Intergalactic imperialism?

May 14, 2010

Scientist Stephen Hawking thinks that if extraterrestrials ever came to Earth, they would try to conquer and exploit us. Brian Lenzo begs to differ.

SOMETIMES SMART people say really dumb things.

Famous British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking warned on his most recent Discovery Channel special, Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking, that if extraterrestrial intelligent life ever visits Earth, it might not be so friendly.

There is no doubt that Dr. Hawking is among the most intelligent terrestrials. In a country where school boards routinely try to introduce creationism into science curricula and general scientific literacy is at shockingly low levels (U.S. students scored 11 points below the average scores of the 30 OECD nations in science subjects), Dr. Hawking commands an almost unmatched authority when it comes to scientific speculation.

For this reason, his recent musings on extraterrestrial life are worth looking at a little closer.

"Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they could reach," Hawking said. "If so, it makes sense for them to exploit each new planet for material to build more spaceships so they could move on. Who knows what the limits would be?"

Stephen Hawking delivers a lecture at a celebration of NASA's 50th anniversary
Stephen Hawking delivers a lecture at a celebration of NASA's 50th anniversary (Paul E Alers | NASA)

I love these science shows for the same reasons many people do. They challenge us to think above and beyond the day-to-day nonsense. They explore questions of existence and the structure of our universe. Why is there something rather than nothing? Fascinating.

However, Dr. Hawking's prognostications about alien life are about as insightful and scientific as a pay-per-minute psychic at the carnival. It is a notion more expected from Stephen Colbert than Stephen Hawking.

Ironically, Hawking unwittingly constructs an alien version of his former rivals Fred Hoyle, Thomas Gould and Hermann Bondi's treatise--the so-called "Steady State" theory.

According to Hawking, this is it, folks. Capitalism is not only the best we can do on Earth, it's the best any civilization anywhere in the cosmos can hope to achieve, ever. Hawking seems to be suggesting that the things we associate with capitalism--war, poverty, environmental degradation--are not only part of human nature, but are general facts of existence.

A civilization that has figured out interstellar travel has somehow not figured out how to satisfy their basic needs of food and energy in a sustainable manner. It doesn't seem to matter how long a civilization has existed or how advanced they have become: scarcity, competition for resources, and war are the universal norms.

Someone better tell Al Gore that he's wasting his time. (What a bummer.)

BUT DON'T worry too much. Like the global warming deniers, Hawkings predictions rest on shaky scientific ground.

When you think of the time scales involved in cosmic terms, a state of generalized war on this planet is only a very, very recent development--a couple thousand years old at most.

The development of consumption to the level that it outpaces a planet's natural resources is an even more recent phenomenon, and even that is dependent on a particular society's level of technological development at a particular time. For example, there's plenty of water and light on earth; we just haven't figured out how to turn them into energy yet (in large quantities anyway).

Genetic research has shown that competition, violence and greed are no more a part of the human biology than skateboarding, text messaging and protesting.

In reality, Hawking is comfortably playing the role many "intellectual" luminaries play in our society. They construct a scientific rationale for the current state of affairs (some might call it the "status quo") in order to paint these circumstances as normal and universal.

Put more elegantly, Karl Marx wrote in The German Ideology:

The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance...

Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus, their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch.

In Hawking's case, it may not have specific ends, but as a member of the intellectual elite of our society, such an outlook becomes second nature.

More imaginative might be a vision where a civilization has unlocked the power of atomic fusion or harnessed the immense energy of light. Such a civilization may have left the worries of hunger, war and greed in the past by millennia--instead, genuine cooperation and curiosity drive the initiative to explore the cosmos.

Maybe such a society would want to visit us, embrace its distant cousins as family and teach us a few things about real enjoyment and leisure.

Dr. Hawking (and many others) may call such a vision utopian and a dream world. However, someone once said, "If you're not dreaming, you're just asleep." At the very least, it's a vision much more based in scientific fact than imperialist aliens.

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