Sunday, August 31, 2008

Possible Models for Encounters With Extraterrestrials

Picking up from my last post, having established contact with an alien civilization, what lies in store for our descendants?

The only precedents we have to guide us come from our own history here on Earth. And I have to say that if our history is any guide, encounters with intelligent life elsewhere is not likely to be a pleasant experience in the long run.

Having considered the matter, I believe there are three possible scenarios when it comes to encountering extraterrestrials.

1. The extraterrestrials are technologically much more advanced than we are.

2. Humans are technologically much more advanced than the extraterrestrials.

3. The extraterrestrials and humans are on a similar technological level.

Scenario 1 is the scariest one from a human perspective. Ever since H.G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds, science fiction has given us countless stories of advanced and malevolent extraterrestrials violently conquering the Earth. And when one looks at our own history here on Earth, whenever an advanced civilization encounters a primitive civilization, it seems that the more advanced society cannot help but attempt to either destroy or dominate the inferior society. Think of Cortes and the Aztecs or Pizarro and the Incas, to name two infamous examples.

Whenever I have mentioned this prospect in a conversation, someone will invariably respond by saying something like, "But if the aliens are so advanced as to be able to travel here, they will have a more evolved sense of morality and would not treat us that way." Sorry, but I have my doubts about that. For one thing, the alien civilization would not necessarily even need to be malevolent. They could view us the same way some European colonialists viewed technologically primitive people in the rest of the world in the 19th century, determined to save us from our own ignorance and backwardness. They might mean well, but their patronizing attitudes could generate a backlash and resistance. Just imagine how religious fundamentalists might react if the extraterrestrials have their own religion and start proselytizing us. Ultimately, the outcome of scenario 1 depends on the mindset of the technologically superior aliens.

In the second scenario, the tables are turned. The alien civilization we encounter is as primitive to us as the Aztecs were to Cortes, or they have become stagnant like China in the 19th century prior to its encounters with the European colonial powers. How will our descendants handle the situation? Will they bully and dominate the aliens? Or will they have adopted something like the Prime Directive from the original Star Trek series and refrain from interfering in the affairs of an extraterrestrial civilization that lacks the capability to contest us in space? Presumably, at some point in the future, our descendants will have devised guidelines for such a situation. Encountering technologically inferior aliens could bring out the best or the worst in us, or more likely, a little bit of both.

The third scenario envisages humans and extraterrestrials being approximately equal in technology. In the most optimistic version of this scenario, humans and extraterrestrials, realizing neither can dominate the other, arrive at a modus vivendi, engaging in trade and cultural exchanges with one another, preferably at locations far from each others home worlds. Of course, it is possible that such a state of affairs will not last forever, and a situation might arise where the two sides come to blows. One movie that reflects this possibility is Enemy Mine, wherein humans and Dracs fight for possession of uninhabited worlds for access to minerals.

A possibility that could arise from any of the above mentioned scenarios is the spread of disease from human to alien or vice versa. When one considers the catastrophic loss of life from smallpox that took place among the natives of the Americas after coming into contact with Europeans, the potential loss of life from disease transmitted from the inhabitants of one planet to another must be at least as great. This scenario was played out in The Martian Chronicles, wherein the Martians succumbed to chicken pox, which they picked up from the first two human expeditions to Mars. Below is a gratuitous clip from the series:

I think it is safe to assume that both the extraterrestrials and our descendants will be fully aware of the dangers of transmitting lethal pathogens to one another (unless of course one side specifically intends to use them as bio-weapons to exterminate the other) and take the necessary precautions. It is likely that when human and extraterrestrial first meet in person, they both will be wearing some form of biohazard suit.


Poodles said...

Perhaps they have the technology, perhaps they have even stopped by and realized we do stupid shit like kill each other because of some non-existant myth and thought we weren't worth the effort getting to know and kept right on going.

Tommykey said...

Hi Poodles. Under those circumstances, they probably would have nuked us all out of existence!

Anonymous said...

Hi there, big fan of HG Wells here - even got a blog dedicated to the man. Wells' Martian technology, while advanced, is at least partly comprehensible i.e. they have recognisable weapons and we can see how they work. If they were thousands of years more advanced, war becomes a meaningless concept - we'd probably all just disappear one fine morning. Not much of a novel in that, of course!