I’m always happy to see the serious discussion of intelligent alien life. Whether other intelligent life exists is one of the most important questions about our universe, but it’s usually trivialized into talk of UFOs and little green men.
So I’m glad to see coverage of Stephen Hawking speculating whether alien visitors would really be such a good thing. As he points out, in human history technologically advanced societies are usually bad news for the less technological societies they come in contact with. Think Europeans meet indigenous Americans.
Today Robert Wright argues in the New York Times that any alien civilization advanced enough to develop interstellar travel would have had to learn to cooperate among themselves first, and would likely have made an ethical leap that caused them to respect all sentient beings.
It’s an argument that’s been made before, and Wright still doesn’t convince me. In our own history, technological advance does not seem to have gone hand in hand with ethical advance. Witness the most technologically advanced society in the history of the world reviving the use of torture against its enemies.
Now maybe, as Wright says, every technological civilization either advances morally or destroys itself. But it seems just as likely that some manage to stumble along, unenlightened but also undestroyed. Or maybe they survive because the most aggressive and violent alien nation unifies the planet under its iron heel. Or maybe the aliens make peace among themselves, but don’t make the next ethical leap to considering all sentient beings their brothers. Maybe it’s the fear and hatred of other sentient beings that unites them in the first place. That’s certainly been one driving force behind human nationalism. Nothing unites a people like a common enemy.
Although interesting, I think the question is moot. My guess is that even for the most advanced civilizations, interstellar travel is so difficult and expensive that it’s not worth doing. Certainly not on a scale that would be required for some sort of invasion, even if there was any reason to invade. I think we’re probably safe from aliens. Other humans, of course, remain a problem.