Sweet Home Amazon
For the sake of argument, we’ll freely agree to stipulate there are alien lifeforms out there, (whatever you may mean by that) of an adequately intelligent variety (again, we’ll accept any working definitions), on as many planets around as many stars as you would like to include in this here conversation. We’ll even go ahead and also grant them the capacity to exercise a modicum of control of their environment—i.e., consider them gifted with hands, trunks, tentacles, or whatever suitable piece of anatomy of theirs can be used for similar purposes as our own upper paws.
That, in ultimate analysis, would appear to be the mark of a technology-capable species with a serious chance to become dominant in its world. You need something that can grasp that stone ax (or its equivalent) so you can hit dead that nasty creature trying to eat you before you can even tame fire (or whatever passes for it), don’t you. And how exactly do you plan to build that spaceship to invade Earth if you don’t have a good pair (or dozen pairs) of tentacles?
Since they can be argued to be related, we’ll also from now on loosely regard both science and technology as two sides of the same coin, and accordingly imply either, or both, as convenient. You have roughly the technology that your science allows you to develop; and in turn, your technology allows you to acquire more science (ever heard of the Hadron Collider?)
So there. You have your intelligent, technically savvy, and science-oriented aliens. What of it?
If you feel tempted to occasionally agree with those worried about a potentially hostile, scientifically and technologically more advanced alien civilization, rest assured it is a perfectly natural, and even logical, feeling—it would take more than a moderate dose of narcissism to believe that Earth, and only Earth, is the science and technology leader in the known universe. Our Sun is roughly five billion years old, with the slightly younger Earth boasting tool-using hominids for possibly just three million years—and did we mention the Industrial Revolution, which gave us steam power, mass production, and ultimately, our present fledgling space exploration program, came about a mere three centuries ago?
Meanwhile, the closer stars are to the Milky Way nucleus, the older they are—way older than our comparatively juvenile Sun. It would make sense to consider the possibility they have planets, and civilizations. Cultures which, in accordance with the same basic reasoning, should boast a science and technology arguably surpassing those of Earth by the same margin as, say, modern Western ones outpace the knowledge and technical skills of the last remaining isolated Amazon tribes….
Distance, of course, may play a role here—the Eskimos were never conquered by Chaka Zulu, say. The Australian aborigines don’t seem to have needed to plan in a hurry how to hold off the Roman legions. At least preliminarily, therefore, we’ll consider just the immediate neighborhood of our Solar
System, and hope the nasty guys next galaxy have their hands full with their own neighbors.
At first blush, it would then appear there are three main possibilities
a) We have technologically capable neighbors all right, but they happen to be less advanced than we are. (So we don’t have to worry about them, at least for a good while, depending on how far ahead we are. Whoopee.)
b) Our neighbors, alas, are roughly as science and technically savvy as we ourselves are. (Think, if you will, of a Star Trek-like scenario; everybody with about the same gadgets. Or, given our present capabilities, every other civilization in the area enjoying a Western, middle-class life standard.) We can’t reach them, they can’t reach us. Still acceptable so far, but we can’t rule out the possibility they get ahead of us by some unexpected discovery or two. (Think America in 1945 suddenly coming up with the atomic bomb.)
c) We are the Amazonian tribe in this neighborhood—everybody else and his kid brother is way, but way ahead of us in everything science and technology. (Depressing, scary, and arguably absolutely plausible.) Uh-huh.
And now we feel it is a good time to put something to you here.
Relativity and linearity
The first European explorers of Australia carried with them a number of technological products the likes of which the aborigines had never seen and couldn’t even begin to make sense of. In turn, the explorers were equally baffled by a piece of indigenous technology arising from an empirical if adequate knowledge of aerodynamics they themselves had no clue of—the returning boomerang.
Native American groups like the Innuit could (and did) teach the first visitors from Europe a thing or two about insulation techniques. Maya medicine and calendar were more knowledgeable than those of their eventual conquerors. Interestingly enough, they seem to have never hit on the idea of the wheel, for all that they were of course aware all right of its shape.
At this point, if not earlier, you have conceivably guessed what the underlying issue here is—assessing scientific and technological superiority, or inferiority, is a tricky proposition.
Complicating things even further, the development of science and technology is anything but a linear process.
A given culture may have excellent marks on this area of technology, and that area of knowledge—only to miserably fail to grasp that other science concept that could conceivably give it an edge, and completely skip yet this other technology that you would swear was so vital that everybody should be able to discover it in due time—and thus go from A to C without having a clue B even existed. Again, both the Maya and Inca civilizations went on to achieve impressive heights without even imagining that metallurgy, with all the advantages it implies, was within their reach.
Next, there’s absolutely no guarantee that a scientific or technical development, once discovered or achieved, will go on to become part of that civilization’s capabilities—or even be taken further to a stage where it becomes a distinct advantage.
Though the Chinese invented the rocket as far back as the 10th century, it remained a relatively modest auxiliary weapon that had all but disappeared from battlefields (and from China herself) by the time the Germans at Peenemunde decided to take a different approach to it. The fifth century Greeks were already experimenting with steam machinery—only, unfortunately, they failed miserably to see its possibilities. It’s anybody’s guess what modern history would be like if that incipient technical revolution had taken root.
And in the early 1900s electrical automobiles were thought to be the future, only to be rendered moot by petrol ones—a trend that many try to reverse today. Incidentally, petrol cars used the same combustion engine technology that in turn allowed heavier-than-air flying machines, cutting short the hitherto seemingly unstoppable development of blimps for air transport….
Therefore we can go ahead and postulate the possibility (and plausibility) of an alien culture in possession of some of our technologies, while lacking some others. Like, say, they have space-faring vehicles, but no radio (which
incidentally was the case of Wells’ Martians). Or they developed the laser, but have no hint that computers could be even a possibility. Or…or…
A strong advantage here—an Achilles’ heel there. What side could emerge the winner in a (wildly speculative, we would hope) clash between any one of those myriads of plausible civilizations and ours is left as an exercise for the gentle reader.
(To be continued…)