The aliens are out to get us!

By Razib Khan | April 26, 2010 10:20 am

Several people have pointed me to Stephen Hawking’s warning about ‘First Contact’ with aliens. Specifically that we’d be on the short end of the stick. His worry reminded me of something I read as a child which shocked me somewhat when I encountered it, as I was conditioned by a post-Cosmos optimism. Here’s the author:

…I find it mind-boggling that the astronomers now eager to spend a hundred million dollars on the search for extraterrestrial life never thought seriously about the most obvious question: what would happen if we found it, or if it found us. The astronomers tacitly assume that we and the little green monsters would welcome each other and settle down to fascinating conversations. Here again, our own experience on Earth offers useful guidance. We’ve already discovered two species that are very itnelligent but less technically advanced than we are-the common chimpanzee and pygmy chimpanzee. Has our response been to sit down and try to communicate with them? Of course not. Instead we shoot them, dissect them, cut off their hands for trophies, put them on exhibit in cages, inject them with AIDS virus as a medical experiment, and estroy or take over their habitats. That response was predictable, because human explorers who discvered technically less advanced humans also regularly responded by shooting them, decimating their popualtiosn with new diseases, and destroything or taking over their habitats.

Any advanced extraterrestrials who discovered us would surely treat us in the same way….

That was Jared Diamond in The Third Chimpanzee. In terms of this particular concern I have to admit that my attitude is encapsulated by Arthur C. Clarke’s third law of prediction. An advanced alien race is basically going to have magical powers in relation to humanity, and I doubt anything we do will matter either way (i.e., I don’t think we could hide, or, get their attention). But my main question is why haven’t the von Neumann machines already co-opted all the matter and energy in the universe? The Fermi paradox is a real issue. There are still big questions that we have no idea or clue about.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Space
MORE ABOUT: Aliens, E.T., First Contact
  • Uncle Al

    If the movie Independence Day is any metric, we should be stockpiling cigar-smoking elderly Jews, minority pilots living with hearts of gold exotic dancers, and deeply damaged Vietnam vets against That Day.

    General, “How can we destroy these bastards? Thermonukes are useless.”
    FEMA, “We’ll teach them how to do studies and contingency planning.”
    NASA, “We’ll teach them how to do studies and contingency planning.”
    NIH, “We’ll teach them how to do studies and contingency planning.”
    SEC, “We’ll teach them how to do studies and contingency planning.”
    General, “First, we need to do studies and contingency planning.”

    Thus was the Earth conquered by a handful of paired Grxbler missionaries riding winged horses and armed with concealed-carry ten watt quantum phase interference device (Q-PID) disintegrator beams.

  • charlie

    I think Hawking should be more worried that we live in the middle of an civilizational desert; i.e. there are no habitable earth-type worlds within 25 light years, and beyond that the difficulty of communication (50+ years to conversate) makes even looking for aliens pointless. We are stuck here for eternity….

  • Jonathan

    I agree with you, Charlie. I would also note that even if there are Earth-like worlds in the immediate neighborhood, the odds of them harboring high tech civilizations are small. Life on Earth consisted entirely of microbes for about 3 billion years. Humans evolved over the last 1 million years, civilization over the last 10,000 years and high tech only in the last 100 years. With that kind of development time it is most unlikely that there are aliens close to us in time.

  • Meg

    Why assume that the aliens will have the very human characteristics of trying to exploit any and all resource they come across? We’re anthropomorphizing the aliens before they even get here. It’s prudent to speculate how it could go wrong based on human culture, not that we could do anything about it, but any aliens who visit will likely have motivations and rules of engagement that we can’t begin to predict.

    (I’ve always been struck by the UNIT commander in the Doctor Who epsiode The Christmas Invasion who protested when the scientist was killed. He says something like “even your species must have rules about the treatment of prisoners.” Why would you assume that?!?! For most of human history we haven’t had rules, why should they? And even if they do, who says they’ll align with our rules?)

  • Razib Khan

    meg, it’s not a human characteristic. it’s an earthling characteristic (species push up toward the malthusian limit). though your point is one that i think is worthwhile…any species which reaches a particular state of advancement may not exhibit more ‘primitive’ characteristics.

  • Mike Evans

    This was also the premise of a decent 1995 hard-science fiction novel: “The Killing Star” by Charles Pellegrino and George Zebrowski. Sadly out of print and used copies going for an insane amount, unfortunately. Anyway the basic premise is that we are pretty much a hornet nest that needs to be cleaned up before we get too troublesome. We’re found as a decent result of our radio transmissions.

  • kme

    With regards to the main question, might it be bandwidth limitations? It’s all well and good to turn your local solar system into a computronium matrioshka for maximal computing power, but colonizing the next star system over doesn’t get you much apart from someone different to talk to. Unless, of course, you’re at the bottom of the totem pole in the current system and of a (small) mind to start fresh in making (yourself) a new (big) mind. Perhaps entities that have reached such a stage tend not to give small minds the chance?

  • florianooke

    I’m actually more fascinated by a quote from another movie (since some of us like to relate to hollywood’s exagurated movies), which is “The day after tomorrow”.
    “The economy is just as fragile” while the expert climatologist was talking about global warming.

    Now, there are 2 things that prevent evolution, the first is MONEY and the second are the assumptions of whoever works for the government (ANY government).

    Who-should’ve-been-President-of-the-USA Albert Gore also pointed out an interesting fact in a funny way… A scale from lady Justice, with on one side GOLD bars, and on the other, the planet Earth.
    If we don’t have those GOLD bars, uhoh big trouble, but if we don’t have a planet anymore ….????

    Also @ Charlie, what makes you so sure that there aren’t planets that are inhabited within 25 lightyears? HUMANS need air to breath, and since we’ve never met any aliens before, you can’t possibly assume that aliens also need AIR to breath.
    For example, worms, live in the ground, no air there. A simple bacteria or virus, lives inside a body (animal, human, …) no air there, or they have to take it from bloodcells, which i find highly unlikely.

    On the other hand, IF we have first contact with an alien species, it has to be a species that also need air to live, otherwise their long journey would be a total waste of their time.
    I don’t doubt for a second that there is other life in some other galaxy, if not in our own. I totally (or certainly 90%) agree with SIR Steven Hawking with his claim.

    Also, about the Von Neumann machine, we are capable of nanotechnology, we even discovered how cells are made, but still we haven’t figured out how to replicate or replace infected or dead cells with new ones by means of nanotechnology, otherwise SIR Steven Hawking wouldn’t be sitting paralysed in a wheelchair with buggy Microsoft Software, he’d be walking around like any other. Cancer could be cured, and so on…
    And if MONEY wouldn’t be an issue, or governments wouldn’t be an issue, we’d discover that a whole lot faster! So, IF we EVER want to travel in our galaxy from planet to planet, or travel outside our galaxy to another, MONEY or governments may not be an issue.

    The biggest part of all humans are addicted to any form of power, whether it’s in the form of wealth, control, …. We have to learn from other species that also inhabit this planet, like wolves for instance, they run in pacts because they know they have a lot more chance to achieve whatever they want to, instead of doing it individually.

    Humans aren’t intelligent, they are just as dumb as most of the species on this planet.
    If we were intelligent, we wouldn’t have global warming.
    If we were intelligent, we wouldn’t fly planes in the world trade center just to make a point
    If we were intelligent, we wouldn’t have so many homeless people, people in jail, ….
    If we were intelligent, we wouldn’t have governments or money.

    Why was there an explosion of life several million years ago??? Did it come from thin air? Or, did it came from outside our planet which had a collision with another planet, and thousand of meteors.
    How did water come on our planet millions of years ago? –> By the impact of those asteroids and meteors, that cooled down our burning planet. —> BUT, was this water clean, or did it contain rests of other species?

    Just a simple test, anyone can do it.
    buy yourself a jar of jelly, don’t open it, and wait a couple weeks, and there you have it, a culture of mold. —> how did that get in, if you didn’t open it????
    BUT, is it the same when you suck all the air out????

    Something to think about before worrying about alien lifeforms.

    cheers :-)

  • Rowley

    Freeman Dyson has a very good point. Just we don’t see them, that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. And so does Woody Allen. I’m not sure I would want to be contacted by a species that wouldn’t want to hide from us.

    If we really want to find them, we should be looking for apparent voids in space that radiate in the infrared. (And, if they’re smart, they’ll have a way to cloak that, too.)

  • miko

    …or the most boring possibility: the intermittent sterilization of the galaxy by gamma ray bursts resets the evolution clock before any civilization has the chance to conquer everyone or invent the gray goo. we’re up next!

  • Chris T

    I personally find the following logic rather compelling:

    Chance of contact resulting in extinction != 0

    Avoid contact

    All else is irrelevant.

  • dave chamberlin

    Science fiction is bullshit when it is just a Hollywood replacement of the western. Instead of cowboys and indians we have humans and aliens shooting it out at the inter planetary OK Corral. The only sci fi book to get it right was just about the first one, War of the Worlds by HG Wells. Even if there are a bunch of worlds full of complex life (a highly improbable idea if you accept the hypothesis proposed by Peter Ward in his book Rare Earth), then they can’t mix. Viruses and bacteria might disagree but the multicellualar life forms would be devastated. Our first breath out in an alien world would be an act of bio-terrorism and the first breath in would be suicide. Think of what happened to the Americans after 1492 and multiply it by one thousand.

  • Razib Khan

    david chamberlin, i find your comments somewhat confused and generally inscrutable, though semantically and syntactically well formed (this is an uncommon intersection). you also show pretty much zero knowledge of science fiction with your comment, so perhaps you shouldn’t comment on what you don’t know about. space opera != science fiction. though again, because i have a hard time understanding what you’re trying to say sometimes i don’t know what you do, or don’t, know about. though your comments are kind of entertaining to me as well because of their cryptic aspect. anyone else notice this about david chamberlin?

  • dave chamberlin

    i think i know my place, i think im down in the pecking order when it comes to scientific knowledge(and yes analytical intellegence). I have wasted years reading gobs of science fiction and ill stick to my guns when i contend that science fiction is bullshit when it imitates the TV western, please note i didnt say a general statement about all science fiction. some people say im attention decifit but i suspect them of focus surplus. hey, i’ll pipe down if you want me too

  • Razib Khan

    dave, yes, you did indicate that you were talking about space opera. but then you stated that the only sci fi to get it right was war of the worlds. in any case, i think the that the science there is probably wrong, because one reason that native americans were so vulnerable to eurasian pathogens is that they were human. diseases can jump between species, but likely not biologies. it seems that the plausible analogy isn’t infection by pathogens, but biochemcial poisoning. and bacteria would be vulnerable to this sort of thing in an alien environment, though they’re more clever in regards to biochemical reprocessing. and viruses wouldn’t be an issue because they need to co-opt our own biochemical machinery, i doubt they’d be able to do that to aliens.

  • dave chamberlin

    Razib says “diseases can jump species but not biologies.”

    who knows, i don’t, maybe you are right, i can’t see anything good coming from two seperate biological worlds geting mixed up together. it seems logical to me that a lot of complex organisms are going to be losers in that scenario

  • Razib Khan

    dave, someone can correct me, but my impression is the probability of disease spreading from one species to the other is inversely related to their closeness. that is, we’re more likely to catch a pathogen from a chimpanzee than a wildebeest. so the logic would imply that it would be really strange for a pathogen to jump across biological worlds.

    as for who is, and isn’t, a loser. if you read science fiction you know that one scenario is that the newcomers simply can’t process the biological material of the dominant ecology. so they have to chemically break things down and the like and grow their own food.

  • bioIgnoramus

    “There are still big questions that we have no idea or clue about.” And not just big ones.

  • miko

    I very much doubt the possibility of inter-planetary pathogens. I do think it’s likely that even if life, even intelligent life, exists in many places in our galaxy, the galaxy as a whole is so fundamentally inhospitable to it that civilizations never get very far in time or space. Civilization-destroying events have happened pretty regularly on the geologic time scale on earth. And how come no one else is afraid of gamma ray bursts?

    Apropos of wondering what aliens will want:

  • Francis

    I say who cares…I hate aliens.

  • Tom Bri

    I suspect that Drake seriously overestimated the odds of there being intelligent life out there. Or, at least intelligent life that could create advanced technology. We have had several intelligent species on Earth including our own relatives, various cetaceans and who knows what else in the deeper past. Only one has gone on to develop technology to the point where it is even possible to contemplate contact with other planets.

    Humans are pretty damn unique. Brains plus hands is a big barrier.

    Elephants would need a few million years of further evolution to get their trunk fingers developed to the point that they could make complex tools. A few million years with steady selection pressure in one direction. Unlikely.

    Crows use tools. Try to imagine a scenario where crows evolve the body design that allows complex tool use. Dolphins? Sorry, out of luck. There is no path they can follow. Octopi? Maybe, but under the sea? Tough.

    Then consider social organization/instincts. Again humans are nearly unique, able to cooperate but also able to buck the trend. Wolves appear similar, but no hands. Chimps could do it, but that is nothing but human redux.

    The universe could be filled with intelligent life but devoid of species capable of complex industry. I suspect we are pretty much unique.

  • dchamberlin

    I stongly reccomend people read Peter Ward’s Rare Earth, I’m going to give it the highest praise I can, I put in the class of The 10,000 Year Explosion, Farewell to Alms, and Guns Germs and Steel, as books that made me look at the world differently after I read them. It covers the subject of the rarity of a planet staying stable long enough to propagate complex life.

  • Brian Too

    I remember reading a sci-fi work quite some years ago. It was about a race of intelligent, alien, horses (more or less). They had no hands and, as I recall, just a single leg. Hopping for mobility.

    The point was that they could develop their minds but not technology. As such they became telepathic and highly evolved while remaining essentially pastoral. The big plot twist as I recall was that they encountered a spider-like being with hands, but little in the way of intelligence. The intelligent horses could get the spiders to perform work via telepathic controls, resulting in an explosion of technology.

    Eventually they made a ship and discovered that, not only were there other species out there, but their biology and history were nearly unique.

    What was my point? Oh yes.

    I think the core of the problem is the same we face all the time in a mundane way. You meet a stranger. What do they want? What do you want? Do your interests coincide? What characterizes your relationship? Friendship? Allies? Agreeably distant neighbors? Unfriendly but not actively hostile? Enemies?

    You simply are not going to know until the meeting happens. Every possibility is conceivable and even plausible. More so, realistic. We can hope for the best and plan for the worst. And that’s the best we can do.

    However with known, proven, accepted contact with interstellar aliens sitting at zero, I expect this to get little attention. Not at the level of nation-states, where global decision making usually happens. Too easy to dismiss.

    However I do believe that some work was performed on a first contact protocol by the SETI people. Even earlier, some was done by the Pioneer (or was it Voyager?) probe scientists. I’d be surprised if the actual contact experience would adhere to the protocol, but a lot would depend upon the contact circumstances.

  • linda fleming

    I believe that ET is already here and has been since the beginning – living in our oceans, rivers and lakes. USO’S. Ancient aliens are even depicted in our paintings from long ago….and in cave drawings etc…


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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