Could aliens colonize Earth without realizing humans are people too?

So aliens find Earth to be suitable for colonization and disregard humanity's claim. Not because they are racist, but because they are so different biologically and psychologically that humans simply don't fit their definition of people. Animals, certainly, but not sapient beings deserving of the right to self-determination.

Is this plausible? Just how alien would the aliens need to be?

• Just a note, actual colonizers also didn't see themselves as racist – Dotan Dec 22 '16 at 18:37
• Easy. Your Story's Aliens <=> the Real World's Spanish of the 1500s, and Your Story's People <=> the Real World's Inca and Aztecs. – cobaltduck Dec 22 '16 at 18:41
• Read "They're Made Out of Meat" by Terry Bisson. They might not believe we can be intelligent just based on what we are made of. They would just see us as really clever ants. – John Dec 22 '16 at 19:39
• Of course humans aren't people - they don't even have consciousness. They are utterly lacking in znurg'naq, and have only a very primitive form of zchoeq'yarf. For reference, see: smbc-comics.com/?id=2867 – BrianH Dec 22 '16 at 22:06
• Ender's Game series is all about this, by the way. – Mołot Dec 23 '16 at 10:50

It really wouldn't take much at all.

Consider all of the reasons that African slaves were considered subhuman. This literally ranged in reason from the size and shape of their cranium to the fact that some people interpreted the bible to say that the Mark of Cain was black skin. Many treated slaves as little more than draft animals (and even saw raping or studding female slaves as a good means to increasing their workforce).

There are many animals that are highly intelligent that we regularly don't stop activities for. Consider Tuna Fishing. Every year dolphins are caught in tuna nets and killed, despite being highly intelligent animals (according to Douglas Adams, the second most intelligent species on Earth after lab mice). We still eat tons of tuna every year, and the only consequence is a push for more dolphin safe fishing (not an end to tuna fishing altogether).

Now, what if the aliens were so far above our intelligence that they viewed us more like we view the tool using cousins we have in the ape family. Worthy of putting in a zoo or studying, but not stopping the Hypergalactic Rest Stop - Sol-3. This gap in intelligence may not be as large as we might like to believe.

I think the easiest way of making this distinction would be the presence of a hive mind or a telepathic connective network. Since we humans lack this ability, or if we have any form of latent telepathy it is very rare, they may see us as highly evolved animals, but not truly sentient. It really all depends on what they consider valuable sentience. Heck, they might even want to keep some of us as pets.

AUTHOR's NOTE: The bit about lab mice being the most intelligent species on the planet is a joke, since it seems to have gone over a lot of heads.

• I think the easiest way of making this distinction would be the presence of a hive mind or a telepathic connective network. Since we humans lack this ability, or if we have any form of latent telepathy it is very rare, they may see us as highly evolved animals, but not truly sentient. That's pretty much what happens if you read far enough into the "Speaker for the dead/xenocide" plot line of the "Enders game" books. – James Dec 22 '16 at 22:45
• This is a little off-topic, but parrots, crows/ravens, elephants, octopus, cats, ...and of course, apes, are pretty intelligent creatures too. AFAIK lab mice are used primarily for physical experiments, such as determining toxicity levels of some chemical. Yes they do intelligence tests on them too, as scientists like to do on many animals, but primarily it's physical experiments. I have no idea why lab mice would be considered smarter than dolphins. Douglas Adams wrote that comedic book Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and (hopefully) was talking about lab mice in jest. – DrZ214 Dec 22 '16 at 23:57
• @DJMcMayhem - They even brooch that in the first book. Another tack is seen in Mieville's Embassytown, where the native sapient species on the planet hosting the eponymous town has an unusual innate language that humans are at first unable to emulate. Since they were unable to imagine a sapient being that didn't speak their innate language, they just thought humans were funny animals that somehow just drifted in from off-world. – Malice Vidrine Dec 23 '16 at 1:23
• I think Africans were primarily considered subhuman because they were slaves and that the other reasons you mentioned were subsequent. They weren't enslaved because of their skin color or just for other racist reasons; there were many enslaved peoples from around Russia, for example. Also, African elites/states managed the slave trade. Third, there was an established trading of enslaved Africans far before the Europeans joined in huge numbers. It is somewhat off topic (and a bit of a rant), yet I think it is important to note that your second paragraph does not do justice to historical facts. – Daniel Dec 23 '16 at 6:00
• @DrZ214 In the books, lab mice created Earth (to be specific, they ordered it to be made, because they needed a planet-size computer) and they are participating in lab experiments so that they can observe human behavior. – user20248 Dec 23 '16 at 8:47

it's either because the have higher standards, or because they have a low estimation of us.

High standards

You can't expect us to treat an animal that can't even run a simple 2M lines computer program in its head as an intelligent being

alternately,

Look! some of them are starving and others are eating a second lunch! Disgusting animals!

Low estimation

This is the more interesting option. Why would they underestimate us? Since clearly we would try to communicate with them, it has to be an inability to do so.

• They don't see or hear
• They do see and/or hear, but whatever we consider a symbol or a pattern is just gibberish to them. For example, to us if everyone says "Hello!" all the time, the sounds must have a meaning. To them, each hello is different enough (very acute hearing?) so they don't see a connection.
• Different time scales: maybe time moves slower for them. They see us like lemmings in high speed mode. They don't seem intelligent.
• Aaaaaargh! They don't have 4096-bit processors yet, and call themselves "human"! – RudolfJelin Dec 23 '16 at 12:05
• If time moved slower for them, they'd see us going really slowly ;) – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 23 '16 at 19:16
• @LightnessRacesinOrbit if time moves slower for them, our day is their hour (say), so we're moving really fast. No? – Dotan Dec 23 '16 at 20:08
• I'd say it's the other way around – Lightness Races in Orbit Dec 24 '16 at 1:24
• In the "low estimation" case, would it make sense to imply that: 1) Their species lacks the levels of diversity we have, and thus didn't have multiple cultures that could potentially compete with each other, or 2) When they look at us, they're reminded of their own history, and project their disgust at their own past onto us? – Justin Time - Reinstate Monica Dec 24 '16 at 6:06

The answer has already been explored in fiction, and is quite solidly "Yes".

In Olaf Stapeldon's "Last and First Men", the Martians invade the Earth due to a gradual environmental catastrophe on Mars. In form, individual Martians are like virus particles, and only acquire intelligence as they gather together in larger and larger groups. Since they gain energy from the Sun, the preferred form is a large, thin mat on a flat surface, while they disperse into individual particles to move (mostly by drifting around in the atmosphere).

Once the Martians make the decision to come to Earth, they disperse into clouds, float into space and then use solar radiation to fly to Earth (Last and First Men was written in the 1930's, remember). Once on Earth, they are very pleased to discover that Earth is well provided with flat surfaces for them to settle on. Strangely, they never seem to consider why the Earth has so many flat surfaces.....

Best.Planet.Ever.

H.P Lovecraft's horror fantasy also featured alien beings who were not even from this universe. The Elder Gods, Great Old Ones and other eldritch abominations had little use for Earth and its inhabitants, and if they considered the Earth's ecosphere at all, it would mostly be an inconvenience. If any of these beings had decided to Cthuluform Earth, they would not even deign to notice our protests.

For Lovecraft, this is normal

One final example is John Varly's fictional universe. In it, alien beings who live in the atmosphere of Gas Giant planets are the most intelligent beings in the universe, since they (through necessity) manipulate space and time. Aquatic beings like Whales and Dolphins come in second, for similar reasons. When the Great Powers of Varley's universe come to free the Whales of their tormentors, we are essentially perceived as some sort of sea lice...The only safe places in the universe for humans are places away from Gas Giant planets or worlds with large bodies of water.

they eventually gave up and left the Earth by their own means shortly before the Vogons arrived

So the key to your question would be that the aliens have little or no reference points to our forms of life, either in size or scale or means of manipulating the environment and communicating.

• I really don't think these pictures add to the answer. Perhaps if they were smaller... – Samuel Dec 22 '16 at 19:08
• @Samuel Not to mention that there's no attribution, making it plausible that they're copyright violations. (And no, "I found it on Google Images" is not attribution, and "it's on lots of other websites" doesn't mean it's in the public domain.) – IMSoP Dec 23 '16 at 12:39
• @XandarTheZenon There are no fish in any of the images above. – Konrad Viltersten Dec 24 '16 at 23:17
• @KonradViltersten I had a weak moment and i referenced (shudder) A Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy – Xandar The Zenon Dec 24 '16 at 23:19
• @KonradViltersten Yeah, something certainly seemed fishy about your puns. – Xandar The Zenon Dec 24 '16 at 23:59

Absolutely...Kind of...

When France "colonized" the new world, within three years they claimed they had colonized almost a third of modern america, but in reality very few settlers were there for such a large area. Now when we take into account that alien colonization while likely be system wide instead of continent wide, we will be the squirrels living in the trees of Colorado. With all of this, it is likely they will not even notice us.

But what if they do? The above solution requires the aliens and humans do not notice each other, but if they do, then would they see them as sapient? No, let me explain this, what is sapience? Wikipedia describes sapience as the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight. Below is a list of things we consider animals that have these qualities;

Do you consider any of the above animals (which are in the same kingdom as you!) to be sapient? Do you consider them to be people to?

• ...And this is why science fiction has "sentient" "sapient" and "sophont" as meaning different things. This page is the one I use to reference the nuanced differences. – Draco18s no longer trusts SE Jun 15 '17 at 20:34

Suppose your alien is a singular entity, like a spreading fungus. It has a single entity per world and chats with other worlds over radio. It simply isn't used to having other entities on the same world. It never thinks to look for them -- particularly if it theorizes that intelligence requires some level of neurons N, and the neurons it uses are fairly large, it doesn't realize that neurons can be small enough to fill a skull.

It's possible! And has been explored in fiction. Here's how!

• Communication is impossible. We might as well be whales or dogs...We build things, but animals build things. We work together but so do some animals. If we can't talk to each other it would be easy for them to dismiss us as lower life-forms.
• They exist on a different plane, occupying the same physical area. Their construction and changes effect our plane and vice versa. They may see it as an annoyance and exterminate us all.
• The requirements for sentience as far as they are concerned, are things we cannot possibly manage or haven't managed yet. For example, the ability to teleport, which might be something any higher life-form with a spatial understanding can do on their planet. Or telepathy. Or extreme mathematical calculation, or having a sense that we don't have--like the ability to sense time or see colors outside the spectrum we can normally see.
• Keeping the definition of sentience narrow has been an evolutionary advantage for them in the past. Anything unlike them, no matter that it can communicate, isn't worthy of being called sentient, and it's profitable for them to continue seeing us this way. As another poster pointed out, we saw Africans this way and exploited them, because it was financially advantageous for so long. Seeing those people AS people took a few hundred years. These aliens could possibly be worse than that. (Ew, they don't even have tentacles or an exoskeleton. Humans are gross).
• +1 — but, we, uh, can sense time. – mattdm Dec 23 '16 at 14:45
• @mattdm I have an intuitive sense of three-dimensional space; but trying to imagine the four-dimensional block universe makes my head swim. I believe this is akin to Erin's meaning. – peterG Dec 24 '16 at 14:09
• @mattdm sorry! wasn't clear, what peterG said! I meant that they might be able to perceive time in a way that we cannot--and that we are limited. – Erin Thursby Dec 25 '16 at 13:24

The aliens age much more rapidly than humans. This would be the opposite of the time scale situation proposed by @DotanReis and can be seen as similar to what happened in the Star Trek: Voyager episode Blink of an Eye.

With rapidly aging aliens who experience an entire life's experience in only a fraction of one of our seconds, we would literally appear to be statues - perhaps monuments of some long-dead civilization.

There was a time when Aborigines were considered proof of evolution. They were believed to be part ape. Aboriginal skulls were put on display in museums. 1 aborigine was put in a zoo alongside chimpanzees. It is possible that a more advanced species would come to that same conclusion about us. A lot depends on the aliens culture and biology.

For example, in Ender's Game there are insectoid aliens who communicate telepathically and assume that all self-aware creatures must have telepathic abilities. Naturally, when they find humans, they don't consider them to be self-aware because they can't communicate telepathically.

It also depends how advanced the aliens are. For example, it might be hard for us to imagine someone looking down at all we've built (the cities, monuments, computers, cars) and imagine that ready one would not think that we are intelligent species, but an alien species might be so far beyond us that such things are considered on the same level as an ape using a rock to break a nut.

• Are you thinking of Ota Benga, a Mbuti pygmy, not an Australian Aborigine, who was placed in Bronx Zoo? I can't find a match for Australian Aborigines in the Wikipedia article Human zoo. – Andrew Grimm Dec 23 '16 at 9:57

Consciousness is not a binary condition

It's not this:

It's this:

Humans aren't very conscious

Animals are fear-based. So are humans:

(most people live on Step 1)

So why would aliens treat whim-based, impulsive humans as people?

• +1 for things are things. You'll always find someone who's happy to argue with whatever you say, and tell you that you're not as smart as they because you opened your mouth and said whatever. The aliens might stay out of our way b/c we're too damned noisy – Nahshon paz Dec 25 '16 at 9:33
• @Nahshonpaz they would think of how impulsive humans are, how we easily get into arguments - is that not animallike behavior? – noɥʇʎԀʎzɐɹƆ Dec 25 '16 at 16:47

The definition of "people" is "human beings". Your wording of the question makes no sense, but I understand what you intended to ask.

Considering humans tried to annihilate other humans based on different ideology, race, ethnicity, leadership... Yes, it is more than plausible for Aliens to give us zero rights, even if they knew we could feel pain, just like we know Animals can feel pain.

We eat animals simply because they are not the same specie as us, and maybe because we believe their level of intellect is not as high as us. The latter doesn't make sense because we don't eat "mentally retarded" humans.

The above being said, if Aliens are of complete different specie, then we have bigger things to worry about than "right to self-determination". If the Aliens are the same specie as us, but complete different level of intelligence, culture and technology, in best case scenario, we will be treated like children with absolutely no rights.

Perhaps take a different approach...spiritual enlightenment?

Through millions of years of research, the aliens have learned that all consciousness is a facet of the same thing.

Through exercises these aliens have come closer to that central consciousness and therefor are closer to the true desires of all living beings.

Like an adult human casts aside the plans of their former childhood...so to the aliens cast aside the desires of humans without being hampered by the illusion of human desire being significantly relevant.

It seems to me that with any reasonable gap in intelligence, an alien species would either view us as Descartes viewed non-human animals — as automata — or they would be unable to distinguish between us and non-human animals, and thus horrified that we treat animals the way we do despite a common consciousness.

• If aliens viewed us as either non-intelligent or the same as cows, how would they explain all the human-made creations covering the Earth? The Earth looks as mankind wants it to look...any alien would understand that. – kingledion Dec 24 '16 at 6:08
• @kingledion How do you explain the difference between the Cnideria that formed the Great Barrier Reef, and solitary forms such as jellyfish and sea anemones? I doubt you argue that coral polyps are smarter than jellyfish. – Corvus Dec 24 '16 at 6:36
• Gluing some calcium carbonate together is not quite the same as making a Large Hadron Collider. At the very least, the aliens would learn the difference between us and cows when we nuked them. – kingledion Dec 24 '16 at 6:40
• @kingledion Sure but... humans can't build huge coral reefs can they? – user253751 Dec 25 '16 at 13:10

Consider the "Alien"/"Aliens" franchise. It's unclear what level of consciousness the Aliens possess, which may impact your definition of 'colonize', and they don't seem to evidence any level of what we would consider civilization, but the films make it clear they are capable of advanced thinking. Where does one draw the line between 'infest' and 'colonize.'

Also, in that vein, consider the 'Predator' franchise, where a clearly advanced life-form shows no interest in colonizing our world, and rather treats it as a recreational preserve. This point, though, may be mooted by their recognizing the value, and subsequently accepting the presence, of a human on board one of their ships. Of course, perhaps that gesture is more akin to adopting a pet.

These two points may be peripheral to your question, but, I believe, inform the investigation of the idea.

Could aliens colonize Earth without realizing humans are people too?

People is a human concept.
I believe you mean sentient/intelligent. This is very much possible you need only look at our relationship with the other sentient life forms we share our planet with.
If it is possible in our relatively tiny ecosystem, it is very much possible on an abstracted bigger scale, where a community of ET beings might treat a solar system as their relative holidaying resort and we would be the local wild life/pest that they will either find amusing or as annoying pests.

I'd like to take the time to disagree with much of the answers here. And it has to do with the "are people too" part.

IMO that implies, above all, similarity between mindsets.

Now if those aliens were more primitive life forms, such as microorganisms, it would be entirely possible. Not just small, but primitive. Because if they are small but intelligent, they will be aware of our intelligence, even despite differences in size, lifespan or whatever.

Our lifespan is much shorter than a tree's, but we still know that it is a life form, not some inanimate object. We are immense compared to microorganisms and cannot even see them with a naked eye, but we still know that they are life forms. We can also determine the intelligence of less intelligent species, for example, we know that a dog is more intelligent than a worm.

Going back to people - if they are people and we are people, I'd say it extremely implausible that they won't be aware of this.

They sure could act as if we are not people, we see that in humanity on a daily basis, as little as color, creed or thickness of wallet could determine whether one gets human or inhuman treatment. But that's discrimination right there.

Just how alien would the aliens need to be?

As long as they are "people too" they couldn't be alien enough to miss that we are people too. Fungus could, bacteria could, plants could, but those aren't people.

I'd say that discrimination is the more plausible way to go, but not discrimination based on their superiority complex, but one based on ours. Or in other words - discrimination that we deserve, which is the "good" version of the regular bad undeserved discrimination.

Let me elaborate a bit further - obivosuly they'd be superior, being capable of reaching and colonizing another planet, and allegedly a star system is, despite all promises and pipe dreaming, an impossible achievement for us. Take the superiority of conquistadors over natives and put it on a cosmic scale.

Aliens could understandably and consciously chose to discriminate us because we deserve it. We discriminate each other over nonsense, we discriminate all other life forms, abusing them for our convenience and entertainment. We destroy our own environment and our own planet against our very interest. We are no better than a parasite, a cancer or a plague. And yet we believe ourselves to be the greatest. I personally very much doubt that any species with such a mindset would last long enough to evolve to the point of being capable of interstellar travel. So any alien colonizers would definitely see us not as primitive but as harmful and dangerous, not to them but to our own planet and by extension to ourselves.

In this context, their "discrimination" of us would be entirely deserved, and it wouldn't be any more discrimination than it is to put criminals in prison or to death. That's the course if plausibility is key.

Furthermore, I don't even think that any species could reach the point of interstellar travel on a "people" scale. That would be a super-organism, still made of people, but not reasoning on people level but on super-organism level, something we yet fail to achieve, at least when it comes to one that would act in our interest as species.

So on "people level" they could see us as people, but if they are part of a super-organism, it won't see us as people comprising one, so in a way, they could act as our own cells do when foreign cells enters our body, they are all cells, but our cells make us - a larger scale life form, so our cells will likely treat the foreign cells as our entire organism would rather than how they would on their own.

What if aliens are so different that cannot even percieve human existence? Suppose that they don't have eyes to see us or hands to feel us and their senses are so different that they cannot percieve us at all. Or maybe they could only feel our electromagnetic field that may come out as noise to them. Maybe they already have colonized our earth and we don't know it yet. Maybe an alien is right next to you but neither they or you can feel it.

The creatures are a hive mind, and recognize humans as sapient, just not on an individual level. (i.e. governments are humans, individuals are simply cells.) Any time these creatures encountered humans deviating from the emergent properties of the group, it would perceive those humans' behavior as the effects of a disease, and, as there are very few governments in the world, the aliens would see us as a dying race and try to "save" us by killing all deviant humans. They would eventually figure it out, but by then, millions would be dead. (This, by the way, is how I always interpreted Ender's Game. The aliens know we're sapient, so they assume that we are telepathic hive minds like them, and do not see their actions as a violation of our rights.)

Yes, it's quite possible that alien life forms could occupy Earth, with no more regard for us, than we might have for ants in our back yard.

A lot of scary sci-fi themes revolve around aliens with undesirable human traits: exploitation of natural resources, strange experiments (abductions), even humans as a tasty snack. (to serve man) One of the better putdowns of that concept was in the movie Paul: Am I harvesting farts?

Given that any sentient being that has developed interstellar travel is probably advanced in their thinking as well, I would like to think that their character has advanced far beyond bad human habits. And that humanity would be nothing more than a nostalgic curiosity. Perhaps even a Prime Directive... seen any starships parked in oceans lately?

Might be why the UFO sightings started after WW2, but died down in recent years... they're coming around to watch the show. Are they going to destroy their species with nukes? Nah... looks like not. Let's move on, nothing but boring arguments to be found here.

I read a book in the late 80s, I want to say it was Piers Anthony but could very well be wrong. In this book aliens came to earth in some way but I think they didn't have ears (or couldn't hear our audible spectrum) and so didn't realize that we communicated at all via speaking. I'm extremely fuzzy on the details, that's about the only element that stuck in my mind although I think it had something to do with dentistry as well, and was a somewhat comedic/juvenile book as I recall (got it from my high school library).

Perhaps something along these lines of your aliens having no concept of, or ability to recognize, sound-based communication could be a useful element.