Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Beware Warmonger Imperialist Space Aliens!?

"Study: If We're Not Alone, We Should Fear the Aliens"
Mike Wall, Space.com (January 10, 2010)

"When considering the prospect of alien life, humankind should prepare for the worst, according to a new study: Either we're alone, or any aliens out there are acquisitive and resource-hungry, just like us.

"These two unpalatable options are pretty much the only possibilities, according to the new study. That's because evolution is predictable, and alien biospheres should thus produce intelligent creatures much like us, with technological prowess and an ever-increasing need for resources.

"But the fact that we haven't run across E.T. yet argues strongly for the latter possibility — that we are alone in the universe's howling void, the study suggests.

" 'At present, as many have observed, it is very quiet out there,' study author Simon Conway Morris, of the University of Cambridge, told SPACE.com in an e-mail interview. 'And given many planetary systems are billions of years older than ours, I'd expect us to be best grilled on toast back in the Cambrian.'...

"...Are we alone?

"The prospect of greedy, imperialistic aliens is a troubling one, but Conway Morris thinks another scenario - also depressing - is more likely to be true...."

Suppositions/Assumptions: Big Ones

Mr. Wall did a pretty good job of discussing C. Morris's ideas. On the other hand, the Lemming notes some whacking great assumptions on Morris's part that might have been highlighted a bit more:

"...Life on Earth has exploited just about every conceivable niche, tolerating extremes of temperature, salinity, pH and pressure. Conway Morris makes the case that Earth life thus exists close to the physical and chemical limits of life anywhere....

"...Further, Conway Morris says, evolution operates predictably, producing relatively predictable outcomes. These two suppositions argue that alien life, if it exists, should be fairly similar to terrestrial life, generating intelligent beings much like us. These aliens may look unfamiliar, but any differences would be skin-deep...."

'Now That We Know All There is to Know'

In the Lemming's opinion, it's a trifle imprudent to assume that humanity's current state of ignorance represents all there is to know about the universe. Maybe that's because the Lemming has seen notions touted as 'well-known facts' get relabeled as 'antiquated ideas' too often to be impressed by today's 'well-known facts.'
Life Can't Possibly Exist Except Where We've Found It?
The Lemming remembers when it was pretty well-known that life couldn't exist in Yellowstone's hydrothermal vents: and folks didn't even know about the even more obviously lifeless ones on the ocean floor. (April 12, 2010, October 2, 2009, May 24, 2009) So the idea "that Earth life thus exists close to the physical and chemical limits of life anywhere" is, in the Lemming's opinion, an assumption.
"Evolution Operates Predictably:" Maybe
As far as "evolution operates predictably" goes: maybe it does. It's the Lemming's opinion that humanity doesn't know that. Yet.

There's some reason to think that the evolutionary process tends to produce similar results. An example of "convergent evolution" was, at least at one time, sharks and porpoises. These animals fill roughly the same ecological niche, and look pretty much alike. And both look pretty much like another large predator, the lion.

Wait a minute. A lion looks like a shark or a porpoise?! In a way, yes. All three animals are:
  • Predators with sharp teeth
  • Very roughly the same size
  • Bilaterally symmetrical
    • Like all animals
      • Except the ones that aren't, like
Even the general appearance of these large predators is quite similar. Sharks, porpoises, and lions are a lot longer than they are wide or tall, have two eyes and mouth at one end, a lump of nerves near the eyes, and a long control cable running the length of the creature, protected by a relatively hard segmented sheath.

From one point of view, the chief difference between sharks, porpoises and lions is that two live in water and the other doesn't.

Now, where was the Lemming?

Discussing the possible nature of intelligent life in the universe. Assumptions or suppositions that:
  • Humanity knows all there is to know about conditions which can support life
  • Evolution follows a predictable path
Right. Picking up at that point:

"...These two suppositions argue that alien life, if it exists, should be fairly similar to terrestrial life, generating intelligent beings much like us. These aliens may look unfamiliar, but any differences would be skin-deep...."

That may be true.

Intelligent life, people, everywhere, throughout all space and time, may think and behave pretty much like the gregarious, noisy, risk-taking upright bipeds that live on Earth.

Or, not.

The Space.com article is, in the Lemming's opinion, balanced. There isn't the 'be afraid, be very afraid' approach that's marinated so much fashionably-intellectual discussion recently. And that's another topic.

The article's informed, too: recognizing the scale of the universe, and possible implications of the fact that we're not currently employed as slaves in the lint mines of a galactic overlord. Or selling souvenirs to tourists from Arcturus.

Which is another topic. Several.

E.T., Klaatu, and Cthulhu

Mike Wall, writing for Space.com, also discusses ideas of Albert Harrison, a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis. Harrison isn't a starry-eyed optimist about space aliens, but he's not a pessimist either, it seems:

"...though he doesn't advocate letting our guard down, Harrison is not quite as worried about aliens' possible malignant intentions as Conway Morris is. It's not necessarily inevitable that alien civilizations advance to stages of interstellar imperialism, cruising the cosmos for resources, Harrison said.

"Despite the atrocities leading the news every night, societies here on Earth seem to be trending more toward peaceful coexistence, Harrison said. And even if an alien civilization got greedy and imperialistic, there's no guarantee it would be able to run roughshod over its neighbors...."

There's more - and the Lemming thinks Harrison's notion of a sort of natural 'checks and balances' makes sense. Let's remember that even the Assyrians didn't last all that long.

Or maybe H. P. Lovecraft got it right.

We've seen quite a range of space aliens in the movies, including:
Then there's Cthulhu.

The Lemming hasn't read the H. P. Lovecraft Cthulhu stories, but gathers that Cthulhu and quite a few of the Dreaded Old Ones weren't so much opposed to humanity, as indifferent. Which was still bad for humanity.

It's like when a squirrel wanders into a transformer. The utility company isn't engaged in a pogrom against squirrels: the incinerated critter just made a wrong turn.

Related posts:
Two dozen centuries of assumptions, summarized:
About the mind of the alien:
More in this blog:


Brigid said...

Word missing. I think: "notion of a sort natural 'checks and balances' makes sense"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

P.S. I think a squid-like sentient species would be very different from us. And I'd love to know if something like 'energy based' life forms would be possible.

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...


Got it. Thanks!

People built around the lines of a squid or octopus? They'd certainly look different: maybe think differently, too.

We've talked about the way octopi are wired: with each tentacle interpreting instructions it gets from the brain. That suggests the possibility that sentient creatures made on the same general plan might be more of a committee than an individual.

All of which is sheer speculation at this point, of course.

The 'energy based' life? In a way, that's us. Which gets the Lemming into the somewhat fuzzy distinction between energy and matter - and this comment's turning into a post.

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