I had written some notes on a post of this sort some time ago and completely forgotten about it. I felt like blogging about something today, but my topic was completely stupid so I destroyed it. A recent conversation about this in Golden Teriyaki made me decide to resurrect this post however.
In popular sci-fi there is a sort of overarching notion that aliens who have the highest technologies would be pretty much perfect - geniuses who will never make mistakes, civilized so that they have no use for war, abhorring of violence, etc. Even if they do not satisfy all of those traits, there is still the belief present that at least one of them should be true. A friend of mine scoffed at the idea of an alien species who had crazy advanced physics to bridge the vast reaches of space succumbing to the common cold. There's any number of reasons something like that could happen, and I might blarg that later, but I'm more concerned with the notion that a technologically advanced civilization is basically perfect.
I think this sort of thinking is a remnant of the overwhelming classicism of European and derived cultures. The idea that the ancients held great knowledge and it was thrown away in folly or lost to tragedy suggests that humanity had some sort of reversion to the base or the primitive. This isn't actually unfounded, as some sort of severe stunting of development has happened in most civilizations (the Dark Ages of Europe, the total technological stagnation of Qing Dynasty, the Maya collapse, the stagnation and collapse of the Ottoman Empire, etc) where in some cases vast amounts of technological and natural knowledge have been lost. The idea that a civilization which was sufficiently, well, civilized to have avoided this sort of collapse and subsequent stagnation, then they would surely be superior to us. However, the ubiquity of such an experience of collapse and stagnation should lead us to believe that such an experience is either integral to the "human condition" or integral to all organization when the scale of that civilization reaches a certain critical mass.
This inferiority complex is further fed by the idea that, due to these failings of human society, we are flawed beings who are destined to succumb to tragedy over and over by destroying our geniuses, peacemakers, great works and knowledge through sheer folly. I think we're probably not the only species with that problem. This also speaks to the ideals of European culture - the people who record our history are those people who have a love of knowledge and a hatred for disorder - and so they project those traits onto their civilization, who naturally agrees because they're all united by a common respect for authority and longing for legitimacy.
All of this conspires to paint a picture of a civilization which has, in the exact same short time we've had as a species (say 150,000 years) starting at the exact same time, reached perfection that remains forever out of our reach because we're flawed and they're not.
Considering, of course, that life on earth originated 3.5 billion years ago and the age of the universe is about 13 billion years old, this doesn't seem like too ridiculous a proposition, until you realize that such assumptions are based on the flawed supposition that Earth and its sun are the ideal conditions for the formation of life.
We find ourselves located in a fairly large supercluster with a reasonably high density level. Consider the metric expansion of space signifying that everything is moving apart from everything else at a constantly accelerating rate. The fact that life on earth is only about 3.5 billion years signifies that it takes at least that long for a planet with identical conditions and materials to ours to become hospitable to life. However, since the universe is not locally isotropic, we know that not every star in the universe had identical conditions. We must conclude that other planets may have formed much earlier than our own and become hospitable to life perhaps as many as (to pick a number out of a hat) 8 billion years ago. This means that we've pushed back the minimum length of time for a sentient race to form to being only 8.5 billion years after the formation of the universe, which is about 5 billion years sooner than us.
Now let's attack the idea of nonviolence. We have not appreciably managed to become less violent or evil in 150 thousand years of human development. Consider that, as a species, we have wiped out any and all plants and animals which pose a credible threat to our species on the entire earth - at least those which were large enough to see prior to the invention of optics. Our population is sufficiently large that it would take nothing short of what insurance companies like to call an "act of God" to destroy our entire race. Still the most deadly threat to the human race on the planet is still the human race - we still kill anybody who gets in our way or figure out some other way to marginalize them until they're no longer a threat, and preferably helpless. Consider if you will, the possibility that we do this not maladaptively, no matter how harmful it may be to our technological and social development, but as a survival trait. Everything which threatened our food supply, offspring, or our tribes themselves was destroyed by mankind before we even figured out how to effectively record that information. Anytime it became difficult for us to live, our greatest technological developments were those designed to destroy. Barring the existence of an unusually less hostile planet for development of an intelligence, I put forth that this pattern probably follows in any species which evolves as the pinnacle predator.
Now let us consider the instances of animal intelligence. Nearly every animal on earth which shows what we define as the hallmarks of intelligence are predatory and have been for millions of years.
Certainly, there are intelligent herbivores, however, advanced problem solving skills are seldom necessary when your primary food source is found absolutely anywhere you walk. Some scavengers display intelligent behaviors as well, but there are virtually no higher animal species who are strict scavengers - all of them will hunt or browse in the absence of carrion. So let us consider that intelligence can only form in the presence of predation pressure - either as the predator or the prey. A prey animal who becomes intelligent enough to do so will inevitably decide to kill any truly dangerous predators. As a classic example, dolphins have been observed to kill sharks who come too close to the pod by ramming them with their bony noses - painful for the dolphin, but fatal to the shark who has no rigid bone structure to protect their internal organs from bruising and rupturing. Herd animals use violence routinely to discourage predators, and the act of supporting the herd organization relies on violence or the threat of it in order to establish leadership. Believing that this association of intellect and aggression is only common to Earth species would suggest that all creatures of Earth are cursed with original sin. Not only would any scientist scoff at that, so would nearly any theologian.
So we've dispensed with the notion that we were here first, dispensed with the idea that we're in any way special, and dispensed with the idea that intelligence or technological development prevents violence - at least in any truly general terms. We've now got to look at the idea of societal superiority. Assuming that an alien species successfully subsumes, at least at the official level, the role of aggression in the ordering of a society. We have the classic sci-fi example, courtesy of the various writers of Star Trek, of the planet Vulcan. The people of Vulcan, also known as Vulcans, are guided solely by a love of logic and the suppression of their own aggressive instincts. This requires that a sufficient majority of the population decides, coldly and logically, that the ones who won't get on the boat can either fuck off or die. To trigger Godwin's Law prematurely, let us now remind the reader of the tenets of National Socialism in attempting to form a single perfect world culture based on the ideals of collaboration and equality. That didn't work out too well either. Let us consider that the organization of the government of these theoretical organisms was sufficient to resist corruption at the highest levels for long enough (say, 5 or 6 generations) to successfully order the society and put an end to irrational behavior done for selfish means, outside of the occasional deviant who is "re-educated" just like the ostensibly admirable Vulcans of Star Trek did. Assuming that this becomes ingrained adequately into their social makeup and such a society decided that it was, in fact, logical to travel the stars in search of other intelligent aliens, then it's possible that this one exceptional species would be everything that sci-fi loves and holds dear. However, this one species would be a fluke, as nothing we have seen in world society has ever convinced us that such a pure totalitarian society could ever form in any mixed pot of genetic heritage.
Let us therefore choose to agree that humans are unexceptional in their overall wickedness, love of perversity, self-hatred, destructiveness, xenophobia and so on. Given that, assuming we are not exceptional (still sticking, as before, to the Copernicus principle) that most if not all intelligent alien species have our similar handicaps when developing their societies. Accepting this, we can decide to move ahead to attacking the notion of scientific perfection - the idea that if they've got enough physics to traverse spacetime faster than light or at least subjectively appear to, then they very well ought to be able to solve X problem, where X is pretty much anything we could think of to stop them from doing whatever they wanted to do.
A simple observation of history shows us that scientific advancement never progresses evenly or uniformly, or even along sensible lines, regularly stopping to backfill any implications they may have missed. If this seems like an inaccurate appraisal to you, I encourage you to watch James Burke's Connections series for a sort of luxury cruise throughout the development of human technology. Science always leaves these gaps and blind spots which older sci-fi and the good old Popular Science magazine would have had us believe would be solved by the futuristic year 2000; things like artificial intelligence, holographic displays, truly ubiquitous computing, robotic labor, cheap energy and free transportation and a life of leisure and freedom from disease and inconvenience that comes with all of the above. The reasons science misses these things are as diverse as the things themselves, but typically boil down to effects ancillary to the actual research. Things are discovered accidentally while researching other things, and the significance of those things are never understood until some bright guy is trying to find out a more efficient way of doing something else entirely before the true importance of the previous discovery is ever found out. Things are almost discovered if it weren't for some simple accidental happenstance which result in the destruction of some work, or an overlooking of some minor side effect. Science, in short, despite all its orderliness and documentation with which it parades through recent history, is just plain disorganized. Considering thought itself is an apparently nondeterministic, nonlinear, chaotic process involving semi-random convolutions inside a chemical electric matrix, it's no wonder that we've got any trouble making creativity - the most evanescent and capricious of all kinds of thought - an orderly process. It is also worth considering that most science and nearly all invention happens in response to a problem or a nagging gap in knowledge. An itch whose only scratcher is methodical efforts to work it out. Some problems have never been solved because they simply aren't that irritating or there was no money in doing so. Other problems are simply too hard to solve, at least with existing knowledge and technology, or there is a body of conventional wisdom which says it is too hard and so nobody dares attack it. All of this suggests that the ordinary pattern of discovery and development will always manifest these voids where people either didn't care to, didn't think of, or feared to investigate a certain topic.
Alien races might also, due to eccentricities in brain function and developmental conditions, have enormous blind spots in their abilities and knowledges. A lack of sight sensory organs may leave light - and by extension, much of the electromagnetic spectrum - wholly unexplored for millennia, only discovering them due to measurable effects in materials they were working with at the time. Think of all the technology we discovered before even figuring out how light worked - mostly in Newton's time. Think of how long it was before we discovered radio waves. Without all of this investigation we still could have developed rocketry, life support apparati, a form of cryogenic preservation or hibernation and even computers - electricity was observed and successfully used well before we knew what it was and how it worked. This merely requires a simple lack of sensory equipment to perceive light, which is present in a great deal of species on earth, and would be far more likely to develop among creatures who occupy a planet wherein their sun is not visible due to cloud cover or an ice layer (as on Europa). Consider also that the division of the human brain into right brain, left brain, and the hindbrain shape the process of our thought quite significantly - so much so that people who have had their brains divided surgically undergo radical personality shifts. Individuals who possess only a single functioning hemisphere show some exceptional behavioral and cognitive traits which are not observable in humans with more fully functional brains. A lack of division in the brain which may be observed in an alien species might result in a very fundamentally different approach to learning, discovery and thought.
Finally, we've got the other idea, which is that the aliens wouldn't want anything we have to offer if they're so advanced that they can whiz across space and time all hurly-burly. Given the above noted (not only possible but probably) cognitive and scientific differences between two species, it is exceedingly likely that we have done any number of things that another intelligent race has simply never thought of, or done it better in a number of ways that they have not. After all, the idea of getting off of Earth was never a very high priority one as Earth is (as young-earth creationists and anti-copernicans have note throughout history) particularly hospitable for human life.
Suppose we have an intelligent organism for whom their planet has never been particularly comfortable. This theoretical species developed on the very margins of livability and thrived in a series of "pocket" environments on a much larger planet where they developed intelligence out of a simple fact that all of those who did not were gradually eliminated by a steadily worsening biosphere. They had perhaps a couple of million years to go from tiny lizard to spacefaring race, but the hostility of their environment conspired to produce for them all of the resources they needed to get out of their harsh environments and into a more stable artificial space they create for themselves. A species like this would have little loyalty for their planet and little desire to stay put. They would be constantly looking for ways to expand and respond to reproductive pressure. If such a species was constantly searching for a way to improve their environment, some of the earliest developments would be in chemistry and demolitions - looking to expand the survivable regions - and biology to improve the stability of their environements. These organisms might have developed gunpowder before the plow, rocketry before the Caesarian section or metallurgy before dyeing.
Now consider they find themselves travelling through spaces, millions of miles from somewhere habitable, fleeing their final doom, or scouting for a new place for their people to live - something easily convertible to their livable space. They happen across Earth by some fluke of universal cartography and find an almost ideal environment in some deep caves or the bottom of the sea, etc. They discover that humans are already living somewhere else on Earth but we do not compete directly for the same resources, as their technologies are based on elements which are in plentiful supply, and their ideal spaces are in regions unlivable to us. However, they've had little enough leisure time, and they find themselves on a world so rich for their people that they have nothing to do with their time - a true utopia. They discover our art, our recreation, our games and songs and music. What a trade, right? We get interstellar travel, they get paradise. For all we know, the disaster which made their world unlivable might have made it ideal for humans. We could trade. This is astronomically unlikely, but it gives lie to the idea that there is nothing that humans do which all other races would not already have done better. Remember our Copernican principle - there's no reason to believe that we're unusually useless, either.
That's not to say that the aliens who come to conquer us would immediately understand what we had to offer, either. We may have been overlooked a number of times by intelligent species already, simply because the things we have didn't seem like anything they'd want, or they failed to recognize what they wanted because it takes such a different form with us. For that matter, we may completely fail to recognize the value in the things we already have. Consider the geothermal vents in the bottom of the ocean - certain kinds of chemical processes may only be possible under extreme pressure and heat, while others require a great deal of cold and pressure. Consider that our gravitational pull, though great, may be much weaker than most comparable planets in our portion of the galaxy. Consider that our sun is not really that dangerous but puts out ample energy to render at least four of our planets, and multiple moons potentially habitable - or at least fixer-upper opportunities.
There's a way forward for alien portrayal in science fiction, however: flawed races who unfortunately have forgotten more in the process of advancing their technology than they necessarily could afford - a total lack of knowledge informing them how to survive without high technology. Consider species utterly missing a cultural heritage due to emergency deletion of information considered nonvital in order to preserve the necessary science to keep their colony ship running. Consider a species so new and in such a hurry that they really have no antiquity, so short-lived that they have only a fleeting glimpse at a sense of cultural identity. To species like this, we would be the wise elder race, as with the ancient Greeks and the European Classicisists - thought very highly of because they could not remember how far they have progressed, treasured because they represent a past that they have either lost or had stolen from them. The things that keep us from flinging ourselves across the voids of space may be those which an alien may treasure most - a bottomless past and a positive future.