The Royal Society Asks: Are We Ready to Meet E.T.?

By Andrew Moseman | January 10, 2011 5:38 pm

You know the old routine in sci-fi: Aliens show up, people of Earth freak out. Whether we provoke  aliens a la The Day the Earth Stood Still or they arrive foaming with blood lust like in Mars Attacks, storytellers’ general feeling is that the mass of humanity would not respond well to the real presence of extraterrestrial life. We need Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones to keep ’em separated from us.

In 2011—the year after we were supposed to make contact—are we humans still a backwater mob of talking apes who would crumble into pandemonium, or cosmic self-doubt, at the discovery of life beyond Earth? This week, a special issue of The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society addresses that question and more.

You’ve come a long way, baby

Albert Harrison, psychologist at the University of California, Davis, may live to regret saying nice things about humanity. But it’s nice to see somebody giving us a vote of confidence:

The Brookings Report warned in 1961 that the discovery of life beyond Earth could lead to social upheaval. But [Harrison] says “times have changed dramatically” since then. Even the discovery of intelligent aliens “may be far less startling for generations that have been brought up with word processors, electronic calculators, avatars and cell phones as compared with earlier generations used to typewriters, slide rules, pay phones and rag dolls,” Harrison writes in one of the papers. [MSNBC]

SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) hasn’t been successful in its half-century hunt for alien civilizations, but it has ingrained into people the idea of looking for life beyond Earth. The continually increasing exoplanet count (one discovery was announced just today) is showing people just a small glimpse of the variety of worlds out there. Thus, Harrison says the people of Earth would respond to the discovery of alien life with “delight or indifference,” according to the Press Association.

If you would greet the discovery of alien life with “indifference,” you need to reevaluate your worldview.

These creatures are not your friends / The sound of silence

Not everyone’s outlook is so rosy. The idea that extraterrestrial life would at the very least dislike humans—and probably try to wipe us out—doesn’t exist simply in the realm of sci-fi movies; Stephen Hawking made waves last April for articulating this argument. And in another paper in the Royal Society’s special issue, Simon Conway Morris argues that we ought to expect hostility.

Any life that might look like us, Morris reasons, probably would have emerged the same way that we did, though evolution by natural selection. And if you want to guess their temperament, look in the mirror.

“Why should we ‘prepare for the worst’? First, if intelligent aliens exist, they will look just like us, and given our far from glorious history, this should give us pause for thought,” wrote Morris in the journal’s special issue. [The Guardian]

The fact that alien civilizations haven’t swung by Earth to wipe us out with death rays or plagues, he argues, is evidence for the case that they don’t exist.

“At present, as many have observed, it is very quiet out there,” study author Simon Conway Morris, of the University of Cambridge, [said] in an e-mail interview. “And given many planetary systems are billions of years older than ours, I’d expect us to be best grilled on toast back in the Cambrian.” []

What about God?

Suppose that extraterrestrial life—whether microbe or walking, talking alien—appears, and doesn’t destroy all humans. Will it destroy human religion? Ted Peters, a professor of systematic theology at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in California, considers this conundrum.

Most religions were formed with the notion of life on Earth being special, a notion that could be dashed in one swift stroke. Yet religion survived the revelation that the Earth is several billion years old and not the center of the universe. Most likely, he writes, it shall go on.

His conclusion … is that faith in Earth’s major religions would survive intact. “Theologians will not find themselves out of a job. In fact, theologians might relish the new challenges to reformulate classical religious commitments in light of the new and wider vision of God’s creation. Traditional theologians must then become astrotheologians…. What I forecast is this: contact with extraterrestrial intelligence will expand the existing religious vision that all of creation – including the 13.7bn-year history of the universe replete with all of God’s creatures – is the gift of a loving and gracious God,” he speculated. [The Guardian]

Who’s forming the welcoming committee?

Questions like what alien life might look like or how religion will change in a brave new universe make for fine conversation starters. But there’s one pressing matter we need to settle first: If E.T. shows up, what are we going to do?

The head of the U.N. Office for Outer Space Affairs, Mazlan Othman, presents her view that the United Nations should take a leading role in coordinating the global response to evidence of extraterrestrial life. Othman got in hot water when news reports made it sound as if she was angling to become an “ambassador to the aliens.” In the journal, however, Othman presents a sensible case: She draws an analogy to the role played by the United Nations in considering what should be done in the event Earth is threatened by an incoming asteroid. [MSNBC]

Let us know what you think about the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and how humanity would respond to it. And if you want to read the full Royal Society papers, many are now available free at the journal’s website.

Related Content:
80beats: How Will We Spot Alien Signals if E.T. Is on a Tight Budget?
80beats: This Martian Volcano Would Be a Great Place to Check for Fossils
80beats: Stephen Hawking, for One, Does Not Welcome Our Potential Alien Overlords
80beats: Upgrading From Analog TVs Is Making Earth “Invisible” to E.T.’s

Image: flickr / Jay Adan

  • Wendy

    Logically, I predict that no space-faring race would be hostile towards living things. Any hostile race with the ability to develop technology would wipe itself out loooong before developing long-range space travel.

    Look at us, we’re already on the brink of self-destruction, yet our machines have only just barely left the solar system!

  • Wil

    The extreme radius of our radio transmissions is currently about 100 light years. If another advanced civilization exists within that sphere, and if they have detected our fantastically weak radio signals, and if they have replied using radio (or similar), then we might hear their response within the next century. If they have ships that can travel this far, then their children’s children might visit us within the next 1000 years.

    Given the large number of stars and the great distances involved, I do not think any space faring civilization would attempt to contact or visit Earth unless they already knew (via our radio transmissions) that an intelligent civilization existed here. I say this even if some civilizations have already been exploring this Galaxy for millions of years.

  • Sam

    Its a valid point Wendy.

    Why do beings choose to explore? It is either for survival or curiosity. Any species in my opinion will do whatever it can to survive, however any life which can reach our planet probably has the means to survive by itself already.

    A species in which has developed advanced spaceflight technology might also be heavily altruistic, curious and open-minded to survive themselves. Potentially very good traits.

    Of course when dealing with numbers like the size of the universe, any possible type of species could theoretically arise depending on what strand of evolution was effective on that planet. Making judgements is in all fairness quite crude, although very fun to think about at the same time :)


  • Brian Too

    I doubt we are ready in any substantive sense. Pockets of people, maybe. Society in general? No way. Nor will we likely ever be, unless we get lots of advance warning.

    Contact with an ET civilization is one of those improbable, high impact events that we just aren’t very good at preparing for.

    On the other hand I don’t think it matters too much. Unless we come under immediate attack or something, humanity is awfully good at adapting and recalibrating. We’ll adjust to the new information and carry on, much like always. Only a few would have their ‘world view’ significantly shaken. For all the rest they will find a way to incorporate the new intelligence into their belief systems with the minimum possible disruption.

    If you believe in God, you’ll continue to believe in God, aliens or no aliens. What do aliens really have to do with faith anyway? Unless you committed 100% to the whole ‘people were created in the image of God’ and you cannot interpret that any way but literally, you’ll do just fine.

    There are examples galore of articles of faith, in multiple major religions, that legions of the faithful find ways to um, how shall I put this, decide to observe at variance with their church? And that’s for ostensibly black and white religious policy.

    So how many major religious texts have injunctions against aliens? “If you believe in non-human intelligences and non-human souls, you break with the Father?” No, this isn’t going to be a big problem. The churches and their flocks will carry on quite normally I’m sure.

    As to how the aliens will view us, I don’t consider this to be a question that can be answered. Only a meeting will tell us what we need to know.

  • nick

    Regardless, we will have two things in common with aliens. The need for energy, and the will to survive.

  • anonymous

    well when everyone realizes that universe is just a one really giant brain it will become apparent that just like past, future and present – alien life is fully dependent on conception. It appears that eventually humans will encounter “aliens”, or their own thoughts that will manifest as “aliens”, be it spaceships or teleportation.

  • sion

    I think it is arrogant assumption to think we on earth are the only sentient beings in the universe. whether they have visited us or not may be dependant on some kind of “prime directive” as in the star trek franchise. it is safe to assume that the human race would not be prepared for the revelation of other beings from other worlds. Society would crumble into chaos. We are not as of yet, remotely ready for that.
    I would assume that if there are other sentient beings as ourselves in the universe they are probably biding their time till we have truly evolved as a species and gotten over our petty squabbles first and have reached a truly world wide tolerance and spiritual cohesiveness.

  • corwin

    has anyone considered that these beings could be from another dimension?

  • Sam M

    In my opinion, if we do make contact at any time in the future, that we would be greeted with more kindness. A race that has the sort of technology to travel through space would more than likely have the technology to settle on just about any planet despite atmospheric issues. In “Signs”, we are lead to believe that the invaders are hostile and are most likely taking over the planet because they want our resources and have run out of their own. We forget that if they are fueling a spacecraft that can travel lightyears, then they are probably pretty well off on resources. This race of aliens would be a lot older than mankind, and much smarter. Imagine if it were us that found them. If it was that humans made contact with E.T on their planet; though we are a race capable of war and tyranny, we wouldn’t much start a war with a species we have been looking for for many years. If they find us, they would easily be able to destroy us, but even as young as humankind is we already realize the benefits of peace, and so would they.

  • JD

    There are too many variables to know for sure how humanity would react to ETs until it happened.

    For example:
    Would they contact us via some type of broadcast? If so would we be able to understand, and who would respond?

    What if they forego transmissions and decide to land on Earth?

    Which country would they choose? How would that country’s leader respond? (Thank goodness they don’t have to meet Bush) Would they respond by themselves, or (unlikely) try to meet the aliens with a group of their peer leaders?

    How humanity would respond also depends on why the aliens tell us they’re here (assuming we can communicate with each other).

    There are other variables, but that’s already plenty of uncertainty. I want to hope for the best, but if our own history is any guide, then we should prepare for the worse too.

  • Jay Fox

    No one has yet even touched on the multitude of UFO sightings that seem to be increasing. There have been a number of mass sightings that cannot be explained away unless one considers objects from “outside.”

    It’s quite possible that they not only exist, but that they’re already here. And have been coming here for millenia.

    It is obvious that mankind does not yet understand all of physics and cosmology. Dark what? So even though we might not understand how faster than light travel could be possible, it may very well be. All those extra dimensions hinted at within the various string and M theories may actually be useful to us, if we knew enough. Just because we haven’t figured it out yet doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

    Assume for a moment that at least some of the UFO sightings are real objects from somewhere else. These objects appear to be able to do things that we cannot. It appears that such feats would only be possible if some form of energy were being used on a massive scale that we are not yet capable of mastering. Yet, if these objects are indeed “manned,” those beings are wielding such power as flippantly as we wield a flashlight. Think about that for a moment. If you were them, would you want us earthlings (or Terrans) to have access to that kind of power? We can’t even use the power we have in a completely peaceful manner.

    Now think back to those biblical Ten Commandments. It seems like every major religion has a similar list of societal rules. If every person on the planet adhered to those rules, we’d more likely be viewed by our galactic neighbors as someone to befriend. As it is today, we do not fit that discription. And if there is any verity to those UFO sightings, they are watching us and know where we stand.

    Under these conditions, aliens are not likely to make contact with us except for a few circumstances. They might crash a ship with survivors, and try to negotiate their return. They might, if they think we’re worth saving, step in if we’re about to blow ourselves up accidentally. They might step in if we suddenly figure out some major breakthrough that enables us to exploit massive power, thus putting us in their neighborhood. They might even jam the system so that efforts like SETI see nothing.

    Without denying the existance of God, could it be possible that aliens themselves instilled the commandments on mankind as a rulebook for galactic citizenship? And as long as we fail to adhere to those simple rules, will we be denied membership? If that’s the case, we have a tough row to hoe.

  • Joe

    I firmly believe that Alien life is out there and has been since before man, i believe most humans would welcome an Intelligent species to Earth. Most anyway not all

  • Oli

    @11. Jay Fox: Jesus was an alien? Wow, what a revelation.

  • D

    An acquaintance opened a corporate office in West Virginia and likes it there.

    But he learned something from his urban and suburban West Virginians. A “holler” is the end of a mountain valley. There are people known as the “people way up the holler”. You don’t go there and you don’t disturb them. They are dangerous and nasty. Everyone knows they’re there but no one contacts them.

    And that is his answer to why the starfaring civilizations have not arrived. We are the people way up the holler. They know we’re here but no one wants to contact us.

  • Frank

    scared to leave any info regarding this subject- here goes-the conscience universe is creative positive place which reproduces the same thing stars/suns planets-moons trees-plants, even viruses, yes, many of the same creatures, insects, animal types, forms, are all created repeatly (cookie cutter) this same math is applied to all, just look at other solar systems & how simualar they are to our own. We developed along the universe’s energy guide lines, the same is applied to all solar systems, so other ‘inteligent’ life forms would more than likely created much like us! Truth is ‘they’ might already be amoung us! After all why haven’t we been back to the moon?With all the mystery surrounding UFO’s & so many different unsolvable sightings

  • Coty

    Jay Fox: Dude, can I buy weed from you? Seriously, that must be some good stuff.

  • BigDave

    @Coty Jay Fox has left the most sensible and thought provoking post on here. Your poking fun at it indicates that you are either pig-ignorant with a closed mind, or an adherent to one of the stupid and mediaeval so-called religious faiths of this world .. much the same thing in fact. Get over yourself. If you have no natural sense of curiosity or scientific open mindedness, stick to reading sports scores.

  • db

    we are not ready


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