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Stephen Hawking Weighs In On The Ultimate Foreign Policy Question

April 29, 2010
CC-licensed Flickr image thanks to brainflakes.org.

CC-licensed Flickr image thanks to brainflakes.org.

Stephen Hawking, whose brilliance in theoretical physics would make him one of the most remarkable people in the world even if he were not confined to a wheelchair by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), has recently issued a warning about the dangers of attracting the attention of aliens.

In a series for the Discovery Channel the renowned astrophysicist said it was “perfectly rational” to assume intelligent life exists elsewhere.

But he warned that aliens might simply raid Earth for resources, then move on.

“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,” he said.

I’ve seen the same fascinating comparison made in science fiction. The logic is that an alien species capable of interstellar travel would have to be technologically advanced far beyond our human compass. From our perspective they would be a race of gods, or perhaps of demons. If they didn’t annihilate us for fun or enslave us for cheap labour, they might plunder our resources as Hawking suggested, or perhaps impose an “enlightened” alien way of life that would simply drive our human minds to anguish and despair. (Sometimes the road to hell is paved with the good intentions of others.)

However, not everyone agrees with Hawking’s pessimism about the likely consequences of a brush with aliens. The most pro-contact piece of commentary I’ve seen is a blog post by Ethan Siegel, who seems to think that any aliens who had advanced to the point of being able to build interstellar spacecraft would be unlikely to want to crush a vastly inferior species “just for kicks”. If any aliens show up in our corner of the galaxy, he’ll want to talk to them and see what they can teach humanity.

The idea of an alien spacecraft reaching our solar system tomorrow, or next year, or ever, might seem virtually inconceivable. However, a little voice at the back of my mind whispers that the universe is a very big place, and that gun-toting Spaniards in ships might have seemed equally inconceivable to the Taino in 1491.

All this leads to the practical question of whether Canada, as a matter of foreign policy, should be trying to contact alien species.  Humans have made attempts at this in the past, for example by sending a coded radio broadcast from an observatory in Puerto Rico in 1974. Hawking worries that such attempts might bring down doom upon our heads; Siegel is enthusiastic about them, for the sake of curiosity and because he suspects that any spacefaring aliens who wanted to steal our resources would be able to find Earth anyway. I lean more towards Siegel’s attitude than Hawking’s, although that’s partly because in my darker moods I’ve been known to flirt with the idea that annihilation or enslavement at the hands (or tentacles, etc.) of rapacious aliens is pretty much what humanity deserves.

From a Canadian point of view, however, I think the comparison between alien contact and the arrival of Europeans in the Americas deserves closer scrutiny. After all, the first Europeans to set foot in the New World were Norsemen, and a few Norsewomen, sailing down from Greenland around 1000 AD. The Vinland Sagas, which I read several weeks ago and have been meaning to get around to blogging about ever since, describe four separate voyages to what was probably the vicinity of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with the famous settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland as a probable staging post. This first encounter with the Americas did not go terribly well for the Greenlanders, who abandoned their explorations of Vinland partly because of the losses they suffered in skirmishes with the natives. This might be taken as a reminder that having the technology to get from A to B does not necessarily imply an ability to overpower the inhabitants of B, and I can certainly imagine aliens who were capable of interstellar travel but lacked our human weaponry and genius for war.

Built into Hawking’s warning about alien contact is the assumption that the second wave of European exploration, beginning with Columbus in 1492, was disastrous for the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. It was certainly disastrous in the short term: Columbus instituted a virtual reign of terror in the Caribbean. In the long term, however, I’m not so sure. Without wanting to downplay the social, economic and medical problems that are rife among Canada’s aboriginal peoples, would they really be better off today if Europeans had never landed in the Americas? If some Medieval plague, for example, had wiped out the entire population of the Old World, ensuring that European technologies and ideas never reached Canadian shores? I’d be interested to hear what readers think of this question.

Stephen Hawking, whose brilliance in theoretical physics would make him one of the most remarkable people in the world even if he were not confined to a wheelchair by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), has recently issued a warning about the dangers of attracting the attention of aliens.

In a series for the Discovery Channel the renowned astrophysicist said it was “perfectly rational” to assume intelligent life exists elsewhere.

But he warned that aliens might simply raid Earth for resources, then move on.

“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,” he said.

I’ve seen the same fascinating comparison made in science fiction. The logic is that an alien species capable of interstellar travel would have to be technologically advanced far beyond our human compass. From our perspective they would be a race of gods, or perhaps of demons. If they didn’t annihilate us for fun or enslave us for cheap labour, they might plunder our resources as Hawking suggested, or perhaps impose an “enlightened” alien way of life that would simply drive our human minds to anguish and despair. (Sometimes the road to hell is paved with the good intentions of others.)

However, not everyone agrees with Hawking’s pessimism about the likely consequences of a brush with aliens. The most pro-contact piece of commentary I’ve seen is a blog post by Ethan Siegel, who seems to think that any aliens who had advanced to the point of being able to build interstellar spacecraft would be unlikely to want to crush a vastly inferior species “just for kicks”. If any aliens show up in our corner of the galaxy, he’ll want to talk to them and see what they can teach humanity.

The idea of an alien spacecraft reaching our solar system tomorrow, or next year, or ever, might seem virtually inconceivable. However, a little voice at the back of my mind whispers that the universe is a very big place, and that gun-toting Spaniards in ships might have seemed equally inconceivable to the Taino in 1491.

All this leads to the practical question of whether Canada, as a matter of foreign policy, should be trying to contact alien species.  Humans have made attempts at this in the past, for example by sending a coded radio broadcast from an observatory in Puerto Rico in 1974. Hawking worries that such attempts might bring down doom upon our heads; Siegel is enthusiastic about them, for the sake of curiosity and because he suspects that any spacefaring aliens who wanted to steal our resources would be able to find Earth anyway. I lean more towards Siegel’s attitude than Hawking’s, although that’s partly because in my darker moods I’ve been known to flirt with the idea that annihilation or enslavement at the hands (or tentacles, etc.) of rapacious aliens is pretty much what humanity deserves.

From a Canadian point of view, however, I think the comparison between alien contact and the arrival of Europeans in the Americas deserves closer scrutiny. After all, the first Europeans to set foot in the New World were Norsemen, and a few Norsewomen, sailing down from Greenland around 1000 AD. The Vinland Sagas, which I read several weeks ago and have been meaning to get around to blogging about ever since, describe four separate voyages to what was probably the vicinity of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with the famous settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland as a probable staging post. This first encounter with the Americas did not go terribly well for the Greenlanders, who abandoned their explorations of Vinland partly because of the losses they suffered in skirmishes with the natives. This might be taken as a reminder that having the technology to get from A to B does not necessarily imply an ability to overpower the inhabitants of B, and I can certainly imagine aliens who were capable of interstellar travel but lacked our human weaponry and genius for war.

Built into Hawking’s warning about alien contact is the assumption that the second wave of European exploration, beginning with Columbus in 1492, was disastrous for the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. It was certainly disastrous in the short term: Columbus instituted a virtual reign of terror in the Caribbean. In the long term, however, I’m not so sure. Without wanting to downplay the social, economic and medical problems that are rife among Canada’s aboriginal peoples, would they really be better off today if Europeans had never landed in the Americas? If some Medieval plague, for example, had wiped out the entire population of the Old World, ensuring that European technologies and ideas never reached Canadian shores? I’d be interested to hear what readers think of this question.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2010 3:18 pm

    Thanks for this – does your reading include an account of how strenously the facts of L’Anse aux Meadows were at first challenged by the “history establishment” in Canada? R

    • corsullivan permalink*
      April 30, 2010 1:02 pm

      No, I’ve never read very much about the early controversy surrounding L’Anse aux Meadows. By the time I was old enough to develop an interest in such things, the consensus that it was a genuine Scandinavian site was already established. I’m actually not surprised that this interpretation was challenged fairly vigorously at first, in keeping with the adage that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (which ought to be, I would add, extraordinarily well tested). Nevertheless, I’d certainly be interested in learning more about how the controversy unfolded. Do you know of any good sources?

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