What would happen if we met ET?

Many people think that there is intelligent life beyond Earth, and as the interest (even belief) in UFOs suggest, many people think Extraterrestrial Life (ET) has already landed on our planet.  If it has, then either

  • ET came but didn’t stay
  • ET is how life started on this planet in the first place, in which case, ET is us
  • ET is among us but we don’t recognize it/him/her.

Any of the above might be true, if at this point unprovable either way.  An equally provocative question about ET, though, is not whether he (or she or it) has already landed on Earth, but how we would respond if ET made contact.  I don’t think the prognosis is particularly encouraging.

  • Would we recognize an intelligent life form if it arrived from outer space?  If our ability to recognize intelligence in each other or in other forms of life with whom we are already sharing this planet, the chances are that we will not.  We not only don’t understand much of the intelligent behavior in other species.  It was as late as the 15th century when Spanish colonialsts in Latin America asked the Pope in Rome to rule whether the native peoples were actually humans or whether they were more akin to monkeys.  We even often think other members of our own species lack intelligence because they do not speak the same language.  It was as late as the 20th century that U.S. Immigration was testing the intelligence of newly-arrived immigrants in English, even if they were barely able to understand the questions.
  • Which gets us to my second concern.  If we did recognize ET as an intelligent life form, would we be able to understand its communication system?  It might be as different from our own as the communication systems of dolphins or of ant colonies, in which case we are apt to understand very little.
  • The biggest question of all is how we would respond if we were to meet an ET being close-up?  In the movies, humans gyrate between being friendly and deadly.  I think we would be frightened, and would tend to respond by trying to kill it/him/her.  We already kill beings as small and inferior as mice and spiders because we are afraid they will bite.  And if we do not lash out in mindless terror, the chances are that we will attempt to conqueor ET.  Just as humans have attempted for thousands of years to conqueor the peoples in the lands we have invaded.  It’s not just the record of Europeans invading the Americas or Africa.  Before that, the Greeks and Romans, the Goths and the Visigoths, the Vikings and the Normans, the Christians and the Muslims, Genghis Khan and Byzantium head a long list of humans who have tried to impose the will on others.

My own hunch is that if we haven’t already, we will eventually come in contact with life forms that we do not recognize as belonging to planet Earth.  But my fear is that in the process, one of us will annihilate the other.

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About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
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