The quote is:

But we should have been wary of answering back (to the questions of aliens), until we have develop a bit further. Meeting a more advanced civilisation (aliens from other planets), at our present stage (at the current stage of the human beings), might be a bit like the original inhabitants of America meeting Columbus. I don't think they were better off for it.

In the last sentence, does the pronoun "they" refer to all humans? or "original inhabitants of America"?

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    I don't think they (the original inhabitants of America) were in a better position as a result (of meeting Columbus). The phrase be better off is in the dictionary. Commented Dec 14, 2018 at 15:49
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    Syntactically speaking, the referent of they is ambiguous. But semantically, it would be perverse in the extreme to suppose Hawking would have been suggesting that the aliens might be worse off if humanity responded to their signals. And obviously they in the parallel "American colonisation" scenario can only refer to the original inhabitants, since Columbus is a singular noun (and this isn't a suitable context for "singular they"). Commented Dec 14, 2018 at 15:50

2 Answers 2


Stephen Hawking WARNING: Aliens could DESTROY us if we find Them, an article from the UK - Express

I believe your sentence "Hawking doesn't think (the fate of) humans will be better [off]" by a visit from aliens is correct. Hawking was part of Breakthrough Listen – a group similar to SETI in the U.S. which scan the stars in the hope of receiving a message from space (aliens). “But we need to be wary of answering back until we have developed a bit further" and are prepared (defense etc) for a visit. He compared how the native American were overrun by the arrival of European explorers.


The "they" Hawking refers to is the native Americans, not humans. I agree it's a little ambiguous but given the placement of the sentence and the fact it's in past tense there's enough evidence that Hawking is not referring to a human encounter with aliens since purportedly, that has not yet occurred.

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