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Will Aliens Want to Eat Us?

Our ideas of evil aliens are probably wrong.

Credit: Ken Barthelmey

The idea that the alien life forms we may someday make contact with will want little more than simply to rip us limb from limb and devour our flesh to satiate their interstellar appetites isn’t new. It’s definitely been one of the most basic notions about extraterrestrial life since the early 20th century and Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast.

However, aliens weren’t always the “bad guys”. In the earliest days of thought regarding potential alien life, after the Copernican Revolution began and the invention of the telescope and proof that there were many other celestial bodies, the idea that some of those places might indeed harbor life of the alien variety began to be taken seriously by the scientific community. These versions of extraterrestrial life were often seen as possibly much like life on Earth: living in a natural order of their own and created by the same God (for those who believed). The very notion that they were so distant wasn’t quite developed by that point — we could hardly conceive of interstellar distances at that point — but this new knowledge definitely kindled the imaginations of centuries’ worth of scientists, philosophers and writers.

Much of the focus early on was on the planets in our own Solar System, particularly Mars and the gas giants. Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher of the 1500s, thought that every single star system was extremely similar to our own, an infinite universe where planets with life abounded. Anton Maria Schyrleus of Rheita, a 17th century Czech astronomer, supposed that Jupiter’s inhabitants, if it had any, would be taller and appear more resplendent than we humans on Earth — because, of course, the inhabitants would reflect the appearance of their planet, would they not?

By the early 1900s, Mars had taken over the popular and scientific imagination when it came to the discussion of alien life, following the telescopic observations that showed “canals” on the Red Planet. H. G. Wells had written his War of the Worlds novel, kicking off what would become a common theme regarding alien life throughout the next 100+ years. Astronomer, businessman and founder of the Lowell Observatory in Arizona believed that the canals were evidence of a long-lost Martian civilization. Before the 1910s, though, improved telescopes and spectroscopic analysis ruled out the canals as being built by some advanced Martian people, as well as the possibility that Mars had a life-sustaining atmosphere.

The hopes for Martian life never died out completely, though, and ideas that Martian civilization had either fled the planet long before or moved into underground cities flourished. Jules Verne, Garrett P. Serviss and Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about life on Mars and in other seemingly inhospitable places like the “center of the Earth” during this time as well. The mid-20th century became a time of vast potential for life in the cosmos as science fiction grew into a strong genre across all forms of media.

Orion Nebula: Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash

Our collective desire to look for life outside of Earth became known as SETI — the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. This began with telescopic observation and progressed to monitoring for radio signals as the 20th century wore on. Astronomer Frank Drake’s Project Ozma was perhaps the first focused use of radio telescope technology as he looked specifically at Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani, both relatively close (10–12 light years) and fairly good candidates at the time for exoplanets. Despite finding nothing interesting, radio astronomy became the primary tool for SETI scientists. It is reasoned that any intelligent life that has been around long enough will at some point develop radio technology, and we will therefore be able to detect their presence.

Despite the optimistic drive behind much of this research, the idea that our interstellar neighbors might not be very friendly continued to persist. There were 3 notable peaks of this point of view in the 20th century: War of the Worlds, Day of the Triffids, and the Alien/s films. All of these representations have the aliens killing us humans in one way or another for various purposes.

The alien invasion trope grew to huge proportions and to this day consumes nearly half of the entire science fiction genre. Aliens want to: get rid of humans and live on Earth in our stead; interbreed with humans; kill all humans to prevent us from becoming a spacefaring civilization; use us for Mengele-like experimentation; or treat the Earth like a giant smorgasbord.

Indeed, sending our own radio signals and probes out into space might amount to us announcing the arrival of a new fast food chain to a host of hungry aliens.

The idea that aliens might want to eat us is actually not grounded in science at all. We would need to have compatible biochemistries, which is unlikely given the probable differences in ratios of elements on alien worlds. Even if water is a prerequisite for life, that in itself would not dictate biochemical suitability. Sure, there is almost definitely alien life that would be hostile to us — whether because they see us as a threat or simply because that is how they react to anything that might resemble their prey — but after those creatures get one taste of us they will simply spit us out or possibly even die when the iron in our blood poisons them.

There are more reasons why an advanced alien species probably wouldn’t want to do us harm. For instance, if they were masters of interstellar travel it would also be likely they would be able to see the efficiency of mechanization over enslaving another species to do their work for them. Why go through all that trouble when you could just create robots that can do all the work for you — including making more robots? Interbreeding wouldn’t work for the same reason that aliens probably won’t be able to eat us: a mismatch of biochemistry.

Would aliens want our natural resources? Again, if your species can cross galactic-scale distances they wouldn’t have a need for petrochemicals or coal. Water is available in greater quantities elsewhere beyond Earth — even in our own Solar System there is far more water on Europa, and E.T. won’t have to fight anyone to procure it. The same goes for valuable elements like helium, iridium, tungsten, gold and platinum. Those can be found in gas giants and the asteroid belt.

Even if all life really does need water and for their homeworld to be located within a star’s habitable “Goldilocks” zone, it would be doubtful a technologically superior race would bother traveling so far to colonize Earth when they could probably use some of their vast know-how to terraform planets much nearer to their original location. In fact, we’ve discovered hundreds of such worlds that might be good terraforming candidates.

Based on these ideas, the most likely reason why some alien intelligence might visit our Solar System might be to just visit us on some mission of exploration. Looking at ourselves, our trajectory into the near future seems to be one of building orbital bases and eventually settling a large population on Mars. By the time we have the tech to reliably reach our nearest stellar neighbor (Proxima Centauri at 4.23 light years), we will be well on our way to turning Mars into a sister-Earth. The main reason for us to make that journey would be to see what’s there…and who’s there.

We won’t be going into deep space to find food or to blow up anyone we find. We’ll be going there with open minds…not open mouths. In all likelihood, the same logic will apply to our cosmic cousins.

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