Moral Quandaries...from Outer Space
This post from the NY Times posits some interesting (albeit not entirely new) ideas on the concept of human and potential-alien encounters. The author, Robert Wright is drawing upon a quote of Stephen Hawking, the work of Peter Singer, and his own (which he promotes just below "too much" but it did evoke a scene from "The Critic" for me). The discussion also seems to come in a year following two rather influential and powerful films impressed audiences throughout the world. The first is District 9, directed by Neil Blomkamp. Though the film was not as widespread, it was certainly well-received (made over $100 million) and had a compelling and intriguing premise about the types of aliens we might expect to encounter when they come here. By contrast, there was Avatar, which of course, became the highest grossing film ever (until another film beats it…probably by James Cameron…probably in about 10 years). Again, here we see an interaction between human and sentient alien life and the troubles of humans to be something other than what they’ve tended to be (though the disregard of non-sentient life in this film is also telling).
One element of the discussion is the debate about history: Have we actually learned from it? What are we to expect in the future when we encounter alien life or alien life encounters us?
What constitutes alien life?If we encounter alien life, the first question that will challenge many of us is "what constitutes alien life?" We may say that it seems obvious but for many, "alien life" will not mean much if it's single-celled organisms. Many would not blink in acknowledging or bothering with deeper ponderings about these life-forms. After all, the majority of us don't recognize them here, unless they're in our way. The underlying assumption about "alien life" is that it's sentient. Although even then, we would do well to consider in some ways the Prime Directive from Star Trek. Although in this case, I don't mean it in regards to prevent sharing of technology but rather, to prevent interfering with their natural evolutionary growth.
Actually, I take that back. That's a question that I don't even know how to come at it. Do we interfere with any life that we can't actually communicate? What gives us the right? What's our larger goal in this?
Like Wright, this may sound like one big mind game, but it may someday have sincere consequences and speak to the kind of "Earthling" we will potentially be as we explore the universe.
This question of what will life look like comes to me from two different angles. The first is insightful and challenging documentary, Earthlings where its opening sequence explains, that though humans assume (and so much of science fiction proves me right here) that "Earthlings" refers to humans; it actually refers to all life forms from Earth; and that's a lot of life forms. Who will the aliens choose to engage with, should they come here first? That also reminds me of the moment in Ishmael by Daniel Quinn when Ishmael points out that the first primordial creature to crawl out of the water, probably thought of himself as the big-cheese (or big fish?) because he was at the height of the evolutionary chain and in hindsight; he's not. That is, as the current self-proclaimed head of the herd, we too think certain things are self-evident--like humans will be the species aliens choose to contact. We base that on "civilization"; our ability to alter the physical earth to suit our needs.
But what if the aliens have other criteria? What if they are looking for the most populous? Then they might consider ants, plankton or beetles. As JBS Haldane once quipped, “The Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other…” Or maybe, the aliens will look to plankton. These are all what we consider lower-intelligent creatures but we presume that
1. Aliens are looking for intelligence.
2. That humans are intelligent in the ways that are important to aliens.
3. That the interaction/contact is how we perceive interactions on a human level; they might different significantly).
There’s lot of concern around how humans will act; regardless of the alien life we encounter. On an individual level, we look at one another and hold one’s history as a means of understanding their present and future. We are obsessed with each other’s history. Whether it’s a job history when applying for a new job, your relationship history explained to a new partner, or a criminal history when it comes time to sentencing, we look at a person’s past as a barometer for future interactions. So when it comes time to weigh in on the chances of positive human encounters with other life, we have to consider how the dominant human cultures have encountered other human cultures and even nonhuman cultures. After all, if the alien species doesn’t have a recognizable face (meaning something we can register and process as a face), we’re apt to have trouble with accepting it on some level since our facial-recognition mechanisms are part of what allows for empathy.
Why do I say “dominant human cultures” instead of just human cultures? It tends to reason that the dominant human cultures at a given time may also be the more likely to be sending forth people to other parts of the universe (although even then “dominant” might need some tweaking since it implies an all-arena dominance whereas we’re recognizing some countries/cultures dominate in certain ways: militarily, religiously/spiritually, scientifically, financially, etc. There’s often overlap, but it doesn’t always mean one has dominance in all ways.
It’s a curious idea for sure; not expecting to have answers, just more questions.
QUESTIONSFor history students; what are some examples of more positive first encounters between different human cultures? What about positive encounters between human/nonhuman species?
In what concrete ways have we learned from the past that might help us in positive future relationships with alien species (sentient or not)?
For my popular culture and monster students, what sense do you make out of all the alien-human movies, comics, books that have come forth in the last century? How do you think they engage/help us with dealing with the potential encountering of alien life? Do they help and in what possible ways?
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