The Perils and Promise of Alien First Contact

By Kaihua Zhou | United States

Encountering extraterrestrial intelligent life would be as terrifying as it would be exhilarating. Bill Nye saw communicating with aliens as an opportunity to gain greater knowledge of the universe. Nye conveys a fundamental optimism that aliens would be willing to share their scientific accomplishments. Such advancements could dramatically improve our quality of life. However, not all scientists share Nye’s hopes. Stephen Hawking, for example, suggested that such an encounter would likely doom humanity:

If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.

Countering Hawking’s warning were his own actions. In 2015, Hawking helped announce Breakthrough Listen. This organization’s goal is to identify alien signals in deep space. This raises an intriguing possibility: if there is intelligent alien life and they recognize that Earth is searching for them, will they contact us? How likely would it be that aliens would dominate Earth after such an encounter? What could humans do to prevent this outcome? Looking at human history, we can see justifications for both Hawking’s fears and Nye’s hopes.

Hawking correctly asserts that first contact would parallel Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.  It would be a monumental encounter of civilizations, with one likely dominating the other. The Spanish explorers in Hispaniola enslaved the native Taino population. After first contact in 1492, the Taino were reduced to a population of 32,000 in 1514.

There are grave dangers in first contact, especially for a technologically inferior group. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel illustrates this through the history of the Spanish conquest of the Inca people. Francisco Pizzaro, leading the Spaniards, quickly overthrew the Incas. Pizzaro first encountered Atahualpa, the Inca Emperor, in 1532. By 1533, the Spanish defeated and executed Atahualpa.

Diamond identifies technology as critical in the European colonist’s success. Europeans armed with steel swords easily defeated the Inca empire, which only had stone knives and bronze weaponry. Similarly, the Europeans’ writing system gave them an advantage. Francisco Pizzaro’s knowledge of the downfall of the Aztecs helped him replicate prior European victories over Native Americans. It is conceivable that alien explorers might have similar advantages over humanity in their technology. With these advantages comes dominance.

However, alien (European) technology and culture occasionally benefits the colonized. While Europeans came to dominate the western hemisphere, Native Americans proved resilient, adapting to their technology and culture. Their experience with firearms and horses demonstrates this. The Iroquois, for example, became masters of firearms. Using their strong trading relationship with Dutch settlers to obtain superior technology, the Iroquois defeated other tribes such as the Huronians in the 1640s.

By establishing a positive trading relationship with aliens, the Iroquois fortified their own geopolitical position.  Later the Iroquois became a key ally of the British Empire against the French. This alliance resulted in the defeat of the French in the French and Indian War.  Beyond weaponry, the Europeans brought the horse. The horse dramatically altered the Plains Native Americans’ way of life. Horses expanded Native American hunting ranges from 50 to 500 miles. It also enabled them to become more materially wealthy, allowing tipis to increase about 10 feet in diameter.  These Native Americans benefited from the Colombian Exchange.

In every exploration, there are risks and rewards. Both Hawking and Nye’s visions are essentially correct. Such is the case of space exploration and the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life. However, these risks might be reduced by a new scientific revolution. Such a revolution may yield the alien equivalent of steel swords and writing. This would place humanity in better position to negotiate and peacefully interact with would-be alien overlords. Moreover if humanity is to maintain its sovereignty after first contact , it must similarly adjust to alien technology.  Innovation preserves human life as it faces new challenges. Such it is with the possibility of first contact, a great challenge yet a great opportunity.

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