A group of scientists in California recently unveiled plans to advertise Earth’s existence to space aliens, and invite them to visit. This prospect should terrify anyone familiar with the history of imperialism and conquest. On our planet, when a civilization that considers itself superior encounters a “lower” one, the result has usually been enslavement or massacre. Aliens would probably treat us just as pitilessly.
Reaching out to extraterrestrial intelligence is the worst idea ever. It transcends follies committed by individual nations because it exposes all humanity to destruction. “Fatal embrace!” Herman Melville cried when he saw Pacific Islanders welcoming Europeans. “They fold to their bosom the vipers whose sting is destined to poison all their joys.”
Human history must guide any debate about whether we should trumpet our presence to aliens. It tells of many who suffered and died because they attracted the attention of powerful predators. Spain sought gold in the New World, so entire civilizations were crushed. Belgium wanted rubber from the Congo and did not mind killing half of the 16 million Congolese to get it. Other examples fill many books.
These slaughters were possible because the perpetrators believed themselves inherently superior, and therefore licensed to eliminate lesser creatures. Winston Churchill favored gassing “uncivilized tribes” because “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph.” Theodore Roosevelt said he didn’t believe the only good Indian was a dead Indian, “but I believe nine out of every 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
Aliens might feel the same way about us, especially if they are, in Bertrand Russell’s words, “as superior to ourselves as we are to jellyfish.” In that case, they will not hesitate to brutalize us, eat us, or simply swat us away. There is no reason to presume they will have developed compassion or altruism. If aliens are anything like human beings, we should hide from them.
Some radio astronomers, however, believe we should do the opposite: attract their attention. For decades they have been listening for signals from outer space through a modestly-funded program called Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI. At a conference last month in California that was sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, several unveiled plans to take a fateful next step. No longer satisfied with simply listening, they want to beam active signals — perhaps including the entire Internet — into deep space. They call this METI — Messaging to Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence.
Some scientists are alarmed by the prospect of METI. A few days after the California conference, 28 signed a statement warning that extraterrestrial intelligence is likely to be millions of years more advanced than humanity, and could be hostile. “METI programs carry unknown and potentially enormous implications and consequences,” they wrote. “We feel the decision whether or not to transmit must be based upon a worldwide consensus, and not a decision based upon the wishes of a few individuals with access to communications equipment.”
Fantasies about alien invasion are staples of popular culture. Some of the best, like H.G. Wells’s classic “The War of the Worlds,” are allegories about the rapacity of imperialism. The two phenomena are closely linked, as the physicist Stephen Hawking has recognized. “If aliens visit us,” Hawking predicted, “the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”
It may be humanity’s fate to be discovered by aliens, and even to be destroyed by them. But we should not invite that end. History teaches us that interventions from afar can bring catastrophe. We should be guided by those experiences, in intergalactic as well as international relations.
One day there will be a last poem written on Earth, and a last song sung. It would be lamentable if humanity’s last instinct is, “Let’s invite aliens to help us! They’ll probably be friendly!”
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.