Opinion: Hostile Alien Invaders Are Unlikely

Sorry Stephen Hawking, I agree with Jill Tarter. Hostile alien invaders are unlikely–at least not the kind envisioned in SciFi movies.

I received the news release reproduced below and it reminded me of a book manuscript that I now have under consideration at a major publisher of books for young readers. That manuscript looks ahead to humanity’s long term future in space.

Speculating that we may be able to reach nearby stars several thousand years from now, I envision an interstellar Noah’s Ark that can carry an Earthlike ecology to another solar system. I ask what kind of a planet or moon would we be looking for. My answer is that we would seek a world where early single-celled plant life has recently created an oxygen rich atmosphere, which would mean that early one-celled animals may also be evolving there.

We would study that world for habitats that might support various Earth organisms and deliver those organisms where they would either share the habitats with native organisms or take over if those natives are suitable for food. We would indeed be potentially hostile invaders for such primitive creatures.

But what if we discovered a world with advanced animal life? We would be foolish to try to invade such a world, since the creatures there would have evolved to be very well-suited to the environment, whereas we would not be. In a competition with such life forms, we would almost surely be the losers–as are the aliens in almost every movie that has been produced. In any War of the Worlds between advanced life forms, I would place my bets on the natives.

And so would any future civilization looking for a new planetary home. That is why I don’t expect hostile invaders from a nearby star and why I am not worried about losing to them even if they are so foolish–or desperate–to be targeting our world.

Now the news release:

24 May 2012

** Contacts are listed below. **


The creative minds who fill movies and TV shows with angry aliens will soon be defending their vision of these extraterrestrial antagonists at SETIcon, a public event sponsored by the SETI Institute. The Institute is known for its science-based search for radio signals that would betray the existence of intelligent beings on distant worlds. SETIcon will take place June 22 through 24 in the heart of the Silicon Valley, and will feature a celebrity banquet honoring Jill Tarter who, for the last 35 years, has led the search for extraterrestrial intelligence at the SETI Institute. Tickets are available now at http://seticon.com/

Aliens are exceptionally well represented at the local multiplex this spring. Hostile invaders, tipped off by an overly enthusiastic broadcast from Earth, try to sink a lot of naval hardware in “Battleship;” domestic extraterrestrials give headaches to urbane government agents in “Men in Black III;” and fans of the “Alien” films finally get the back story of Ridley Scott’s toothy terror in the famous director’s prequel, “Prometheus.”

“Often the aliens of science fiction say more about us than they do about themselves,” said Jill Tarter, who announced on May 22nd that she was stepping down as Director of the Center for SETI Research. “While Sir Stephen Hawking warned that alien life might try to conquer or colonize Earth, I respectfully disagree. If aliens were able to visit Earth that would mean they would have technological capabilities sophisticated enough not to need slaves, food, or other planets. If aliens were to come here it would be simply to explore. Considering the age of the universe, we probably wouldn’t be their first extraterrestrial encounter, either. We should look at movies like ‘Men in Black III,’ ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Battleship’ as great entertainment and metaphors for our own fears, but we should not consider them harbingers of alien visitation.”

At SETIcon, many of the topics raised by film and TV sci-fi will be explored and explained, including how scientists have injected more realism into such series as “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and “Battlestar Galactica.”

SETIcon panelists include researchers from the SETI Institute and elsewhere, together with guests from the world of sci-fi, including well-known writer Robert J. Sawyer, “Star Trek: Voyager” actor Robert Picardo, and astronaut Mae Jamison. Mary Roach, author of “Packing for Mars,” will also be in attendance.

“The science fiction genre has been enormously popular for decades, and the cutting-edge of research in astronomy and exobiology is a gold mine for Hollywood screenwriters,” says writer/producer Andre Bormanis, a science advisor for “Star Trek” and a panelist at SETIcon.

Other SETIcon panels will consider whether Hollywood aliens make biological sense, discuss the continuing search for planets beyond our own solar system, debate whether humans or robots make the best space explorers, and explain how NASA tries to protect our planet (and other worlds) from accidental infection.

The value of connecting sci-fi creators with practicing scientists has been recognized by the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy operates an office in Southern California — the Science and Entertainment Exchange — that puts researchers in touch with Hollywood writers and directors during the early stages of screenplay development. SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak has been a consultant on “Battleship,” “Green Hornet,” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” as well as other films.

“Frequently, the creative folks simply want your help in solving a script problem — for example, what sort of weaponry might an alien society commandeer,” says Shostak. “On other occasions, they just want some technical corrections to dialog. But the really interesting challenge is to introduce these people to some of the newer ideas in science — ideas that aren’t yet hackneyed.”

“Ours is the one conference where the public can rub elbows with the innovators and leaders in the quest to find life in the universe,” said Andrew Fraknoi, SETI Institute Trustee and Foothill College Astronomy Professor. “It’s where ideas that sounded like science fiction just a few years ago become part of today’s reality.”

SETIcon will take place June 22 through 24 at the Santa Clara Hyatt Hotel, and will feature a celebrity banquet honoring Jill Tarter. Tickets are available now at http://seticon.com/

Accredited journalists wanting to attend SETIcon can sign up for complimentary press registration with Curtis Sparrer at [email protected]

Dan Jackson
Grayling Connecting Point
[email protected]
+1 415-442-4032, cell: +1 415-215-2661

Karen Randall
SETI Institute
[email protected]
+1 650-960-4537, +1 650-961-6633

The mission of the SETI Institute (http://www.seti.org) is to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe. The SETI Institute is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research, education and public outreach. The Institute comprises three centers, the Center for SETI Research, the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the universe and the Center for Education and Public Outreach founded in November 1984, the SETI Institute began operations on February 1, 1985. Today it employs over 150 scientists, educators and support staff.

20 thoughts on “Opinion: Hostile Alien Invaders Are Unlikely”

  1. Your “evolutionary” assertion for the superiority of native species overlooks the successes of invasive species in the terrestrial world, and the ever-present technology advantage that the space-faring species will almost certainly have.

    Anyone wanting our real estate can just bombard us from orbit (It’s the only way to be sure) rather than any near-equal combat. Fish in a barrel are better-adapted to the underwater environment, but they are still fish … in a barrel.

    • Interesting thought, Steve, but perhaps I didn’t make my point well enough.

      When we go out looking for other worlds, we’ll have lots of choices. Given that, which would you choose? A place where we would have to conquer native animals who would have a physiological advantage if not a technological one, or a place where we could settle without having to fight off anyone?

      Others might make a moral argument about whether we have the right to take over another planet at all, but then we have the question about where to draw the line. Is it okay to take over the home planet of single-celled life forms but not multicellular life?

      That’s a different discussion but worth having. Anyone else have a comment?

      P.S.: I wrote a book for young readers on astrobiology. See http://www.fredbortz.com/Astrobiology.htm if you are interested.

  2. Does the current absence of any evidence whatsoever for extraterrestrial life mean that we are really alone in the universe or should we should keep looking ?


      • The question in this article is not whether space-faring aliens exist but whether they would come to Earth as hostile invaders. My argument is that if they needed to find another world to settle, they would have several choices with suitable environments, most of which would not have advanced life forms that would require conquering. They would choose one of those rather than one with an Earthlike ecology.

  3. In view of the inconceivable vastness of the universe, the needs and lifespan of homo sapiens, I think that we are very much alone. If there were inhabited planets around our nearest neighboring star ( and I don’t think any have been found) that is ~ 4 light years away, it would take 8 years just to say “Hello”. I have been, am and always will be interested in and supportive of SETI, but we have to keep this kind of isolation in mind.

  4. These assertions are fundamentally lacking the foundation of real evidence. No aliens have been ‘discovered’ yet. A SETI researcher operates with only theory at his/her disposal.

    So Stephen Hawking is essentially correct because no eveidence proves him wrong.

    • Dal,

      No aliens have been found, but there is an entire science that allows us to discuss how likely they are (http://www.fredbortz.com/Astrobiology.htm) and what they might be like.

      Also, I would suggest different wording in your comment, since the word “theory” suggests a substantial body of thought. I would say that Hawking and Tarter have different and somewhat opposing “speculative hypotheses” about aliens based on what we know so far (evidence), but there is not enough evidence to call either of them “essentially correct” or even superior to the other. I just offered my reason for favoring Tarter’s speculation over Hawking’s.

  5. If’n somebody from not here comes here,
    they spent a whole buncha time ‘n effort to do it.
    They come here wantin somethin… Real Bad.
    They can come get it, then they got all they need to take it.
    Sayin ‘please’, is cheaper than not. But they ain’ goin home emptyhanded.
    They’ll be real friendly. As long as you know Who is Who.

  6. Your assumption that aliens will see no reason to invade makes the same error that you accuse hollywood writers of doing: that the actions aliens take will be due to logic and reasoning similar to human logic and reasoning.
    This may not be the case, as an example, Stephen Donaldson’s Gap Cycle presents an alien menace that wishes to invade earth and destroy humanity, not for slaves, food, planets or other resources, but simply because the aliens evolved with a genetic imperative that requires them to subjugate all other species that they come across.
    Many other sci-fi authors have written about wars with extra-terrestials which occurred due to humanity being complete prats to the first aliens that visited. This is a scenario I find very plausible given the calibre of our elected officials.
    My point is that the universe is vast and mysterious, and it is difficult to know what the future will bring.

    • Then I say, “Bring ’em on!”

      –Removing tongue from cheek–

      Thanks for the contribution, Bob.

      It’s a nice cogent argument for the Hawking position. This is an entertaining discussion precisely because so much is un-knowable.

      I’m still more persuaded by Tarter’s position, especially because such an aggressive species would probably destroy its own supportive ecology.

  7. So I think Tarter is a little naive; it’s not about resources or conquering or enslavement. I also think that anybody who bases their concept of alien behavior (or concept of anything about anything for that matter) on Hollywood movie depictions is as far from a true perspective as the Earth is from the edge of the universe.

    So consider this: we differentiate ourselves from all life on Earth based on the fact that we have a unique level of intelligence and self-awareness not found in any other creature. We consider ourselves exceptional and we justify almost any action towards what we consider lesser lifeforms to sustain and/or improve our existence. Our search for the secrets of life and the benefits they’ll bring outweigh any consideration of inferior lifeforms. Sometimes they even outweigh any consideration towards each other (Nazi experiments, civilian war casualties, unit 731 experiments are extreme examples but you see it day to day with some of the people you interact with).

    So what are we to aliens? Maybe more worthy of consideration than bacteria but less than a monkey (which we experiment on). And if aliens have superior or even superintelligence, it’s game over. We’ll all be their bitches, as the world is our bitch today.

  8. I think Jill Tarter’s position is making the assumption that a spacefaring species will have developed their spacefaring technology themselves.

    She doesn’t seem to take into account the possibility of an accidental meeting of well-meaning spacefaring species with an aggressive species that takes the technology for their own purposes.

    We, ourselves, are at a point where we could assume some other species technology for our own use, and there are no guarantees that we would go into space peacefully. Plenty of our species are still parasitic and resource-wasteful.


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