Prof. Stephen Hawking, who sadly passed away last month, was an example both as a person and a researcher. His work on black holes was praised and respected in the scientific community, and through his constant appearances in shows and documentaries he also became a prominent figure in pop culture of the last 50 years. Prof. Hawking has given his opinion about many subjects, from politics to the future of AI. And on one question, the unfathomable happened… I happened to disagree with his views.
Of course, I cannot disagree with his work on quantum physics (if someone thought I could, my humble thanks!), but I can disagree on something, that for the moment does not have a subject of investigation… Aliens!! Or extra-terrestrial intelligence, more specifically.
His quote was: “We don’t know much about aliens, but we know about humans. If you look at history, contact between humans and less intelligent organisms have often been disastrous from their point of view, and encounters between civilizations with advanced versus primitive technologies have gone badly for the less advanced. A civilization reading one of our messages could be billions of years ahead of us. If so, they will be vastly more powerful, and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria.”
So… was Prof. Hawking wrong? Well, this case can be, in my opinion, perfectly possible. But, is it inevitable? In On Elephants and Bacteria we are biologists, and in my case, evolutionary biologist. If life exists in other planets and we can identify it as life, then evolution should also exist. And that’s how I am going to support my view: contact with extra-solar intelligent beings would not lead us (necessarily) to our downfall. Because evolution would not always select for this specific moral code.
Evolution of intelligence and civilization
Intelligence is something disputable. Is a human toddler more intelligent than a cat, for example? Eusociality in ants and termites, parental care in some insects, octopuses solving puzzles… all point that intelligence is something more complex than we normally consider. However, here we are talking about one class of intelligence: that which allows the investigation of the world for the sole purpose of knowledge or problem solving (Science!) and the creation of technology. These are the two ingredients that any civilization would need to reach for the stars.
The history of life on Earth has taught us something: intelligence is not a successful evolutionary strategy. We know almost for sure it has appeared only once, in Homo sapiens. Other strategies, on the other hand have appeared countless times: good vision, speed, strength, colour-changing, courting behaviour, flight… Therefore, a very specific set of conditions seem to be needed in order for intelligence to be favourably selected. In the case of humans, for example, intelligence could have been the result of: a big brain needed for binocular vision + a complex social structure + sexual selection (and many other theories.. see here).
All of this points that, considering evolution must be a universal rule, the rise of intelligence would be the result of very specific factors, some of which (like a complex social structure) are probably the same. Therefore, evolutionary speaking, “intelligent” life and type 0 civilizations (civilizations which are still restricted to their native planet) are probably not entirely different from us. Of course, given the immensity of the Universe, many different intelligent beings could exist, but something similar to what we understand as “intelligent” is probably more common.
Therefore, a similar evolutionary history (convergent evolution towards intelligence) may indicate similar selective pressures. Aliens probably have had a similar history and concepts like empathy or logic are not “alien” to them. Then, would aliens be also empathetic enough not to destroy our planet if they find it? That depends on how their advances to Type II-III civilization (able to harness the energy of its star/galaxy and do start interplanetary colonization) would go, and that’s where some kind of Extraplanetary evolution would act.
Second question: Extraplanetary evolution: would the need to inhabit other planets select for certain characteristics?
So, if extra-planetary life is not very different from us… isn’t that dangerous, considering our history? Well, that’s true. But we are not a Type II-III civilization, we are Type 0. And interplanetary evolution going through the different civilizations would probably select for specific traits…
Interplanetary evolution? Ok, this is an invented term, an analogy. But let’s assume a population of planets with Type 0-I civilizations. harnessing all energy from their stars and afterwards travelling to other stellar systems, thus becoming a Type II civilization. This is no easy task. There are several factors (or selective pressures) that would prevent that, and only some civilizations, with some particular characters, would be able to achieve this transition. Some of the main requisites would imply:
- The civilization has been able to survive in its Solar System long enough to achieve efficient interstellar travelling.
- The civilization is not occupied with higher priority, internal problems.
- The civilization has acquired the resources and scientific and technological knowledge necessary for such a feat.
- The civilization has some need, or interest for extraplanetary travel.
Survival and avoiding auto-extinction should then be a priority. Characters that would prevent that would include:
- Consideration for the environment. Planet resources are not infinite and meddling with its climate or structure would suppose the extinction of the civilization before reaching a Type I-II.
- Planetary stability: getting the resources to engage in interstellar operations would need a flexible distribution of resources and workers. Only a stable civilization without major conflicts or urging problems would be able to carry such a huge investment. A system of planetary unity, either through one main leadership or collaboration between factions would be needed.
- Scientific world. Travelling outside of the Solar System means facing unprecedented challenges. Only a society with general scientific support and excellent scientific and technological skills would be able to take the risk.
The second thing we have to consider is their interest on Earth. If you want to get any kind of mineral resource… go to Mars, the Kuiper Belt… If you want to get water, go to the planets in TRAPPIST-1! With that I mean Earth as a planet has nothing really of interest except: being suitable for life and actually having life! If aliens have to come to Earth, it would be for one of these two reasons.
Now, we have said that aliens are probably not very different from us and that evolution may have selected for interpersonal skills, for example. We have also talked that a Type II civilization is also probably one that has achieved planetary unity, is respectful to their ecosystems and is interested in going to Earth. With that in mind, here I propose the following encounters:
- Aliens are ecologists. They know the importance of ecosystems and look at Earth in a practical way. For them, humans may be a species to conserve (or to control) and therefore their interactions with humans could depend mainly on how humans respond.
- Aliens are historians. They have learned from their own evolution and know the flaws of their history. They want to live in Earth the same way as ecologists do, but humans may reflect their own history. It is probable then, that they may want to educate humans so they don’t extinct themselves.
- Aliens are conquerors. Earth is just a good opportunity to settle in a new planet. They understand humans as part of the local ecosystem. They would mainly ignore them but don’t hesitate to use force if the planet happens to be in peril.
- Aliens are renewers. Entangling in an alien ecosystem is dangerous. But a planet in the habitable zone is too precious. Aliens could just wipe out all life on Earth and replace it by their own planet’s. Humanity is doomed.
And what about Hawking’s idea? Contact with other civilizations could indeed lead us to our downfall. However, a Type II society must be a society of thinkers, which have achieved the conservation of their planet and avoided self-destruction through wars and discrimination. A civilization that probably would see something interesting on us and the planet, the same way we don’t exterminate all other non-desired life on Earth on purpose, or the same way we are interested in other species in the planet.
Conclusion: although aliens probably went to similar selective pressures that selected for intelligence, the transition from Type 0 to Type II-III civilization would also select for a set of characters, not only related to technology, but also to society. These characters are probably those that avoid self-extinction, including respect for nature, planetary unity and scientific knowledge. If the civilization keeps these concepts to heart, then they would probably be more considered than we have been with our fellow Homo sapiens. Or not…
Of course, now that we have offended our serious readers and any science-fiction fan, let’s remember this is April’s fools, and although some thought was put into the creation of this article, it shouldn’t be taken very seriously!!
Want to read some serious Astrobiology? See The plants of Proxima Centaury
Check the new blog from my Master’s colleague and crazy scientist La Biologist !