Aliens like us? I don’t think so.

Whether alien culture resembles our own depends on one big question: do they have sex?

A few weeks ago, NASA announced that it had discovered 700 new planets in our galaxy, 140 of them apparently “Earth-like.” People immediately went nuts speculating about life on other planets, and many scientists called for a renewed push in the largely moribund search for extraterrestrial intelligence. But before we get too excited about finding E.T., we might ask ourselves a hard question: what’s in it for us?

Stephen Hawking actually brought this up a few months ago, when he said that while he believes aliens are out there, it is probably too dangerous for us to try to interact with them. “I imagine they might exist in massive ships?.?.?.?having used up all the resources from their home planet,” he said. “Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.”

Hawking’s worry was that the aliens might be too much like us, backed by the usual clichéd portrayal of humanity as a rapacious and violent species that is nothing more than a cancer on the planet. The far more frightening possibility, though, is that the alien culture would be completely, well, alien.

There are a handful of reasons for wanting to make contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence. We would learn plenty about biology and the nature of life by seeing how it evolved on other planets, and aliens would certainly have new knowledge and technologies to share.

They also might have interesting culture, literature or music. And (if the recurring theme of virtually all sci-fi ever produced is any indication of what we’re really after), there might be an abundance of scantily clad alien females, offering the possibility of the ultimate exotic experience, space sex. But all of these make a fundamental assumption about alien species, which is that they will be pretty much like us. They will have culture and technology, and be made up of co-operative individuals possessed of curiosity, morality and a sense of justice. It also assumes they would be interested in having sex—which, as it happens, is the big question.

Why we have sex is one of the toughest problems in biology. Even on our own planet, most species don’t do it, though the complex, interesting and intelligent ones do reproduce sexually. But why? And why are there always two sexes, and not three or four or nine? Biologists don’t really know. The popular theory is that sex is a mechanism for error correction, preventing genetic errors from piling through the generations. Another theory is that sex is the turbocharger of evolution: the shuffling of genes through sex allows evolution to try out a whole bunch of phenotypic variations, allowing a species to rapidly diversify.

One thing we do know is that sex is the foundation of everything recognizably human. If we were clones, like poplar trees or certain species of ants, there would be no need for morality. Clones are genetically identical, which means from the gene’s-eye view of things, the survival of any given member is as valuable as any other.

But humans are genetic individuals. We are almost all completely unique, sharing at most one half of our DNA with our parents or siblings. And so, unlike clones, which have a deep evolutionary inclination to collective behaviour, humans have no biological reason to co-operate. Our factory setting is self-interest. We’ve had to evolve mechanisms to promote co-operation: enter religion and law, art forms like singing and dancing, and of course morality.

Sex, in a way, underlies all of this. Which means that, if we have no reason to believe aliens have sex like we do, we have no reason to believe that they’ll be anything like us at all. One possibility is that there will be more than two genders, though many biologists think that it is just too complicated a manoeuvre for evolution to stumble upon. The more worrisome possibility is that we would encounter a species of space-faring clones. Star Trek may have had it right—our biggest enemy is likely to be the Borg. Its members could not be reasoned with, and they would have no interest in sharing or ­co-operating, because the collective would have no “members” in the way we understand them. It would be like a colony of fire ants wandering through the galaxy, destroying everything in its path.

But does any of this really matter? After all, when it comes to intelligent civilizations, we have a sample size of exactly one, and we have no reason to think that’s going to change any time soon.

But Stephen Hawking raised the Malthusian stakes last week, when he posted a comment on the website bigthink.com. Blaming our genetically based “selfish and aggressive instincts,” he said we’re probably going to wreck this planet, and need to find another one within a couple of hundred years.

Hawking’s come full circle then. First he said our biggest fear is a rapacious alien species, and now he seems to be suggesting that that species is us. This is nonsense. Apparently, the great physicist of our times can’t help making the same silly assumption filmmakers always make, that aliens will, like us, have thinking, individual (and in the case of Hollywood, rather cute, humanoid) selves. The real concern is that they would be nothing like us at all.




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Aliens like us? I don’t think so.

    • Agreed, quite Canadian too

  1. It seems that the column is discussing two separate subjects.
    Hawking appeared to be commenting on contact with another life form that may or may not be to our benefit. In Hawking's case, he was
    on the not to our benefit side.
    Potter's comments on sexual reproduction in an alien race vs not like us at all may have some merit, however being 'collectivized' by a Borg like species has the same net result – the human race has an issue.
    The idea of the human race requiring another planet has been suggested numerous times. There are some very good reasons for
    this – wrecking our planet is one of them. Increased resources, survival of the race in case of extinction events, etc are some others.
    Simple development of extra-planetary resources may relieve much
    of the environmental pressures.

    • I don't see where Potter comes up with Hawking stating the rapacious species being referred to is us. While we may be expansive and aggressive – even possibly our own worst enemy. That said, I suspect that Hawking was commenting on two different scenarios, both of which could conceivably happen
      When it comes to comments – I suspect I will lean more towards careful assessment of Hawking's statements than Potter's "analysis". I don't think Hawking is noted for talking nonsense.

      • Not on physics anyway. But even intellectual giants can talk nonsense.

      • Yeah, I too believe Hawking was talking about two different scenarios… I'm not sure how the author jumped to both scenarios being his "biggest fear." That last paragraph kind of muddles an otherwise enjoyable and thought provoking article.

    • If we have the capacity to wreck this planet, we also have the same problem at the other one. This leads reasonable people to conclude that we'd have to expand to a nearly infinite number of planets, continually, at a rate faster than we destroy them.

      All we have to do is accelerate something to near the speed of light and crash it into a planet to wreck it. This means when we have the ability to travel to other planets, if it's by means we understand, the travel itself may destroy worlds as a result of vehicle crashes.

  2. The idea of grabbing another planet is fun but ultimately pretty stupid. (It might make sense if there was some leafy, fertile planet nearby to molest… but it must be further away than former planet Pluto at least.)

    The "resources" we are using up are largely synonymous with the biosphere. Clean air (with oxygen), clean water, soil, and leftover crap from the ancient biosphere (oil & gas). These items are not just sitting on any nearby planet, and the resources to create them nearby or get to them if they exist around some other star far exceed the cost of recreating them here. Perhaps if we were heavily nuclear based and running out of fissionable fuel a case could be made… but I doubt it.

    • Many of the 'resources' appear to exist in our own system, Eg: Metal ores (including rare ones), methane and large amounts of water,(which means hydrogen & oxygen as well as water). While we may not use the methane & water on earth, they could go a long way to supporting industrial activity (mining/refining?) within our system. Nuclear/solar based (or other?) energy technology would also be a concurrent developmental benefit. This may reduce some of the pollution/supply problems on earth. It is possible that it is better to spend large amounts of resources/money on developing extra-earth technology and resources than what some of our current resource/money spending is on. Environmental impact in the asteroid belt may be less of a concern than it is on earth and reducing dependence on fossil fuels is not a bad idea. You have to start somewhere and I suspect Hawking may be commenting in that direction.

      I believe there was a time when sailing to find the 'new world' was frowned upon – why should we when everyone knew you would simply fall off the edge of the world.

      • Sailing to the new world overcame the frowning-upon because it could eventually be done economically, at acceptable risk to the travellers. And the destination did not require travel over a time that would consume the adult lifetime of the participant. And the destination was hospitable to the migrants (yeah, yeah, I know, Canada… but still).

        Until anyone can demonstrate that we are anywhere near overcoming the above hindrances, I will happily take my chances with the planet I've got, thanks. What can I say; I am a bit of a homebody that way.

      • Nobody has thought that you could sail off the edge of the world for almost 3 millenia now.

        Nobody in the middle ages who had the slightest bit of education thought the world was flat.

        • Interesting. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth_of_the_Flat_Ear

          It does take some of the edge (so to speak) off of the Mr. Columbus's accomplishments. I would imagine that a fair amount of the problem is that flat-earth theorists and copernicism deniers get lumped together.

        • Straw argument

  3. The real concern is that they would be nothing like us at all.

    I can honestly say I have not harboured that concern at all. Your real concern may be that (and why? Seems like you would be disappointed at trying out some pick-up lines). If "they" exist at all, and we can just leave each other to our respective habitats for which evolution has provided our respective fitness, I am happy.

  4. Potter, your first sentence (as pointed out in this NY Times article): http://nyti.ms/9TEKon
    is inaccurate (I guess you don't have Google in Ottawa). And then it just goes downhill from there. I guess the weekly editorial meeting at Maclean's went something like this:
    Ken Whyte: So, anybody got a nice sexy, summer-reading article to spice up the next issue?
    Potter: I've got six words for you Ken: "Outraged moms, trashy daughters….. In Space!!!!"

  5. That's great Andrew, but what about the census? And will there be an election in the fall? And is Ignatieff's summer tour going to translate into increases in the polls.

  6. "One thing we do know is that sex is the foundation of everything recognizably human. If we were clones, like poplar trees or certain species of ants, there would be no need for morality."

    Leaving aside the nonsense about morality being entirely dependent on genetic competition, isn't it fairly obvious that sex doesn't distinguish humans from other animals (or even plants), but rather reason?

    • Simply put, good one. You got me thinking on that one, I like the angle. Is the human race ready for an approach like this on a mainstream level? I don't know if we could handle news like that, it would be chaos!

  7. Andrew Potter, it is abundantly clear that you forgot to submit a Message Event Proposal (MEP) to the Communications Director (CD) of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) prior to publishing this article. Stockwell Day recently brought in some consultants to help the CD of the PMO review MEPs. Based on their review, the following words and phrases must be redacted from the article: discovered, galaxy, scientists, extraterrestrial, intelligence, aliens, culture, biology, species, scantily clad alien females, ultimate exotic experience, space sex, justice, sex, it, sexually, error correction, evolution, phenotypic variations, diversify, clones, DNA, evolutionary inclination, collective behaviour, cooperate, evolve, art forms, singing and dancing, have sex, genders, biologists, space faring, Star Trek, Borg, collective, galaxy, intelligent civilizations, sample size, Stephen Hawking, Malthusian, bigthink.com, think, instincts, physicist, reason.

    The world was made by a guy called God and is just over 6,000 years old. All of this talk about anything else must be erradicated. We have collected the email addresses from all previous comments and those individuals will be collected for rethinking sessions.

  8. I couldn't help but laugh at this subject. Biologically it is impossible to interact with another sapient(Not sentient) species. Reason? Disease. Look what happened to the the aboriginal groups of Canada when the colonist came here. But instead all life would die. Then again it is possible we are completely immune to it.

    Since when did sex have anything to do with the way we acted? Maybe in the future we will clone ourselves. Sex has nothing to do with the culture, society or beliefs. If that were the case then god save us all. Whats this about "most complex" Humans are not "complex" at all. We have 24 chromosomes. There are plants that have more then us for example the Indian Fern with oh about 1280. In genetics we are not complex at all.

    Sexual reproduction is to reproduce. Nothing less nothing more. It just happened that the most evolved decided to grow males parts. Evolution is random any person who listened well in their science class understands this. Do you? I think not!

  9. I would hope aliens would be nothing like our worst human aspects.

  10. Aliens are the true test of sanity and science fiction. A rumor about a ufo sighting at our local airshow got more coverage than the airshow itself. I covered the issue on my http://www.lethbridgerealestateblog.com and was amazed to see the difference that sensationalism and fiction can bring.

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