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Since 1898, when H.G. Wells published "The War of the Worlds", the invasion of Earth by hostile alien powers has been a recurring theme in science fiction. At first the aliens came from other planets in our own solar system, Mars being quite popular. Even as late as 1954 the movie "Target Earth" had invaders coming from Venus. But some invaders were described as coming from Earth-like planets revolving around other stars. As astronomers gained a clearer knowledge of our solar system and biologists gained a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of life, the interplanetary invaders went away and the interstellar invaders remained as the presumed viable threat to Earth and Humanity.
They are certainly evil. They come to rob, to enslave, or to destroy Humanity. In many stories we canít even talk to them: they come as essentially mindless purveyors of death and destruction, like a plague. Wellsís Martians slouch before us as the primary example of that kind of invasion.
Amid the horror and the glorious battles, something tends to get lost in the stories. Itís a simple question: why are they doing this? What motive drives them to attack Earth?
Even if they possess hyperdrive, the mechanism that enables their starships to feign flying faster than light by driving them through hyperspace, an interstellar voyage is not a minor endeavor. The reason behind a hostile invasion would have to be a compelling one in order to justify the expense and the effort of projecting a hostile force across dozens, if not hundreds, of lightyears of empty space.
We assume, reasonably, that alien people originate in the same chemistry-based process of evolution that produced us. They would not likely look like us, though. Evolution almost certainly follows a different path on other planets. It doesnít take much to change a world completely. If a certain asteroid had not hit Earth 65 million years ago, then the people of this planet might look like human-sized velociraptors. Real aliens will likely look just as different from us.
Nonetheless, they will still have recognizable needs. As biological beings they require nutrition, shelter, security, and reproduction. As sentient beings they require social interaction. They can well meet those needs with the resources of their own solar system, just as we will be able to meet all of our needs with the resources of our solar system far into the foreseeable future. If an alien force came to Earth with hostile intent, then we can infer a serious deficiency in their civilization.
We have examples of alien invasions in our own past to illustrate what I mean. Those invasions provided the inspiration for the science-fictional ones.
Consider "The War of the Worlds". Europeans were shocked when they read it, but if it had been shown to members of any one of a number of aboriginal societies, it would have been all too familiar to them. Wells intended his story to give his people a taste of what they had been doing to technologically less advanced societies around the world.
But those invasions and the atrocities that went with them were not gratuitous. They were intended to fill voids that Europeans conceived in their lives: they were intended to acquire luxury goods Ė gold, silver, spices, rubber, exotic fabrics such as silk, and so on. The invasions were driven by a ravening greed for material luxury.
A more recent example comes from Germany in the fourth and fifth decades of the Twentieth Century. Dictatorships are notoriously incompetent at the organizing and promotion of economic activity and the Hitler cult was no exception. In the aftermath of World War I and in the Great Depression Germanyís economy faltered. The country could no longer produce enough food to satisfy its peopleís appetite nor enough trade goods to obtain more. Instead of enabling and promoting greater efficiency in food and trade goods production, the Nazi state invested its resources in military hardware, so that it could invade and rob other countries.
In addition, the Nazis imposed upon Germany a doctrine that we can reasonably identify as a mass inferiority complex. Feeling that the rest of the world looked down on them in their degraded state, the German people gave their assent to a doctrine which proclaimed that they were a superior breed of Humanity, a legendary "Master Race", due whatever they demanded from "lesser" people. It was a demented doctrine, meant to cover up feelings of inferiority (by creating a Potemkin village of the mind) instead of overcoming them. Because it was based entirely on deceit, it aroused in the Nazis an intense fear of exposure and thus led to the worst atrocities in modern history.
Is there any possibility of us seeing that kind of horror coming from the stars? Because that kind of behavior comes from a sense of inadequacy, we need to see what kind of deficiencies would drive aliens into hostile acts.
Material insufficiency goes away quickly as a consideration. Any aliens capable of interstellar flight will have all of the resources of their own solar system available to them and will have the knowledge that lets them transform those resources into any form they want. The idea of aliens coming to Earth to steal resources (such as the reptilian aliens in the 1983 television miniseries "V" taking Earthís water) is pure nonsense.
But suppose the aliens have overpopulated their own solar system and need to import resources. If such a thing were even possible, they would most likely harvest uninhabited solar systems, which would be closer to theirs. Even if they had to use our resources (coming from Alpha Centauri perhaps?), they could harvest our Oort Cloud and Kuyper Belt (the vast reservoirs of comets and planetoids that orbit our sun) without us even noticing. But overpopulation of a solar system, involving trillions of people outrunning that systemís resources, is an act of imprudence beyond comprehension. It is not something that we would expect to see in a scientifically literate society, as an interplanetary civilization must, of necessity, be.
Here on Earth we have discovered that as a society develops improved living conditions, the birthrate falls and the population stabilizes. The same would be true of alien societies, so we are unlikely to see an invasion of extraterrestrial desperadoes.
Might aliens fall prey to some mental deficiency that would drive them into a hostile mission? Could some feature of their civilization release "monsters from the id" and drive them insane? Seven different possibilities exist for such monsters.
1. Pride comes first. Itís the chief failing of those who enjoy abusing others. But thereís a subtle distinction we must make.
Surely, we think, the aliens must take great pride in their technological prowess. Interstellar flight is a tremendous achievement of intellect and will, the hallmarks of a civilized people. But that achievement cultivates self-esteem, the sense that one can accomplish great things. Calling that pride is to use a misnomer.
Actual pride, on the other hand, the deadly sin, reflects an effort to hide an emptiness. A person of no value, in their self-estimation, will carry on as though they were superior to all others and deserving of the utmost deference. They offer no benefit to their society, they refuse to learn how to confer benefits on others, and yet proclaim themselves worthy of all benefit. Pride thus reflects a failure of mental growth and becomes an element in further retarding that growth.
It is certainly possible for a society to display technical achievement and at the same time suffer moral retardation. Thatís a good description of Nazi Germany. But one of the fundamental features of Nazi doctrine was a refusal to accept responsibility for their deficiencies and failures, an obsession with blaming others, a manifestation of a festering pride. People who have spent any time living in space will not enjoy the luxury of that mental defect; the consequences would be deadly. So itís unlikely that an interstellar civilization would display the sin of pride.
2. What can we say about envy, the unhappiness that comes from seeing other people being successful? Such resentment comes from the sense of oneís own inadequacy to gain success. Here, too, vanity comes into play, covering oneís inadequacies with an illusion of superior ability.
Do we have some success that aliens might resent? Not in the material and technological realm, certainly. Neither do we exceed them in the moral realm: weíre still striving to achieve a unified society on a single planet. No, thereís nothing here for them to envy.
3. Wrath looks like a good possibility. Whenever we encounter something that frustrates us, that interferes with our plans or our assumptions about Reality, we get angry. When the English and the Spanish came to the Americas, they were enraged by the presence of people who dared to be different from them. Might aliens come to Earth with a similar hostility toward people whose languages and cultures differ from theirs?
Surely they would not be so stupid as to believe that we should speak their language or share their cultural beliefs. Yes, the language barrier is frustrating, but it would be easily breached. If they have not already done so from observing our television transmissions, the aliensí computers will quickly and efficiently work out the means to translate between our languages. And having endured their own struggle to create a higher civilization, they surely would not begrudge us ours. Only people who have no faith in themselves need to force others to conform to their ways.
4. Sloth seems unimaginable in a star-faring civilization. But sloth isnít just laziness. It is better described as indifference, with laziness being one consequence of that defect.
Apathy and despair are not qualities that we expect to see manifested in an advanced civilization, yet they appear in our own. We see them typically in impoverished neighborhoods, places that have been excluded from the mainstream of economic and cultural activity. To a large extent that situation has its origin and maintenance in racial animosity, which reflects a sense of inadequacy in parts of the dominant culture. Such demoralization, inflicting a sense of futility upon a segment of the population, is a detriment to the society itself, a festering sore that degrades the quality of life elsewhere.
The motive for diminishing people in that way also boils down to sloth. The apathetic acceptance of a flawed social structure leads to the creation and maintenance of a degenerate hierarchy (think of the Jim Crow South). It seems unlikely that a space-dwelling, star-faring civilization would allow such inefficiency to plague its social structure, just as we no longer allow something like the Inquisition or gladiatorial displays to deform our society.
5. Avarice, more commonly known as greed, comes from an obsessive sense of insufficiency and the anxiety that it generates. The material culture that we expect to see associated with any aliens we meet would seem to preclude any manifestation of greed.
But our material culture is larger and more elaborate than what Americans had only a century ago, yet greed is still a major moral issue in American culture. Greed acts like a black hole: the more it draws in, the harder it sucks. It alienates people from each other and corrodes the camaraderie that pervades a good and decent society. We still have a system in which people produce goods and services through their own labor and some people come of age feeling inadequate to participate in that economic system. Feeling that they donít deserve it, they become greedy for the fruits of othersí labor.
Any society that can live in space Ė and that would be a necessary precursor to interstellar flight Ė would have solved the moral problem posed by greed. The sense of insufficiency that drives avarice would not exist in people, if only because robots would be doing all of the productive labor. Certainly aliens will possess the psychological knowledge to mitigate such a failing.
6. Gluttony could be described as avarice directed at food and drink. Certainly is can refer to quantity, which is what we mean when we talk about people making pigs of themselves. But gluttony also refers to an obsession with quality, an over-fastidiousness regarding the sensations that we get from eating and drinking. Think of the culture of wine tasting or of gourmet dining. That latter aspect of gluttony does not even seem sinful and is regarded as an aspect of high culture. As long as enjoying those pleasures does not interfere with normal living, thatís true.
If they evolved on a world like Earth, aliens might be able to consume at least some terrestrial foods or beverages without ill effect. If thatís the case, then there is a reason for them to come here. However, we should expect tourists rather than invaders: after all, we donít send armies to France to sample the wine and cheese.
7. In spite of the claims in the stereotypical flying saucer stories, aliens meeting Earth people will not likely be consumed by lust. Even if they are humanoid, we still wonít look right or smell right to them and vice versa. True, some humans perform the sex act on animals and inanimate objects, but those perversions reflect a defect in the human psyche. A flux of hormones, triggered by environmental cues, will arouse the libido and a frustrated libido will find perverse satisfactions. The admonition to "think clean thoughts" and thereby control the libido only works for people who are properly conditioned to respond to it. Aliens will be properly conditioned.
A society that can live successfully in space must be a society at peace with itself. That may take the existence of medications or dietary supplements that can control a bodyís hormones and a culture that conditions people in the wisdom to use those tools properly. The aliens will likely have that. It is highly unlikely that aliens will come to Earth to abduct our women.
So far I have been assuming that the aliens who come to Earth represent the mainstream of a well-developed technological society. What happens if thatís not a good assumption? Suppose that the aliens who come here are their societyís disaffected. They may be outcast refugees, like the Pilgrims who came to Massachusetts in 1620, or opportunists seeking to raise their social status, like the Conquistadors who invaded the Americas in the Sixteenth Century. In either case, the invaders come to assert dominance over the natives to make up for their feelings of social inferiority and abuse the natives in order to display their dominance. Before aliens who come here to inflict such abuse, we would be at least as helpless as the Native Americans were before the European onslaught.
It is unlikely that the history of an alien civilization would not contain incidents similar to the invasion of the Americas. They would see warning signs in their own society and take action to prevent the growth of disaffection that leads to groups splitting off and going out to abuse others. Such actions would be necessary to the creation of a successful space-dwelling society. So we shouldnít expect to see aliens coming to convert us at phaserpoint to the worship of the One True Pupa. The mental defect that leads to such behavior would simply not exist in their society.
Might the danger to Earth be less premeditated? "War of the Worlds" actually occurred in reverse here on Earth, with the invaders introducing lethal diseases to a helpless native population. It was the Europeans who brought influenza, smallpox, and other diseases that more than decimated the Native Americans through the Sixteenth Century and beyond, thereby making the Americas easier to take.
Like us, aliens would certainly understand the causes of disease as our ancestors did not prior to the end of the Nineteenth Century. In their concern not to get diseases from us or to give us diseases, they will have developed a medical technology that would make the transmission of infectious diseases in either direction virtually impossible.
A superior civilization, one capable of sending people traveling among the stars, will be a thing of exquisite moral beauty. If we see people coming to Earth from beyond the limit of the solar system, we will be wary (in accordance with our fundamental nature) but we will almost certainly discover their intentions toward us to be entirely peaceful.
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