Would aliens attack us, Independence Day style?

The idea of aliens arriving and promptly attacking us, Independence Day fashion, recently popped up again largely on the back of another Independence Day movie.

The "Star Witch" departing, with her fuel tanks.
For my take on aliens attack, check out my story ‘Missionary’ – click here.

But it’s also been offered as a warning by no less a person than Stephen Hawking. And when Hawking says something – well, it pays to listen.

Is it true though? The problem is that we have a sample size of precisely zero – everything we attribute to putative aliens has, in reality, come out of our own imaginations. We can speculate, but we don’t know. And anything that we imagine is going to be – well, it’s going to be human, isn’t it. Because we are human, and that’s how we think.

Lest that sounds like a tautology, let me explain. From a human perspective, alien hostility is entirely normal. We assemble into groups that fight each other all the time. For a long time this behaviour was always thought to have begun with settled agriculture around 10,000 years before the present. Villages with crops became targets for others’ aggression. Jericho, for instance – thought to be one of the oldest permanent human settlements in the world – was walled for a reason.

Lately, though, anthropologists have discovered evidence of organised fighting – battles – during even earlier hunter-gatherer times. The theory goes that, back in hunter-gatherer days, we had a ‘band size’ of around 150 – the largest population that could usually be sustained by hunter-gathering in a day’s reasonable ranging – who were ‘us’. Other bands of humans were ‘them’ and represented competition for resources. When ‘our’ band met an ‘alien’ band, it seems, they viewed each other with suspicion. Hostility was on the cards even if friendly relations were established at first.

Anthropologists have observed this in action during encounters with little-known human groups today, and it seems to be innate to humanity.

Neanderthal family group approximately 60,000 years ago. Artwork by Randii Oliver, public domain, courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Because our hunter-gatherer past with its group-size of about 150 can be traced back 1.5 million years or more – right back to the earliest days of the first recognisably human species – that behaviour is going to be very deep-seated. We can see it all around the world in many forms, and it’s transcended the shift into large organised communities. Today, ‘not us’ is defined in many different ways, from different ideologies and beliefs to differences in physical characteristics or culture, or groups within societies, all of which have been used as devices for hostility. What’s more, the science points to this style of thinking being fundamental not just to us, but to our ape cousins. Chimps gather up into bands that fight wars with each other too.

Identifying ‘not us’ as the enemy, then, is pretty much part of the human condition. And it’s possible that the aliens might think that way too. It’s this possibility, I’m sure, that has Hawking worried. But it is no more than a possibility. It’s more likely that aliens won’t be like us, or apes, or any animal on Earth. Yes, they might think like we do. But they might not. They might not even share our ideas of what’s important. They might not even recognise us as intelligent (or we them). It’s quite possible that intelligent aliens might not be interested in leaving their own planet, or building anything, or doing anything. Sounds odd? They’re alien, remember, not some variant on the human form.

So the actual answer is ‘we don’t know’. My take? I think it would be wise to be prepared. But when the problem is put into this context, I think we are in far greater danger from ourselves.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

11 thoughts on “Would aliens attack us, Independence Day style?

  1. Other primate groups wage organised battles with each other, so maybe this is the primate norm.
    Also, other intelligent Earth species, like dolphins, carry out group attacks on sharks, as a defensive action.
    It’s difficult to know how ET’s would react to US, however, I’m more concerned about how WE will react to THEM. That is sure to decide what happens next I suspect.


      1. That would be nice. Unfortunately the thing we have excelled at since we crawled out of a cave somewhere is knock each other on the head! I kind of imagine that given the mind boggling expanse of space, there must be planets with similar humanoid like races – possibly at various stages of development, some just beginning to find their way and others far more advanced. Who knows dinosaurs may still roam out there (I wish)?

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes I often watch crows going about their business (particularly aggressive in early summer in the US, much like Magpies in Australia in spring) and imagine the link back to their feathered reptile ancestors. I have a post coming up on my American post tomorrow on dinosaurs in fact 🙂


  2. Capabilities and intentions.

    Presupposing the capability to attack, would the theoretical aliens wish to occupy our planet and subjugate us, or simply wipe us out?

    The latter intent, for a starfaring civilization, would be ridiculously easy. You wouldn’t even have to use whatever weapons you bring with you. Just sneak into the asteroid belt (or the Kuiper Belt, although that would take longer) and start nudging big rocks our way. They wouldn’t have to be dinosaur-killers if there were a lot of them. Saturating whatever defenses we might have (unknown to nonexistent at present) would be a matter of detail.

    What tech level would be required for a single ship to accomplish this mission? Undetected, more likely than not, except for indirectly? (If a couple of hundred 1000-tonne asteroids headed this way in a short period of time that might set off some alarm bells somewhere.)

    Occupation and subjugation is a whole different matter. Leaving aside any and all scenarios regarding motivation (as you rightly point out, our theoretical attackers are, well, ALIEN) this one requires the ability to affect the actions of billions of people — so, either “boots on the ground” at one end of the spectrum, or “mind control at a distance” on the other end.

    As for mind control at a distance, well, how would you know? Given the present political situation here in the States, I think one might raise a quasi-serious argument that such an attack may actually be in process.

    But since that’s just a fun scenario (one hopes and devoutly wishes), let’s look at “boots on the ground.”

    One word: logistics. That brings us squarely back to the thorny subject of “capabilities,” i.e. what sort of weapons and tactics will our aliens use?

    We don’t know. We have to assume that whatever weapons and tactics are employed, they have to be tailored to transportation across interstellar distances. That raises the question of effectiveness. There’s no point in bringing a couple of dozen ETs armed with slingshots 100 LY as your invasion force. So the argument becomes the individual soldier operating a black-box weapons system, versus how many such operators ET intelligence analysts estimate would be required to subjugate the planet. This raises the corollary idea that ET has to know something about our own capabilities, i.e., they have to conduct a preliminary reconnaissance sufficient enough to develop an operational plan.

    Suppose they start with sufficient EMP bursts to disable or destroy all unhardened electrical transmission systems and communications networks. This would include things as mundane as computerized auto ignitions, rendering automobiles useless. Not to mention water purification, food and medicine refrigeration, and other necessities of modern civilization, which would promptly vanish, leading to potentially catastrophic casualties (percent unknown, but I’ve seen estimates in excess of 75%) and the effective destruction of our present civilization. Survivors, left to their own devices, would be lucky to achieve mid-19th Century levels of technology. We could do this to ourselves right now.

    Then the aliens land and, to the dazed, starved, thirsty, demoralized survivors, pose as the saviors of civilization. Anyone suspicious enough, and/or well-informed enough, to consider the overwhelming coincidence of EMP bursts followed by arrival of “benign” aliens, would probably be disregarded by those desperate for something to eat and potable water to drink. As an illustration of this scenario, I remember Nevil Shute, in his novel A Town Like Alice, described a quaint Outback custom called “poddy-dodging.” It seems applicable here.

    If we assume, as a basis for planning, say, that their weapons include things we hear about as being on DARPA drawing boards but aren’t quite ready for field use, then the corollary to that assumption requires the aliens to actually land and oppose us. This scenario is well illustrated by that interesting novel Footfall, by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven.

    And on and on…

    Curse you, Matthew, I’m sitting here trying to work on my next novel, so you have NO business putting out these interesting scenarios to distract me from what I ought to be doing!


  3. Hah! It is distracting, isn’t it! There’s also Heinlein’s take – ‘Have Spacesuit, Will Travel’ where the Wormfaces are using Pluto as main base, forward presence on the Moon – and don’t regard Earth as inhabited by anything except animals. I know he was deliberately riffing on space opera with that one (including the ‘stupid exponential scenario growth’ that led Kip and Peewee from the Moon to Pluto to Vega and then the Lesser Magellanic Cloud) but – apart from the deliberate Doc Smithing – the scenario was certainly plausible, particularly for a ‘minimum effort’ invasion.


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