Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life: A Threat or an Opportunity

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

In my post of Avi Loeb’s Extraterrestrial, I promised that we would come back to the implications of the discovery of intelligent extraterrestrial life on humanity and the philosophy of the code. Today, we make good on that promise. In this post, we will examine what the impact would be and offer a suggestion as to what would be the right course of action in the event of the discovery of other intelligent life. But first, what do we mean by intelligent life?

"alien graffiti" by Chris Radcliff is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Intelligent life is a hard thing to define as, in essence, every living being has intelligence in some form. Universally, they use this intelligence to promote their survival. The more intelligent they are, the more they alter their physical environment to promote their own survival and that of their species. What we are talking about, therefore, is more spectrum of intelligence rather than a binary measure. With beings that simply respond to the physical world’s stimuli being the least intelligent, and those that build nests or create and use tools to shape the physical world for their benefit being more intelligent. However, this does not tell us where the line between intelligent life such as us or non-intelligent life lies.

For this, we need to understand that when we talk of intelligent life, we really mean life that is equivalent to ourselves. By this, we do not mean generally that the lifeform should look like us or even be mammalian, instead, we mean that the life form should have generally equivalent or superior capabilities to help or harm as we do. Or, in other words, we admit or rather would admit to a species as being intelligent if its ability to manipulate its environment was equivalent to or greater than our own.

"File:Arimine Dam survey.jpg" by Qurren is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

To measure, we need only to find the lowest level of technology or environmental adaption that we developed, which has not been replicated by other unrelated species. This level is that found around the stone-age when we began to develop specialised tools. If this level of technological sophistication is used as the threshold for intelligent life, then it should provide us with a clear litmus test for intelligent life in the universe. Life that has developed specialised tools is intelligent and possesses a clear ability to advance technologically. While life that has not developed such tools is not intelligent regardless of their mental capacity. I.e., while a dog or a dolphin may be smart, it is not a form of intelligent life until it crosses the threshold of producing specialised tools.

The differentiation of intelligent life from non-intelligent life is important because as humanity moves out into the universe (assuming that we do) and encounters other lifeforms, we will need to differentiate between those lifeforms that are a systematic threat and those that are not. To illustrate what I mean by this statement, consider the difference between a pack of wolves and a tribe of stone-age humans.

The wolves are undoubtedly dangerous, yet that danger is limited through their lack of developmental capacity. The pack of wolves may kill a human or even many humans to satiate their hunger. However, their violence will be limited to the satisfaction of immediate needs. That pack of wolves will be as dangerous in a thousand years or in ten thousand years. The tribe of humans, however, present a different proposition.

The human tribe possessing abstract intelligence will act violently for reasons different than the wolves. They will kill to satisfy their basic needs but also to satisfy their future needs. Unlike the wolves, they will develop new methods and techniques to promote their survival, creating new and more effective tools. As such, they will be more dangerous in a thousand years or in ten thousand years. What is more, humans can learn the techniques and technology of more advanced groups quickly, further developing their level of long-term systematic risk. In short, the wolves may kill a man but they will never threaten the survival of our species. An intelligent lifeform (represented by stone-age humans) as it develops technologically and numerically would inevitably present a threat as it competes with us for resources and space.

In this way, if humanity encounters other intelligent lifeforms in the universe, be they primitive or advanced technologically, they would be a threat to the survival of humanity in the long run. They would be a threat to us just as we would be to them. This threat might be acceptable if our planetary requirements were sufficiently different so that we were not competing for living space. However, if the intelligent species required an Earth-like planet, its long-term systematic risk would be extreme. In the long-term provided the species were not genetically compatible, i.e., could not breed, both would end up competing for the same limited resources.

Consider if tomorrow we discovered a planet around another star that could support human life (we have already found thousands). We managed to build spaceships that could transport us to this world, and on arrival, we discovered a second Earth. Alien, yes, but with remarkably similar environmental conditions and able to support Earth plants and animals. This one extra world would represent a doubling of human potential and a significant increase in the long-term chances of human survival. It would be undoubtedly in our interests to settle the world. Ideally, this world would simply lack any intelligent life, allowing us to claim it as ‘Terra Nullus’. However, if there were other intelligent life, we’d face a conundrum between treating them as equals, limiting their development, or exterminating them.

In the long run, the safest and best option would always be to exterminate any intelligent life that was not genetically compatible with us. Failing to do this would almost inevitably create a situation in the future whereby the other intelligent life forms would come into conflict with us for resources and ultimately survival. As such, whenever it is possible, on encountering intelligent life, we should exterminate it before it could become a threat. Whenever it is not possible for us to exterminate them, we should befriend them and treat them as possessing equal value as ourselves. What we should not do is follow a middle course such as attempting to limit their development or interfering with their societies. As with the advice given to Sammites on capturing the Roman army at the Claudine Forks in the high stakes of galactic survival, we must not take half measures. We must destroy the threat either by violence or by kindness—half measures will lead only to disaster.

This may seem harsh and brutal, but if humanity enters the Galactic stage, we will be moving from a paradigm where distance is measured in kilometres and the timescales are in years, to one in which we will be forced to think in Astronomical Units (150 million kilometres) or Parsecs (30.9 trillion kilometres) and the timescales will be in decades, centuries, and millennia. The scale of the universe is beyond human comprehension, and if we are to survive in it, we will need to expand outwards and calculate the risks over centuries and millennia rather than only for today. Whenever we determine that a risk to our species exists, we must act decisively and without mercy or perish in the long run.

If humanity first encounters intelligent life from outside our own planet, our societies will be changed forever. On the day that intelligent life is found amongst the stars, our sky will cease to be just the sky, it will be transformed forever into a window to danger. If we are very lucky, we will find ourselves in a universe that is filled with non-intelligent life. If we are lucky, we will be amongst the first species to walk amongst the stars at least in our galaxy. However, if we are not lucky, we may be preparing to move out into a crowded universe, or worse yet, will be contacted while we are still trapped helplessly here on Earth.

Either way, if humanity is to survive in a universe with other intelligence, we will need to put aside the old biases and recognise that regardless of our sex, skin colour, or ancestries, we are all humans, and as such, we have more in common than what separates us. We will need to temper our competition with each other with that of the common good of mankind and perhaps, in time, we will need to learn to share the galaxy with other beings.

Our philosophy is flexible enough to accommodate this next chapter in human history. Our morality being focused on the welfare of our families and communities, and untimely, our species, allows for both the brutality of pre-emptive extermination and the equal integration of other intelligent lifeforms into our society. In this world or any other, our purpose as humans will remain the same and we will continue to advocate for the alignment of our actions with the long-term welfare of our families, communities, and species.

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