Beasts or gods; why a War Of The Worlds is very unlikely

Image credit: Alvim Corrêa via Wikipedia
Image credit: Alvim Corrêa via Wikipedia

One of the scenarios that is often played out in science fiction is what would happen if we encountered an alien civilization.  Often, we are portrayed as defending Earth from an alien invasion or fighting battles with the aliens in a war.  Another scenario, commonly found in more culturally introspective fiction, focuses on what our responsibility would be if we encountered an alien society less advanced than ours.

These stories are a lot of fun, and they often give an opportunity for commentary on colonialism and other cultural issues in our society.  But the chances of either of these, or similar, scenarios actually happening is infinitesimal.  To understand why, let’s do a thought experiment.  Imagine three worlds, which we’ll call Planet A, Planet B, and Planet C.

Planet A is Earth.  It is about 4.5 billions years old.  Life began around 4 billion years ago.  Anatomically modern humans evolved around 200,000 years ago.  Planet A currently has a technological civilization which developed in the last few centuries.

Planet B is exactly the same as A, with the exact same history, except it is 1% younger (about 45 million years).  The dinosaurs have gone extinct on Planet B, primates have appeared, and there are a few other species with promising trends toward intelligence, but there is nothing on B that the inhabitants of Planet A would even remotely characterize as a civilization.

If the inhabitants of A decided to colonize B, the inhabitants of B would not even recognize the significance of A’s arrival.  To B inhabitants, A inhabitants would simply appear as a new type of animal.  Their equipment would also appear as new animals.  Their buildings and other structures would simply look like new kinds of rock or other parts of the landscape.  Not only would B not have any defenses against A, they wouldn’t even recognize that they were being invaded.

Now, imagine Planet C, which is identical to Planet A, except it is 1% older, or 45 million years further along the evolutionary path.  If C inhabitants came to A, would the inhabitants of A even necessarily recognize what they were seeing?  And if they did, what are the chances that they’d have any effective defenses against an invasion?

Of course in reality, even in the extremely unlikely event that another world was Earth’s identical age, the randomness of things like a different sized star, a different distance from that star, different chemistry, different mutations, different timing of asteroid strikes, volcanic eruptions, and an infinity of other factors would guarantee a unique timeline and development for that world.

If we do encounter extraterrestrials, from our perspective, they will either be, at best, animals we wouldn’t regard as intelligent, or gods.  The probability that we would meet a civilization anywhere near us in development, close enough for there to be any kind of real contest between the two of us, is virtually zero.

When thinking about contact with a more advanced civilization, we should bear in mind the way that we’ve historically treated creatures far less intelligent than us.  While we’re beginning to think that maybe we should treat chimpanzees better, most of us still have no problem with treating most of the rest of the animal kingdom as a food source, as beasts of burden (slaves), pets, experimental subjects, or nuisances to be exterminated.

Belief that a more intelligent species must be benevolent is a nice idea, but I can’t see any reason to suspect it must be true.  Any intelligent species would have had to evolve in a competitive environment, just like we did.  And just like us, their instincts toward less developed life forms would likely be to regard them as slaves, experimental subjects, nuisances, or at best, pets.  (There’s little chance they’d be interested in eating us however, since the probability of their chemistry being compatible with ours is likely nil.)

This is one of the reasons that initiatives like Active SETI have always struck me as profoundly misguided.  Shouting out into the wilderness may have consequences for our posterity that we can’t imagine.

The good news is that the Fermi’s paradox indicates that, while there is a good chance of life elsewhere in the galaxy, there probably aren’t a vast number of civilizations out there.

3 thoughts on “Beasts or gods; why a War Of The Worlds is very unlikely

  1. So if we do run into extraterrestrial life of the less advanced type we’ll likely take a sample and analyze it. If we run into a more advanced ET, they’ll likely take a sample and analyze it. Hmm …


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