At one point in time to speak of different lands and of different beings across the water of The Earth was to be considered mad. If you spoke of inevitable continents and diverse creatures within reach of possible powerful ships, you would be deemed a time-waster. After all, if different creatures and continents did exist beyond current reach, what would be the point in finding that out for sure; and why speculate when you are not there, but here?
How the world has changed! Now, airships and seaships transport each day and the scale of home has been raked up from the village or nomad tribe lands, to planets we are told exist, even without our ever visiting. Speculation has become a popular virtue because scientific discoveries have gained, and in turn scientists’ questions and imaginations, an inarguable prestige. This is clear in the fame of most quoted and least understood, Einstein. (Though how much of the prestige and ‘advance of humanity’ is a product of European imperialism in ideas as much as guns, is worrisome).
Much like colonial discoverers were fascinated by foreign people and foreign lands yet frightened and disturbed by them, we seek out alien-life with a mix of hopeful awe and terror. For judging historically and statistically, the greatest fear we have is that the aliens indeed be like humanity: murdersome, selfish, restless, viral. And if imperial genocide was the result of economic greed and superior technology, if these aliens had our own most recent virtues and better–more mathematical, more powerful–weapons: would we survive?
The anxiety is encapsulated in the oldest (and best) science fiction writer, H.G. Well’s wonderful War of The Worlds, from 1897:
And we men, the creatures who inhabit this earth, must be to them at least as alien and lowly as are the monkeys and lemurs to us. The intellectual side of man already admits that life is an incessant struggle for existence, and it would seem that this too is the belief of the minds upon Mars. Their world is far gone in its cooling and this world is still crowded with life, but crowded only with what they regard as inferior animals. To carry warfare sunward is, indeed, their only escape from the destruction that, generation after generation, creeps upon them.
And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?
Wells illustrates nicely that the hierarchy which places man at the centre of the universe, of nature, and of dignity is displaced. For conveniently and tellingly, it is humans who placed themselves at the centre and create the logic of the human world. The objective law of natural selection has no ethics other than what spreads genes effectively; alien species that have evolved differently would have evolved different ethics and anatomies. Where we see through human eyes and sympathy, they see through theirs and their emotions; or even not see or have emotion at all.
Wells satirises human hypocrisy: us mistreating beings of a smaller scale and retaliation lacking intelligence as inferior; tacitly shunning foreign customs like bride-price; eliminating rivalrous (non-monetary, say) ways of life. These we justify by an authority of our own invention. Because we say so.
Aliens with a literally different worldview and speciesview are the ultimate test of relativity. If animals do not care about humans’ intangible concerns, like human rights, why would aliens? The selfishness we espouse may come to haunt us if a more powerful species were to treat us as yet another, lower than the apex, figure in the food web.
Stephen Hawking did not support finding alien life. Hawking thought the benefits were outweighed by the risks of finding a species like us, threatening. Carl Sagan, though, was more hopeful. He viewed the pursuit of alien-life as discovery, an adventure, with the assumption that human values would outweigh violence against the most foreign of all. Whether alien values would outweigh violence Sagan seems to have not considered.
For we make the mistake of assuming that having technology similar enough to communicate with us, would entail similar enough ethics to treat us by the human standard of Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Perhaps for aliens that would be doing acid rain showers unto the population of the earth?)
I do not support finding alien life, for I do not see it working outside of science-fiction. Thankfully though, technological limitations and the short time frame for a kind of evolution elsewhere at the same time and within travel-range of us is implausible. The alien life we would find is likely to be curious, but basic microbiota. Found say, under the crust of one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa. Nothing like Star Trek.
All of this, though, assumes that aliens exist. And certainly, they do. For if we look at earth from an outsider perspective, we are aliens ourselves. Indeed, sea species have been found, the jelly-like Ctenophore, which is so different neurophysiologically they have been called ‘alien’. The origin of life on earth is theorised to perhaps have been an impacting asteroid–with right extreme conditions–bringing amino acids. Amino acids: D.N.A: life.
Aliens do exist because, with an indefinitely long timeline and the same elements, lifeforms are an inevitability. Albeit a rarity from our standpoint. From a hypothetical God’s view, however, the number of possible aliens in geography and past-present-future is arguably numerous. We are here, aren’t we? To think ourselves a chosen exception rather than a product of recurring causal chains is to break with, on faith rather than probability, what we have learned from centuries of science.