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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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The Other Kind of Aliens

David Brin

Contrary Brin

April 30, 2010

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 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."


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