By James Riley
Bacon is tasty, very tasty. It’s so tasty that my moral objection to the industrial-scale murder of sentient animals dissipates with each and every ketchup-soaked bite. This is a weakness on my part. I’m theoretically ethical but practically perverse. It’s a great way to be. You get to rest your nose on the edge of the moral high ground, whilst your body swings in the succulent depravity below. But in all sincerity, I would argue that an extension of vegetarian philosophy is the only possible way we could survive an encounter with extra-terrestrial life. Let’s just hope astro-porcine is less alluring.
I’m pretty optimistic about alien life, not only about its existence but also about its intelligence and intentions. As unnerving as it is to disagree with such a great man, I must confess I don’t share Stephen Hawking’s view: “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”
On earth, species have certain ecological niches, their relational position to other species and their way of life in an ecosystem. Interplanetary, interstellar or even intergalactic life may follow a similar pattern. What niches come down to is competition for resources in a given environment. If one day we do share an interstellar environment with other intelligent species, there will no doubt be different ways of ‘making a living’ between the stars. But as soon as competition for resources enters the equation, we have a problem.
If aliens come here to harvest a resource that we also depend on, then we will undoubtedly lose due to the competitive exclusion principle. According to this principle, also known as Gause’s Law, two species that are competing for the exact same resource cannot stably coexist. Furthermore the species with even the smallest competitive advantage will be successful in the long run. As the aliens will have traversed interstellar space to reach us, our technology and defence capabilities just won’t match up. ET, I’m sad to say, will be holding a horribly beweaponed stick.
But there’s another scenario. In this case the outcome of an extra-terrestrial meeting isn’t solely left to the will and whim of evolutionary forces. Instead, as has happened in our civilisation, rational choices can overcome biological impulses.
Take eating meat for example. It is generally accepted that our ancestors ate meat in their hunter-gatherer existence. But nowadays some people have come to the conclusion, to the upmost resentment of others, that killing animals and eating meat might be a tad wrong. You know, all the confinement, force-feeding, mechanised slaughter, it is a little unsettling (until you taste the bacon). Others argue the opposite, that eating meat is ‘natural’ therefore it must be the ‘right’ thing to do. This line of reasoning commits my favourite logical fallacy (don’t pretend you haven’t got one), the ad Naturam or appeal to nature logical fallacy. If we solely took our morality from nature we would live in a very cruel world indeed. (Watch a video of Mallards being natural here. Note: Morality not included; viewer discretion is advised.)
So what’s all this got to do with aliens and bacon? Well if aliens take the same stance—the choice not to kill sentient beings based on nothing else but the value that sentience confers—then perhaps we do stand a chance of a peaceful coexistence. But if aliens come with predacious intentions, aiming to harvest, experiment, extract, and/or exploit, there really is little we can do to stop them.
So hope and pray that, when our skies are darkened by the spectre of a flying saucer drifting through trembling clouds, you can smell the pungent aromas of Quorn and lentil burger emanating from the ship’s kitchen. Maybe that’s why they were called little green men all along?