The Search For Extra-Terrestrial Life

Last week NASA announced that the Voyager 1 probe has reached interstellar space offering us an exciting opportunity to glimpse new frontiers.

But it also raises some challenging questions for our society. Now may be a good time to remind ourselves of why probes like Voyager are out there and what else we would hope for them to achieve. Not only to further our understanding of the physical universe but perhaps to one day make contact with extra terrestrial life.

What would we do if we found such life? How would we behave towards it? What impression would we want to create in order for them to want to meet us?

Mindful of the chance of meeting extra-terrestrial life, NASA scientists fitted Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 with gold records. The idea of these is that any extra-terrestrial civilisations which come across them will be able to learn about Earth and the life on Earth. A committee, chaired by renowned planetary scientist Carl Sagan, was formed to decide what information the records should contain. Sagan and his fellow scientists assembled 116 images and a variety of natural sounds such as surf, wind, thunder etc. The records also contain the sounds of various animals (including birds), and greetings in 55 languages. There is also a selection of music from different cultures and eras.

But here’s the paradox…

On the one hand we seem to crave the discovery of intelligent life from other worlds to share our existence with, but on the other hand every form of intelligent life we have already discovered so far on this planet (and there are many) we have, at the very least, dominated and subjegated, or more often actively exploited, abused, tortured and killed. That has been the dominant record of our relationship with intelligent life around us during our 4 million year history on earth. For most of that time we had little choice if we ourselves were to survive. However, in today’s technological world that is no longer the case. Consequently, our continuence to do so is hardly a track record supportive of our claims of extending the hand of friendship to extra-terrestial life.

So, if extra-terrestrials do exist, and if they encounter the probes and decide to visit us, would we actually be able to live alongside them as equals without feeling the need to try to exploit them as we have done with almost all other species we have met so far here on Earth?

Also, how prejudiced would we be if they looked so different from ourselves that we saw no ‘connection’ with them physically. In other words would they have to look vaguely humanoid (human looking) before we would be capable of recognising their equality to us?

This has certainly been a deciding factor in our relationship with every other species on Earth. Many other species have individuals who are significantly smarter than some humans (compare say an adult pig with a human baby), yet equality for that intelligent individual is usually disregarded on the basis of the pig (or whatever other species it is) not being human.

In other words we are speciesist, and unless we can recognise this and evolve beyond it, why would non-humans from other planets want to trust us not to treat them like almost every non-human we’ve ever met on this one?

Our popular culture contains many examples of our subconscious speciesism, ironically even when we are trying to see ourselves at our most egalitarian.

In the ever popular Star Trek series the goal was to ‘search out new life…new civilisations’ (no mention of species bias), and yet the new life forms which feature most highly are almost exclusively humanoid. What should this tell us about our discomfort with holding as equal anyone who looks like an animal.

In the 2008 remake of ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still‘ when the final decision is being made as to whether or not to save the earth from destruction, based on whether or not there is any sign that we can respect the planet and all life on it, it is the saving of a human child which saves the day, despite the fact that it was supposedly our treatment of ‘the Earth and all life on it’ that so nearly resulted in our termination in the first place. What started out at the beginning of the film as the very fault which brought us to the attentions of the extra-terrestrials in the first place (i.e. the human species putting itself first to the cost of other life on Earth) was forgotten by the end of the film, even to the extent that doing exactly that was considered the very action required to make everything right again. A contradiction which I suspect the subconscious anthropocentrism of the film makers, and most of their audience, resulted in few people even realising had happened. Such is the deep-rooted nature of our species bias.

Until we can progress beyond our biological prejudices, we will never attain true humanity, and any claim that we have done so will be nothing more than self deception. Now is the time for us to evolve our humanity to a level of maturity which will allow us to reach out in friendship in all directions, not just to other species on other planets, but to the other species here on Earth as well.

Our technological advancement has meant that we no longer need to exploit and destroy the lives of other species around us. We can now not only survive, but even live comfortably, without doing so. Ultimately we don’t need to kill them for food or clothing or anything else, so given that we only continue do so because we choose to, what can we expect ET to think of us, or indeed behave towards us?

True intelligence is not just about what we can do but about what we decide to do. True humanity is now finally available to us. Whether each of us chooses to step up to achieving it is up to us… every single one of us.