character of extraterrestrial intelligence


Science fiction has envisaged the possibility of everything from kind, wise, and even cute extraterrestrials, like ET, to utterly malicious, scheming monsters, like Giger's Alien. On balance, ever since Wells unleashed his marauding Martians (see War of the Worlds, novel), the fictional creatures from "out there" have tended to be of the usurping, death-ray variety - not surprisingly, since this makes for a more compelling plot. But if we do encounter other intelligences among the stars, will they in reality prove to be friendly or hostile?


A poll conducted for The Planetary Society by the Marist Institute in 1998 suggested that 86% of Americans who think there is life on other planets believe it will be friendly (see opinion polls, about extraterrestrials). Similar optimism has been expressed by many scientists who have figured prominently in the search for extraterrestrial life, including Frank Drake, Philip Morrison, Carl Sagan, and Ronald Bracewell. An argument in favor of alien beneficence is that any race which has managed to survive the kind of global crises currently facing humanity (and which presumably confront all technological species at some stage in their development) is likely to have resolved the sources of conflict we still have on Earth (see extraterrestrial civilizations, hazards to). Morrison, for instance, doubted that advanced societies "crush out any competitive form of intelligence, especially when there is clearly no danger." Similarly, Arthur C. Clarke has stated that:


As our own species is in the process of proving, one cannot have superior science and inferior morals. The combination is unstable and self-destroying.


However, there can be no assurance on this point. After all, human beings appear to have made very little progress, over the past two millennia or so, toward eliminating or controlling their aggressive tendencies. And there is no reason to suppose we shall change much in this respect over the next few centuries, during which time we may well develop the means of reaching the stars in a realistic timescale. Those who are pessimistic about the general nature of extraterrestrials argue that Darwinism, and its fundamental tenet "survival of the fittest", virtually guarantees that any advanced species will be potentially dangerous. Michael Archer, professor of biology at the University of New South Wales, Australia, has put it this way:1


Any creature we contact will also have had to claw its way up the evolutionary ladder and will be every bit as nasty as we are. It will likely be an extremely adaptable, extremely aggressive super-predator.


In a similar vein, medical anthropologist Melvin Korner has written that:


Evolution predicts the existence of selfishness, arrogance and violence on other planets even more surely than it predicts intelligence. If they could get to Earth, extraterrestrials would do to us what we have done to lesser animals for centuries.


In 1964, Freeman Dyson considered the two polar extremes to which intelligence might evolve:2


Intelligence may indeed be a benign influence, creating isolated groups of philosopher-kings far apart in the heavens and enabling them to share at leisure their accumulated wisdom ... [On the other hand] intelligence may be a cancer of purposeless technological exploitation, sweeping across a galaxy as irresistibly as it has swept across our own planet ... the technological cancer could spread over a whole galaxy in a few million years, a time very short compared with the life of a planet... Our business as scientists is to search the universe and find out what is there. What is there may conform to our moral sense or it may not... It is just as unscientific to impute to remote intelligences wisdom and serenity as it is to impute to them irrational and murderous impulses. We must be prepared for either possibility and conduct our searches accordingly.


Perhaps the most reasonable assumption, in the absence of any data, is that, just as in our own case, the potential for good and evil will exist in every intelligent extraterrestrial race. Civilization is unthinkable without some measure of compassion, and yet how could a species that had emerged successfully after several billion years of live-and-let-die biological competition not also possess a ruthless streak? The question is surely not whether any advanced race we may meet among the stars is capable of aggression – it certainly will be unless it has genetically or otherwise altered itself to be purely pacific – but whether it has learned to override its more basic instincts. A further point to bear in mind is the variation in character which can exist between individuals within a species. Will the first representative of an alien race that we encounter be a Hitler or a Gandhi? Fears about what consequences might follow from making contact with a superior species, malevolent or benign, have led to calls from some leading scientists to avoid attempts at CETI (see CETI, opposition to).3



1. Archer, M., "Slime Monsters Will Be Human Too," Nature Australia, 22, 546 (1989).
2. Dyson, F. J. Letter, Scientific American, 210 (4) (April 1964).
3. Baird, John. The Inner Limits of Outer Space. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England (1987).