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.
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.
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