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Aliens: Angels or Demons? (Space Exploration II)

In this last installment on thoughts provoked by Sci Foo sessions, I’d like to speculate about what might happen if we (God forbid) encounter an extraterrestrial civilization in any not-too-distant future. As usual, I look at this question through the lens of social and cultural evolution.

So, let’s think about the future when we finally get out to other solar systems, whatever the means. It seems likely that we will not immediately encounter another advanced extraterrestrial civilization (if it was out there, why didn’t it make itself known already?). But it’s best not to dismiss such a possibility. Perhaps there are advanced aliens out there, but either they chose not to reveal themselves to us, or they simply did not know we existed. What should we expect if we come in contact with them?

When I grew in the Soviet Union, I read many Russian science fiction novels about the first contact. Usually, the assumption was that if an extraterrestrial civilization was advanced enough to travel between the stars, it was also advanced socially and ethically. This meant that they enjoyed communism – a classless and stateless social order with equal access for all to abundant goods, both material and intellectual.

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A contact with such an extraterrestrial civilization was a wondrous experience. The suspense centered on how mutual understanding could be achieved, the technical issues in establishing mutual comprehension. But there was no question that the experience would be very benign.

Unfortunately for this optimistic scenario, the theory on which it was based, Marx’s dialectic materialism, has been since thoroughly discredited. There is an equally optimistic scenario based on a kind of anti-Marxism, the idea that any advanced society will be democratic, free-market, and also very benign. Perhaps. But looking back to history – the only empirical base from which to model possible dynamics of the first contact – suggests much more pessimistic possibilities.

Think about the first contact between the Europeans and American Indians. The Eurasian germs that Europeans brought with them devastated American populations. Europeans then conquered and enslaved some native populations, or perpetrated outright genocide on others. Those who did not die were converted to Christianity and in most cases assimilated to European languages. Overall, the result was a massive case of ‘ethnocide’, a more or less complete replacement of one culture by another. This is not a terribly appealing model for our first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, especially if it is us who will be on the receiving end of ethnocide (I am selfish enough to admit, although I am not particularly keen on perpetrating ethnocide on other civilizations, either).

What about the idea that we are becoming less violent and more moral, empathic, and reasonable, as Steven Pinker recently argued in The Better Angels of Our Nature? Shouldn’t advanced extraterrestrial civilizations be even more peace-loving and moral?

Perhaps, but there are some serious problems with this argument.

The basic idea that homicide rates (resulting from all possible sources: crime, political violence, or interstate warfare) have declined has a very strong empirical support. The trend was not quite as uniform as Pinker portrays, with significant ups and downs along the way. But when considered in the long term, say, over a few thousand years, there is no question that the probability that you, my reader, or I, or our relatives and friends, would be killed by other humans has declined at least by an order of magnitude, and most likely, more.

As I said, the empirical evidence for this is strong. However, it is also important to consider why it declined. I would argue that the main reason for the decline of violence has been the evolution of human ability to cooperate on increasingly large social scale. This means  that within large cooperating groups internal violence was suppressed. And, although between-societal violence actually increased in magnitude, in per capita terms the probability of being killed in interstate warfare declined. There is no contradiction between an increase in the total amount of violence and a decrease, at the same time, in per capita rate of homicide. This idea, incidentally, is not due to Steven Pinker – it was clearly stated by the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley and perhaps others before him.

This all sounds hopeful – at first look. Unfortunately, even though the decline in violence rates per capita is real, it does not imply at all that a contact with an extraterrestrial civilization is likely to be peaceful. On the contrary. A strong empirical pattern in human history has been that warfare between culturally dissimilar people is much more likely to result in atrocities and genocide than conflict between culturally similar people. The reason is that most humans are reluctant to kill other humans, but if others are very culturally dissimilar, it is easy to dehumanize them, portray them as not really human. If this trick of mental substitution is successful, warfare turns into a program of pest extermination, unencumbered by the psychic costs associated with killing humans,

Well, extraterrestrials are not human, so they don’t even need to be dehumanized. If they evolved under similar selection pressures, they will likely not have any compunctions about exterminating us, either.

But suppose they evolved much beyond us and feel that all life is sacred, so they will be reluctant to physically exterminate the human species. Still, as I pointed out above, ethnocide does not need to involve genocide. What if these technologically and morally advanced aliens find some of our cultural practices morally repugnant? At best, they might think that it is ridiculous that almost half of the world population is desperately poor (living on less than $2.50 per day), and decide to impose a severe income redistribution program on the global society. At worst, they may be appalled at the degree of mismanagement that characterizes the stewardship of the planet we inhabit, and decide to reduce human population to a much more sustainable 500 million – in one fell swoop.

The point is there are all kinds of really negative scenarios following a contact with advanced aliens. This is why I hope it will not happen in any near future, while we are still confined to single planet and are terribly vulnerable to any pessimistic scenarios.

One of my favorite science fiction authors, David Brin, spent a lot of time thinking about contact. In a series of novels set in his Uplift Universe, he explores one possible way in which an intergalactic community of a multitude of extraterrestrial civilizations might be structured. It’s not uniformly grim, but it’s not a bed of roses, either.

So when we go to the stars, I hope that we tread softly. It could be the dog-eat-dog out there, for all we know. We certainly don’t want to attract the attention of powerful aliens, if they are out there. There is truly misguided group that calls itself METI (Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), whose goal is to send messages to intelligent aliens. I am all in favor of SETI, but shouting at the cosmos is a really stupid idea.


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  1. JayMan says:

    One would imagine HBD Chick’s work comes to the forefront. For example, as she notes, a big reason for the decline in violence in many human societies is the reduction of cousin marriage. The universalist sentiments that modern people strive to is a hallmark of one narrow set of people: Northwestern Europeans, specifically, Germanics. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, people with such traits are on the decline today.

    One can’t begin to make too many bold proclamations about the evolution of extraterrestrial technological species, but a point that is clear is that the universalist mentality (feeling “that all life is sacred”) is not necessarily a given in the evolution of such a species, for the above reasons. If this be the case, then indeed, encounters with such species may not be pleasant.

    But, that said, I take heart in the notion that even if extraterrestrial beings were hostile, we’d likely be OK because I’d wager we don’t have anything they’d want.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      I wouldn’t be so sure – we are sitting on a piece of prime real estate (horribly mismanaged, but still). If the Earth is in the optimal range for carbon-based life, then there could be lots of aliens out there adapted to very similar conditions.

      • JayMan says:

        “I wouldn’t be so sure – we are sitting on a piece of prime real estate (horribly mismanaged, but still). If the Earth is in the optimal range for carbon-based life, then there could be lots of aliens out there adapted to very similar conditions.”

        I’d posit that of the planets that do have Earth-like conditions, the odds are that for every one that does have a resident technological species, there are 100 others that don’t. Michio Kaku one stated something similar. If you looking for real estate to colonize, it’s easier to go to areas that don’t have scorpion’s nests.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      As to why violence declined, this topic requires a separate blog, which I will do in conjunction with a review of Pinker’s book.

  2. John Lillburne says:

    and dont forget the possibilities of intergalactic smallpox..for both parties

  3. Grey says:

    I tend to think that if a planetary civilization manages to get into space without blowing themselves up they’d likely have gone through a set evolutionary path that made it possible in which case if there was a contact i think the most likely option would be a Star Trek Federation type one of watch and wait to see if we made it without killing the planet.

    The exceptions i can imagine to that are
    a) they are so non-violent themselves they are paranoid about other species and wander around sabotaging them or wiping them out.
    b) some peaceful space race artificially creates a klingon style race to fight for them or killer robots or something and they go rogue.

  4. edward says:

    If the travel physics are possible – that is, with the right technology you can easily jump light years to get to the Earth from other solar systems in the galaxy – then, on the principle what can be done will be done, the extra-terrestrials will already be here.

    Only if we are first to get inter-space travel technology could we know for sure no other lifeform has got to the Earth. So they are already here. (Physics permitting).

    If the travel physics are possible, it’s actually likely lots of different ETs have been to Earth. There are millions of Earth-like habitable planets in our already billions of years old solar system. If one developed lifeform can do it before us, more than one can.

    We would have to be pretty lucky to be the most developed lifeform in the galaxy. Some would dispute the claim that we are the most advanced lifeform on Earth… if slime mould could run for election…

    Physics have not confirmed it IS possible to travel to the stars, but I believe that will one day be possible so I have to believe ETs are already here. Well, I want to believe it will be possible. That is a matter of faith.

    It is difficult to sort between the competing wild theories which purport to account for the fact these ETs have not made the nightly news yet. A highly developed lifeform doesn’t travel light years to be squirrelled away deep under Area 51 to work on US government ‘Black Op’s’ projects, and still fail to suppress Pashtun insurgents.

    However, if they are nice they wouldn’t want us to feel as though we were being invaded either, so they’d keep a low profile. Someone should shine a light on the dark side of the moon…