Are we so arrogant to suppose aliens will be like us?

The revelation a while back that Winston Churchill had written a paper on aliens isn’t too surprising.

The earth ship approaches the planet of the slime aliens in my story ‘Missionary’.

The great statesman was literate, erudite, deeply interested in history and the sciences, and knew many of the key figures in the British scientific community. What he had to say was very much in line with the thinking of the day – at the same time, the 1930s, young men such as Arthur C. Clarke and the British Interplanetary Society were thinking along the same lines.

Back then the question was whether there were actually extra-solar planets at all. And if there were, did they host life? But it had a twist – one we don’t often realise. The questions were also posed around the unspoken assumption of ‘one planet, one intelligent alien species’.

The idea flows from the old liberal-progressive notion of ‘progress’ as an automatic mechanism and humanity as the pinnacle of that process, somehow separate from and above the plants and animals. In the 1920s and 1930s, certainly popularly, there was the supposition that planetary life ‘evolved’ by some kind of inevitable process from fish to amphibians to reptiles to dinosaurs to mammals and eventually produced the crowning pinnacle of the system, an intelligent species. Preferably Tory, or at least Tory-voting.

These days we know this sort of thinking is dead wrong. The twists and turns taken by complex life on Earth – meaning something larger than a bacterium – are so random at times that we can certainly rule out ‘inevitability’. The whole biota has been smashed up, more than once, by planetary-scale disasters – comet impacts and volcanic activity among them. Each time, life has survived – but its course has been changed.

Put another way, we have a sample size of precisely one, so it’s risky to generalise. Who says that a planet will produce just one intelligent species? Maybe every species on a planet emerges with human-scale intelligence. Or maybe none evolve. After all, who says intelligence is a survival advantage? At the moment, it doesn’t seem to be. Most of the great apes and every species of human so far have died out – Neanderthals, the Red Deer Cave people, Denisovans, the ‘Hobbits’ and so forth – except us. And I’m not too sure about our chances, either, if things keep going as they are.

I figure that once we do find alien life, it’ll be like nothing we imagined. And that includes the nature of any intelligence. Just as we’ve often imagined ‘aliens’ as being, in effect, mirror images of ourselves, we usually also suppose that ‘their’ intelligence will express itself like ours – inquisitive, actively seeking to expand the boundaries of knowledge and exploration – but will it? Who says ‘their’ intelligence will be like ‘ours’ at all? It might be so different we don’t even recognise it as such, or view the products of their intellect as a ‘civilisation’.

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We might, indeed, have already found the aliens – and not realised it.

If you want to check out my take on aliens, go grab my sci-fi novella ‘Missionary’, available in print and as Kindle download in the first Endless Worlds anthology.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

9 thoughts on “Are we so arrogant to suppose aliens will be like us?

  1. ‘We might, indeed, have already found the aliens – and not realised it.” Can you imagine they would want anything to do with us with the possible exception of observing???? 😉 From afar, we might be interesting but any form of life, because it enjoyed existence, would want to keep its distance, surely. I do have your novella and looking forward to reading it. After today’s post, even moreso. Thanks, Matthew!

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    1. I imagine any aliens with any intelligence (or even without :-)) would take one look at the mess we’ve made of this planet and high-tail it out of here. I hope you enjoy the story! Of course, I could do better now… But ain’t that always the way. 🙂

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  2. If aliens do exist there is no guarantee they will have friendly intentions as regards. Of course they may do so or (as a commenter here suggests), they may simply want to keep their distance. However, it seems to me an act of stupidity to actively seek out aliens as, by advertising our existence we may encourage a hostile approach by them. Of course we may discover (if they exist) that they are friendly, but is it worth stirring up a potential hornet’s nest?


    1. I suspect that the aliens will be neither friendly nor hostile by our standards – they’ll be so different we may not even recognise their behaviours. That said, I agree we shouldn’t seek them out. If they exist at all, then finding out that they DO think like we do, the hard way, wouldn’t be a good thing.


      1. Given that we only possess knowledge of how life evolved on earth (in accordance with Darwinian Evolution), and that this has produced a world characterised by competition we can, surely only bbase our deductions, as regards other (alien) species based on what has happened here on earth? Consequently given the propensities in humans (and other animals) which derive from evolution, isn’t it reasonable to suppose that life evolved on other planets in accordance with similar criteria? There is in humans and other animals a desire to survive/perpetuate the species. Surely its reasonable to assume a similar desire is present in any “aliens” which may (possibly) exist out there. Best, Kevin

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  3. Great post Matthew. I think that intelligence is a subjective concept. Is it intelligent that our species constantly goes to war with itself?, pollutes the very environment that is designed to keep it alive? or focuses on the material at the cost of leaving millions in poverty? Those alien species that I am sure exist in this vast universe, that possess intelligence, would do very well to use their intellect wisely and stay as far away from us as possible.

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    1. I agree! It seems incredible that we use the remarkable intelligence our species (supposedly) has to perform acts of idiotic stupidity – wars, environmental destruction, and petty dispossession of each other. All of which will lead to our demise, and sooner rather than later at the current rate. It was Einstein, I think, who once quipped that there were only two things that were infinite: the universe, and human stupidity. And he wasn’t sure about the universe…

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