If Aliens Decided to Destroy Humanity, Could We Blame Them?

By Sean Carroll | December 15, 2008 10:59 am

Friday was the opening of The Day the Earth Stood Still starring Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly; it’s director Scott Derrickson’s remake of the 1951 Robert Wise classic. The previous Friday witnessed our panel discussion at Caltech about how science intersected with the film. Reviews thus far (of both the movie and the panel) have been mixed; personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the panel and thought the movie rose to the level of “pretty good.” (Lost amidst the excitement of aliens and CGI was the excellent acting in the film, including a great performance by Jaden Smith in the role of the petulant stepson.) But it could have been great.

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Derrickson refers to his own film as a “popcorn movie with interesting ideas,” and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. The original movie was extremely compelling because it managed to be gripping and suspenseful as a narrative, while also dealing with some very big ideas. In 1951 we had just entered the atomic age, the Cold War was starting, and the Space Race was about to begin (Sputnik was 1957). Moreover, radio astronomy was just taking off, and people were beginning to talk semi-seriously about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence; Fermi introduced his celebrated paradox (“Where are they?”) in 1950. The time was right to put everything together in a compelling movie.

The threat of nuclear war hasn’t actually gone away — the chance of a nuclear weapon being used within the next decade is probably higher than it was in the 1970′s or 80′s (although perhaps not the 50′s or 60′s). But now we also have the danger of environmental catastrophe, which was alluded to in the movie. But the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still basically sidestepped questions of international cooperation, which were crucial to the original version. The heady mix of ideas and drama that was waiting to be tapped in 1951 isn’t quite as obvious today.

Gort
A huge problem with a remake like this is that the 2008 movie-going audience comes with a very different set of expectations than the 1951 audience would have. We are very used to giant special-effects extravaganzas in which aliens want to destroy the earth, so the conceit itself is not sufficient to keep us interested. And there isn’t that much tension in the question of how the plot will be resolved; I hope I’m not giving away any spoilers by saying that humanity is not destroyed. We know that humanity is going to be saved (although it would be something if it weren’t), so we’re not on the edge of our seat wondering about that. There might be some tension in the particular method by which the saving is accomplished; the original did a great job on that score with the iconic robot Gort, and without giving away anything about the remake I’ll just say that I don’t think they managed to be quite as suspenseful this time.

But there remains one form of suspense that I thought the film couldn’t have taken advantage of more than it actually did: the questions of why aliens might want to wipe us out, and whether humanity is worth saving in the first place. Judgmental aliens are a staple of science fiction, but how realistic are they?

To put things in perspective, the universe is 14 billion years old and the Solar System is about five billion years old. Let’s be conservative and imagine that life couldn’t arise around first-generation (Pop II or Pop III) stars, since the abundance of “metals” (to an astronomer, any element heavier than hydrogen or helium) was practically nil. You need at least a second-generation star, formed in a region seeded with the important heavier elements by prior supernova explosions. But nevertheless, it’s still easy to imagine that the aliens we might eventually come into contact with come from a planet that formed life a billion or two years earlier than life began on Earth. Now, a billion years ago, we were still struggling with the whole multi-celluarity thing. So we should imagine aliens that have evolved past our current situation by an amount analogous to which we have evolved past, say, red algae.

It’s simply impossible for us to accurately conceive what such aliens might be like. (When Jennifer Connelly’s exobiologist asks Klaatu, the alien who has assumed the shape of Keanu Reeves, what his true form is like, he quite believably replies “It would only frighten you.”) It’s completely plausible to imagine that advanced civilizations routinely leave behind their biological forms to dwell within a computer simulation or some other form of artificial substrate for consciousness. As plausible as anything else, really.

But if they did pay us a visit, is it plausible to imagine that they would want to wipe us out? Since we have no actual experience on which to base an answer, one option is to look at our own history, as the Kathy Bates’s Secretary of Defense does in The Day the Earth Stood Still. The lesson is not cheerful: more powerful civilizations tend to either subjugate less powerful ones, or wipe them out entirely. Okay, you say, but any civilization that is capable of traveling interstellar distances must have figured out how to live peacefully, right?

Maybe. The problem is, it wouldn’t be a clash of civilizations; more likely, from the aliens’s perspective it would be like the clash of an annoyed homeowner dealing with mildew, or perhaps an infestation of cockroaches if we’re feeling generous. Turning again to experience, human beings are right now causing one of the great mass extinctions in the history of the planet. We could stop killing off other species, but we find that it would slightly cramp our lifestyle to do so, and we decide not to make that sacrifice. True, when we send spaceships to Mars and elsewhere, we are very careful to take steps to ensure that we don’t contaminate any traces of life that might be clinging to the other planet. But clearly, that’s not because we place great value on the continued existence of any one species. Rather, it’s because (to us) any kind of life on another planet would be incredibly unique and interesting. But there’s no reason to believe that we would be all that unique from the perspective of a galaxy-weary alien civilization. They may well have bumped into millions of worlds featuring all sorts of life. If we’re lucky, they might give us the respect that a human being would show an ant colony or a swarm of bees. If we’re lucky.

This is an area in which science fiction, for all its vaunted imagination, is traditionally quite conservative. With some notable exceptions, we tend to assume that the forms life can take are neatly divided into “intelligent species” and “everyone else,” and we are snugly in the former category, and all intelligent species are roughly equally intelligent and it’s just a matter of time before we get our own seat in the Galactic Parliament. Although SF offers a unique opportunity to examine the way we live as humans in comparison to different ways we might live, the usual answer it gives is that the way we’re living now is pretty much the best we can imagine — alien lifestyles are much more often portrayed as profoundly lacking in some crucial feature of individuality or passion than they are as a real improvement over our current messy situation. We are special because we love our children, or because we are plucky and have so much room for improvement. We voted for Obama, after all. I bet there aren’t many alien civilizations that would have done that!

So basically, I’m suggesting that this is a film that would have been improved by the addition of a few imaginative philosophical debates. You don’t want to be didactic or tiresome, but those are not necessary qualities of a discussion of deep ideas. If the ideas are interesting enough, they might even improve your box office.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Science
  • http://oilismastery.blogspot.com/ OilIsMastery

    Is this is the same “logic” Bill S. Preston and company used to justify the 9/11 terrorist attack at San Dimas High School?

  • http://oilismastery.blogspot.com/ OilIsMastery

    Oh excuse me it’s Ted Theodore Logan how could I be so stupid.

  • http://notes.kateva.org John Faughnan

    Clearly you spend too much time on physics and not enough time reading Science Fiction – at least since 1990 or so.

    The theme of transcendental aliens and their interest or disinterest in mere humanity has been beaten to death over the past 20 years. Vinge has a lot of playful fun on the topic, lots of others plumb it with more or less depth. As a narrative it’s not so interesting, so it usually has to be made to fit with some other theme.

    I’m guessing you stopped reading after undergrad, so you might be in late Asimov era or maybe early cyberpunk.

    Otherwise, good discussion.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I know Godard said the only valid way to criticize a film is to make your own. I doubt he took the economics and logistics into account; or maybe he did, hoping the high hurdle would delegitimize all opinions but those of other directors. Anyway, in as much deference to Jean-Luc as I can muster, I’ll say the remake is not the worst Keanu Reeves film I’ve ever seen. I rather fear making it a poster child for interdisciplinary cooperation between the cinema and the academy, though.

    Anyhow, I’ll flog my usual horse and say Clarke’s and Kubrick’s “2001″ (and to a much lesser degree, its sequel) made the strongest case for your argument ever in film, either before or since, and to such a degree as to set the story towering above its competition. The alien intelligence is never seen. It’s technology is so advanced as to make its artifacts inscrutable, archangelic mediators of a god-like power. We aren’t often even aware it’s communicating with and influencing us, and the aliens have to redesign us just to make mutual comprehension feasible. They don’t wipe us out because they apparently find us interesting, but they don’t hesitate to smite those who interfere with their experiments. They convey a moral explanation for their actions, but perhaps it’s just a convenient means of influencing our behavior for some unknown purpose. We probably incapable of grasping their motives, at any rate.

    That’s the closest to “alien” cinema has ever gotten, I think. Way back in ’68.

  • Scott

    It’s interesting to me that you found the stepson character to be valuable. I found it annoying and wish that role had been minimized.

  • Chuck White

    This discussion has always made me wonder. Assume we accept the position that a sufficiently advanced civilization would appear to us as “magic”. It wouldn’t be a huge reach to replace the word “magic” with the word “God”.

    Taken in that context, asserting motives to aliens is quite akin to interpretation of the motives of “God”. Of course, no sane movie-maker would dare pretend that’s what (s)he’s doing, but, nonetheless, it seems a logical analogy.

    For the movie-maker, thinking of advanced aliens as a philosophical substitute for various depictions of “God”, then renaming them “Aliens”, could produce some interesting stories AND philosophy?

    Is that too wacky?

  • Pingback: turrbull » Archive » the question remains

  • http://www.pieter-kok.staff.shef.ac.uk Pieter Kok

    LMMI: Don’t forget Lem/Tarkovski’s “Solaris”. In it, the planet is a lifeform that tries to communicate with humans, with disastrous psychological and physical consequences for the humans. The remake with Clooney and Kinsky is not bad, but lacks the philosophical depth of the original movie.

  • GAC

    I’m not sure about this. Incredibly advanced aliens could consider us pests to be annihilated. Then again, if they have the technology to come here, they’d have access to millions of uninhabited systems to draw resources from. Depending on their outlook, they could just leave us alone, or observe us passively as a curiosity. Then again, if there are multiple super-advanced races, we should hope the ones that control our region of the galaxy are of the benevolent kind.

  • Mason

    “With some notable exceptions, we tend to assume that the forms life can take are neatly divided into “intelligent species” and “everyone else,” and we are snugly in the former category, and all intelligent species are roughly equally intelligent and it’s just a matter of time before we get our own seat in the Galactic Parliament. ”

    Yes! I’m so tired of this SF sacred cow.

  • tacitus

    We are a danger to the other species on our own planet because we either want to exploit them or exploit their habitat. Climate change could be less intentional, but equally as deadly for many species. In all three cases, we share the same small planet with limited natural resources, so it’s almost inevitable that many species will suffer as humanity continues to expand.

    It’s not clear to me that a super-advanced ETI civilization is faced with the same issues. Resources that are scarce or limited here on Earth are plentiful throughout the galaxy so there is little need for an ETIC to come here to rape and pillage our planet. Invasion and occupation would seem similarly far fetch unless the ETIs were the equivalent of a bunch of adolescent hooligans just wanting to stir up trouble.

    Some people believe that an ETIC would wipe us out because we’d be too big a threat to the rest of the galaxy if we escaped the isolation of our solar system. That too would seem far fetched since it will likely be a thousand years before we get to another star system, and even then the pace would be so slow that there would be no problem for an ETIC to maintain an embargo, or at least follow our progress to make sure we’re not causing trouble.

    If an ETIC does want to wipe us out, then explanation I favor as the reason is not a rational one — it’s based on religion (or the equivalent irrational belief). Many people believe that fundamentalist religion will die out by the time we’re advanced enough to spread out through the galaxy, but I’m not so sure. Fundamentalism seems to be thriving quite well today even though we’ve had a couple of hundred years of scientific progress. So perhaps some virulent beliefs have survived even longer in an ETIC and a tenet of their faith is, say, perfection will only be achieved once all planets in the galaxy have been scoured clean of the abominations of alien life. Forcible conversions could also be another issue.

    But, I am more optimistic. If there are any ETICs out there, especially one with a billion year head start over us, they almost certainly know we’re here already. The fact that we haven’t been wipe out yet, I take as a good sign that their intentions are good, if we are even worthy of our attention.

  • Eric

    “Since we have no actual experience on which to base an answer, one option is to look at our own history, as the Kathy Bates’s Secretary of Defense does in The Day the Earth Stood Still. The lesson is not cheerful: more powerful civilizations tend to either subjugate less powerful ones, or wipe them out entirely.”

    You correctly note earlier in the article that we have no idea what aliens would look like, and then proceed to commit the same fallacy about how they think. The human mind is only a tiny speck in the possible configurations of minds – talking about alien minds as “curious” or any other human instinct is almost certainly a mistake. Eliezer Yudkowsky makes the point rather well here and here. Our history is an absolutely ridiculous way to try to imagine what an alien civilization might do.

  • http://www.pieter-kok.staff.shef.ac.uk Pieter Kok

    Eric, any alien civilization is still bound by the laws of physics, and by extension the laws of economics, game theory, etc. There will probably an alien mindset to go with that (at least if they consists of individuals), one which we can at least attempt to understand.

  • Lawrence Crowell

    They would not need to destroy humanity, all they would need to do is watch and wait for us to destroy ourselves. We are doing a perfectly good job of setting that up in the long run. The two most prophetic science fiction-esque movies are On the Beach and Soylent Green, and the question is which one will turn out to be the most prophetic. We might be on this planet to “them” an infestation, but we are also a bit like a locust swarm. Once the corn is gone the swarm collapses. The bacteria or mold on a petri dish is another sort of microcosm that might not be far off the mark.

    Nuclear weapons and nuclear war might end up as a sort of mass euthenasia or anestheia for those in the wealthy parts of the world.

    The problem with science fiction themes and aliens is that they are similar to revelatory religion. We dumb humans can’t figure “it out,” and so something from on high comes down to reveal the truth to us. This is not that different from religious ideations of God coming down, such as Jesus Cash, oops Jesus Christ, who came down to save us from ourselves. It is not that different from the basic theme of The Day the Earth Stood Still. The space alien coming down to either save us or to dash us into oblivion is not that different from gods or a God who comes down to save the righeous or punish the “evil doers.” “And the horse and his rider are cast to the sea,” as it says in Exodus.

    Of course these things are fun. The giant saucers coming over cities such as in Independence Day (a fun spoof IMO), or the 2001 monolith, or Klaatu coming in a silvery saucer all strike a cord in us, and is why the book of Revelations is so popular, and the Left Behind series of theo-fiction made best sellers. The sky cracks open and (alt #1 God and a host of angels comes down) or (alt #2 giant craft come down from a Type III civilization) and (alt #1 truth is revealed) or (alt #2 a host of horrors comes down). These things have a lot more to do with inner space than outer space.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Loki

    Solution to Fermi paradox:
    Any sufficiently advanced civilization abandons physical reality for virtual simulation. Simple robots are performing support functions. Non-simple AIs have even less interest/respect for mundane life and “sublime” even more eagerly than their biological parents. The level of technology needed for this is way below interstellar travel or anything close to this. Actually, humanity is nearing this final stage right now, maybe virtual exodus is just couple generations away.

  • tacitus

    I don’t see the whole of humanity retreating into virtual worlds. There will always be enough people who believe that there is no substitute for real life, no matter how convincing the simulations are.

  • John R Ramsden

    Wasn’t it A C Clarke who pointed out that we soon will have aliens in our midst in the form of advanced AI, and be able to ask them what they’re thinking, even if due to their vastly faster and superior intellects their reply may of necessity be somewhat vague?

    Although in a sense it’s ridiculously presumptuous to suggest advanced aliens’ motives and intentions, as these are obviously no more than one’s own speculations, I suggest they’d be extremely unlikely to want to wipe out humanity.

    Even for trashing planet Earth, as some claim we are doing now, it seems to me a pathetically parochial and naive motive for aliens to take it upon themselves to eliminate us, when you consider how prodigiously wasteful nature is anyway. Of countless millions of eggs only a handful ever germinate, and the most beautiful eggshell is cracked to bits and trampled underfoot by an ugly squawking chick after it hatches.

    Many are called but few are chosen, and surely a star-hopping alien would understand that, even in the unlikely event the Earth is utterly wrecked rather than us remedying the damage in due course, which is more likely.

    Again, it seems to me that if aliens were observing us their first priority would be to remain undetected by us, and in that would be easily and entirely successful. All this talk of occasional UFO sightings is a load of horsesh*t IMHO. They either make themselves known, or remain entirely invisible in all respects. End of.

    As to their motives, I think it’s fairly obvious their main goal would be to see how things pan out, species-wise for us (with one eye on possible future intelligent species such as monkeys or rodents). To that end, although not of course interfering overtly or venturing to change our major historical trends qualitatively, if they chose to dabble at all it would be to maximize the number of social interactions, chance meetings and fruitful coincidences for example, just to up the pace of change slightly.

    After all they would have a host of other solar systems to explore and monitor, and even the most patient observer would like things to happen a little faster if that doesn’t affect their natural progression.

    Finally, as someone above alluded to, it may not be simply a case of “us v advanced aliens”. They themselves may be looking over their shoulders, so to speak, wondering about the existence of aliens orders of magnitude more advanced than themselves. If so, then even if they were inclined to wipe out humanity for some reason, that might be another motive for them to desist.

  • John R Ramsden

    Lawrence Crowell wrote:
    >
    > Of course these things are fun. The giant saucers coming over cities such as in Independence Day (a fun spoof IMO)

    Fun spoof is a good desription, and it would have been a no-brainer for a sequel – Blowing up the saucers must have stranded thousands of pissed-of alien pilots, who could have flown to Antarctica or somewhere to regroup, and maybe not all the saucers *were* entirely destroyed …

  • Elliot Tarabour

    I don’t think Aliens would ever seriously consider destroying us. We are probably the original and best source of Rock and Roll music in the entire multiverse and I’m certain they would think long and hard before risking cutting off such a monumental cultural achievement.

    e.

  • Lawrence Crowell

    I believe it was Dawkins who wrote a book Climbing Mount Improbable, about the evolution of life and how complex life forms or species are highly improbable. Some argue that intelligent life leaving their worlds is an extension of this evolution. I would dispute that on a number of grounds, but even so it seems to me at some point this leads to climbing mount impossible. Interstellar travel would be difficult in the extreme, and it might in some ways not be at all practical. Of course maybe out there are some very organized, smart and dedicated ETs who rise to the challenge. Yet to be honest I would not be surprised that ETI out there, though I suspect very far and few between, are slobs like us. As rule I suspect they probably blow it, just as we are about to do.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • tacitus

    As rule I suspect they probably blow it, just as we are about to do.

    Ah, I love the smell of optimism in the morning…. :-)

    I tend to believe that it’s tougher for us to “blow it” than most of us would think. Even a nuclear war between two superpowers would be unlikely to wipe us out completely, and there would be enough information and technology lying around for the survivors to begin rebuilding our civilization within a few generations.

    The greatest danger in the future will be from something like a deranged suicide cult, that wants to end all life, getting their mitts on a virulent and deadly biological agent that we have no defense against. Even then we could have a fighting chance if there is enough time to realize what’s going on before everyone is infected.

    We always cite cockroaches as the ultimate survivors, but I suspect humanity is going to prove to be a darn sight tougher to get rid of than most people believe. (Thankfully!)

  • Neal J. King

    Most people seem to be missing the clearly-stated rationale for extermination:
    - There are said to be rather few life-bearing planets; and
    - Humanity seems to be at the point of irreparably destroying one.

    I don’t claim that either of these points are true. However, if they were true – and that is the premise of the movie – these two points would be a valid reason for a powerful civilization to eliminate that harmful species.

    On a “lighter” note: I could also have done without the kid. Extermination would be too extreme. I think the proper solution would be to hold his head under water for not more than 45 seconds – but not less than 30 seconds.

  • Imam Yahya, Commander of the Faithful, etc

    “I don’t think Aliens would ever seriously consider destroying us. We are probably the original and best source of Rock and Roll music in the entire multiverse and I’m certain they would think long and hard before risking cutting off such a monumental cultural achievement. ”

    I was undecided until I read this and realised that we have been broadcasting Louis Armstrong, Elvis, the Beatles, ABBA, Public Enemy, and Fitty Cent into outer space.

    We are definitely doomed. And we deserve it.

    Anyway, apart from that, I can imagine the following conversation:
    ALIEN1: What is the probability that earthlings will one day threaten us?
    ALIEN2: About 10^{-10000}.
    ALIEN1: That’s too high. Exterminate them.

  • Lawrence Crowell

    The ultimate problem we face is that we are engineering the sixth mass extinction on this planet. The last one was the K-T extinction 65 million years ago, and the really big one was the Permian. I suspect that this means we are going to collapse the global biosphere. One signature of this from geological data is the occurrence of H_2S. The collapse result the bloom of hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. Last summer I read a Science article which interestingly indicated H_2S bacteria are a growing disruptive problems in continental shelf and estuary ecosystems.

    Wake up folks! We are tearing down this planet at blinding speed on a geological scale. Resources deplete, garbage accumulates. And the entire human condition is hot wired for exponential growth, including resource depletion and garbage production.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://www.americafree.tv Marshall Eubanks

    My thinking on this has evolved with time. I have come to think that Chomsky is probably correct about language, which implies that we will find it very hard to truly communicate with alien beings. Our brains will be wired very differently, having no common ancestors, and we may find it easier to have philosophical discussions with whales or elephants.

    I also would not conclude that any aliens coming here would naturally assume that we were the most important species to talk to. We would think that way, but their brains won’t be wired the same.

  • Gort

    I was just upset because the LHC shifted spacetime into another state, which caused me to lose all my money in a Wall Street ponzi scheme.

  • amphiox

    I agree with Neal J King on the premise of the movie. It is perfectly sound. After all, conservationists do actively try to exterminate rats and other invasive species from vulnerable, isolated, and unique ecosystems, like small islands.

    What respect most of us accord ant colonies and beehives is mostly due to the fact that they have stings. And because of those stings, we fumigate them if they get too close to our homes and children.

    But that’s a gap of no more than a few hundred million years, less, if you consider that modern ants and bees aren’t evolutionarily that old. If we take the 1 billion year evolutionary gap analogy, it is not often that we would deliberately plot the annihiliation of the bacterial biofilm under that small pebble in the corner of our backyard. But we also don’t think twice about running over that pebble with our lawnmower or kicking it aside just for a lark and exposing all the anaerobes under it to oxygen apocalypse.

    Which in my mind makes the most likely scenario for the alien destruction of earth would be the aliens offing us by accident, without even noticing or caring that we were here. They might not even have to get anywhere near us. An industrial project of theirs might irradiate us out of existence from several hundred lightyears away.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    “Which in my mind makes the most likely scenario for the alien destruction of earth would be the aliens offing us by accident”

    e.g. demolition required for the building of a hyperspatial express route…

    Even old dudes like Sean were still in school when that book was published.

  • Haelfix

    I always kinda got a kick out of the whole Predator movies with the Gubernator. The aliens there treat earth as a sort of Safari and humans as game. That strikes me as plausible for a sufficiently bored and advanced alien species

  • Benjamin

    I think what really has to be made is not this, but Iain Banks’ State of the Art. They’re doing a radio play, but really, you can’t go past this for first contact fiction – it’s from the aliens’ perspective, and has the most mind-blowingly perfect prose and ideas.

  • Ginger Yellow

    “With some notable exceptions, we tend to assume that the forms life can take are neatly divided into “intelligent species” and “everyone else,” and we are snugly in the former category, and all intelligent species are roughly equally intelligent and it’s just a matter of time before we get our own seat in the Galactic Parliament.”

    It’s cliched at times and I’m not claiming it to be a masterpiece or anything like that, but the plot of recent game Mass Effect is all about having humanity (or to be more accurate, humanity’s chosen representative) earn its place in the literal Galactic Parliament among other, far more established and differently intelligent civilisations. Most of the other species regard humanity as upstarts, while the human attitudes to other species range from xenophobia to humble multilateralism.

  • http://larianlequella.com Larian LeQuella

    Considering the lack of evidence for any real intelligent life on this planet, and just a bunch of “viruses” as Agent Smith said in The Matrix; I couldn’t blame them for at least wanting to quarantine this backward little hickplanet.

  • Lawrence Crowell

    I think that mathematics is probably universal. A prime number has the same primeness whether thought about by a human or some ET. So mathematical communications, such as sending pulses to represent numbers, should be universal. In the thread last month on Dyson spheres some mention was made of masks that produced transent pulses of light as they passed a star.

    It is of course hard to say much about ET intelligence. There might be Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris out there: a planet-ocean that is a mass sentient entity or Hoyle’s Black Cloud. Yet if we talk about beings somewhat similar to ourselves, beings with brain-like organs, move around, make tools etc, then they probably evolved in ways similar to how homonids came about. Then I suspect their neural capacity passed the “rubicon” towards intelligence as we did. As such I would expect they have an intelligence comparable to ourselves.

    Intelligent beings have a capacity to unleash many constraints their environment imposes on them. This is how Homo sapiens came to number 6.7 billion at one time, which is unprecidented in Earth history for an animal our size and dietary requirements. It began some 3 million years ago when australiopithicus figured out how to take themselves off the menu (repelling leopards by throwing rocks etc) and putting more living things on their menu. This continues to the present time, where an acre of land used to give 10 bushels of corn 100 years ago now yields 80, or figuring out smallpox vaccines.

    Whether this continues endlessly is problematic. Can we remove the growing constraints on us due to the finitude of this planet by moving out into space en-mass? An even more important question is can we really control ourselves in a rational way? History pretty clearly shows that we have governments often more involved with enriching a status quo than really solving problems, and further we all too often end up with some mentally disordered people at the helm. A shoe was recently thrown at someone with some delusional proclivities :-) .

    When I was a kid we went on a road trip. My father made a cat feeder meant to dispense food to our cats for the duration of the trip. A half day out and we all got horribly sick and had to turn back. When we got home the stupid cats had eaten all the food — they were literally bloated like hotair balloons. They were behaving on the basis of some neural programming that says, “eat it all now for it may not be there later.” Ultimately we have the same programming. We are in an interesting time where the investment system is collapsing. However, going back to the time of the renaissance Italian city states and particularly the Dutch “tulip bulb crisis” this has happened repreatedly. Ultimately these things crash for the same reason our cats ate all the food: take it now and worry not for the morrow. It is also why we are on such exponential ramp-ups in growth and consumption, and unlike cats we are clever at figuring ways around barriers to our forwards surge. Might this not be something programmed into life in general, even off Earth? Of course it is hard to guess, and we will probably never know.

    In the end the ultimate problem we face is ourselves, and our ideas about solving those problems, from monotheistic religions to modern sociology appear to me as seriously lacking.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • changcho

    “Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly…” Ah, the lovely J. Connelly? In that case I may even overlook the fact that K. Reeves is in the movie and actually go watch it…And it even has Kathy Bates to boot! Great actresses.

    PK: please do not put the ‘laws’ of economics in the same league as the laws of physics.

    Haelfix: I liked the Predator movie (1st) too.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    “I don’t see the whole of humanity retreating into virtual worlds.”

    Actually, the world we live in is for a large part virtual. Ultimately we humans are communities of micro-organisms that over time have lost their independence. So, in your brain you have neurons and other cells whose collective activity amounts to generating a virtual world modeled after the real world using the input from your senses.

    All the subjective experiences we have are purely events in the virtual world generated by our brains. If we enjoy listening to music, eating food etc. etc. it is all an artifact of a computation inside our heads.

    These things are, of course, precisely those things that cannot be easily discussed with aliens, who will have different brains and therefore their virtual world will be incompatible with ours.

  • artemis

    Close Encounters always struck me as unique and singular in that it wasn’t about all of the usual American cold war angst. It is the only non-aliens-sending-a-message/leading-an-invasion pieces of media that I can think of. Even Verne’s early work was basically man battles nature themes. Speilberg always impressed me with this piece because he didn’t introduce alien motive into the scenario. For all we know they eat Richard Dreyfus’ brains out the minute he steps onto the spaceship.

    The real protagonist in these movies is humankind. What are our motives, why do we think we deserve to survive our own evolution, continue our discovery? Sometimes its just ’cause “the bible tells us so”. Sometimes we actually manage to come up with a plausible rational argument. How we make the case from one generation to the next will tell anyone(thing) studying us whether we pass muster or not. Right now we don’t seem to be coming up with many good reasons for them not to eat our brains out or use us as trophies for their dens. Seems a lot like GWB telling us to go to the mall after 9/11. I mean really, imagine that was the reaction of all the fictional Presidents in all of these movies. The sad part is, if it happened in the movies we would have laughed the film and all of its makers into the dumpster (OK, Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson get a pass for Mars Attacks). In real life, we and our leaders failed Klaatus’ test BIG time.

  • Pineapple

    “I don’t claim that either of these points are true. However, if they were true – and that is the premise of the movie – these two points would be a valid reason for a powerful civilization to eliminate that harmful species.”

    Sheri S Tepper explores this idea in three books: The Fresco, The Margarets, and Beauty (to a lesser extent). Of the three books, The Fresco transparently delivers a moral, but it’s still a thoughtful, enjoyable read.

  • http://allinthenameofscience.blogspot.com KAS

    “Turning again to experience, human beings are right now causing one of the great mass extinctions in the history of the planet. We could stop killing off other species, but we find that it would slightly cramp our lifestyle to do so, and we decide not to make that sacrifice. True, when we send spaceships to Mars and elsewhere, we are very careful to take steps to ensure that we don’t contaminate any traces of life that might be clinging to the other planet. But clearly, that’s not because we place great value on the continued existence of any one species. Rather, it’s because (to us) any kind of life on another planet would be incredibly unique and interesting. But there’s no reason to believe that we would be all that unique from the perspective of a galaxy-weary alien civilization. They may well have bumped into millions of worlds featuring all sorts of life. If we’re lucky, they might give us the respect that a human being would show an ant colony or a swarm of bees. If we’re lucky.”

    That is fantastic!

    My comment though would be that life on our planet would be viewed with value as any species would understand the sparse nature of life. Unless, our resources are needed or highly valuable… or we are food. Plus, the nature of intelligence IMO being the progression of improving the ability to survive and choose and plan; I would imagine that other life forms that are intelligent may just be somewhat like ourselves. As, I imagine other minds would go through the same ‘avoid predator’ ‘master environment’ ‘work together for the better or all’ morphisis and could quite possibly be much like a variety of species like star trek or Mass Effect ~ variable based on types of predator, environment and the like.

    As far as our senseless destruction of our own beautiful world; I don’t know that observation would conclude that we worthless due to that; more like that we are still learning. Just as we obsess over primates; other species of intellect would observe us over all other Earth species ~IMO

    KAS

  • Lawrence Crowell

    We might not be worthless. Maybe in some places in the universe there emerge minds which look out and understand the universe for some brief time and then are snuffed out.

    Don’t worry about us killing of this planet. 25 million years from now life will be abundant and doing well. Evolution is pretty powerful at repairing damage and bringing up new species to fill vacated eco-niches. Evolution also has time on its side, and we don’t. Yep, 25 million years from now things will be just fine, but we will be gone.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • http://vertexcorrect.blogspot.com Venkateshan

    It is highly possible that aliens would be able to make use of humans or something available on the planet at our expense. There is no reason to believe that a civilization, however evolved it may be and capable of creating advanced technology, would be self-sufficient in terms of having all the resources, from food to raw materials to a hospitable place to live. It is also possible that resources and opportunities are not equally distributed amongst everyone in an alien community.

    Clearly, you can see that I am just extrapolating the situation on earth with human beings: as a civilization we have made astounding advances but nearly half of us are deprived of basic needs. So, to a degree, deforestation can be justified if it helps to increase food production that can be supplied to the poor. We are destroying our environment to accommodate population growth. Let us not forget the exploitation of humans from slavery and imperialism in the past to human trafficking and sweatshops in the present. Don’t you think it is possible we would make good slaves for aliens to keep us in bondage?

    Let us hypothetically imagine there was an intelligent life form in Mars that we could overpower them and grab their resources. Now, if these aliens were not humanoid, I don’t think humanity will have much hesitation in just wiping them out to save ourselves.

  • Lawrence Crowell

    Of course I don’t think any of those things will happen. First off the term civilization involves a complex arrangement made by us, these social large brained apes. Other intelligent life may not have what we call civilizations. I also doubt that ETs on one planet around some star will traverse thousands of light years in an armada of spaceships to conquer some other planet. In our case I think the most we may end up doing is to send probes to other stars, but I doubt we will really send humans to other stars.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

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  • My-Name-is-Kenneth

    What probably frightens human beings far more than an alien invasion is the same thing they fear about the Universe: Being treated with utter indifference.

    A superior and truly alien form of life may not care one whit about us one way or another, even if it did find us. It might study us, especially if life is uncommon in the galaxy, but if you have beings who know and can do things we barely even label science fiction, contact or even serious recognition is another matter.

    Humans would probably rather see them attack us than ignore is, because at least in attacking us, it says we are worth something at least, even if it is only that we are in the way of something valuable the aliens want. Of course the fact that most people don’t really know or appreciate the reality that the galaxy is so wide and full of hundreds of billions of star systems that finding little ol’ us might be pure chance at best.

    This is why the Fermi Paradox is so popular, for it asks the question of why no one has come to call in the 10 billion year history of the Milky Way galaxy, and the fact that their presence does not seem obvious, not even a While You Were Trilobites Memo, has led many to believe that aliens therefore do not exist, or are few and very far away and therefore not a threat and we can do with the galaxy as we please.

    We are too young to know what is really going on yet. We are constantly surprised by findings in our own Solar System, so just imagine what is going on in the rest of the galaxy that we don’t have a clue about yet.

    But it is that potential indifference that scares us worse than anything else, even an invasion. A huge Cosmos with nobody home and nobody who cares about humans one way or the other.

    Personally I don’t think we are alone, but the probablity that they are very far away and their alieness which is what may keep them from finding, communicating, and understanding us is just as scary to humans as being utterly alone. We are not ready to leave our cradle yet as a society, despite the efforts of a few brave and bright individuals. Hopefully we will grow up before it is too late.

  • Gort

    irt Kenneth

    And thus we have it. It is man’s narcissism that causes his worries.

  • Gort

    Here’s another good word

    Autophobia

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  • http://DiscoverMagazine Bonus

    It is true that there is not only one limit between intelligent and nonintelligent life, but several discontinuites. Howewer, the highest discontinuity is to be less than 1/pi precocial and more than (pi-1)/pi altricial, size or MIPS does not matter. Any species that passes that criterium can understand theoretical science as good as any entity in a universe where Gödels theorem of incompleteness applies can, and also be flexible-minded enough to have the potential to communicate meaningfully with any species that passes the same criterium. All multi-species civilizations will have realized that. Thus, the analogy to mildow/ants are nonsense. And deeming mankind unintelligent because of environmental destruction would thus be a repetition of the same error that the racists commited when they blamed the black for being stupid, when in fact it was discrimination in education that made them pseudo-stupid. A advanced civilization would not commit that error.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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