Lex Galactica and Cosmic Violence

If the nearest civilization is 200 light-years away, it’ll take it about 200 years to get from there to here at close to the speed of light.

Even at one percent of a tenth of a percent of the speed of light, beings from nearby civilizations could have come during the tenure of humanity on Earth. Why are they not here?

There are many possible answers. Perhaps we are really the first ever technical civilisation to emerge in the history of our Galaxy or even in the Universe (although it runs contrary to the heritage of Aristarchus and Copernicus).

Perhaps there is some unforeseen problem to interstellar spaceflight (although, at speeds much less than the velocity of light it is difficult to see what such an impediment might be).

Perhaps we are mistaken in our belief that at least some civilizations avoid self-destruction and manage to find a way to travel in deep space.

Perhaps their representatives are here, among us, but in hiding because of some Lex Galactica, some ethic of non-interference with emerging civilizations. In this case they might be here, curious and dispassionate, observing us, as we would watch a bacterial culture in a dish of agar, to determine whether, this year again, we manage to avoid self-destruction.

But there is another explanation that is consistent with everything we know. If an advanced interstellar spacefaring civilization emerged 200 light-years away, it would have no reason to think there was something special about the Earth unless it had been here already. No artifact of human technology, not even our radio transmissions, has had time, traveling at the speed of light, to reach their planet. From the point of view of such a civilisation, all systems may be equally attractive for exploration or even colonization.

A standard motif in science fiction UFO literature assumes extraterrestrials roughly as capable as we. Perhaps they have a different sort of spaceship or ray gun, but in battle – and science fiction loves to portray battles between civilizations – they and we are rather evenly matched.

But in fact, there is almost no chance that tow galactic civilizations will interact at the same level.

Indeed, in any confrontation, one civilisation will always utterly dominate the other.

A million years is a great many. If an advanced civilization were to arrive in our solar system, there would be nothing whatever we could do about it. Their science and technology would be far beyond ours.

It is pointless to worry about the possible malevolent intentions of an advanced civilization with whom we might make contact. The mere fact they have survived so long means they have learned to live with themselves and others. Our fears about extraterrestrial contact are merely a projection of our own backwardness, an expression of our guilty conscience about our past history: the ravages that have been visited on civilizations only slightly more backward than we. We remember Columbus and the Arawaks, Cortés and the Aztecs, even the fate of the Tlingit in the generations after La Pérouse. We remember and we worry.

But if an interstellar armada appears in our skies, we can predict we will be accommodating: A very different kind of contact is much more likely – the case in which we receive a rich, complex message from another civilization space, but do not make, at least for a while, physical contact with them. In this case there is no way for the transmitting civilization to know whether we have received the message. If we find the contents offensive or frightening, we are not obliged to reply. But if the message contains valuable information, the consequences for our own civilization will be stunning – insights on alien science and technology, art, music, politics, ethics, philosophy and religion, and most of all, a profound deprovincialization of the human condition.

aliens on the earth

When they show up high in our sky we’ll remember the fate of undeveloped peoples on our planet, that’s why we worry about our fate. Image: © Megan Jorgensen

See also: