Aggression in alien species–yes or no?

Picture pilfered from a game site. Apparently the game is called 'Alien'

Last year at worldcon, I attended a panel that dealt with scenarios following a potential first contact. We’ve discovered there are intelligent aliens. What should we do? Talk to them? Hide?

One of the opinions voiced was that if you create a situation where aliens come to Earth, they must be ‘aggressive’. I’ve thought about this a long time in terms of population ecology (which is what I was trained to do) and have come to the conclusion that yes, this is correct, and no, it is not.

The problem lies, I think, with the fact that population ecology attaches a different meaning to the word aggressive than the general public does.

An aggressive species is one that actively colonises available niches, one that has the resilience and comfort range to thrive in a wide range of conditions, and one that produces vast numbers of seeds/eggs/young. Such species will often tolerate high population densities. They will be found at the disturbed edges of established communities (roadsides, building lots). They will have short lifespans, and will often provide food for a lot of species higher in the community’s development.

Rabbits are aggressive species. When given new open land (think golf courses and paddocks), they breed like crazy. Until the trees move in, and the foxes, but by this time, rabbits have already moved onto the next open ground.

Human society, by comparison is an ecological community by itself. Within each human culture, there are those who will colonise new niches and those who build on that colonisation effort. Whether you talk about the first early Africans who moved into colder climates, the first Chinese who moved to Australia, or the first English people who moved to Dubai, it doesn’t matter. Within their community of origin, these ‘first’ groups paved the way for others, in a purely ecological sense. In a plant community, these two functions would be performed by two different species. We can conclude that humans are good at colonising within a fairly narrow temperature range, and are good at holding our territory once we have it.

Are we aggressive? Moderately so, probably. Many writers have dreamed up situations in which ‘truly aggressive’ aliens come to visit us. And this is the part where people confuse aggression with violence.

Ecological aggression–the type that will lead to colonisation of new territory–is a characteristic that needs both back-end pressure (it’s too busy in the home country) and an aim (we need new land). Ecological aggression does not mean destruction. It means invasion of an available ecological niche through settlement and breeding.

If a storm blows over a tree in a forest, and subsequently the pigs dig up the surrounding area for roots, invasive plant species (ones we call weeds) will come up in the newly-bared soil.

Taking this analogy to aliens, or a situation where humans are the invaders, what the newcomers will want is a space to live. They are not numerous enough to take on the population of an entire planet in a battle, and why would they, anyway. The locals are their best bet to learn about what’s available on the planet. They may want to trade, for technology, for unknown riches, or just for a pair of hands to do some work. But they’ll want a place to live for their expanding community.

They will most likely be friendly and cooperative, but oh-so-aggressive.


5 comments on “Aggression in alien species–yes or no?

  1. I like your points. I’ve got a Bachelors in Organismal Biology and this would be my approach to the idea of xenobiology.

    To me, the belief that aliens do not exist is just as silly as when humanity believe the sun revolved around the Earth. To say that life outside of Earth does not exist is to expand on that idea and say, “The universe revolves around Earth.”

    Because of this, I think life will have vastly different attributes from one world to the next, but regardless of the attributes, varied behaviors do not seem like an endless commodity.

    I expect there to be carnal species that do nothing but what their instincts tell them. If they came to Earth, they would try to out-compete other species for resources. There would also be those that may kill just to kill.

    Two species are known to kill simply for the enjoyment or fun of killing (as far as I know). They are humans, and bluefish.

    Its a rare behavior and I expect it to be rare in the universe as well – if biology on Earth has anything to say about it. Why? Because it wouldn’t be too practical. Resources would be lost at significant rates and eventually, the species would snuff itself out.

    I am rambling on, so I will get to my point here. I think that while the idea of “Aliens come to Earth and will wipe out humans to control it” is not the most practical idea, it is probably the most “fun” idea. A guilty pleasure, maybe.

    It is easier to make an interesting story with drama, action, etc. because of the nature of that plot device. Peaceful aliens will challenge the writer to build up genre in a completely new and unique way.

    I personally am really interested in pieces that go either way.

    • OMG, I only just saw this reply. For some reason WP doesn’t always send the emails through, and it’s a kind of old post, but none less relevant.

      Thank you for your considered reply.

      I think any species, alien or human, which is intelligent enough to bridge the gap between stars will want something from their destination other than primal biological needs. It takes intelligence to cross that distance, and intelligence, not simple resources, will be the currency they’re after.

  2. Also, that is the Alien from “Alien”, “Aliens” etc. It is called a xenomorph. Sigourney Weaver was the notable actor of those films.

    When it comes to gorey, horror scific, Alien and its sequels are one of the most classic examples. If you don’t mind the gore, I think you would enjoy it!

  3. Was going to say that the image is not from a game but a movie, just as Tim said. Must say though that the only ones you should watch are numbers 1 and 2 (‘Alien’ and ‘Aliens’ respectively). Then leave it there (Aliens, in my humble opinon, is a must-see for any sci-fi fan. It was directed by James Cameron before he did Terminator 2).

    I agree with your statement if we’re talking about a civilisation-based alien race like our own, but what if they’re very different, like the alien in your image? Think of the other intelligent creatures on our planets like dolphins and whales. We don’t even know how to communicate with them. As popular as dolphins are people do get attacked by them if they swim with them – not all the time, but it has been documented. Would we even recognise their sovereignty over certain sections of space? They might not invade Earth, but what about when we encounter them in the vast expanse?

    Anyway, I’m here looking how to start a writers blog from our last meeting:)

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