The following is going to sound awfully obvious, but sometimes I just have to work through an idea to get to a basic understanding. The obvious part is that we humans as a species have never experienced verifiable contact with another equivalently intelligent life form in the universe. We’ve never met any extraterrestrials that we can conclusively say exist.
We have met other species on this planet that may or may not possess intelligence equivalent to that of an average human being. Various species of whale and dolphin, certain great apes, and most elephants have intellectual powers that we can intuitively appreciate. One gorilla, Koko, was taught sign language and was able to use it to converse with her handlers at the level of a human child. For the others—whales, dolphins, elephants—we know that they communicate among themselves, but we cannot interpret or reconstruct their language. We can communicate with them by means of visual signals and spoken commands in human language that they appear to understand. But so far the communication is all one-sided: the human trainer commands, and the animal responds. This exchange is not limited to demonstrably intelligent animals because, after all, my dog is attentive, watches my face and gestures, and responds to certain spoken words.
This tells me that, once we meet any extraterrestrials, the communication problem is going to be larger than any science fiction writer appreciates. If we can’t interpret the language of whales and dolphins, although we study them intently, we’re going to have an even harder time with a species that does not originate on Earth in an environment that we understand and into which we can project their existential issues. But, for the purposes of a good story, we writers will overlook the obvious and allow for workable communication—usually based on the aliens having prepared themselves before coming here by studying our radio and television signals broadcast into space. So the imagined travelers are better at unraveling an unknown language than the human scientists working on dolphin speech with the animals themselves conveniently at hand.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that any aliens we eventually meet aren’t going to be like us and probably not like anything we can even imagine. If they have advanced in their own evolutionary pattern1 beyond the level of single-celled organisms—which were the definition of life on Earth for about three and a half billion years, before the Cambrian Explosion of multi-celled creatures—then they will take shapes appropriate to their native environment and have brains designed to meet conditions, opportunities, and problems we can only begin to anticipate. Figuring out what a dolphin, who lives in the warm Earth’s own gentle seas, thinks and wants to communicate is a snap in comparison with a understanding our first extraterrestrials.
While we accept the nature of the intelligent animals we find on Earth as part of our everyday environment, the question of what intelligent aliens from elsewhere in the solar system or the galaxy will be like stumps us. Science fiction stories—here I’m examining those captured in recent movies, more than in books, but the premise still holds—have long been based on various assumptions, and to me they serve as a kind of Rorschach test of the human psyche and spirit. Even “documented” UFO encounters are puzzling and open to interpretation.
Let’s start with the benign depictions: the bumbling gardener-cum-magician of E.T., The Extraterrestrial and the mysterious and apparently powerful but ultimately childlike creatures of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This is what we might hope visitors from the stars would be. They are scientists and explorers, they might gather our plants—or our long-lost airplanes and missing people—for study, but they basically mean us no harm. These are the attitudes and intentions we think—we hope—human beings will adopt when we have the capability of traveling out among the stars. We would explore under a Prime Directive of non-interference, like the members of Star Fleet in all the Star Trek series.
But we fear that any intelligent aliens from beyond the solar system will have what we would perceive as evil intentions directed against us. The ravaging, life-sized army ants of Independence Day and the vast, cool intellects of a dying Mars, who look across the void to a vibrant green Earth in War of the Worlds, come not to study and to cherish but to colonize and destroy. We fear this because it is the way human beings have actually behaved over the millennia. The Romans did not walk into primitive Gaul, Germania, and Britannia—or the more ancient and advanced civilizations of the Near East—to become teachers or helpers. They came to colonize, plunder, and control. The Spanish and Portuguese, and later the French and the English, all came to the New World with the same intentions. The indigenous peoples these Europeans discovered—Stone Age tribes who lacked the wheel, industrial-grade metals, and even horses—were either a nuisance to be tolerated at a distance, out of mind somewhere off in the forest or on the far plains; slaves to be traded back to the old country, or ground under in building an empire in the new; or enemies to be simply exterminated.
Then there is our innermost hope: that the intelligences we find will be like gods, such as the vanished beings who left behind a marble mask and mausoleum that is also a signpost to a glorious future somewhere else in Mission to Mars; the unseen but all-powerful intellects that actually control events in our part of the Milky Way galaxy in Contact and 2001: A Space Odyssey; and the governing forces that evaluate humanity and find it wanting in the recent remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. We pray to such an all-powerful, all-knowing, benignly loving—or sternly judging—being in our Earthly churches, mosques, and temples. We secretly hope that He, She, or They really exist and have a dominant hand in ordering the universe we will encounter out there beyond our atmosphere.
And finally, there are the mysterious, unreadable, and detached intellects driving the ships, or light patterns, or holographic images that we humans routinely document as UFO sightings. If these events are not wishful thinking or cases of mistaken identity regarding clouds and atmospheric effects—that is, if they actually exist—they are still open to interpretation. Who- or whatever is piloting those aerial phenomena seem to be uninterested in human beings per se, except when they are slaughtering our cattle, abducting and probing isolated agricultural workers, and leaving cryptic markings in our wheat fields. Analysis of the reported sightings describes an interesting pattern: UFOs operating in the vicinity of passenger airliners tend to behave rationally, maintain a margin of safety, and simply allow themselves to be observed; while UFOs that encounter military jets act more aggressively, play with them as if testing their aeronautical capabilities, and sometimes participate in mock dogfights that never seem to harm the aliens, even when the human pilots are firing live ammunition at them. So the UFOs, which seem to be uninvolved with us, actually have some internal interpretation of and intention regarding the encounters, even if we cannot understand them.
Whether the universe holds other intellects, other people for us to meet—and I certainly hope so—the expectations in the last hundred years of imagination and speculative fiction have been a test of our own reaction to the nature of intellect itself: scholar, marauder, god, or mindless phenomenon. Take your pick. One day we are sure to find out.
1. And yes, I believe evolution exists out among the stars. It is the most obvious and elegant way for matter and energy to achieve that curious reversal of entropy we call life, applicable to any environment containing a liquid medium, without the intervention of a Supreme Designer. Alien evolution will probably be based on chemistry, as is ours, but it probably won’t be based on the DNA-RNA-protein coding system we use—not unless life on Earth was seeded here from another solar system, or group of systems, four billion years ago. And that’s a possibility I’m still pondering.