The other day on Quora, I came across this question: “Would extraterrestiral life pose a threat to earth?” Being an avid SF reader, this is an issue I’ve worked through countless times over the years. I’ve even gone so far as to incorporate this thinking in my first novel. Here’s my response:
A good question. It depends.
Early opinions on how to approach this matter are, like many things, shaped by what we know and what we’d like to believe; in this case early SF imaginings and blind idealism out of the chaos of war. This mindset, almost certainly, fed the thinking behind gifting details about us, as a species, to the Voyager / Pioneer probes, currently on their slow but inevitable crawl out of the Solar System.
Science should speak for itself, the cure for this kind of SF is a big dose of realism and authenticity (but here I don’t mean schlock).
Conventional wisdom suggests that if anything can get here, it ain’t going to be alive. The given constraints are things like speed of light, how long things can live in space, etc.
Under this thinking, hypotheses that suggest alien life could make it here become untenable. There is a problem though. Most of that ‘science’ is actually an agreed upon structured system of supposition.
As a contrast, what circumstances would support the idea of a threat?
I’m a God-ist – i.e. I believe in the likelihood of a supreme being. That doesn’t prevent me from accepting that there’s a lot out there we don’t know – and maybe some things we’d rather not know.
Let’s go back to science and take panspermia as an example. It treats organic material from outer space as suggesting that some, or all, life has its origin at an unspecified place in the universe. i.e. not here.
Follow that thought and you must conclude the near certainty of intelligent extra-terrestrial life.
It’s worth pointing out that peaceful coexistence is an ideal honoured more in the breach than practise. You can’t idealise away the wars and suffering in the last 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, 100 years. These wars are about anything: self-determination, control of resources, different ideologies… you name it. How can intelligent life from space have our values?
So: intelligent life. What if it comes calling and there’s organic incompatibility?
H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds uses that as the nemesis of the Martians. Ahem. A highly advanced race unable to cure a bug? The sheer size of the universe suggests tremendous scope for organic incompatibility originating out there.
When considering faster than light travel (FTL), a good point to bear in mind is how does humanity treat less advanced life forms here? Slaughtered, farmed and hunted out of existence comes to mind.
That covers peaceful coexistence. What about self-interest….
A key principle on Darwin’s Theory on Evolution is that life expands to saturate available niches. This is borne out by human life on Earth.
Are we of interest?
Only if we are a threat.
Refer to peaceful coexistence. What would happen if we got out of this system? I think it’s our good fortune that the speed of light is so slow – we’ve only been pumping out radio and TV babble for 100 years-ish. A reaction to this could be anything from an embassy to a ‘stay-away’ notice for unsuspecting travellers – that’s assuming a final solution isn’t headed our way – say a planetary ecosphere-bursting asteroid.
What should we look for?
The local stellar group is dead. Why? Hopefully it’s because the systems could never have supported life. It’s worth looking at those that are life suitable – but don’t actually support it and then ask ourselves: Why?
As a Writer
I write SF so this is an area I’ve trod many times; it’s an interesting area to explore. The niceness of outer space creatures can be treated differently In Lucky, the alien in question is a humanoid refugee – her very presence could attract danger. If she’s discovered, the risk could be very high for us at a species level, especially as we’re only a side-show.
In Joe and the Xenophids (included on the POD edition of Lucky) the aliens encountered are xenocidal and we have failed to find a way of communicating with the xenophids.
In real life, could such a thing be?
All too possible, given unadulterated imperatives such go forth and prosper, manifest destiny, the promised land...
Could we get along with critters from outta space?
Not the way we, as humans, are currently configured. That oughtta set alarm bells ringing.
This is a big, big topic. Many of the above points are given a fictional treatment in my novel: A Guide to First Contact.