressive oligarchy is the model for an interstellar civilization: it’s a bit hard to keep your colonists loyal when they’re light-years away! (Unless they have been genetically engineered for loyalty, in which case repression is no longer needed… (:)) )

(BTW, why the Ming-bashing? Pre-modern societies are nasty places by nature, and Ming China was richer and probably a better place to live than contemporary Europe; for one thing, unlike Europe, 16th century China wasn’t burning witches by job lots. I’d think the USSR would have been a more up-to-date example).

I love these discussions, always fun.  Zero data though. Z.E.R.O.
Thought experiments with no data are eliminating liquid waste contrary to the direction of air movement.
David is right. The only issue here is whether these guys owe us a ‘too scared or not’ vote.
Some sciences are reaching depth of…the arcane and energy levels where it might not be just the lab room that gets singed. 
This is a good place to set a precedent.

ObSF: “We’re the Wess’har and we’re here to help you.” - K. Traviss

Jack Tingle


Your arguments are a good read, particularly the hive analogy for a possible alien species.  (However, do try to keep politics out of your otherwise clear-headed thinking.)

Here is something else to consider:

I think the most likely form of ‘alien’ sort of parasite.  Something that could lay dormant for thousands of years, hitching a ride on whatever space dust and solar wind it can, spreading from world to world.  And though it may not even be sentient in the way that humans and higher animals are, it could be extremely sophisticated.

Look at our own world - absolutely infested with bacteria, protozoa, tiny insects, worms, and so on.  This is the *dominant earth life form, and the most capable of surviving natural or artificial disasters by far.  These life forms exist in the upper atmosphere, the oceans, deep in the crust, and maybe all the way down to the mantle. 

If an alien version of such detects our planet and finds it a suitable landing place, then the battle will ensue and it is possible we may have a very small and short lived role to play in that before we go away for good.


* Maybe we were already infected about 4 billion years ago?

SG: Your scenario reminds me of a short story by Dean Koontz in his book ‘Strange Highways’. I think it’s called ‘Seed’. Quite good except unfortunately for the lame ending.

I’ve written a different take on this whole Stephen Hawking/space invaders affair. For those who might be interested, it’s at

Next entry: Building a Resilient Tomorrow

Previous entry: Putting the Future Back in the Room