Humanity Vs Aliens: They Could Wipe Us out with Diseases

Neil deGrasse Tyson and others consider whether alien diseases have the potential to wipe out humanity and maybe already have in the past.

Space exploration is an essential enterprise for humanity. We need to go deeper into space to understand more about our planet and the universe, to pinpoint potential new homes in case this one goes kaput, to find new resources for mining metals and minerals, and maybe even to locate some intergalactic brothers and sisters. The space program has led to the development of new technologies and has been a source of hope for most of humankind. But with every scoop of extraterrestrial soil our rovers dig up, come some fears.  The scoop could contain alien bacteria that might thrive here on earth in ways that are unexpected, unknown and possibly very deadly.


We could potentially have no immunity to extraterrestrial microbes. They could quickly wipe out large chunks of the human population, like a modern-day Black Plague. And that’s not the only threat.  Such bacteria could go after animals, plants and earthly microbes. Our food sources could be gone before we do.

People praying for relief from the bubonic plague, circa 1350. Original Artwork: Designed by E Corbould, lithograph by F Howard. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The encounter between us and aliens or alien bacteria could be similar to what happened to Native Americans when Europeans arrived in the 15th century. Over 95% of possibly 54 million people were killed due to lack of immunity to such illnesses as smallpox and flu.

NASA and other space agencies instituted decontamination programs to make sure the samples are quarantined. The international Outer Space Treaty of 1967 states in its article IX that “States Parties to the Treaty shall pursue studies of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary, shall adopt appropriate measures for this purpose.”

The crew of Apollo 11 in quarantine after returning to Earth, visited by Richard Nixon. 1969. Credit: NASA.

But back contamination practices like quarantines and all types of sterilizations have their own limitations, as what they are looking for is limited to what we know to look for. An unknown life form would behave unknowingly. While no sample from Mars has ever been brought back yet, the 2020 NASA Rover mission is planning just that. And for that, NASA is planning to build special facilities for studying the samples, possibly staffed by robots

So could aliens wipe us out?

Whether one is afraid or hopeful in relation to potential extraterrestrials perhaps depends on one’s character, general outlook on life, and level of knowledge. Stephen Hawking is famously pessimistic on the subject, thinking that not only are aliens likely to wipe us out, they will probably think of us the same way we think of bacteria.

Others, like Neil deGrasse Tyson are more positive. Tyson thinks we are not likely to catch a disease from aliens because they would be completely different from us, the same way we don’t catch illnesses from trees. “The more remote a species is genetically from you, the less likely they’re gonna have a disease that can jump to you”. And aliens would be completely removed since they would have evolved on a different planet.

Also out there is the theory of panspermia, which claims that life on Earth could have begun from bacteria brought onto the planet by comets or meteors from outer space, maybe even Mars itself. This could have happened by accident or even intentionally, whereby intelligent lifeforms from outer space sent bacteria to Earth to generate or transfer life. So we might be aliens ourselves. 

A team of researchers concluded that some terrestrial algae could survive space travel, concluding that the panspermia theory is not necessarily farfetched. 

Could alien diseases already be here?

There have been many theories without significant proof that attributed such diseases as the plague, ebola, mad cow disease and even flu pandemics to Earth’s contamination by objects from outer space.

Centers for Disease Control microbiologists are shown in this 2007 photo in the process of suiting up to access the interior of the organization's Biosafety Level-4 (BSL-4) laboratory. Credit: CDC

There is also the curious case of Morgellon’s disease, a condition suffered by tens of thousands of people around the world who believe there are tiny bugs and string-like objects living under their skin. The controversial condition has no known cure, and as is often the case when science doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer, conspiracy theories thrive in explaining the origins of Morgellons. While there are possible earth-bound answers, some attribute the disease to alien pathogens that contaminated Earth via meteors or even the Genesis mission, which returned outer space samples.  

Genesis solar wind sample curators at NASA's Johnson Space Center handle collectors in the ultraclean Genesis cleanroom. Genesis samples are the first extraterrestrial materials returned to Earth by NASA since the Apollo program, which ended in the early 1970s. Credit: NASA/JSC

The most famous sufferer of Morgellon’s is the singer Joni Mitchell, who has described her illness as a "weird, incurable disease that seems like it’s from outer space."  Mitchell's hospitalizations in 2015 brought the illness to media’s attention. It’s fair to say that most within the medical profession attribute the disease more to a psychological condition rather than actual manifestation of alien bugs, but it wouldn’t be the first time people dismissed something they couldn’t effectively explain. 

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.