We are not alone
In my last blog I calculated that the chance of life on other planets is very promising. But is that really something to get excited about? I mean, has anyone seen Independence Day? In that movie an advanced race called "the harvesters" (there's your first clue) discover our planet and attack. Their technology is so sophisticated that the entire human race is almost wiped out in 24 hours. We're only able to defeat them because we have Jeff Goldblum, American Flags and Apple product placement. God bless Hollywood.
It's a valid point though. Let's say there are thousands of civilizations out there. It's unlikely we'd be the most advanced one. There's a chance of course, someone has to be, but it's more probable other races would be ahead of us. And this could be a problem.
Imagine if the 21st century decided to declare war on the early 20th. That would be us with nuclear weapons, airplanes, radar, submarines, drones, chemical warfare, guided missiles and satellites against the bayonets and horses of the first world war. It would be a massacre (just like the real first world war).
The technology at our fingertips is unprecedented. Even within my lifetime I've found it hard to believe how quickly things have developed. 20 years ago the concept of video-calls, ipads and mobile phones was the realm of sci-fi. I still find chess-playing computers a bit spooky, let alone thumb-print recognition on Samsungs and a freaking space station orbiting the planet!
An alien race, even a few decades ahead of us, would appear like Gods. If they decided to attack us, have no illusions; we wouldn't save the day thanks to plucky human determination. We'd be trampled.
Many have even suggested that this is the most likely scenario. Look at how the conquistadors treated the native Americans or how the British treated the aboriginal peoples of Australia. The British "Empire" has a long history of landing in a place, enslaving/exterminating the locals and claiming the land simply because they could. Wouldn't there be a risk of aliens doing that to us?
As it happens, I don't think we have anything to fear. The idea of aliens declaring war on us is a bit far-fetched. Any species arising on another planet will face the same trials and challenges we do on Earth, which means we can look at how life evolves here to get an idea of how it would evolve there. And there are four basic truths which suggest we don't need to be afraid.
Reason 1: An advanced species won't be evil
People are fond of bleating on about how awful humanity is. We're the only species to invent war, the only species to invent racial genocide, the only species to knowingly pollute the environment etc. Give me a break. The tune is getting cliched and the lyrics are fundamentally wrong. Humans aren't the most evil species. We're just the most powerful.
Chimpanzees are known to form raiding parties and launch attacks on the next tribe over, killing the young and claiming the females for breeding. That's war, genocide and slavery right there. Orca whales have been observed catching sea-lions and, rather than eating them, tossing them back to freedom for a few seconds before capturing and repeating the process. That's torture for no reason other than sadism.
Point is, other species show exactly the same streaks of cruelty, greed, pre-meditated aggression and selfishness we do. Humans have not invented the concept of violence, we just use better tech. But I'll tell you something which does set us apart. We're the species who donates aid to countries hit by natural disasters. We're the species who volunteers to build schools in disadvantaged communities. We're the species who invented the concept of "peace-talks". Think about that. We're the species that goes out of its way to avoid conflict.
The vast majority of people, when they learn about slavery, the inquisition, the holocaust, the crusades, respond in the same way: horror. We're capable of awful acts but we're also capable of feeling shame. We are becoming self-aware because we can look back at dreadful things we've done and recognise them as such.
Thanks to the internet, today's youth are so much more savvy than I ever was. They've got friends all over the world, followers in different cultural pockets and they read blogs with views different to their own. Today's generation are more globally aware and more atuned to the big issues than any in history. And this is important. As a species advances technologically so does its quality of education and so, therefore, does its culture.
Yes, there are still yobbos who spew conspiracy claptrap on twitter and yes, there are still people who work in advertising. I'm not saying we're a perfect species, but I am saying "look how far we've come!"
I can't pretend we're living in a utopia of course. I know there's fighting going on. You can probably name several countries without even trying. But do you know why your brain can do that? Because the countries at war stand out...they're rare!
The human brain is very good at noticing things which stand out but we're not so good at putting that information in context. For example, there are currently around 16 countries locked in major wars. There are 196 countries in the world. Do the math. That's 92% of countries in the world currently NOT at war.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to downplay the fighting currently taking place. But remember the job of the news is to focus on stories which stand out. News coverage highlights the extremes - and rightly so. We should all be aware of wars taking place. But the flip-side is that watching the news can give us a warped picture of what the world is actually like. Because you never hear about the peaceful countries your brain fuzzes them out. And so you start thinking of the world as a war-torn place. It's not. It's pretty peaceful.
When two countries disagree, the most you usually get is "tensions rise" or "heated political crisis". All-out war is something we usually try to avoid because we've been there and it's not nice. We're so lucky to live in these times and we ought to remember that more often.
And the further you wind back, the more sophisticated you realise we've become. Today we have institutions like Guantanamo bay and they get media attention because of how medieval they are. When we look at prisoners being tortured and brutalised, we are shocked that it's happening "in this day and age" because we know, deep down, that things are better today than they have ever been. We have an unspoken understanding that these violent acts are wrong because, as time passes, the human race is slowly getting over its desperate need to kill.
Slavery has been abolished in the Western world. Women have the right to vote and get educated. We look after the elderly rather than leaving them to die in workhouses. There are child labour laws. The Court of Human Rights exists, as does the Geneva Convention. We have healthcare, affordable electricity, heating and clean water for many. Point is: the more advanced a civilization, the more civilized its members.
An alien species may have a similar violent past to us but they will also have developed education, technology and Scientific understanding. Aliens might be cautious of humans, but I don't think they would attack and brutalise us...because we wouldn't do that to them.
If you've seen Avatar you'll remember the film has lots of gung-ho maniacs hell-bent on forcing the aliens out of their territory and I accept this may happen (I don't know which side of the film's analogy represents us) but there would also be people like Sigourney Weaver's character - people who want to learn and build bridges. There would be people like Jake Sully (the protagonist) who go in with a militant attitude, but who are willing to learn and change. An advanced race is an educated one and an educated race is, by its nature, peaceful.
Reason 2: An aggressive species doesn't last
You hear people talk about nature being red in tooth and claw and sometimes you hear them talk about how animals and plants live in harmony with nature. You want to grab them by the scruff and shout "make your mind up!" The reason people have a confused picture of nature is because nature isn't simple. There is no such thing as an aggressive or peaceful species, the reality is that every species has the capacity for both.
A crocodile who attacks a gazelle is rewarded - it gets a meal. But a crocodile who doesn't chomp down on a plover bird is also rewarded - it gets it teeth cleaned. Thing is, a planet has limited resources so every species has to learn coping strategies. And being constantly aggressive isn't a good one.
Take the Xenethsis immanis tarantula. It has learned to keep tree-frogs as pets - the frogs then consume insects who attack the spider's eggs. As a result the frogs get a meal and the spiders don't lose any young. If the spider had been more aggressive it would have eaten the frog and lost out.
Being aggressive also makes you more vulnerable to retaliation. If you fight everyone, you get attacked all the time and eventually you'll meet someone who can break you. Take the footage of the lion attacking a giraffe we all saw on Planet Earth 2...the lion got battered. The "peaceful" creature actually did more damage to the "violent" one. Because the truth is that giraffes aren't peaceful and lions aren't violent. They are both a mixture.
Any species learns this lesson by accident/instinct/inheritance etc. but a self-aware species like humanity has learned this lesson as an actual fact: don't go around attacking everything, you miss out on stuff. An alien race will have discovered the same optimal strategy. They will know that attacking a less-developed species might not be a sensible default position. Again, they might be ready to blast us out of the sky if we pose a threat but an alien species is (like us) going to have the capacity for cooperation as well as for aggression.
By contrast, a species who attacks everything will ultimately become extinguished. Either due to in-fighting or picking a fight with an equally capable enemy. Only a species capable of taking a step back and not pushing the button is going to survive. Alien races stumbling across Earth will have faced their own Cuban-Missile-Crisis, their own World War and they will have survived just as we have. Only a species capable of holding back on aggression will be around long enough to make contact with others.
Reason 3: Empathy
This is a small point, but a crucial one. A species that has the ability to learn is a species who can emulate creatures around them. This ability to "put yourself in another's shoes" gives rise to the most wonderful quirk of mental evolution: empathy.
Take the recent public outcry regarding the turtles on Planet Earth 2 (seriously, if you haven't watched that show, I'm ordering you to, it will make you a better person). We have no reason to feel empathy for turtles and yet we do. Because we're an intellilgent species we're capable of mentally synching with other creatures. We can recognise a common "desire to live" and we can respect it.
Some people are psychopaths, missing the capacity for empathy - these people often do will in business or marketing (for obvious reasons) - but most of us, when we see someone suffering, feel bad. Most of us, if handed a gun and told to shoot a puppy in the face, couldn't. I'm not even a dog person and I wouldn't pull the trigger. If the dog were attacking someone I cared about that might be a different story, but shooting a weaker creature for no reason just isn't something I feel any reason to do.
An advanced species is likely to be the same. They wouldn't attack us because they would empathise, even a little. They would recognise us as fellow travellers in this vast Universe, flawed just like everyone else. They would remember a time when they too were lonely, confined to their own world and they would take pity. They would see a commonality and would hesitate about pressing "fire" on the plasma cannon. Same way we would refuse to shoot a defenceless puppy.
Reason 4: There is no need to attack Earth
The first place a fledgling species is going to get its energy from will be the planet itself. Humans do this by extracting old bits of plant and fish from the ground, but it's no secret we can't keep doing it forever. The reason is simple: the population is increasing and the fuel is decreasing. Sooner or later we'll run out and we'll have to look elsewhere for our demands to be met. And any advanced species will face the same puzzle: adapt or die.
Fortunately, the Universe provides every planet with a quick-fix. We all come fully equipped with a burning Sun right on our doorstep. The Sun is a nuclear reactor and its output is enough to power thousands of Earths for billions of years...for free. All we have to do is use it. We wouldn't even have to go to war with anyone. Nobody gets exploited, we just switch on our solar panels and capture the light! Arguing over fossil-fuels while the Sun floats nearby is like sitting beside a bonfire and arguing over who owns the biggest mathstick. It's illogical.
Thing is, we have the technology and know-how to power the Earth from the Sun right now, we're just dragging our feet because it involves change. One thing which is definitely true of humans is that we don't like to change unless we're forced. We don't adapt until the very last minute and technically, right now, there isn't a pressing need to switch to a solar economy. There will be soon, and I'm hoping we've got the sense to actually do so, but right now we're getting away with being sluggish.
Every other species will face the same problems of course: switch to a renewable energy source or become extinct. So, it stands to reason that an advanced alien species will be a sustainable one. The only way to become a space-faring species in the first place is to switch to harvesting solar energy. A species which can't be bothered to make this change won't last.
And this is the ultimate reason we'd be safe...if an alien species is technologically advanced enough to provide for itself and go on adventures around the Universe, why would they possibly want to attack the Earth? We don't have anything an alien species would want! We've got water, various minerals, a molten core and a few other sundries, but (as I explained in the earlier blog) those things are found everywhere. The Earth is not even remotely unique or special.
Flying across a galaxy takes considerable effort. There is no reason to do that unless you're going to get something valuable. An alien race declaring war on us would be like us declaring war on penguins. They live far away, in a place we're not interested in, which takes effort to get to, and they don't have anything we need. They've got ice, water, rocks and a bit of algae but we can get those things at home with minimal effort. Why go to all that trouble?
Imagine if Trump decided to gather the united forces of the U.S. military to march on Antarctica and declare war on penguins. People would just laugh...I hope. Aliens would feel much the same about Earth. Interested maybe, but certainly not envious or threatened. So that's us - the Universe's penguins. And penguins are never dangerous.
The Earth from above
Once again, I think the Sc-fi franchise which best captured the future of alien contact was Star Trek. In that show we go touring the galaxy "to seek out new life and new civilizations". Our whole reason for exploring isn't for warfare or profit, it's to learn. Sometimes there are conflicts, even battles. But Star Trek depicts a galaxy full of races at different stages, trying to make their way in the Universe. Ultimately the goal of every living thing is just to get by. We will learn to cooperate. We will live long and prosper.
Dalek: Forbidden planet
Independence Day: srcdn
Scrappy: See earlier blog
I love science, let me tell you why.