In Which I Disagree with the Smartest Man on the Planet

Stephen Hawking has been in the news recently for saying that aliens will likely be hostile to us poor Earthlings.

In a series for the Discovery Channel the renowned astrophysicist said it was “perfectly rational” to assume intelligent life exists elsewhere.

But he warned that aliens might simply raid Earth for resources, then move on.

“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,” he said.

Prof Hawking thinks that, rather than actively trying to communicate with extra-terrestrials, humans should do everything possible to avoid contact.

He explained: “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

That last statement is the source of my disagreement with him. Aliens are going to be, well, alien compared to us. They will have completely different evolutionary and cultural histories from us. They probably care about entirely different things than we do. Just about the only thing we are likely to share with aliens would be the assortments of atoms that make us up (and maybe not even that). Hawking’s last statement pertains more to the possible human reactions to finding alien species. As I said to my roommate, I can only speak for humans. In fact, I can really only speak for one human.

This is especially important because human history is littered with examples of different cultures having radically different beliefs, holding different things to be important. For example, looks at the Native Americans and their interactions with colonial Europeans. The issue wasn’t really that the colonists were more technologically advanced – in many ways, the Native cultures had superior technologies for their environment. But they had entirely different cultural values, and disease decimated the natives early on in the interaction. With aliens, we won’t even have the disease element.

So, I’m not comfortable making any statements about how aliens are likely to behave – even given human history as an example. And if the aliens do want to just pillage our Solar System for resources, they could scour 99% of them on planets other than this rock filled with spunky creatures who would be hell-bent on making life difficult for them.

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