For what seems to be ages we’ve been pinging the universe with our proverbial text message to any aliens listening. “Come to dinner! Get to know us! We want to be your friend!”
I remember years and years ago participating in the SETI project, turning my home computer into part of a network of people who were sharing computing power to transmit these messages into the wild unknown.
To be completely honest, I think at that point I must have been convinced that all aliens would inherently be nice. If you think about the idea of reaching out to contact aliens who are inherently murderous of your kind… well it sounds like less of a great idea. So apparently I was sure then that they were going to be nice guys and gals.
Nowadays, I’m not so sure if I think aliens would naturally be nice. I tend to think there are three possibilities: we make contact with an alien species which is less advanced, one that is exactly like us in terms of advancement, and one that is more advanced than us.
If we discover a less advanced species, I would probably wish we never had. There is the unfortunate aspect of humankind which prefers to see less advanced species as lesser, as not worthy of the same rights and respect as us, and open to full out exploitation. How we treat animals known for significant sentience, such as cows, are a good example. While my cow reference is mostly because I am a vegetarian now and think we do horrific things to cows in the food supply chain rationale… it does sort of open up the possibility of a Morlock and Eloi sort of relationship if we run into a ‘lesser’ species (ala Eloi) and decide they are a good food source which takes up less resources than cows. *shudder* Anyway… I digress. The point I’m getting at is that if we discover aliens which are weaker, less intelligent, and less advanced than us — I pity the aliens because of what we will do to them.
If we discover a more advanced species, I would probably also wish we never had because IF they are anything like us, they’ll exploit and abuse us. The only thing we could hope for, in that case, is that somehow in their advancement they have moved past where we are in our way of treating lesser beings and no longer react that way.
The only sure thing would be to find a species at almost the exact same stage of everything in which we are – because we have a harder time exploiting people which are like us. Oh we still do it, but we may not do it for as long, and not to the extreme we do toward other species. For example, we have (as humankind) treated varying different peoples as slaves from the beginning of time. But we didn’t grow them for food like we do cows. There are limits to how much we are willing to exploit those who are like us. Of course, it is also the least likely that we will find another species that is an exact progress match to us.
Unfortunately, so much of our scientific research in the search for extraterrestrial life on sustaining planets is based on small-minded thinking. We are so narcissistic, so self-absorbed, we assume that aliens will require the same life sustaining features we need. We look for key identifiers of ‘life’ and yet miss the greater question — what if some, or all, aliens are COMPLETELY different? What if they are lifeforms without form? What if they are not distinguishable by our eyes because they fluoresce on a different spectrum? What if they are microscopic by our scale? What if they are something we cannot even imagine because we have no concept of it?
And then… what if they want nothing to do with us?
I ran across an amazing short-story called “They’re Made out of Meat” by Terry Bison (first published in Omni, 1990). The authors website is here, so please head over there and browse around, look at books, buy something.
I love the concept of the story because it really hits on a) how ridiculous we are to expect aliens to be like us, b) how it is possible that aliens may not want to be our buddies 🙂 Here is the short story:
THEY’RE MADE OUT OF MEAT
by Terry Bisson
“They’re made out of meat.”
“Meat. They’re made out of meat.”
“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.”
“That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?”
“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”
“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”
“They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”
“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”
“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they’re made out of meat.”
“Maybe they’re like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage.”
“Nope. They’re born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn’t take long. Do you have any idea what’s the life span of meat?”
“Spare me. Okay, maybe they’re only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside.”
“Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They’re meat all the way through.”
“Oh, there’s a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
“So … what does the thinking?”
“You’re not understanding, are you? You’re refusing to deal with what I’m telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat.”
“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”
“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?”
“Omigod. You’re serious then. They’re made out of meat.”
“Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat. And they’ve been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years.”
“Omigod. So what does this meat have in mind?”
“First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the Universe, contact other sentiences, swap ideas and information. The usual.”
“We’re supposed to talk to meat.”
“That’s the idea. That’s the message they’re sending out by radio. ‘Hello. Anyone out there. Anybody home.’ That sort of thing.”
“They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?”
“Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat.”
“I thought you just told me they used radio.”
“They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat.”
“Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?”
“Officially or unofficially?”
“Officially, we are required to contact, welcome and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in this quadrant of the Universe, without prejudice, fear or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing.”
“I was hoping you would say that.”
“It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?”
“I agree one hundred percent. What’s there to say? ‘Hello, meat. How’s it going?’ But will this work? How many planets are we dealing with here?”
“Just one. They can travel to other planets in special meat containers, but they can’t live on them. And being meat, they can only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim. Infinitesimal, in fact.”
“So we just pretend there’s no one home in the Universe.”
“Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat? And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you probed? You’re sure they won’t remember?”
“They’ll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we’re just a dream to them.”
“A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat’s dream.”
“And we marked the entire sector unoccupied.”
“Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?”
“Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again.”
“They always come around.”
“And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone …”