What underlies the human fascination with extraterrestrial life?16 min read

We have had quite a number of alien movies recently including the remake of the classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still with Keanu Reeves, or the strangely disturbing movie with Nicolas Cage, Knowing, which for more than half the movie, you’re not aware that it is a movie about extra-terrestrials at all.

With the release of District 9, we have taken a different angle on alien interaction, the alien as immigrant; we are unwilling to interact with them and they are apparently unable or unwilling to leave Earth. Other more recent alien encounter fair tends to resemble the classic alien invasion themes, as seen in Battle: Los Angeles, Attack the Block, or Skyline. In 2011, there were 14 full length films which featured aliens or alien themed movies.

Why do these movies and all of the others like them from ET the Extra-terrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Cocoon, and everyone’s favorite Independence Day with Will Smith. seem to be able to evince some kind of strong reaction from humans, no matter their cultural or social status?

Are we hard wired to consider the possibility that beings from beyond our world exist? Is it because mankind is awaiting a messiah or savior to bring that Age of Enlightenment? Are the religious ideals (pantheistic gods, angels or devas) or cultural phenomena (the lines in the Nazca plains) simply allegories for alien beings whose powers and abilities exceed our own? An alien species arriving on Earth earlier in our history would have technology that might have appeared as magic to primitive man.

When the idea is posited that alien intelligence, different from our own, exists, it is met with skepticism and summarily dismissed without serious discourse, but if we were to consider thinking in a fashion alien to our own, how much about our universe could we surmise and perhaps discover by trying on an alien point of view? I was asked what I thought would be the reaction of the human race when First Contact (the first time we are actually presented with undeniable physical evidence of extraterrestrial life) was established.

  • Would it be a Star Trek kind of interaction, a peaceful one with aliens willing to share (in a limited fashion) their technology and ideas in a way that would be helpful for humanity? Or would the aliens have a sort of “Prime Directive” (a code of conduct that would not allow them to seriously intervene in the day to day existence of species considered more primitive)?
  • Or would it be an Independence Day interaction, where the aliens simply want to take over or harvest our world for its abundant natural resources? Could we seriously expect to mount a defense against aliens who could cross the vast gulf of space to reach Earth in the first place?
  • What if the aliens were limited by the same barriers to space travel as we are and could only communicate by some sort of radio or microwave transmission at the speed of light? What if they communicated faster than light but in a manner which might only allow a message-in-the-bottle technique as in the classic Contact? Could we sustain a relationship (albeit a very slow one) and exchange information? Would humanity as a whole be allowed to even know about this communication or would it remain a state secret?


1. Physical First Contact

First Contact will affect the modern world and humanity’s relationship to their religions, science, technology, and cultures worldwide. In my opinion, if First Contact is a physical one, visible to the general public, and the aliens are not anthropomorphic (resembling humans in a bilateral symmetry, bipedal with a similar physical appearance), the human reaction will be directly related to what the human mind will associate the appearance of the aliens to creatures in our own environment. Humanity’s innate fears and revulsion will likely prejudice their responses if the aliens appear too non-human. If they appear like insects, for example (as the aliens in District 9 appear to) humans may not be able to even consider them as intelligent or sentient. On Earth, natural selection seemed to favor insects; there are physically more insects on Earth than any other kind of animal combined. (Don’t think about it, you will only want to go out and buy more Raid.) It’s not too hard to see insectoid intelligences being a high possibility as an alien visitor. Scientific theory also favors mechanized intelligences or Von Neumann probes sent world to world because the distances between the stars are so vast, only an inorganic intelligence could survive the journey.

A more human-looking alien would likely evince less psychological stress. This does not mean there would be none, but there would be more of a possibility of relating to the alien because it could potentially reinforce the idealized “God-image” of human-looking, bilaterally symmetrical creatures created in His own image. If the aliens have done a psychological profile of the human species before arriving, and their technology is sufficiently advanced, they may even modify and engineer their appearance to make themselves more palatable and approachable, at least at first. This of course, might go out the window if they did not have similar (or even understandable value systems) that humans could relate to.

I don’t believe aliens will look like us. Even though the concept of “convergent evolution” is commonly used to explain why aliens in movies and television look like us, and there is a possibility that a world similar to ours could possibly produce animals that could resemble us, my instincts tell me that their advanced technological profile might have them editing their bodies for performance improvements using cybernetic or genetic modifications or eventually just replacing their organic bodies altogether and transitioning to a more durable, silicon or machine-based structure. They may have learned what we are coming to learn, that intelligence may be more transferrable than we think. We are still learning how our minds work; it may take us a while to understand how to make that leap from Homo Sapiens Sapiens to Homo Sapiens Mechanicus.


2. Microwave in a Bottle

If the alien’s message is delivered from deep space, ala SETI, or some similar program, it is likely that the message would be automated and likely repeat itself or encoded in a multi-variable signal that could be received and translated. This would still take a significant amount of time and human effort because, we would first have to find and recognize the alien signal against the background noise of space, and then we would have to determine what kind of message could be sent and what information could be used as a Rosetta’s Stone to begin the translation.

Once the signal was confirmed from a variety of sources, the information of the signals existence may not actually be allowed to enter into public awareness for fear of its destabilizing influences. Governments may keep this information private in order to determine what other data may be included in the data-stream. They may decide to see how much can be learned about the aliens, their technology, their information management, and what level of technological development the aliens have. If this tech can affect human development, human governments may not allow it to reach the open markets until the data has been extracted and/or sanitized of information bearing content. Perhaps human governments might be more enlightened and be willing to share their findings with the world, but my gut feeling tells me that they would only share what they thought least likely to be dangerous or least advantageous, keeping the best technology or technological ideas for their own.

 [frame type=”lifted” align=”none”]alien invasion[/frame]

3. Alien Invasion

I do not believe in Alien Invasion as it has been portrayed in our media. Any creature able to cross the vast regions of space, creating ships that could withstand the incredible forces and stresses required to utilize energies beyond our current imaginations, would be proof against any technologies up to and including our primitive atomic weaponry. We would be no more threat to them than an ant hill might be to you; inconvenient, yes, annoying, yes, capable of being a real threat to them, no. Quoted from Independence Day” you just have to get past their technology” would be the words we would die by.

A belligerent alien intelligence arriving on Earth would likely have the technological capabilities exhibited recently in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Their machines would be capable of disassembling and reassembling themselves using nanotechnology and the manipulation of electromagnetic fields. Technology, as it was displayed in the movie, would allow them to make their machines out of whatever they could find in the environment, absorbing mass from whatever was around them, converting that mass into energy, which they would then use to power the transformation and to provide power for the new device.

They would have the ability to encode data signals or control signals within optical lasers as Reeves did when he was being chased by two helicopters. They would likely be able to render our television and radio transmissions completely ineffective without destroying anything unless they wanted to. Their computing technology would likely be so advanced it would allow them to overcome any machine system in their presence. And we will just skip over any weapons they could make because anything we can do, they can likely do better, in less space and with more energy. So I would expect their weaponry to be more destructive than anything we can muster that was not nuclear because of the availability of energy to power them.

Their spacecraft would be technologically superior to anything we have ever made on Earth; likely as strange as anything conceived of by science-fiction writers. The ability to achieve the speed of light or able to bypass the light barrier, would make their ships capable of surviving incredible stresses, since as an object approaches the speed of light, its mass increases. By our understanding, they should not be able to reach the speed of light, since an object approaching the speed of light eventually should become infinitely heavy before it reaches light speed (and thus, theoretically unable to have sufficient energy to move it). But perhaps they are reading the full rules on faster than light travel rather than Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity’s cliff notes, they may have some loophole that allows them to break the light barrier, and thus their ships would have to be composed of materials even stronger than the strongest structures we can currently conceive of. With all of the forces their ships would need to be resistant to, as well as the material science they would likely command, their ships are capable of resisting all but the most powerful weapons we could muster (and I suspect that if we were to try and use nuclear weapons, they would simply render them inoperable with an electromagnetic pulse or a generous display of laser, plasma, or kinetic weaponry reducing them to dust in short order.)

And this would assume that their technologies would be the same and progress along the same lines as ours could be extrapolated to be going. If their tech was significantly different, we might not even be able to affect them, see them, or even be aware of them, unless they wanted it. They may manipulate the electromagnetic spectrum, with the same ease with which we make fire with matches. This would give them abilities only described in fiction, including invisibility, the ability to control the flow of electricity, molecular manipulation (i.e. microwave weaponry – the power to boil you alive!) and a host of other powers we can scarcely imagine. Well, I could but I don’t want to…

4. Enlightenment or Damnation

I would like to think that Humanity would see the interactions with benign Alien Intelligences as an opportunity to see ourselves all grown up. Hopefully free from bigotry, intolerance and motivated by universal and collective altruism. The idea of sharing concepts, beliefs, reason, science, culture and technology would be the cornerstones of their ideology as they are moving through the universe. But assuming altruism from extra-terrestrials may be simply wishful thinking on our parts. David Brin, a world famous writer, wrote a paper: A Contrarian Perspective on Altruism: The Dangers of First Contact and it is totally worth a read. He posits that perhaps humanity should not be so eager to make First Contact, there may be a reason we have not detected a signal at SETI yet.

Considering that our own world has a relatively benign environment and we are as a whole relatively peaceful, our history is still peppered with a variety of conflicts causing mass casualties, as far back as recorded human history. If a species came from a world more biologically challenging (i.e. a death-world – a world whose biological fecundity bred a variety of very competitive, dangerous lifeforms and ecosystems) they might take that very competitive mindset with them to other worlds, the ultimate expression of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” They might exterminate us, just to prove that they could because their value system might indicate that if we were fit to survive, then we would be able to effectively resist them. They might not even see this as wrong as their value system was formed under a completely different biome; hence the danger of believing that alien minds might not have alien value systems. They assuredly will.

On the other hand, even meeting benevolent aliens could fracture the delicate collective psyches of humanity. Instead of coming together, this could cause human minds to “fear the alien – fear the different” and make humans more reclusive as we recognize our own technological (and likely social and cultural) perceived inferiority. Such inferiority complexes could cause issues that would rebound onto the human populace since we would not likely be able to directly affect the Alien intelligences due to their technology superiority.

What I think I worry the most about would not be that they would not share their technology with us, but that they would. Humanity is still not able to utilize the technologies that it currently has at its command effectively. Humanity has the capability but not the will to change the world for everyone living on it right now. But we don’t. We have the power and the capability to feed and get clean water to the entire human race. But we don’t. In the more technologically advanced cultures of the world, we still eat meat, even though it is factory-raised and we know that it is not good for us or the environment to do so at the scale that we do. And we do it anyway.

We still create cities in the most environmentally destructive means possible, using enormous amounts of non organic, non-degradable, non-recyclable materials, rather than working with already existing designs that could make living in cities better for everyone, more cost effective, easier to build, mass transit focused, with vertical farming, and mostly solar-powered, but we don’t do it. The Venus Project says we can. We still spend billions on things we know are not good for us such as cigarettes and alcohol. We still drive cars and are making more of them every year even though we know they are bad for us, the environment and that in less than 100 years, there will be no fuel for 95% of all of those vehicles being made today. We still wage war and spend billions every year that I am sure we could find much better things to do with that money. 21% of all the taxes gathered in 2009 in America every year is spent in the Department of Defense (for the number conscious, that is $514 billion, not counting nuclear weapon maintenance, energy technologies and miscellaneous research budgets, so that number is a bit higher, but you get the idea.)

We sell people medicines for things they would be better off without, or by teaching them how to live healthy would not need in the first place. We promote irrationality, racism, classism, fear-mongering, and good old fashioned hate as potential lifestyle choices under freedom of speech. As a species, we promote nationality, (an artificial boundary that determines a geographical social group to whom an allegiance is owed) even when today, the boundaries that separate us grow smaller because we can move faster than ever. We are connected via communication systems so that no corner of the globe can remain out of touch, if it really wants to be heard. Yet we barely know our neighbors who live down the street from us. We are so in touch and yet so alone.

Now imagine an alien species comes to Earth and offers us technology without a profit motive. They do not seek to make a profit, and they make it impossible for any Earth-based company to make a profit, because the aliens give the technology to everyone. It is likely that they could, seeing how if they are sufficiently advanced, matter and energy are the same to them. Let’s say the technology allowed people a choice that they did not have before. Perhaps it offers them environmentally clean, free energy. Perhaps it allows the creation of clean water where there was once only salt water. Perhaps it allows them to grow food in inhospitable environments or to build durable, inexpensive, but beautiful housing.

This liberation of people from the tyranny of governments or profit-driven corporations would not be welcome and I suspect we would soon hear from the houses of governments all over the planet directed to the well-meaning but differently-valued aliens: ET go home!

Until we can figure out how to leverage all of the technologies at our current command, whether they are social, cultural, business, or conceptual technologies or technological paradigms, the last thing we need visiting us are well-meaning, generous, aliens. We have not learned to take care of ourselves yet. Perhaps that is why we have not heard from any of them. If they are sufficiently advanced, they can probably tell we are so not-ready. Maybe one day we will be.

About the Author: Thaddeus Howze lives in Hayward, California. He is a computer technology consultant, astronomy enthusiast and speculative fiction author. His first collection of short stories, Hayward’s Reach was published in 2011. His fiction revolves around environmental themes and questions regarding the nature and value of humanity in a world enamored of its technological development. You can read more of his speculative fiction at Hub City Blues (hubcityblues.com).

Article Sources:

Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

The Venus Project

District 9 – Sony Pictures

The Zeitgeist Movement

DMOZ – The Open Directory Project


GPO Access – A service of the US government printing office

Memory Alpha – A Star Trek Wiki

The Internet Movie Database

The Seti League



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