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Wednesday, 19 May 2010 08:58

Dr. J.’s BF Commentary No. 143: Stephen Hawking is Wrong

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The world-famous cosmologist Prof. Stephen Hawking recently declared:

that he believes we would be well-advised to keep the volume down on our intergalactic chatter and do all we can to prevent any "nomadic" aliens moseying our way to take a look-see. Should they find us here tucked away in the inner reaches of the solar system, chances are they'd zap us all and pillage any resources they could get their hands on. Our own history, says Hawking, proves that first encounters very rarely begin: "Do take a seat. I'll pop the kettle on. Milk? Sugar?"  Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonise whatever planets they can reach, says the theoretical physicist in 'Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking'.

Prof. Hawking has done some extremely important work in astrophysics and related fields, all of which are well beyond me.  However, here he is venturing into attempting to understand and predict how societies and political economies will develop.  Sorry, Professor.  A great astrophysicist you are, I'm sure.  A political scientist/economist, not so great.  To understand how any aliens from outer space might act if they ever managed to reach our tiny planet, one needs those two disciplines, rather than channeling Avatar. 

I happen to think that Avatar is a great movie because it is first about American imperialism and its outcomes and second has that strong environmental preservation message.  But James Cameron has projected the idea that a space mission has been mounted by a United States (the human characters all have U.S. accents) existing 150 years from now on a planet Earth that has been stripped of much of its natural resources and desecrated with an overwhelming amount of the detritus of that process. 

First of all, it is highly unlikely that 150 years from now the U.S. will have retained its overwhelming military capabilities as postulated in the film.  Unless the U.S. openly starts using the nuclear threat, given the fiscal and monetary crisis that it is heading into, it is hard to see how it will be doing so 50 years from now.  Second, there are two oncoming disasters: uncontrolled climate change (and it is uncontrolled and will almost certainly remain so) and the collapse of the U.S. education system that is well underway.  The Texas decision to make its history books, shall we say, Biblical and McCarthyite/Confederate, will only accelerate the process.  Thus, there is no way that a United States of the future could possibly find the capital, the scientific knowledge and manufacturing capability to do such a thing as mount the kind of extraterrestrial mining operation that Cameron projects.   

So we have Hawking projecting that somehow the aliens that he seems to be conjuring up from the science fiction genre created in a very early instance by H.G. Wells will somehow get here.  Then, he tells us, they will turn out, just as the great Wells wrote about and the great Wells dramatized on the radio, to be really nasty.  That means, of course, that they would be very human, at least as "human" is encapsulated by homo sapiens.  They would be a species that would, in the first instance, attack and kill members of its own, unlike most of the other animal species with which we are familiar.  They would be a species, like our own but unlike any other species with which we are familiar.  For its continued existence, this alien species relies on the conversion of resources that it finds in its environment into other things, like food from foodstuffs, shelter from wood and silicon products, and implements from metals. That is, ours, unlike any other animal species, does not and cannot simply survive and procreate simply by directly using resources that it finds in its environment.

The alien species would be one that in one way or another allocates control of the means by which those conversions are made into the hands of a relatively few of its members.  Unless they were an entirely other type of being than ourselves (and if they were to be as destructive as Prof. Hawking projects them to be, they would not be) the conversion-controllers would then proceed to promote themselves to an economic level well above that enjoyed by the vast majority of the other species members.  They would also develop a political/military system designed to ensure the continuation of that control. 

They would be a species in which armed conflict of various kinds for various reasons, but always at their base connected to the political economy, would constantly occur.  It would be armed conflict of increasing destructiveness over time as technology developed.  They would be a species, as Hawking himself projects, that like ours has very little regard for its environment.  Thus it would adopt political/economic policies for dealing with its environment that would indeed eventually lead to its total desolation, as was predicted by James Cameron for ourselves.  In other words, in making his prediction about what aliens would be like and would do if they ever were to get here, Hawking is thoroughly anthropomorphizing them.

Just as our species will never be able to mount the technological capabilities, construction capabilities, and capital requirements for getting off our own planet for any space-significant distances because of our self-destructive nature, an anthropomorphic alien species would not be able to get off their own planet for any significant distances either.  Were they as ultimately self-destructive as we are, the major characteristics of their political economy would be much like ours and would necessarily lead to evermore destructive wars. With an economy built upon the private ownership of the means of production with the focus on production for profit rather than for use to promote universal species growth and development, they would be doing to their environment what we have experienced in so little time in geological terms. 

Presumably they would have discovered nuclear energy and, like us, would not have agreed among themselves to use it just for production rather than destruction.  Such wars, like ours, would necessarily consume and subsume technology, capital and construction requirements.  Only if aliens were totally rational, sharing, and not self-destructive would they be able to mount the kind of expedition needed to reach across the universe all the way to Earth from a distance which, as far as we do know now, is a really really big one.

Indeed, in terms of geologic time, to say nothing of the unimaginable extent of the universe in which our whole galaxy is just one of many, at the rate it is going, our species will have existed on Earth for only the proverbial "twinkling of an eye."   If some alien species happened to pick up electronic transmissions from Earth, which we have been sending out only for the last hundred years or so, say hundreds of thousands of our years  in the future, by the time they could organize an exploratory expedition and then get here, unless some totally amazing, totally unpredictable changes were to take place here, Homo Sapiens would be long gone, very long gone. 

If our species were to leave behind an Earth that could somehow heal itself over a great deal of time, the process of evolution might produce a Homo species that could survive here for an indefinite period of time.  Such a species would be something along the lines of a Homo Rationalis.  To get here, oh so many years from now, an alien species would had to have evolved in the same way.  Now that would be a happy meeting.  But what Dr. Hawking is talking about is indeed out of another movie, Independence Day.  And that one, in the projected alien species, how they got here, and how we managed to triumph over it are all pure Hollywood.

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a columnist for BuzzFlash, Dr. Jonas is also Managing Editor and a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Senior Columnist for The Greanville POST; a Contributor to TheHarderStuff newsletter; a Contributor to The Planetary Movement; and a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century, POAC.