It’s become less than surprising news of late when some intellectual luminary gives a warning about the perils of AI (artificial intelligence), and I count myself among those skeptical of it’s merits. But an unexpected new sci-fi-esque controversy has arisen recently. Figures no less celebrated than astrophysicist Stephen Hawking have sounded the alarm about our collective complacency concerning aliens. As in extra-terrestrials.
[ imposing upright rock creature with asymmetric glowing sensors ; ominous Xindi insectoid being ; miniscule blue fuzzy creatures with crablike appendiges known as Sylvia and Korob ; Horta, a silicon-based lifeform with spherical eggs in it’s underground nesting chamber ]
Proviso: I am going to mostly limit the first part of this discussion to populist sci-fi characterizations of aliens, such as films and television or cable programs. For the most part I will exclude literary sci-fi. Though I read plenty of pulp sci-fi during my youth, I’ve largely given it up in favor of other things since my twenties. An exception which I can recommend is The Sparrow, a 1996 novel written by Mary Doria Russell. A wild ride concerning mankind’s first ‘encounter’ in which an expedition is mounted by the Jesuits (!) during the first half of the 21st century to Alpha Centauri in response to the detection of tantalizing alien music originating from that planetary system. While the two principal species met during the expedition are both reasonably non-vanilla, the real strength of the story is in Russell’s expressive and perceptive writing, as well as in the theological and cultural myopia themes played around with. (There’s been talk of adapting it into a mini-series.) Even if it turns out that I’d be seriously impressed after a thorough study of more recent stuff within the sci-fi genre, I believe my central points will hold. Because it is a niche cultural market at best, and whatever novel ideas may or may not be resident there do not seem to be spilling over into the popular mindset.
Star Trek As Barometer
If you watched Star Trek episodes back in the day, as I did, you may have noted a steady degradation within the variety and quality of alien life forms encountered by the human protagonists over time. The contrast is even more evident when comparing 1960s TV sci-fi with more recent decades, or with the latest batch of rock ’em sock ’em style Star Trek films. (Ultra sex-and-violence afficionado Quentin Tarantino is even rumored to be getting into the franchise.) Basically, the trend has moved from no-restriction freely imagined creatures bearing little resemblance to terrestrial beings, much less human beings, to facially-modified humanoids whose distinctive characteristics range from day-glo skin coloring to various arrangements of bumps and ridges on their heads or more than humanly prominent nostrils and earlobes. With this much uniformity in the galactic evolutionary telos, one seriously wonders whether Darwin would balk. As an added convenience, these ‘humans with glitches’ aliens usually seem to adopt English as their cosmic lingua franca.
Let’s tour some galactic examples. In the images above, we have some early sci-fi extraterrestrials. Their sizes range from 9 foot tall bulbous mineral entities down to 2-inch squawking avian land crabs. There’s a sinewy man-sized bipedal insect and a living silicon boulder with muddy regions and several slithery floppy feet and the ability to acid-burn tunnels through solid rock at high speeds wide enough for men to walk through (to the edification of the local mining consortium). There were also several episodes centered around energy beings, resembling shimmering light patterns, lacking solid bodies or form, and a living sentient time portal which could talk with you and arrange temporal passage to remote eras by passing through it’s body. There was also the T-rex headed Gorn who captained a starship which got into a fracas with the heroes resulting in a deadly duel on a barren planet orchestrated by yet a third species who were completely non-corporeal telepathic intellects. No fears about stepping outside the box. But then there was the other tendency, which gradually assumed dominence. Uniformly 6-foot humanoids (except for the half-sized species utilizing dwarf actors) generated by transforming the heads and faces of their human foundations in various ways, ranging from subtle to outrageous.
[ a tender domestic moment with the Talaxians ; alien space babe from the latest Star Trek movie ; a dude from the cauliflower planet (same movie) ; blue-faced Andorian with antennae sensors ]
I know there are excellent exceptions, such as last year’s poignant and wonderful “Arrival”, which featured 12-feet tall heptapods who traveled to Earth within mile-high turd ships, lived in a foggy dew atmosphere, and squirted their language out onto glass-like surfaces in the form of inky rings with innumerable meaning-laden crenelations. Or in a lighter vein, there’s the gelatinous green blob creature from the present day space spoof “The Orville”. Still the point holds. For example, the other 95% of the aliens appearing in ‘Orville’ episodes are either directly humanoid with off-kilter clothing or, following the usual plot device, humanoids with varying degrees of facial distortion. For sure, part of it is a money thing. When the original Star Trek was a low budget, groundbreaking, risk-taking seat-of-the-pants undertaking, it relied upon the frenetic ingenuity of the art department to translate writers’ ideas into something filmable on a tight weekly basis. But the genre took off within the American television world and money producers exerted a more conservative influence. It was more efficient to hire an ensemble of character and guest actors, have the makeup departments subject them to hours of facial and cranial tweaking to get them camera-ready, and write plots around more ordinary dramatic conflicts. Business, orthodoxy, and self-consciously tailoring the production to the target audience without alienating their perceived expectations — all these factors are in evidence. But this does not completely explain the bland predictability of the vast proportion of imagined aliens. A simple failure of imagination is also operating as a factor.
[ “Arrival’s” enormous floating vertical turdships ; a heptapod communicating ; friendly Yaphit the affable green bloboid ; Yaphit’s absurdly erotic cross-species sex scene with the ship’s human medical officer ]
Failures Of Imagination
Personally, the first reasonable question I would put about an encounter with extraterrestrials is whether we would even recognize them. As in detect the encounter. Three increasing levels of intellectual provincialism can be seen to be imposing artificial limitations on our capacity to conceive extraterrestrials. These are operating as tendencies, not as absolutes. The first level is the purely physical anthropomorphism already described. We expect some degree, greater or lesser, of basic biological resemblance expressed in physical form.
The second level is what I’d describe as Neo-Darwinism writ large and run amok. At this level we do not merely project our self-informed notions about what aliens should look like onto the cosmos. Now we also release our compunctions about imposing our own psychologies, sociologies, technical histories, social impulses, and even ethical motivations and development upon all our galactic brethren. Which brings me to Stephen Hawking. Hawking is one of the drivers behind a project to survey the nearest one million solar systems for signs of civilization or intelligence, relying mostly upon radio signal signatures. He expressly advocates against us making any sort of response to any ‘signal’ we might detect, however. The chain of reasoning behind Hawking’s warning goes something like this: Statistically, any alien civilization capable of detecting, deciphering, and localizing a message we broadcast would likely have many millions of more years of evolutionary advancement behind them (than us). Thus it is likely they would view humanity as deeply inferior beings and perfectly suitable for invading, subjugating, utilizing as a resource for any of their impossible to predict whims, or demolishing. He cites the fate of the American Indians at the hands of Europeans after Columbus as a cautionary example. Except that the aliens would, in terms of probability, enjoy orders of magnitude greater sophistication than earthlings as compared to Europeans over Amerindian culture. The disparity between us, supposes Hawking, would be on the same scale as that between humans and bacteria.
Just consider the shameless array of human-centric assumptions inherent within this thinking. First, biological evolution, as currently pictured by science, is magically exported across time and space to every distant sun and planetary system. Without modification whatsoever. Even though there is no conceivable way to subject such a universal theory to experimental validation, it is held without a trace of concern about hubris. Next, not only do these evolutionary processes, which Darwinists assure us follow from an unlimited sequence of entirely random mutations, occur universally, but they even do so and accumulate generated changes within species at a predictably comparable rate, even thousands of light years away, even in distant galaxies. Therefore we can safely analyze alien species’ refinement over time and roughly compare this level with our own (according to present theory). Let’s be generous and omit objecting about the assumption of evolutionary telos being a cosmic law as well. In other words, even though the ‘direction’ of evolution is unpredictable because of it’s very mechanism of propagation, still on planet X around distant Canopus things accrue in the same general direction (towards intelligent self-conscious sentient life) given sufficient time. Heck — let’s not! But the prevailing sci-fi mythos doesn’t stop there. It blithely ascribes that all such advanced planetary species will universally gravitate towards obsession with technology and thus eventually (in roughly the equivalent timescale) produce the same questions, urges, and solutions as we have and will regarding space travel, weaponry, communications and engineering.
But the worst insult to our intelligence is that it is apparently unscientific to imagine that nowhere within this stream of excess millions of years of evolution and advancement beyond what terrestrials have enjoyed is there any room for the possible unfolding of a different sort of ethics or motivation. How depressing to discover that even if we survive a few more million years undetected in a hostile universe that we’d still be saddled with the same imperialistic morality! On top of all this, alien seekers even have the added worry that all their wishful work might come to naught simply because of timing. That’s right — chances are, apparently, that since earthly history ‘proves’ that any given species can only hope to last in a position of global supremacy for perhaps a few million years, and that historical civilizations tend to die and be replaced after only at most a couple of thousand, the window for humanity and suitable aliens to simultaneously occur is agonizingly tiny. We might be alone after all.
As for the 3rd level of provincial thinking way-inside-the-box, we need do a little setup before describing it.
Nerds Suspending Their Disbelief
Freeman Dyson proposed several futuristic propulsion ideas for interstellar travel back in the ’50s and ’60s of last century. He was a highly regarded nuclear physicist at the time; by now he has evolved into a genius-level polymath. Dyson’s key concepts were a laser sail and an electromagnetic railgun, thought capable of achieving 3% and 50% of the velocity of light, respectively. The development horizons for the two projects were considered “soon”, finances allowing, and ambitious (i.e. within two centuries at the projected technological growth pace). I regard Dyson’s thinking with great admiration (more than I usually can say about celebrity scientists). Not only was it he who conjured up the Dyson Sphere — a signature of technologically advanced civilizations that we might attempt to scan the stars for — but he also has wonderfully thoughtful things to say concerning cosmology, astrobiology, climate change, scientific hubris, and the relationship between science and theology as equally legitimate knowledge pursuits. Still, it should be held clearly in mind that even presuming the successful implementation of future Dysonian technology, it would consume anywhere between 9 and 140 years to travel one-way to the nearest solar system. And to reach the perimeter of 100 light years, a very modest distance in terms of likely possible nearby solar systems to be inhabited by sentients, the time cost rises to between 200 and 3300 years. One way. In other words, for interstellar neighbors to be visiting us regularly, or us them, would not merely require more time, technology, and financial commitment; it would also depend upon overcoming the laws of physics as we currently understand them. We wouldn’t just need to radically revolutionize our technical capacities; we’d need to discover that our Physics is wrong.
[ Dyson sphere ring for capturing a small percentage of a star’s energy output; local neighborhood: the nearby stars within a 20 light year perimeter ; artist’s depiction of an interstellar laser sail ; a fuller Dyson sphere around a yellow sun-like star ]
Now plenty of world class theoretical physicists cut their youthful teeth on science fiction. Ideas like teleportation devices and wormholes for galactic shortcuts are not immediately dismissed as physically impossible. Instead, many of them presume a way can eventually be found. There’s a wishfulness within their rationality, a subjective agenda within their avowed objective methodology. Even the multiverse can be put forth as a theoretical contrivance whenever some combination of universal constants prove inconvenient within our ‘home’ universe. Need different physical laws? Easy-peasy, just switch universes. Certainly someone will conceptualize a means of transfer between ‘adjacent’ formerly incommunicable universe bubbles as soon as it becomes desirable. And should it come to that, could not cleverly ingenious equations be found to substantiate the plausibility, however remote, of anything? All to bypass the speed of light limitation. When it comes to purely physical realities, scientific types can be surprisingly flexible with their imaginations.
Not so when aphysical, or extra-physical qualities are involved. Aliens must be physically similar to us, in that they must be subject to broadly similar physical restrictions. Planets where they arise must have broadly similar gravitation, water in liquid form, earthlike temperature ranges, a similar atmospheric mix, atmospheres in general, and organic molecules. These affirmations, considered prudent and modest, direct SETI researchers where to look and where not to look when the scanning the skies for promising exoplanets.
Spirits Not Welcome
Thwarting Time seems to be an issue here. Either we need beings with zillion-year lifetimes so they wont mind embarking on multi-thousand year journeys to different star systems or we need beings who are oblivious to time in some other way. Else, no aliens for you, nerdboy. But beings of spirit, unlike physical beings, have no speed barriers. Space/time beings have physical constraints, but eternity beings do not. Why is it that the scientific mentality, and I speak in general here but it is characteristic by a very wide margin, cannot entertain the notion of peering beyond the ‘physical’? Why couldn’t extraterrestrials reside in the sun or in all suns? Why couldn’t they be the non-physical raison d’etre behind the physical manifestation we know as suns or stars? Why is it that cutting edge cosmological speculation has no problem with floating absurdities like the possibility that the explanation for the universe lies within the concept of an incredibly sophisticated super-duper computer simulation conducted by uber-aliens having some recreation? Yet, any spiritual ideas are dismissed prior to any consideration whatsoever?
There is a parallel between the increasingly global religious sclerosis across theological confessions, manifesting as various forms of excessively conservative fundamentalism, and the failure of imagination operating within science, especially the popularized image of science, which we see in the collective cultural imaginations about extraterrestrial beings.
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