In the 1996 sci-fi film Independence Day, the US president (played by Bill Pullman) delivers an inspiring speech about the resilience of the human race during an alien invasion. As the leader tells Earth’s defenders that “We will not vanish without a fight,” the feeling of unity is clear—humankind refuses to die out and will use all resources to survive. But is the emotional capital of alien-invasion movies our will to endure, or our affinity for conquering?
Neil deGrasse Tyson, celebrated astrophysicist and science personality, thinks it’s probably the latter. During a speech yesterday (Oct. 23) at Onward18, a conference organized by the internet services firm Yext, Tyson suggested that society’s fascination with alien invasions—one of the most popular narratives in sci-fi—has more to do with humanity’s past behavior than any real fear of intergalactic attackers.
“All this fear mongering of aliens in movies, this is not from any actual knowledge of aliens,” Tyson points out. “It’s from actual knowledge of humans.”
Sci-fi has a history of social commentary. In 1956, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a film about aliens that turn into emotionless human clones, reflected widespread paranoia in the US about subversive communist propaganda. Even in Ridley Scott’s Alien movies, in which (spoiler!) a high-tech conglomerate is complicit in the alien attack, capitalism is depicted as the evil.
But Tyson weighs in on another take, which is that many alien movies imagine, as the Atlantic put it, Western-style imperialism visited on the Western world. And as Tyson reminds us, colonialism is a core part of human history. “There is no greater mirror for our conduct than all these movies of aliens coming to Earth,” he said.
And the conduct of Homo sapiens has been bloody.
Colonialism is the process of taking over and exploiting another place, people, or culture, often wiping out what was there before. Throughout history it’s left suffering in its wake, and the aftereffects and consequent debates are still ongoing today. “If aliens come upon us, they have better tech,” Tyson said, and one wonders whether humans would be the ones attacking other species and planets if we had the technological means.
Tyson’s comment on aliens and alien invasions came at the end of his talk, after he had presented the “10 Things You Should Know About the Universe.” (Details of the presentation, which Tyson also delivered in 2012, can be found here.) The most highly ranked thing that Tyson shared was that humans are made of stardust—stars explode, scatter across the galaxy, and from that debris comes the “enrichment” and materials needed to form new planets and new life. It seems abstract but it’s true, and it stands that any alien invaders are also made from stardust—making us, in yet another way, quite the same.