One way to measure a civilisation’s developmental progress is to look at the extent to which people’s lives are at the mercy of the environment. We can establish perfectly comfortable living standards in places that at one time would have been inhabitable only with extraordinary effort, or perhaps not inhabitable at all. It’s debatable about how far along that process we are, given that we are facing an imminent existential threat caused by how we have chosen to interact with the environment, but it is easy to see that technological and sociological development, at least in principal, gives rise to the possibility of completely abstracting our survival from environmental variables.
This line of thought is what, to me, uncovers how ridiculous our idea of alien invasion is.
Stephen Hawking recently said “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”, which is almost an exact quote from The Day The Earth Stood Still. Alien invasion would involve traveling a vast distance through space, either requiring a lot of time or a lot of energy, or both. Doing that would require a level of technology so advanced it can produce the required energy and provide such a level of abstraction from environmental threats that survival in space is not a problem. Why would a civilisation capable of that invade us?
Imagine this: You live in a comfortable home in a developed country with a nice job. You don’t need to worry about anything except getting to work on time. You decide to get on a plane, fly to the other side of the planet, taking a piece of wood with a nail in it with you, so you can bludgen a few natives on some desert island somewhere and steal their huts. And you do that because you like the fruit that grows on the few dozen trees outside. Why would you do that? Do you want that fruit that much?
This is the basic premise behind the vast majority of alien invasion narratives, including Hawking’s. The narrative hangs together with a piece of story telling proclamation: they want something we have; either oil, slaves, human brains, water or some vague idea of our ‘resources’. They have the technology to get here and destroy a whole planet but they are still dependent on plundering these basic things out of the ground?
The comparison to the West Indies, and my metaphor, break down for even more fundamental reasons. In those narratives the invader and the victim are both the same type of being. They have the same biology and therefor the same basic requirements. Alien planets are … alien. We have evolved to live in our world, we would almost certainly not find alien planets particularly comfortable, to say the least. What makes those planets beautiful and welcoming to the aliens would make them biologically terrifying to us. So imagine flying to the other side of the earth to live near a sea of acid breathing carbon monoxide near trees of poisonous fruit saturated with germs that can stroll past your immune system unnoticed… that invasion seems less appealing.
There’s also a much more philosophical objection to the idea of comparing our interactions with aliens to our past: aliens may well not think like us at all. The dynamics of human thought that give rise to our patterns of history might not even exist in alien minds. It could be that those patterns are purged from the cosmos by galactic darwinian selection: those races obsessed with imperialism at all costs may well always remove themselves from the universe before ever getting the opportunity victimise other planets. We are almost a case study in that. It could be that getting to the stage to be able to tackle interstellar travel requires a level of social cohesion that would-be invaders just don’t possess.
In my opinion there are only a few simple examples of alien invasion stories that hold any water: those in which the aliens invade not for any economic reason but because it is intrinsic in their nature. One example is the Borg. Another is from Babylon 5 in which the Vorlons find a way to travel to another universe and find a race that considers all other sentient life to be an insult. The Day The Earth Stood Still is a bit of a deviation in that the aliens invade because they see humans as a potential threat. In the original they saw our development of nuclear weapons as an indication of our destructiveness, which just raises the question: why would this be a significant problem to these advanced aliens? In the recent remake the producers reverted to a more standard alien invasion premise: we are are destroying a resource, our planet, and they have to intervene to stop us in order to secure that resource. This just raises the usual questions and further, why did the aliens see their only option to be killing us all with a magic black cloud? Why not get it to wipe out all of our polluting machinery? What’s the worst that would happen? People dying?
There could be realistic examples that are far more complex. A keen reader will have noticed that I could turn this whole argument on its head. If it is more realistic to imagine the alien’s motives to be simply some ingrained and irresistible psychotic behaviour, then it could be argued that that is exactly how humans behaved in the past and so drawing analogies to those events is a valid observation. Sure we can cast our history of conquest into terms of resource and economy, but ultimately we could have found alternatives, we didn’t need to do what we did in order to get what we needed. We chose the psychotic solution from a multitude of possibilities. Perhaps alien invaders would do the same. Perhaps they would hold to an economic model that resonates with their psychotic nature because its the only one that would allow them to act on that nature. And perhaps it would raise obvious questions like: “why did you come all the way here to kill us to steal something you don’t need?” This idea doesn’t quite hold because our invader ancestors conquered places to make someone somewhere rich by gaining control of the sole supply of something (initially land, then fossil fuels). Consumption of oil, and indeed, our need for land can’t exactly be explained in terms of psychotic motivations: we really do need land to live and oil is on first sight a good source of energy. It’s more accurate to say that a small section of society was in a position to act in a psychotic manner to get more of what they like at the cost of the rest, and the rest fit into this system by having valid needs for things like land and energy. The option to gain a fair share of land and enough energy by non-psychotic means we usually kept off the table. The motivation was always economic, by which I mean it was some people getting what they want by exploiting control of the supply of what all people need. Psychosis wasn’t the only fundamental factor, it was more a choice of strategy in response to an economic reality. If you took away that economic reality would the psychotic choice still be on the table?
Is it plausible to imagine a civilization advanced enough to have the technology to travel between stars to murder aliens and plunder their worlds either for some economic reasons that persist despite their advancements or for economic reasons that some of those aliens have developed (by infliction upon themselves without wiping themselves out) in order to engineer a situation in which they can murder aliens and plunder their worlds? When they take our land what will they do with it? Sell it to each other? To do what? Grow food they can’t eat? Set up factories? Why not set them up in space? What would those factories produce? The Roman Empire plundered gold but they only did that because gold what what they made coins out of and they did that because it was a good material to make coins out of. Again, it’s just a substance that is needed for some reason. What substance and what reason would the aliens be captive to? Why? Because they’ve, by some insane marketing scheme, tricked themselves into thinking they need to invade Earth? When the US invaded Iraq they secured oil that Americans bought. What would the aliens secure? Who would buy it and why? Have the aliens sustained a price bubble in the Earth property market? How? Why?
This is why alien invasion stories are always so nonsensical to me. There is never even a partial explanation for why the invasion is happening. It’s surprising that Hawking would enter into such a discussion and make such a simple claim as to assert a similarity to human history.