We’ll make great pets: Why we shouldn’t fear our new alien overlords

Posted by Andrew on January 13th, 2011

So a new research paper has come out and told us what Hollywood has been telling us for years; if we meet aliens they’re most likely going to act like 16th century conquistadors and take our resources and annihilate us in the process. Similar to Stephen Hawking’s dire warning it says contact would spell doom for us all. Space.com

The rational is that since that’s what we did in the past to other other civilizations, that’s what an advanced civilization will do to us.

There are some very serious flaws with this argument. Let’s take a look at a few of them:

1. Our galaxy is a really, really big place
The argument claims that aliens would come to earth and take our minerals and such. Why? Current estimates put the total number of planets in our galaxy in the hundreds of billions – maybe even the trillions if you count planetoids. Even if we assume an absurdly highly number of them have intelligent life, that leaves millions of planets to exploit for minerals and other resources.

The galaxy is not a bigger version of the earth. In the 15th century humans lived on every habitable continent. There was no place you could go for resources except Antarctica that didn’t have people living on it. Trying to exploit any place for resources meant that you were likely to come up against indigenous populations.

In a really big galaxy, there’s no reason to upset the locals unless that’s what you want to do.

2. Energy
Space is big. The distance between solar systems is huge. If you have some kind of technology that can easily bridge this gap or lesson the amount of energy you need to travel between stars, earth’s resources are going to look pathetic in comparison. Seriously, are we worried they’re coming here to steal our coal to fuel their space ships?

3. Comparative Advantage
Any sufficiently advanced species should have a grasp of economics. Like us, they may not always heed what they’ve learned, but if they’re flying about space they probably have a better grasp on prosperity than we do. If they’re profit motivated it would be the best possible news for us.

One of the most important principles of economics is comparative advantage. It basically means this; If you have two parties unevenly matched in skill and productivity, it’s always advantageous for both for the more skilled and productive party to let the lessor skilled party focus on production of whatever the first party is least efficient at – even if it’s more efficient than the second party.

An example would be Apple. By focusing all of its energies on designing iPhones and allowing a less-skilled party to make the iPhone, Apple increases its productivity and profit. The less-skilled party benefits by making the product. Both gain. If Apple focused all its resources on designing and making the iPhone they’d make less overall because it’s unable to maximize what it’s most efficient at.

In our alien contact scenario we’re the unskilled, inefficient party. Despite this, we still have value we can bring to a superior civilization. That value may be in providing services, cheap labor or producing reality television. Whatever it may be, the most valuable thing we can offer isn’t our resources, but 7 billion individuals with varying degrees of creativity and ingenuity. Comparative Advantage

However…
If they’re a bunch of religious zealots who abandoned everything they learned that gave them prosperity or secular zealots with no regard for the concept of individuality, we’re screwed.

  • Anon.

    16th Conquistadors? Jesus, proofread your first sentence okay?

  • Anon+209

    And what the hell is a secular zealot? Do you mean to say “borg”? Because the BORG have no regard for individuality. It has nothing to do with secularism. Hell, you could have religious cyborgs, why not?

  • Random

    First two arguments seem good, but the comparative advantage doesn’t seem to work if you look at the way we use animals

  • http://www.andrewmayne.com Andrew Mayne

    This is on example of secular zealots: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communist_party

  • http://www.andrewmayne.com Andrew Mayne

    We have a symbiotic relationship with 99.9% of the animals in our ecosystem from the bacteria in our stomach to the plankton in the sea. The only conflicts we have are over resource usage. In a big galaxy that’s not a problem.

    However, if they want to grind us up an use as aphrodisiacs we may have a problem…

  • http://twitter.com/kldavis4 Kelly Davis

    I thought the same kind of thing when I read the Space article. I just read Tony Horwitz’s A Voyage Long & Strange, and I came away with the realization that had Europe just waited a couple of centuries before coming to America, there would have been a lot less bloodshed on both sides. The problem was that the Europeans who came to America were only just able to sustain themselves because they lacked the technology and know how to survive in the American wilderness. They did have the military advantage to take from the natives the food they needed to survive, so when their reserves ran out there was an inevitable struggle for survival that ended with many indians being killed. Had the Europeans been fully self sustaining and merely come on a scientific expedition, then there is no reason to expect that they would have been led to conquer the natives. As you state in your post, it is likely that any aliens sufficiently advanced to travel to Earth have probably reached a point of having solved any of the problems of survival, and thus are more interested in knowledge about us than ways in which they might be able to exploit us.

  • http://www.andrewmayne.com Andrew Mayne

    You’re missing a comma after “sentence”. :)

  • Blago

    “In the 15th century humans lived on every habitable continent.” Yep, just like in 15th century BC ;-)

  • http://www.andrewmayne.com Andrew Mayne

    The 15th century was when we finally invaded all the other continents that had people on them…

  • http://ebonnebula.deviantart.com/ EbonNebula

    Lol, I was actually thinking the same thing. Any civilization, with the sole goal of destroying any and all others at any cost, would not only need to have a pretty fraken twisted culture. They’d also need to be uber productive and efficient, otherwise sooner or later, they’re going to start a fight they can’t finish.

    I think it’s fair to assume that the aliens in question come in peace, just from what we know so far. We can clearly see that they’re not using any sort of FTL which most likely means one of two things. Either [A] they want us to see them coming so that we can mentally prepare, and not do something stupid in the heat of the moment. Or [B] There is no such thing as FTL, so all bets are off. Personally I refuse to believe in option B, because it doesnt fit with the reality we all want so bad.

  • Anonymous

    I’m sure I run the risk of sounding like an idiot, since I’m judging the ideas being put forth by people who are much smarter than I am, but I never liked the idea of attributing the behavior of humans from centuries ago to alien beings that are potentially hundreds or thousands (or even millions!) of years more advanced than we are today. It would be like assuming humanity will act essentially the same once we’ve advanced to the point where we can easily travel to other star systems. That’s disregarding the cultural, psychological and even biological changes that would have to happen before reaching that point. A human society that is that advanced would be almost as alien and unpredictable to us as any visitors from another world would be. So why would anyone assume the situation would play out just like the Europeans colonizing the Americas?

    We might as well assume the aliens will show up and act like cavemen.

    That being said, the aliens do represent the unknown in all its forms. Since we have no way of knowing what they’ll be like or what motivates them we couldn’t say that they wouldn’t act like ancient European explorers/colonists. Or they could show up and act exactly like cavemen. That’s the whole point. We have no way of knowing how they will act. And applying human history to the question only limits the possibilities and does nothing to truly explore them to their fullest.
    So saying that if aliens do who up it will mean humanity is screwed is “option A”. And that’s out of an infinite number of options that are available to us. It’s just as likely that they’ll look at our planet, see nothing that interests them, and move on to find a world that contains some material that’s valuable to their culture. Or they might show up and exchange their advanced nano-technology for our advanced bumper-sticker technology (Their primitive bumper-stickers have knock-knock jokes on them. The fools).