A Scientific Fear of Space

I thought I’d offer an internet rant about a subject that a lot of people couldn’t bother to spare a thought about. SETI, the search for extra terrestrial intelligence. Those of you who support SETI and its ideals need not fear. I’m on your side.

There are several organizations and projects putting a lot of effort into the possibility of communication with other planets. If there is any intelligent life outside our world, can we make contact? What a wonderful idea. What a grand possibility to explore. Of course not everyone thinks so. This idea is as controversial as any. Listening for interstellar signals costs money. Beaming signals into space does too. There are quite a lot of people who think that this is a great waste of time and resources. That’s a legitimate point of view. It’s a point of view I disagree with, but it is legitimate. So I can respect it.

There’s another complaint though, that tends to really irritate me. Some of the criticism is concerned with SETI’s potential success. If you manage to make contact with an alien culture, then what guarantees do you have that culture won’t be hostile? There have been a number of scientists and other highly regarded minds who seem to think that the worst thing about SETI’s phone calls to other worlds is that it might bring the wrong kind of attention.

They have a point, don’t they? Isn’t it possible that aliens arriving at Earth might be the worst thing for us? Well, that is possible. I can’t argue that alien contact is without risk. Even the esteemed Doctor Stephen Hawking has showed concern. That’s old news, but it’s news that gets repeated. I read an article online just this morning that prompted me to write my response. What is it that scares people? Even brilliant people like Dr. Hawking? A hypothetical alien/human encounter is compared to human history. Throughout human history there are examples of explorers and settlers interacting with less advanced cultures. If you know anything at all about history, then you know that this typically doesn’t work out too well for the ‘less advanced’ culture. For a specific example, and again one used by Dr. Hawking, look at North America and the arrival of the Europeans. Could that happen again, here on Earth? Could it be that conquerors or even just explorers from other worlds would decimate or damage our world? Surely they would, argue SETI’s detractors. Just look at history. We’ve already seen it happen.

The fear associated with alien contact has some logic to it. It is, however, a flawed logic, pessimistic and paranoid. With all due respect to the scientific community, they underestimate cultural intelligence and morality. The issue of alien contact is not scientific, or at least this part of it is not. Instead it is sociological. Maybe Sociology is a science. I do apologize if my estimation of that ology is less than gracious. What I mean is that as a sociologist, Stephen Hawking makes a great physicist. The man is brilliant. But on this, he’s wrong.

Why? Well, in the example given by Dr. Hawking, and repeated by other paranoid scientists, our first encounter with alien cultures is compared to Europeans arriving in the so called new world. It seems a sound comparison until you realize that we’re comparing advanced, interstellar travelers to superstitious societies, primitive even by our standards in the modern human world. So the analogy is flawed. It requires beings capable of star to star travel to act like fifteenth century sailors. That’s ridiculous.

To make my point, I’ll try to imagine an alien encounter from the other side. Instead of placing Earth and the human race on the receiving end of interstellar travel, I’ll do the opposite. I’ll send our modern culture to another planet. This is going to require a bit of imagination or at least suspension of disbelief, but only for the method. How would mankind, as we stand now at the beginning of the twenty first century, travel to distant, populated worlds? No space program is that far along. Well let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that there is some method for instant planetary travel discovered and implemented in the near future. Suppose that an exploration, developed and funded by a modern world power were to hop from one planet to another in a moment. What’s more, we can transport large amounts of human beings and Earth resources to another planet. On that planet, new life is discovered. Intelligent life that has its own society and values, but is not as technologically advanced as our own. In this example we leave the fifteenth century behind and use a modern point of view. Now here’s the question. What would we do?

Well, it’s obvious. The first thing we would do, would be to prepare an arsenal of nuclear weapons, and wipe that alien culture off the face of their planet. Right? Does that seem likely to you? Then again, nukes sound pretty extreme if there are other alternatives. We have guns, tanks, planes, drones and so on. What we would actually do would be to mount an invasion force and slaughter any natives in the way, subjugating the rest to Earth rule, taking what we want with no concern for the aliens. Right? No, that still doesn’t seem likely. Ah, but these aliens have resources that we could use. Things that would greatly benefit Earth. So, would we force the aliens to give us what we want? Or does it seem much more likely, far more in keeping with modern values, to trade and barter with that culture, much the same way we do with other nations on our own world?

Now I’m not necessarily suggesting an entirely fair and ethical method of trade or communication of ideas. I’m not that naïve. But widespread destruction? Theft of resources? There was a time that the human race would have done exactly those things. The leading nations of our world are past that point though. I’ll grant you that war and violence are still very much a part of our world, but when I look at the conquest, genocide and slavery of the past, I see how far the human race has come. Some would like to disavow that idea, but, if you’ll forgive another quick delve into a sci-fi style hypothetical, I’ve always wanted to put those people into time machines and have them live in the world a few hundred years ago. I suspect that upon returning to modern times, a new respect for human development might replace that cynicism. I’m not a starry eyed idealist when it comes to humanity. I know that we’re not what we should be. But to say that we have not grown and changed is to ignore history.

That’s the problem with this theory that an alien encounter would be dangerous. If an alien civilization is advanced enough to put the time and resources into exploring new worlds, then it is unlikely to the extreme that they are conquerors, destroyers, thieves or slavers. That’s a fun fantasy for movies and books. And admittedly it is a real possibility. It is, however a possibility so remote that it shouldn’t stand in the way of progress, not even the chance of progress.

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