I’m planning on writing a series of posts on different scenarios for first contact with intelligent alien life. I’ve been inspired by some insightful comments from this post and have taken lots of my ideas from those who commented there. Thanks everyone who commented.
It’s feels as though this topic has been treated as a fanciful distraction by much of the serious scientific community until quite recently, and has very much been delegated to science fiction authors, fringe scientists and assorted lunatics. But as of late some big-name scientists have joined in the fun, and this topic is gaining an air of credibility. This isn’t to say that science fiction hasn’t made contributions to this field; I think Sci-Fi has provided some intelligent and very creative first contact scenarios and much of what I’ll be writing has been inspired or explored by Sci-Fi.
So lets assume that intelligent alien life exists, that its discovered humanity, and that it has the technology to communicate with us, either face-to-face or using an alternative method.
The first of my proposed scenarios is that the aliens will be totally indifferent.
Imagine the excitement of finding proof of intelligent alien life. Suddenly humanity would know that it isn’t alone in the Universe, that life has emerged on a distant planet and that some of this life has attained sufficient technological mastery to traverse the stars. It would be the greatest scientific discovery since Scarlett Johansson realised she could photograph her own derrière in a mirror.
Imagine what they could teach us about science, about society and about ourselves. And imagine the impact on our own global culture, would we cast-off the smothering comfort of religion? Would we recognise that all humans are essentially the same and unite under a new banner of peace and tolerance? Or would we panic and fracture into selfish interest groups and continue to bicker and slaughter each other?
Probably a bit of each of the above. But the affect would undoubtedly be profound.
Now imagine the impact on humanity’s fragile sense of self-worth if we discovered that these aliens didn’t want to communicate with us, that they were totally indifferent to our very existence. I think it would be crushing, it’d deal humanity a pretty devastating blow to realise that all we had achieved and represent, all of our discoveries and progress, and all our future promise, could be judged as utterly trivial by another intelligent species.
In hundreds of films, books, TV shows and video games intelligent aliens seem quite interested in humans. Sometimes they seek to communicate with and better understand us, other times they want to enslave us and steal our women. But is this an act of massive vanity on our part?
If a civilization mastered the technology required to conquer the vast distances of space then they would probably be thousands to millions of years older than us. Our Galaxy, the Milky Way, is around 13.2 billion years old, so an alien civilisation could even be many billions of years older than our own.
Such a species would likely have reached a level of technology, biology and culture that would appear beyond god-like to us, and perhaps we would offer such a civilisation nothing of value. Such a race may be able to understand us, to sum up the entirety of humanity in a mere glimpse, and decide that we not worth their interest.
I’ve seen some argue that even if an alien civilisation was vastly more intelligent than ours they’d still be interested in communicating with us, after all, many humans are attempting to communicate with other species on Earth, such as primates, birds and various marine mammals. And scientists of various different ilks are fascinated by the study of different forms of life, from the mighty dinosaurs to humble bacteria. Surely all life would be interesting to intelligent aliens?
If life in our Galaxy is rare, then this may be the case. But if life is prevalent, including life that can harness radio-wave technology, and if this life is relatively similar, based on carbon, liquid water and DNA, then maybe intelligent aliens would be profoundly disinterested in us. We may just be another primitive technological species infesting the Milky Way.
This idea horrifies me. I think many of us want to be understood, we want other people to show interest in our ideas and passions, and I think this is expressed in much of the Sci-Fi literature and films/TV, as invariably aliens tend to be interested in humanity, both for good and more nefarious reasons. Even if they’re abducting us and inserting probes into various parts of our bodies, at least they’re showing an interest.
But I think it’s all too easy to imagine that an alien race would ignore us. And not for the reason often forwarded by schlocky Sci-Fi, that humans are bad, that we’re too selfish, destructive and dangerous. I think this idea is more born out of a sense of guilt and anger that many of us feel for our own race, but I doubt an alien race would be so judgemental (I plan to expand this point a bit more in a coming post), I think its much more likely that we’d be judged merely unimportant rather than dangerous or evil.
It’d be pretty depressing is this was so. If we discovered evidence of advanced alien life, and it totally ignored us. What would it mean for humanity?
The brilliant Sci-Fi author Stephen Baxter explored this idea in a short story called the “The Invasion of Venus”. In the story astronomers realise that a comet passing through our Solar System is decelerating and leaking highly structured radio waves. They realise that an alien spaceship is headed our way. But the scientists then realise that the craft isn’t headed to Earth, but towards Venus. An intelligent civilisation on Venus then reveals itself. All the attempts by Earth to communicate with each civilization are utterly ignored.
It’s an insightful piece of writing by Baxter, initially there is panic on Earth when we realise that intelligent aliens are headed our way, and argument over whether humans should attempt contact or not. But then humanity is hit by a one-two-blow when we realise we are being ignored, and have been ignored by Venus for thousands of years. The story ends with a feeling of depression and despondency falling over much of the human race.
I do think if this were to happen to humanity, that we were utterly ignored, it would be crushing. Perhaps humanity would still achieve a greater sense of unity in the face of alien life, and perhaps we could gain a sense of hope that other civilisations have arisen to such technological greatness, but still, such an intergalactic snub would be a bitter blow.