This essay is in response to the open letter recently published by several luminaries in many diverse fields regarding active attempts at communication with ETIs . You can read the open letter here: http://setiathome.berkeley.edu/meti_statement_0.html
First contact. This two word sentence can birth evocations broad and diverse: horror, fear, hope.
The meetings between one society less advanced than another have almost always ended poorly for the lesser. Examples are numerous throughout history, from the unchronicled interactions between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, Christopher Columbus and crew making landfall in Hispaniola, the utter destruction of the Aztec empire at the hands of the Conquistadores; Zulus, Australian aborigines, and the Chinese against the dominion of the British Crown. Stories of well-armed, wealthy emissaries which took what they wanted and enforced their own precepts and culture mores.
Iron Age to the Atomic age, men have killed other men who they have considered “less than.” Why is that?
WORST CASE SCENARIO
“My lord, you have become fatigued, you have become tired: to the land you have arrived. You have come to your city: Mexico, here you have come to sit on your place, on your throne.”
-Montezuma to Cortez
One of the primary motivators seems to be the ubiquitous need societies have to consolidate and elevate those that are in need of whatever the more advanced group has. The worst case example is embodied in the Spaniard Conquistadors led by Hernan Cortez who, with 600 men, incredibly powerful weapons, and horses (not to mention a zealous drive to force their own onerous religious beliefs upon the peoples of Central America, coupled with their unslakable thirst for gold) ensured that the rivers of blood spilled in the name of Christ and the King of Spain would be mighty and run deep crimson.
The question is: How did a relatively small band of soldiers manage to bring down an entire empire?
The peoples of the Aztec empire, especially its ruling class, saw portents in all things. Religion was the primary motivator of decision making. Emperor Montezuma believed that the arrival of the Spaniards was fulfillment of prophecy; that Cortez was the manifestation of Quetzalcoatl, one of their primary gods. This, along with the fact that Montezuma was not as powerful a ruler as Cortez assumed, allowed Cortez and his men a chance to unite other warring tribes against their Aztec rulers and bring down the power structure from inside the capital of Tenochtitlan.
The culture of the Aztecs, impressive and varied, was almost completely destroyed in less than a generation. Even their genetic material was altered with years of forced marriage and rape. The palaces of Tenochtitlan, its complex canal system, and (a rival to anything the Egyptians built) its massive temples, were literally buried under their own rubble with the stunted architecture of its colonial masters taking their place. Cortez and the Spanish undermined and destroyed an entire people.
The Aztecs now are memories. We know that they had their own repulsive religious systems, participated in mass slaughter, and participated in their own fair share of evils. But did they deserve to be destroyed so ignominiously? The Spanish didn’t stop to worry, in their minds the savages had been saved and their wealth transferred into the hands of civilized folks who knew what to do with it.
This dark moment in human history has been repeated many, many times. However, there are examples in recorded history of two civilizations meeting with less odious outcomes.
He was an old warrior, and nearly blind. He said that his life was almost over. For the common good, he would approach the raven to learn whether the god really would turn his people to stone. He set out on his own voyage of discovery to confront the end of the world. The old man made himself look hard at the raven and saw that it was not a great bird from the sky but the work of men like himself.
The Tlingit peoples of Alaska and British Columbia (modern territorial names) lived a harmonious life in the coastal rainforests. Their animistic religion formed the backbone of tribal life, with plentiful fish and other sea creatures to eat. They expected their world to remain unchangeable. Until in 1786, a giant black raven came upon one of their campsites. This black raven, considered the visit of a god who could turn men to stone, was in fact a French scientific research vessel. The scientists aboard were on a mission of discovery, their captain, Lapérouse, honored his promise not to harm any native peoples they might come across. First contact with the tribe was peaceful. Gifts were given. The Tlingit were allowed to exist unmolested.
It seems appropriate to say that first contact based on the science-fiction trope of “non-interference” is the best, especially for a positive outcome for the less advanced participant in the event. But it’s obvious throughout history that non-interference is not a default option. Too many groups are looking for domination, not to study and observe. Have there ever been any first contact scenarios where the underdog came out even?
The steam-powered ships
break the halcyon slumber
of the Pacific;
a mere four boats are enough
to make us lose sleep at night.
An interesting example of this situation would be Japan. An island nation that resisted overtures from nearby power players as well as European traders and missionaries; the Japanese managed to secure their nation from outside influence after the unification of its various feudal outliers under a shogunate appointed by the Emperor in the 1600s. At this time, prior foreign concepts and Christianity, which had made a small foothold through the work of the Portuguese, were banned from the country and the related schools and churches destroyed. A small outpost in Nagasaki allowed for controlled trade with the Dutch after that time, ensuring that Japanese society remained “untainted” by deeper contact.
By the 1850s, the United States craved access to the Japanese market and sent a naval mission of four large steam-battleships to Japan to force them to open their doors to trade. The Americans used their advanced technology and powerful weaponry to indicate their superiority and force the emperor and his shogunate to react. The effect on the Japanese was intense, and soon diplomatic relations were opened between the West and East. The cumulative effect of these agreements would witness Japan’s meteoric rise in power and influence, propelled by their desire to be seen as equals with what in other times would have been seen as conquerors.
By the 1930s Japan had become an economic powerhouse and used its military might to become an aggressor nation itself and a rapid inversion of prior relationships with nations in its sphere of influence occurred. By the end of the Second World War, Japan was rebuilt with billions of dollars in investments, loans, and grants from the United States. The two nations now share a close international relationship despite past antagonism.
This example here would show that a “less advanced” civilization could, through cooperation and trade, use those influences to jumpstart industries never-before imagined; and in the long run prove to be on equal footing with the contactor.
What did the Japanese have that allowed them to do this?
Access to western knowledge. While Christianity and other overt forms of European thought were outlawed, modern scientific principles were still exported to Japan through the Dutch traders in Nagasaki. Textbooks on anatomy, engineering, chemistry, weapons technology, and science were translated into Japanese and disseminated to the learned class. The shogunate allowed certain industries to develop, including foundries and glassworks. Copies of European ships were built to help modernize the Japanese navy.
They were nowhere near the massive industrialized status of the United States, but they also were not ignorant of its achievements and how its technology operated. Given time and resources, Japan undertook its own modernization in order to “catch up” with the West and be a dominant player in world politics.
Now that the history of Earthly first contacts are understood, what about first contact with entities from off the Earth?
ET CALLS COLLECT
People/civilized beings/intelligent creatures/brothers/to whom it may concern
Greetings from the people of Capella/the first satellite of God
Who are dead/gone/ destroyed
We lived, we worked, we built, and we are gone.
Accept this, our legacy/remains and our good wishes/kinship/admiration/brotherhood/love.
-James E. Gunn, ‘The Listeners’
James E. Gunn’s 1972 masterpiece, ‘The Listeners,’ documents a multi-decade search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). The overarching theme of the novel is what the impact of discovery of extraterrestrial life (known as the Capellens after the star their world orbits) would mean for the people of Earth and our varied reactions to this knowledge. Of particular interest to me were the “solitarians,” a Christian sect united against the idea of contacting, or being contacted by the aliens. Throughout the book science and religion have contentious relations, only to find common ground and eventual celebration of our not being alone in the cosmos.
How and why do rational people fear contact with extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs)? The aforementioned injustices committed by our historical antecedents certainly play into these fears, but even extremely intelligent, well-educated scientists and science-fiction writers call for caution when it comes to going beyond just searching for ETIs. There is currently a vocal group of SETI researchers who are looking to make first contact by us reaching out to them, this is being called Active SETI. A minor attempt at deliberate message broadcasting was done in 1974 when a message was broadcast to star cluster M13 baring simple graphics defining humanity, our basic biology, and our solar system. This message was a shot into the dark, as the stars of M13 will have moved in the 25,000 years it will take for the signal to reach them.
The desire to message ETIs would entail a focused broadcast series in multiple wavelengths, including laser, to stars around which we have found exoplanets. With the current tally at over 1800 worlds with thousands more to be confirmed, the awareness of our mediocrity is dawning. Our solar system is not the only one. It is very likely that almost all stars have planets and many of them may have worlds similar in size and orbit as ours. Life of course may evolve on countless worlds with unimagined conditions. We will in time find out.
We have not yet heard anything though from these other countless planets. The “Great Silence” is spoken of and the ghost of Enrico Fermi regurgitates his tired paradox all over the internet. On our own world we are starting, in only a century or so of broadcasting radio en masse, to switch over to lower-power digital wireless streams and heavy reliance on fiber-optic networks to carry enormous data loads. Television in the classical sense is disappearing, with satellites sending video in digital packets as opposed to analog waveforms.
Aliens just might be watching “I Love Lucy” and Walter Cronkite on channel 2, but eventually they’ll get nothing from us but weirdly encoded packets of static. We assume that any other species out there must be more advanced than us due to time and distance. I tend to agree with this observation. However, it seems to me that a man who owns a 76’ Dodge Dart finds it easier to talk to his rich neighbor across the street with a fancy Tesla electric car about driving said car, versus the same conversation with, say, a Bronze-age chariot racer. Even though the technology is more advanced, the Dodge owner can comprehend the Tesla owner’s experience.
As for receiving dedicated messages from us, if there are advanced societies out there in the stellar neighborhood that can receive these messages and more importantly decode and understand their contents, then they are obviously technological. They would be able to determine that we are also technological. We can comprehend things like electricity, understand how to build a radio, or a high-power laser, manipulations of our natural environment would be easily inferred from that. Even if the message was incomprehensible to their psychology, they at minimum would know us to be science-smart.
Another concern is related to how expeditious an ETI can be. Some imagine that once a message is received aliens would immediately jump into their space pods and warp 7 over here to Earth and initiate either World War III, harvesting our females for egg implantation, or turning us into various soups and stews. The obvious falsehood of this cannot be understated. We are all familiar with Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity and the absolute barrier placed on traveling at the speed of light.
The aliens may have a ship that goes 99.99998% of light, but not at it. No matter what, time/distance will be a disruptive barrier for instant arrival at our gates.
But, if ETIs have the ability to warp space-time, or ala Carl Sagan’s ‘Contact,’ they have built a wormhole network throughout the Milky Way, then it would stand to reason that these beings have also probably heard our stray radio leakage and could have come a calllin’ years ago and left because were still ignorant savages that has nothing to offer. ETIs definitely don’t need our planetary resources (which we’ve been exhausting for centuries), if they can cross interstellar distances, they also probably have figured out how to harvest asteroids and comets for materials, or even siphon off small, icy moons for water.
The need for us to make contact with other sentient beings, to explore our universe, is paramount to our nature, important for the success of our species long-term, ennobling, and full of fascination. If everyone out there is just waiting and listening, then no one will hear. If a drowning person could break the surface tension of the water they’re under, with all of their energy they will shout “Help!” in hopes of someone coming to pull them out. We are the drowning ones.
But imagine also the human race basking here on the shore of our small cosmic lake, listening intently for others across the shore. We want to make friends, we’re so lonely here. We have stories to share, we’re receptive to new ideas. Why can’t we hear anyone else? Maybe we need to take some courage and shout out – even though our voices are weak, letting the echoes carry them across the waters.
Wouldn’t the small chance of a reply be worth the effort? Wouldn’t the end of our loneliness be better than silence?