In a 2010 Discovery Channel documentary, eminent scientist and acknowledged genius Stephen Hawking claimed that encountering extraterrestrial life could be a very risky move for human beings, but I challenge his assertion on the grounds that it is based much on the same logic that has been used to keep different races and cultures apart for generations.
I’m not only concerned on how this thinking will appear to aliens, but on how it reflects on our interactions with each other as human beings.
According to ABC News, Hawking indicated, “Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.”
I have not seen the documentary, and thus I don’t want to analyze Hawking’s comments too critically, but I would like speak about the idea of interacting with aliens and how it reflects on us as humans.
I concede upfront that I have no idea how potential extraterrestrial intelligent life might behave, and, using Hawking’s comparison, it could turn out much like Christopher Columbus’s encounter with the “New World” and Native Americans.
I know some will reject the analogy at the outset, citing the many merits of Columbus’s voyage in terms of the advancement of humanity. Nevertheless, anthropologists have reported that Columbus’s arrival in America wrought devastation on the natives. Archeological research has concluded that perhaps there may have been as many as 100 million people living in the Americas alone before Columbus. This number was sharply reduced through disease and conquest.
At this point in human development, it is unlikely that whatever we do will have a dramatic change on the timeframe of an alien meeting. Therefore, by trying to prevent such an encounter, we gain very little and lose quite a bit. Do we really want our first interaction to be one of ignorance and outright rejection? Wouldn’t it be better if we appeared to be somewhat rational and cultured in our initial encounter?
We don’t have any control over the behavioral patterns of the species with which we might interact, and our encounter could turn out to be quite unpleasant. We only have control over our own behavior. If a worst-case scenario emerges and we realize that a certain group of aliens is dangerous to human survival, then we can take evasive actions at that point. It would even be prudent to prepare for such a potential encounter in much the same way that most countries have both a state department and a defense department.
My greater concern is how our views on how we approach aliens might reflect on humanity in the near-term. By taking an initially hostile view of aliens, it only reveals that despite many decades of working to break down barriers between peoples and cultures, there is still something within human beings that is frightened of the unknown. This isn’t a completely irrational behavior, as survival instincts have evolved so as to prevent us from taking foolishly risky moves, but our minds have realized that in general there is much to gain through our interactions with others.
We have often discriminated against, been frightened of, or felt superior to other people based not on fact, but on our perceived cultural identity. We have used our own cultural relativity as an objective standard, and judged others by it. If we allow our worst fears to dictate our interactions with other humans or aliens, we only serve to narrow our view of the world.
Having an open mind is not limited to cultural affairs, but it affects us in our entire worldview. If we are to discover the next great innovation or scientific advancement, we have to be ready to look at not only the current ways of doing things, but on ways previously unimagined. If I’m a factory operator, I can use current technology to its maximum level, which might only increase output by ten or twenty percent, but if I look at an entirely new way to do things, then the percentage increase is potentially unlimited.
An alien encounter is a theoretical proposition, and there is only so much we can do to prepare for such an occurrence. We should put our focus on what we do have control over. As individuals and as a culture, we can be as trusting and open as possible without being risky to the point of being completely foolish. We have it within ourselves to be open to new opportunities and experiences, and when the time arrives to meet life from other parts of the universe, we will be as prepared as possible.
Eric Magazu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.