One of the greatest questions of our time is “Are we alone?” Are there other lifeforms out there, and if so, will we ever meet them? Or are we truly alone, hurtling through space on this rock that holds the only life in the universe? Considering the incomprehensible vastness of space, and the fact that recent NASA estimates are that there could be as many as 40 billion habitable worlds in our galaxy alone, it seems almost certain that there must be some form of life out there besides ourselves, and some of them might even have the ability to reach out across the stars. Indeed, some estimates have suggested that there could be thousands of space going civilizations. I have already written here before about why we may not have heard from them yet, as well as how we might communicate with them, so I won’t delve into that here, but a perhaps even more important question that I want to ask here is “If they are out there do we really want to meet them?” What would happen if we were to meet aliens? Would they be friendly, indifferent, or malevolent? We of course don’t know, but there are ideas.
Assuming that there actually is intelligent life out there, and assuming that they have mastered interplanetary travel, there are several ways that contact could go, which could largely depend on what brought them here and what their goals are, with varying possible scenarios. Let’s imagine for a moment that they intentionally came here, making a trip across the vast, yawning chasm of stars to come to this new land. If this were the case they would obviously have some vested interest in our planet, some reason to come all of that way, so would this be benevolent or malicious? Would they come here in peace, or bring down destruction? Speculation has long run rampant on these questions, and although we don’t really know the answer or how an alien intelligence would think or what their values would be, and it is impossible to know such things, we can still make guesses.
One of the main ideas in this particular scenario is that in the case of an expedition to our world, so to speak, they would likely be specifically interested in us and the life of our world for some reason. After all, it might hurt the ego to know this but in the grand scheme of things other than having life Earth is not really all that special. If aliens wanted natural resources they can find far more of those locked up in asteroids, comets, and moons than on our planet, to the point that these resources are believed to be so plentiful at such places that space mining is already being pursued by us, so why would anyone come light years to come all the way here for the very resources we are looking to mine from off-planet? It doesn't make sense. The same goes with water, which can be found in abundance in ice on comets, moons, and planetary poles. What we do have is life, so there seems to really be no reason why they would want to come here and traverse that sea of stars unless it was for the expressed purpose of studying us or contacting us, perhaps out of curiosity after picking up the copious radio messages we relentlessly send out to anyone who will listen, and this could go a few different ways.
If they wanted to study us it would be somewhat akin to scientists finding a new continent, some lost world with myriad new species to study, although whether this would translate to benevolence from our point of view is uncertain, just ask all of the animals in jars of formaldehyde or the specimens sent off to be dissected. They could want to preserve us, but what this would involve and whether they would really treat us well is open to debate. There are those who believe that they might be more like peaceful missionaries contacting some new faraway tribe, trying to teach us and learn our ways, or to even welcome us into some intergalactic society, and this is a nice thought. Imagine how much we could learn from them and what an era of peace and prosperity this would bring.
There have been a lot of scientists that support this idea of a benign presence coming to us, arguing that any spacefaring civilization would be hundreds or thousands of years more advanced than us, and so would have by necessity learned to overcome such self-destructive behaviors such as war and murder and to have mastered empathy. One scientist who believes this is Seti's former director, Jill Tarter, who thinks that such a civilization would have risen above such things and that the very fact that they are advanced enough to come to us means that they would be sophisticated, peaceful, and benevolent. Tarter said of this to Business Insider:
The idea of a civilization which has managed to survive far longer than we have...and the fact that that technology remains an aggressive one, to me, doesn't make sense. The pressure of long-term survival — of limiting population...I think requires that the evolutionary trends that ratcheted up our intelligence...continues to evolve into something that's cooperative and take on global scale problems.
In this line of reasoning, aggressiveness and evil are two traits that are not conducive to a species lasting very long, and that they by definition should have overcome them to have reached the stage where they can come here to begin with. Another SETI scientist who shares this sentiment is Dr. Doug Vakoch, who thinks that aliens might have evolved to a certain higher state of enlightenment, and would approach us to give us advice to save ourselves, saying, “We are in very precarious time in our development as a civilization. Our technologies are greater than our social stability. So if we make contact with another civilization that may be more advanced they may have got through the tech bottleneck and may have some advice.”
According to Vakoch it would be a huge mistake not to take the chance to reach out to aliens and bring them here, as the potential benefits for mankind would be enormous. Of course, there is the question of why in the world should they want to help us or teach us? What would they possibly have to gain from this? This is where opinions get decidedly more negative, and not everyone thinks technological progress equals a benign nature, as science fiction writer and marine biologist Peter Watts demonstrated when he pointed out:
If the best toys do end up in the hands of those who've never forgotten that life itself is an act of war against intelligent opponents, what does that say about a race whose machines travel between the stars?
Of course, not everyone has a rosy view of alien contact, and there are just as many people, if not more, who firmly believe that extraterrestrial intelligences would almost certainly be malevolent towards us, and could even spell the end of life as we know it. The sinister rationale here is that one need only look at how we humans on earth have exploited resources and other peoples and wiped each other out. In this scenario, aliens would be nefarious, resource hungry, aggressive beings, and here to either enslave us or exterminate us for whatever reasons. If they are anything like us, then the idea is that we should be very worried about meeting them. One of the most well-known proponents of the idea that aliens will be hostile was legendary physicist Stephen Hawking, who famously once said:
If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans. We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet.
In this opinion, we are making a serious mistake by loudly advertising our presence to other civilizations with our radio messages, and that we should stop doing so immediately. As author and astrobiologist David Grinspoon has said, “If you live in a jungle that might be full of hungry lions, do you jump down from your tree and go, ‘Yoo-hoo?’” According to these often very vocal opponents of programs sending messages to the stars, we have to at the very least come together and actively discuss and debate the issue in order to come to a consensus and understanding of both the benefits and risks. There is no real official governing organization for deciding how to go about giving these messages and what is OK to send, and we are just sort of blindly calling out into space, uncertain of who will pick up on the other end and whether we really want them to. Lucianne Walkowicz, an astrophysicist at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, has said of our attempts to contact aliens:
There’s a possibility that if we actively message, with the intention of getting the attention of an intelligent civilization, that the civilization we contact would not necessarily have our best interests in mind. On the other hand, there might be great benefits. It could be something that ends life on Earth, and it might be something that accelerates the ability to live quality lives on Earth. We have no way of knowing.
It is all likely too late to do anything about it anyway, as our messages are out there, with no way to pull them back, so we’ll just have to wait and see. This all very interesting, and both sides of the debate have valid points, but all of this is assuming that aliens willingly come here for a specific reason. One aspect that I see discussed far less often is what if they sort of just stumble across us on some other business? What if they are either not tuned into our radio signals or aren’t listening, and then sort of find us by accident? What then? Again, there are several ways this could go, with varying levels of good or bad news for us. What would they do? Would they ignore us and fly right on by? Would they want to study us? Or would they just say, “hey check that out, that’s interesting,” and then squash us like a curious child squashing a weird bug that briefly catches their twisted curiosity?
If aliens should sort of just find us while passing through on some inscrutable errand, it has been argued that the very presence of life here would be enough to catch their attention, but how they would react would differ on why they are passing through and who they were. If they were scientists they might want to study us, but as pointed out before this does not necessarily equate to good news for us. There is also the fact that it is in no way certain that the ones who came across us would be scientists or even all that thrilled to find other lifeforms. They could be miners looking for planets, asteroids, and moons to mine, or something else, and all bets would be off. After all, how many archeological sites have been ruined because loggers found them instead of archeologists? How many species have been wiped out before they were even seen by scientists? If these were “interplanetary loggers” so to speak, then there is a very good chance they might be curious, but would almost certainly not have our best interests in mind, cruelly indifferent at best and destructive at worst. If they passed and actually decided to investigate rather than just ignore us we could be in a lot of trouble.
In the end, we just don’t know how alien contact would go down, and no idea of what the nature or intents of these unearthly visitors might be. We can only speculate and debate it, but we won’t really know until the day comes when they actually descend from the skies to bring either enlightenment or doom. In the meantime, we keep looking and keep blasting our calling card into space, wondering if we are alone or not, and ultimately time will tell whether this was a good idea or not.