alien civilisations, aliens, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Douglas Adams, Dyson sphere, E.T the Extra-Terrestrial, Eukaryotes, Europa, images of aliens, Independence Day, Io, NSA, Prokaryotes, Pulsars, Science, SETI, Spring-Heeled Jack, Star Trek, Terry Pratchett, UK SETI, Vulcans
I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because even primitive, prokaryotic parasites should display good grammar.
My trawlings of the internet brought this article to my attention:
It seems that the British version of the SETI project (UK SETI research network) is focusing its efforts on finding evidence of aliens capable of moving stars or building giant structures in space. This being in addition to SETI’s usual activities of eavesdropping on potential alien communications like some interstellar version of the NSA*.
This sort of research is great for reporters. It makes good copy and impresses the readers with lots of imaginative images of alien civilisations and the advanced technology their no doubt superior intelligence has created. As a society, modern humanity has been brought up on the Hollywood stories of E.T, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Independence Day. Aliens in these stories are intelligent with highly advanced technology including ships that are capable of achieving the near impossible (according to current human understanding of physics) speeds necessary to travel the vast interstellar distances needed to get here from our nearest neighbour. They also have some form of interest in Earth – whether as a target for conquest, often to mine for our plentiful resources, or as a potential ally (however junior) in some form of galactic federation (for example the Vulcans in Star Trek). They can also be obsessed with capturing and probing helpless humans either for scientific research or, according to Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, as the alien equivalent to Cow Tipping. These are our common held beliefs about alien life, mired in stories of the fantastic that range back even so far as the tales of Spring Heeled Jack.
There are, however, a lot of assumptions in those images of aliens. They assume that not only are they sentient and civilised but that they are infinitely more intelligent and civilised than we are. Why should this be the case? Given that the greatest chance we have of identifying life on other planets might currently be finding bacteria or even just the remnants of bacteria deep in the oceans of Europa or hidden in the rocks of Io, why should we expect any other alien species to be any more than that? These alien bacteria are unlikely to blow up the Whitehouse or give us access to the secrets of eternal life or warp drives. Even if an alien race were more complex than our own earthborne prokaryoates**, to the extent of being multicellular and sentient, then why should they be necessarily more advanced? Could there not be a race of quiet, unassuming aliens out there somewhere in the universe, sitting in caves, drawing on walls and hitting rocks together in the vague hope of one day discovering fire? Given that our entire strategy for finding aliens is predicated on the assumption that they are at least as advanced as we are (to the extent of using EM radiation to communicate and entertain) there is very little chance we’d find any evidence of our extraterrestrial cavemen. Considering that there has been, to date, approximately two hundred thousand years of human existence on earth and we have only been transmitting EM waves from our televisions and radios for just over 100 of these, how likely do you think it is that some other civilisation is going to be producing such waves themselves or picking up on ours? Assuming, of course, that they do utilise EM radiation in the same way we do and don’t communicate using some other method that we have never considered. While the chance of alien life actually existing are a lot higher than previously believed, the universe is so vast in both time and space that the chances of us picking up on each other are very low indeed.
There are, of course, several reasons why we have these assumptions about alien life. The main practical ones revolve around the fact that we basically have no hope of finding any form of life more primitive than 20th century humans. Until we ourselves get to the point of being able to travel to other planets to look for ourselves, we are somewhat limited by our ability to detect things like EM waves and interpret them in some way. Sometimes we can’t even do that right and mistake something like a pulsar for evidence of alien life. There are potentially hundreds of thousands of years worth of alien development that lack such obvious signs but we cannot detect them unless there is a major shift in our technology. So we are limited to what we can detect and that assumes aliens with technology at least as advanced as our own. Also, any alien civilisation that came to visit us would be definitely more advanced because they would have to have developed the appropriate methods of interstellar travel.
However, these prosaic reasons pale in comparison to those based on human nature and wish fulfilment. We have always looked to the
stars and wondered about them. In the past we made them the home of the gods, now we consider them the home of aliens. Some theories even conflate the two by stating that the aliens came to earth and became our gods. A number of science fiction franchises are even based on this theory including both the original and more recent Battlestar Galactica series. Psychologically, humanity appears to feel the need to have something bigger than it out there to look up to. Having risen to the top of the foodchain on earth, we offset our responsibility for the planet and all who live on it by deferring it ‘upstairs’ – to superior beings be they gods, aliens or even abstract ideals such as the Fates.
Also, aliens with vastly superior technology and intelligence make for far better stories than quiet ones who just want to get on with discovering fire or inventing the printing press. When we defeat the former we look like epic heroes valiantly battling against impossible odds and a superior foe***. Defeat the latter and we are colonialist dicks imposing our ‘superior’ ideals and technology on the poor defenceless natives and frankly we have done enough of that in our time. In the absence of any other concrete evidence at all about aliens, we will naturally tend to default to an assumption where they are bigger and better than we are. All in all, it is far better for our psychological well-being for aliens to be more advanced than we are.
So, while scientists are busy out there trying to eavesdrop on alien telephone conversations or looking for Dyson spheres, spare a thought for the simple prokaryoates potentially clinging to a semblance of organic life on some volcanic vent deep on an extrasolar planet or the spear wielding, eight armed, crocodile headed people of Arachnia who have not yet heard of Marconi or Alexander Graham Bell and wouldn’t even know how to build a Dyson vacuum cleaner never mind a Dyson Sphere.
* All this talk of the NSA eavesdropping on the internet and not one person thinks to stand up for the rights of aliens to their privacy. Typical humanocentric attitude. Someone should seek to regulate SETI’s privacy invading practises.
** Prokaryotes, for those without knowledge of A level Biology, is a posh science word for the group of organism that include bacteria. It refers to a Kingdom of living organisms that lack a nuclear membrane among other features I won’t go into here. Eukaryoates, which is what we are, do have a nuclear membrane. It is generally considered that Prokaryotes are a more primitive form of life in evolutionary terms. Certainly all the multicellular creatures on earth have nuclear membranes, though as this grouping includes several humans who believe in some very silly political ideas it may seem a little disingenuous to call them ‘advanced’.
*** Or at least having superior pathogens, as in the case of War of Worlds. We humans may not have interstellar travel or heat rays but we sure know how to cultivate a deadly cold virus.