In the March-April 2019 issue of FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION, an article by Jerry Oltion discusses what effect the confirmed discovery of extraterrestrial life would have on the people of Earth. His provocative answer in "E.T. Shmee-T" is "not much." Astronomers seeking evidence of life on other solar planets or around distant stars assume that if we knew we weren't alone in the universe, the "effect on human society" would be "profound." The knowledge would either humble us, inspire us, or (according to Stephen Hawking) possibly destroy us. Oltion thinks the majority of the population would simply continue their daily lives with, at most, mild interest in the discovery.
He points out, citing numerous examples (many of them new to me), that throughout most of human history, many people have believed the moon and planets to be inhabited. In 1795, astronomer William Herschel even proposed that the sun was inhabited. These beliefs had no practical effect on the life of the average person. As Oltion acknowledges, one reason why nobody cared about life on other worlds was that we had no way of reaching them. However, he doesn't think most people's lives and attitudes would change even if aliens landed on Earth, an opinion I disagree with. Granted, people's day-to-day activities would probably go on much the same as always, at least at first. But I think the long-term effects would permeate and alter our culture. As for long-distance communication proving the existence of aliens, the impact on our culture would depend on what kinds of information we received. Alien technology could significantly change life as we know it even if we're never able to meet the aliens face-to-face. What about religion? Oltion thinks the predicted philosophical and religious upheaval wouldn't materialize. If the aliens turned out to look humanoid, missionaries might try to convert them—and how would that be different, except in scale, from the missionary ventures of our own history?
The March 2019 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, coincidentally, leads with an article on the current search for extraterrestrial life. According to an estimate cited in the article, based on the data gathered by the Kepler space telescope, our galaxy should contain about 25 billion planets in the "habitable zone"—worlds where life as we know it could evolve. SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is only one of many routes to the goal of finding alien life. The next generation of telescopes may have the power to search for visual traces of chlorophyll. Spectrometer analysis may detect free oxygen in a planet's atmosphere. SETI, of course, concentrates on analyzing radio waves for signs of artificially created signals. We inhabit a big universe, as the article points out; the fact that SETI hasn't found any such signs yet doesn't mean there's nothing to find. In 2015 an investor named Yuri Milner established the Breakthrough Initiatives, an organization committed to the search for alien civilizations and extra-solar life in general, to the tune of at least 200 million dollars.
Surely if these quests were successful, the public reaction and the impact on society and culture would vary depending on the form the revelation took. There are big differences among finding evidence of extraterrestrial life, discovering signs of sapient extra-solar beings with an advanced civilization, and having firsthand contact with alien visitors. Judging from the experiences of pre-industrial Earth societies during early contacts with Europeans, wouldn't the physical advent of aliens on our planet have a "profound" effect? In support of Oltion's position, however, we do have "All Seated on the Ground," a typically witty Connie Willis novella in which aliens arrive on Earth but make no attempt to communicate their purpose, don't respond to human overtures, and basically don't do anything interesting. After a while, the public and the news media get bored with the aliens, and only scientists trying to study them continue to pay much attention to them. Read this story if you possibly can, by the way; the narrator, a journalist who's on the commission for tenuous reasons not clear even to herself, discovers how to break through the visitors' apparent indifference. It's in Willis's collection A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS. Great fun!
Oltion is skeptical of the likelihood of intelligent life on other planets, on the premise of the Fermi paradox, the "Where is everybody?" question. If a civilization capable of interstellar travel exists, wouldn't they have visited us or at least come within our detection range by now? This argument doesn't convince me. I can easily think of several plausible reasons why we wouldn't have been contacted by such a civilization, the most obvious being that it hasn't yet had time, or possibly sufficient motivation, to reach our cosmic neighborhood on the outskirts of the Milky Way.
Margaret L. CarterCarter's Crypt