Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


18.1  Chemical, Biochemical, and Biological Weaponry

Explosives are perhaps the most common purely chemical weapon used in modern warfare. Destruction is achieved simply by gross mechanical vibration and demolition. We are probably close to the upper limits of chemical explosives technology, and it is inconceivable that aliens could do much better.

Biochemical weapons seem more subtle, and therefore more insidious, to most of us. For instance, mice have been rendered sterile by the addition of about 30% "heavy" water to their normal drinking water.47 (There are no data for humans as yet.) Or, it has been suggested that if certain items of knowledge can be transferred chemically (as suggested by recent experiments with RNA in rat brains), specific chemicals could be introduced into our environment which would cause fear or passiveness, "suppress intelligence," or "trigger a desired response on a given signal."573 But the most common biochemical weapons fall into two general categories: chemical agents, and biological agents.

Poisons are typical chemical agents. Plutonium, for example, is suspected to be highly toxic -- as little as 0.3 milligrams assimilated into the body would prove fatal.676 However, lethal doses can only be absorbed effectively by inhaling plutonium dust into the lungs, inducing death by cancer. There is relatively little danger of death by ingesting plutonium or its soluble compounds, since the actinides and their chemical brethren aren‘t utilized in human biochemistry in even trace amounts. Because of this, and other material-handling problems, the aliens would have to disperse fifteen grams of plutonium dust over a city for each cancer death they wished to cause, or about ten metric tons for a city of one million inhabitants.676 This is about one cubic meter of the stuff.

Nerve gases are equally dangerous. For instance, VX nerve gas is lethal at about one milligram per person if inhaled;360 when applied to the skin, about five milligrams.398 Hallucinogenic drugs are in the same league, although slightly less toxic. Scanty data available on this subject indicate that the lethal LSD dose may be in the vicinity of ten milligrams or less. Other drugs are less effective. It seems unlikely that ETs would choose this sort of weapon for a mass attack, and although it could be a potent means against individuals, we shall soon see that far more cost-effective weapons are available.

The most lethal of the chemical agents are the toxins. Botulin toxin is often mentioned as one of the most powerful natural poisons known. It is formed by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, and the lethal dose for humans is about 0.5 micrograms.677 This particular toxin produces about 60-70% fatalities, and is extremely resistant to medical treatment. According to a recent United Nations study of the possible effects of biological warfare: "Botulism is...characterized by general weakness, headache, dizziness, double vision, dilation of the pupils, paralysis of the muscles concerned in swallowing, and difficulty of speech....Symptoms usually appear within twelve to seventy-two hours."678 Other toxins are somewhat less dangerous. Batrachotoxin, derived from the skin secretions of the kokoi arrow-poison frog Phyllobates latinasus of the Choco in western Colombia, has a lethality dose of about 10 micrograms per person.

How do these chemical means compare? Dr. Matthew S. Meselson has estimated that to ensure effectiveness, 100 kilograms of VX per square kilometer must be used, versus 300 kilograms of botulin toxin over the same area.398 Theoretically, it would take 50 million metric tons of VX to cover the entire surface of the Earth, or about 150 million tons of botulin toxin. This is the best that mere chemical agents can do, and it seems unlikely that aliens would care to synthesize such huge masses of relatively ineffective substances.

We turn, therefore, to the biological agents. As pointed out in the United Nations study, lethal chemical agents are doled out in milligram quantities; for the more powerful toxins, microgram doses are required. But bacterial agents are so effective that lethal dosages are measured in picograms (trillionth’s of grams).678

One of the most vigorous infectious agents is plague. Reasonably effective treatment exists for bubonic plague, but not for pneumonic plague. Studies of the disease in primates indicate that exposure to as few as 100 bacteria cause death in about 50% of the animals. Ten picograms could constitute a lethal dose for man. To quote again from the U.N. report: "A large mass of plague bacteria could be grown and probably lyophilized (freeze-dried) and kept in storage. The agent is highly infectious by the aerosol route, and most populations are completely susceptible. An effective vaccine against this type of disease is not known. Infection might also be transmitted to urban and/or field rodents, and natural foci of plague may be created."678

A favorite among science fiction writers a decade or two ago was the "anthrax bomb." Anthrax (Bacillus anthracis) is normally found as a disease in domesticated animals such as sheep, cattle and horses, but most animals are susceptible. It is commonly transmitted to man through the skin, or by ingestion or inhalation of the spores. The inhalation infectious dose for man is estimated variously as from 20,000 -- 50,000 spores. Early symptoms occur about one day after exposure, and resemble those of a common cold. Unless there is early treatment with antibiotics immediately, however, death ensues two or three days later in virtually all cases.

How do biological weapons compare to chemical agents? Using the most infectious bacteriological agents, it is estimated that 100 grams per square kilometer would be sufficient to "disable" a totally unprotected population of humans.573 To infect every person on Earth should require only 50,000 metric tons of, say, pneumonic plague bacteria. This could be accomplished with a fleet of two hundred B-52H Air Force bombers in only ten missions. Such is doubtless the method of choice for malevolent aliens, who could synthesize still more virulent strains of microorganisms with virtually universal resistance to medical treatment.

There are other "genetic" weapons. Prosserman suggests the following: "A water additive that slowly alters the proportion of male-to-female births in the enemy population, or that amplifies sex-drive, or counteracts population control measures. 'Cloning' could be used...to serially produce a race of 'super-soldiers' from a single individual."573

More frightening, perhaps, is the possibility of genetically tampering with animals or rodents,2012 rendering them more prolific and more vicious. But why stop with mammals?2015 According to Stanley Baron in The Desert Locust, a typical swarm of these 6 centimeter-long insects can contain up to ten billion individuals, massing 100,000 tons in a cloud covering some 500 square kilometers. What if the aliens managed to create a new breed of insect, extremely vicious and aggressive? Impossible?

Maybe not. In 1957, genetics professor Warwick E. Kerr of the School of Medicine of Ribeirao Preto in Sao Paulo, was performing experiments in crossbreeding with African bees. By accident,26 African queens escaped into the Brazilian jungle, carrying their inimical genes with them. In less than a year, a new race of highly aggressive bees arose through in breeding with the common European varieties. Horror stories of these bees attacking humans are legion. In one case, a schoolteacher slapped at her arm when one of the "killer bees" stung her. The insect released an alarm odor. Suddenly, thousands of angry bees engulfed the unfortunate female, and swarmed around anyone who tried to assist her. She died a few hours later.670

It must be pointed out that bees generally do not attack except in self-defense or to protect the hive. But "killer bees" are apparently extremely "nervous." Could not aliens breed an even more aggressive insect?


Last updated on 6 December 2008