Nobody knows a damned thing about aliens—but that doesn’t keep almost everyone from behaving like children, weighing in with their “of course” explanations for how advanced sapient races would “naturally” behave, or why ETs haven’t been seen, or what they would do if we encountered them.
Responding to Stephen Hawking’s new Discovery Channel program, I recently debated the “alien threat” on Larry King Live with Michio Kaku, Seth Shostak, and actor Dan Aykroyd (who pushed UFOs.)
The format—four smart sure-of-themselves egotists, being interviewed by a fifth—made for some very short but avid sound bites.
In this field, as in the furor over Transparency, my attitude is one of fierce moderation. My fundamental point is that nobody knows a damned thing about aliens! Alas, that doesn’t keep almost everybody from behaving like children, weighing in with their “of course” explanations for how advanced sapient races would “naturally” behave, or why ETs haven’t been seen, or what they would do if we encountered them.
I know a lot of very bright people who have opined in this field, and nearly all of them proceed to sigh and roll their eyes, expressing contemptuous disdain for anyone daring to have a different notion about Alien Life.
Sure, one explanation comes to mind—any field suffering from a complete lack of data can become a mirror, in which even (especially) bright people see only a reflection of their own dreams and biases. Still, please! Does the reflex have to be followed by everybody? Frankly, watching the same phenomenon occur over and over, I am getting fatigued.
But let me try one more time, since the topic is public and hot right now. I’ve been at this a long time. Back in 1983, my Great Silence paper was… and remains… the only genuine review article ever published in the SETI field. Because almost every other paper has had a particular axe to grind, I attempted to catalogue and compare 100+ theories, covering the wide range of possibilities, re alien life, thus demonstrating just how little we yet know. While suggesting some avenues for research, I concluded by pleading for a tentative, contingent, open-minded attitude, of the sort we’ll desperately need, if contact ever does occur.
But, as I just stated, it seems this topic brings out the amateur sci fi author in every person who touches it. Hence, Stephen Hawking, Stephen Jay Gould, Jared Diamond, and Freeman Dyson… four of the very smartest human beings who ever lived… have all recommended that we not shout into the cosmos to draw attention to ourselves, because it might be dangerous—(I agree so far)—only then each of them goes on the fantasize some particular simplistic scenario for why aliens could be hostile or dangerous. In Hawking’s new show, for example, he posits that super-advanced civilizations might come charging in to exploit our solar system’s resources, use them up and then move on, leaving us in a trashed wasteland.
Now, at one level, Hawking’s fear is not entirely off target. I’ve pointed out elsewhere: “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.”
In contrast to this trend that’s seen across nature, we now have a new, tentative value system that’s arisen in the most recent generation of the Modern West, wherein some initial signs of self-restraint and satiability have started to appear. We relish this new trait of altruistic self-control and wishfully imagine that we’ll do even better, in our Star Trek future. Moreover, we hope that aliens will do the same, progressing in this new direction that we dream for ourselves—toward universal altruism. And sure, I deeply hope this will turn out to be true.
On the other hand, it ain’t necessarily so.
This projection of our present culture’s idealized trend onto ALL star travelling races could be viewed as incredibly arrogant cultural myopia, even chauvinism! (Will the descendants of pack carnivores or stalking predators or paranoid herd beasts view such things the same way as we descendants of gregarious apes?) In fact, “altruism” is rare in nature [PDF] compared to Darwinistic predation or opportunism, or even quid pro quo. Those who declare that “of course” aliens would “outgrow all that” are engaged in bizarre wish projection, without any basis at all, other than their hopes.
On the other hand, Hawking’s scenario isn’t just about aliens rapaciously using up solar systems. It is about us foolishly attracting aliens who thereupon do such things. And this makes no sense at all. The Earth has been prime real estate ever since it got an oxygen atmosphere, a billion years ago. If ETs wanted a nice planet to colonize, or a system to loot, they could have come during any of that time. Paul Davies makes this point in his new book THE EERIE SILENCE, as I did in my 1983 paper.
A foolish METI “yoohoo!” message from us isn’t going to make them come for resource rapine. Though, in fact, Hawking’s scenario does have some plausibility as an explanation of the Great Silence (Fermi Paradox), along a different path of logic.
Ponder this: if such a wave of greedy exploitation DID once pass through our region of the galaxy, and it just happened to miss Earth, then that might explain our current loneliness… the paucity of other new races around us. Because that prairie fire knocked down every other promising race or planet in the region, leaving Earth like an isolated oasis in a desert. I talk about this scenario (and many others) elsewhere.
No, Hawking’s logic does not make sense as a reason not to shout. On the other hand, there are dozens of other possible reasons why a Yoohoo Message could be dangerous. I could go into lots of them…
... but I won’t! Not here. Because I am NOT trying to argue that METI will cause invasion or directed havoc. Personally, I think the odds of that outcome are low.
No, I am trying to get people to stop leaping to unjustified assumptions and conclusions and especially to stop proclaiming that things are so, just because you made a glib sounding assertion. (Isn’t that bad habit doing enough harm, in Culture War?)
For example, Paul Davies and George Dvorsky and Michio Kaku and many other smart guys have asserted “if they wanted to harm us, they would have done so by now.”
Say What? Oh, this is just more blithe, dismissive nonsense, with so many sub-variations and counter-hypotheses to ponder you could shake a stick at them all day. Leaping to make such a generalized statement is no less than an expression of the most outrageous smugness and incuriosity, especially unworthy, coming from such smart fellows.
Just like the idiotic cliche that I Love Lucy has already made Earth a blaring beacon in the sky, so why bother restraining ourselves now?
(Here’s an illustrative experiment: go to a lake with a rock and a laser pointer. Now drop the rock into the pond, making ripples. Then aim the laser pointer at the other shore. Which wave front will be detected on the opposite side? That’s I love Lucy versus a high-power, colimated, coherent transmission from Arecebo. Sure, in theory, advanced scientists on the other shore, who are passionately eager and who know where to look, might detect the rock-ripples. But Jesus, have some scale and some sense, before you blithely declare that everybody on all shores will always detect all ripples!)
These positions are arrant nonsense and deeply illogical. (Here’s another. If we’re “already blatantly visible” out there, then what is METI trying to accomplish, by deliberately making our Earth SEVEN ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE brighter? Hm?)
I do not have time to get into this vast topic in detail. I have spent decades on it, exploring countless ramifications like:
- Why we might be alone (a popularized account)
- Or, (for the real scholar) the much deeper and more scholarly ‘classic’ review of the field—The Great Silence—which appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Royal Astronomical Society, fall 1983, v.24, pp 283-309
- Or might a lurker probe already be here?
- Or a sci fi novella that thoroughly explores the variants of possible Von Neumann self-replicating interstellar probes
- Or my answer to UFOs
- Or a dozen other stories illustrating unusual possibilities for alien life
But the crux is this:
Stop assuming that asserting something makes it so!
It doesn’t. Nor does positing an “of course” pre-explanation of the Great Silence make you wise.
In fact, it’s time for a much wider conversation about this, bringing together our best minds from dozens of fields and opposing viewpoints. This is a topic where nobody is right who blithely rolls off cliches and says “of course the answer is this.”
Finally, regarding my suggestion—on Larry King Live—that SETI shift from one expensive and ridiculously over-specialized telescope to 10,000 net-linked backyard receivers… the SETI League is a real outfit that tries to do this. They believe the “WOW” signal would be detectable by a few thousand dollars worth of electronics attached to a 12-foot satellite dish. They’re all about getting thousands of amateurs into the SETI field. While the sensitivity could never match the Allen array, the Allen array cannot hope to cover the entire sky, full time, over the entire radio spectrum. Only a large number of receivers give us any chance of detecting signals beamed our way. (By the way, on Larry King I should have pointed out a side benefit… that such a system would also help catch Dan Aykroyd’s UFO saucer guys!)
Alas, some of the researchers in this field have expressed deep contempt for science fiction. This ready dismissal of the entire field of gedankenexperimentation by thoughtful and scientifically deep authors is nothing but flat out—and proud—ignorance. Such people dismiss—without having ever read them—mind-blowingly original thought experiments by the likes of Bear and Banks and Vinge (and me), which make up the only real library of what-if extrapolations that our committees could quickly turn to, in the event of a post-contact situation!
To call such explorations “simpleminded” and unimaginative and based solely on copying the human experience is to declare openly “I am satisfied that B-Movies typify ‘science fiction’. I have never cracked the spine of a grownup science fiction contact scenario… nor will I, ever.”
That’s just dunderheaded and close-minded and especially unworthy of people who have earned great merit in other fields. People who now propose to represent us, if and when we meet the alien.