it’s a scary galaxy out there

As we scream into space to get the attention of extraterrestrial life, we should remember there may be monsters out there.
chicken little alien invaders
Alien invaders from Chicken Little, 2005

We have a lot of preconceptions when it comes to aliens. We expect them to be older and much more technologically savvy than us. We expect them to be secular or have an ancient and extremely tolerant religion that’s based in sound science with just a little pinch of philosophy. We expect them to resemble us in some small ways so we can immediately identify them as intelligent creatures. In short, we expect them to be what we want to be one day; an advanced, intelligent, peaceful species that reconciled religion with the relentless march of scientific progress. But what if aliens are really scary, bizarre and hostile?

For a century, we’ve been screaming into space, trying to get the attention of creatures about which we know nothing and sending them artifacts that tell who knows what exactly where we are. Might as well send them directions to our leaders’ residences and the complete inventory of our armories. Our modern optimism aside, real aliens might be just as aggressive and just as flawed as we are. They could see us as a threat, as potential slaves or as heretics in dire need of a prompt religious conversion. It’s not like we don’t have an analog for such behavior on our own world. Even worse, they could see us as a religious and military challenge to be overcome to win favor with their deities. Our very existence could trigger a holy war.

So what are the chances that we’re just begging to get swatted by a species of alien predators capable of horrifying things? Actually, not all that great. The only physical artifact we’ve sent to an alien species is attached to the Voyager probes which are just beginning to enter interstellar space. Chances are that the first interstellar ships built by humans will catch up to them just a few billion miles into interstellar space, long before they could come close to a potential habitat of an alien civilization capable of space travel. As for being heard, the aliens would need to have radio telescopes and be able to tune into the right band of frequencies. It’s also highly unlikely that they would be able to figure out anything about us because all they would hear is a noise or at best, languages they wouldn’t be able to understand. If they’re not looking, which is a very real possibility, they’ll never know we exist.

Another problem with these scenarios is that we’re thinking of intelligent alien species trying to listen in on cosmic chatter. But since intelligence is an evolutionary fluke that appeared at just the right time on Earth to become a big factor in beating natural selection, the idea that alien species would evolve some degree of intelligence with enough time is just a hypothesis. We’re assuming that given billions of years to evolve, there’s a chance that something like intelligent thought would appear. However, you can survive without being terribly smart and to a herd of feral aliens on a habitable world, our signals passing overhead are a concept beyond what their minds can handle. It could be why we haven’t heard anything back from a star within a 50 light year radius. Our broadcasts arrived but there was no one or nothing listening or smart enough to listen for them.

Finally, even if an advanced alien species somewhere out there knew that we exist and where to find us, who says they would want to do anything about it? Even if they have hostile intentions, it’s an awfully big investment of time and resources to attack us and by the time their fleets get to our planet, we could’ve made a big enough jump in technology to defend ourselves from the best they could throw at us when they send their armadas to Earth. Interstellar wars are a very uncertain business because you’re betting that in the time it takes for your weapons to reach your enemy, the species you’re targeting hasn’t come up with an effective countermeasure. It makes for compelling science fiction to talk about how aliens with nefarious plans try to turn Earth into a pile or rubble with everything from planet-killers to von Neumann machines but in reality, any attack that’s supposed to cover light years before it gets to its target is a gamble.

When it comes to alien civilizations that might be waiting for us on worlds we’re yet to discover and their intentions towards humans, we should keep our guard up and be ready to give them a warm handshake with one hand while holding a powerful gun in the other, just in case they’ll try something funny. But we shouldn’t live in fear that we’re about to be wiped out by an alien menace if we try to spread our wings a little too far or advance a little too quickly. The odds of that happening just aren’t that high.

# space // alien civilizations / alien contact / alien culture

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