Late last year, there was the story about a young missionary who, with Darwin award levels of foolishness, landed on North Sentinel Island, an Island populated by an uncontacted tribe known to shoot dead any intruders. And I’m pretty sure, even if you’ve not read the news, you can guess what happens next. And unfortunately, that was really the only outcome that could have come from this foolishness.
They speak a language nobody else can understand, how was he supposed to preach the good word to them? He’d have had to teach them English, then reading and writing from scratch. Then, after several years, bring up the topic of Jesus. And given that they have no immunity to outside diseases, chances are that rather a few of them would die from infection during this process.
The North Sentinelese has survived for so long precisely because they shoot any white guys on sight, while other tribes who were friendly got robbed, enslaved or colonised by white guys (makes you wonder whether the native Americans should have attacked the pilgrims on sight rather than breaking bread with them).
However, the North Sentinelese also serve as a useful case study in the handling of first contact events. Which leads one towards an interesting thought experiment in terms of how any advanced alien species would react to humans.
When one civilisation encounters another civilisation it tends to work out badly for the less advanced civilisation. However, I’d add the caveat, but only if the more advanced civilisation is white (as noted earlier) and only if they had something worth stealing. The reason why north Sentinel Island wasn’t been coercively colonised back during the British Empire days is because it holds nothing of value. Hence it was overlooked.
The same is likely to be true of earth. There is little or nothing that is unique to this planet that would be of interest to any aliens (other that piles and piles of our pollution and rubbish). Even within this solar system, you can find far greater reserves of anything you’d care to mention on other planets. Hydrocarbons? You’d want to go to Titan which has literally lakes of the stuff. Metals? The asteroid belt contains thousands of metal rich asteroids that each contain more metal than humans have ever mined in our entire history. Hydrogen or Helium? The gas giants.
In short any aliens advanced enough to make it to our solar system will also have the technology to harvest whatever they need from these planets without having to deal with the troublesome natives on this planet. And of course, why bother coming to this system in the first place, when they are plenty of nearby systems with similar (or even greater) resources.
Its often assumed that aliens would hide their presence from us (the so-called “zoo hypothesis”). But as North Sentinel shows, we don’t hide our presence from them. They’ve encountered helicopters and have probably seen the contrails of passing airliners. And ships have been wrecked on the Island often enough that, while I doubt the Islanders have access to twitter, they are almost certainly aware of the outside world and that we can make these large metally things…..course they’re probably wondering how we power them and hoping we’re using some sort of sustainable resource to do so (whose the more advanced species? Us or them, a future energy supply crunch might say otherwise).
But either way, the same is true for any alien species. They have no reason to hide themselves. And frankly it would be very difficult for them to try. Likely we’d have been first detected centuries ago by long range instruments, not too dissimilar to instruments we are now ourselves developing and deploying. So its difficult to see how an advanced alien species can hide themselves. Plus, as our unfortunate god boy shows, someone in any society will break the rules and would have let the cat out of the bag already.
Would they not be fearful of attack by us? Ya and how are we going to do that? They live hundreds (or more probably thousands) of light years away. Even if they had a ship in orbit and even if Trump fired off ICBM’s at them, these are sub-orbital missiles designed to hit a large static target (city sized!) on the ground, while a space ship is going to be moving at orbital velocities (or higher!), which will have little difficulty seeing a missile coming towards it and just manoeuvre out of the way. And that’s assuming it lacks some sort of active defence system (e.g. some sort of CIWS, or who knows laser-blasters and deflector shields).
Trying to attack such a craft with our primitive weaponry would make about as much sense as, well the North Sentinelese firing arrows at a hovering helicopter. And for the record, it would be a bad idea to shoot at them, given the consequences if they decide to shoot back. Space warfare, distinctly favours the species who holds the high ground of space. Quite apart from the fact that they have the option of simply leaving and coming back later with an even larger force.
So long as our aliens don’t do something incredibly stupid, such as land in Texas walk up to some MAGA hat wearing red neck and ask if they can make out with his prize steer, they are pretty safe. Which raises the other question, would they want to talk to us? This is a common trope in sci-fi, aliens land on the white house lawn to open up dialogue. But, even when we ignore the language barrier (you think North Sentinel Island is bad? Try talking to an alien…assuming that actually “talk” at all!) what would there be to discuss? We have nothing of value for them, why would they want to trade with us or have diplomatic relations?
And why they want to give us access to their technology? That’s likely to end two ways, either we figure out how it works and use it against them. Or, given the mess we’re making down here with the technology we’ve got, it blows up in our faces. Furthermore its reasonable to assume that the technology of any advanced interstellar species (who has access to the resources of not just one planet but multiple ones across multiple star systems) will be fairly resource hungry, probably beyond out abilities to operate. After all, ships have been wrecked on North Sentinel Island, and while the locals have scavenged the metal, they certainly aren’t trying to reverse engineer this technology and built a metal hulled diesel power ship of their own.
So any such encounters would be a lose-lose from the aliens point of view, with the added bonus of running the risk of someone shooting them. Certainly some of their scientists might want to study human culture, but given that we’re broadcasting that out into space 24/7 there’s no real need to pay a visit. Hell, they could be reading this blog post right now (which is why I for one welcome our new alien overlords). And of course there is, like North Sentinel Island, the risks of cross contamination to content with. They don’t want our nasty diseases, nor do we wish to be exposed to theirs, against which we will have no immunity.
Given that, as far as we know, we’ve never seen aliens yet, this leads us to the conclusion that aliens haven’t visited because they are either too far away and/or that making long distance space flights (between stars) is just incredibly difficult and borders on the impossible. Although, as I discussed before while this makes any contact unlikely, it doesn’t rule it completely. But it also does, as this vlog post from a sci-fi author discusses, raise a number of unsettling possibilities (that virtual reality technology gives little incentive for space flight, AI’s and Von Neumann‘s running amok, the great filter, etc).
As Arthur Clarke once said “we are either alone in the universe, or we’re not, both are equally terrifying“.