The Sciences

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

80beatsBy Andrew MosemanJan 11, 2011 4:38 AM


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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]


(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

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