Life Goes on (Except when It Doesn’t)

October 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

How would humanity react if SETI were to finally succeed in detecting a signal produced an intelligent extraterrestrial species?

The discovery would certainly be a major piece of news. For a week or so, it would occupy a prominent place in newspapers, on television news programs, and on the Internet. People would talk about it, argue about it, and fret about it. Some would reflect upon the possibility of a future meeting with the creators of the alien communique with eager anticipation, the potential benefits of such a meeting foremost in their minds; others would dread the same possibility, fearing the imminent destruction of humanity at the hands of a hostile, conquering species. Among religious people, some would either insist that the signal was a fraud or would turn away from their religions in disillusionment, feeling that the doctrines in question could not possibly reconciled with the clear fact of alien life. Most, however, would simply adapt their beliefs so that they could be reconciled with said fact. Scientists would investigate the scientific implications of the discovery, artists, novelists, and filmmakers would incorporate it into their works, and politicians would find ways of spinning the story to shed favorable light upon themselves. Life, in other words, would go on more or less as it had before.

Presumably, the detected signal would be very difficult to interpret. Many years would pass before humanity even came close to a general idea of the nature of its contents. In the meantime, the subject would recede from the lips and minds of the vast majority of people, becoming primarily the concern of academics and science-fiction writers. And, when it was finally translated (more or less) so that we could understand its (possible) meaning, the cycle would repeat itself. If the message contained within were friendly, the aforementioned optimists would anticipate meeting the aliens that created it more fervently; if it were belligerent, the aforementioned pessimists would dread said meeting more vocally; and if, as is more likely, it were not a message at all (instead being the alien equivalent of I Love Lucy reruns), both would carry on at much the same volume as they had previously. Again, life would go on as before.

Perhaps a more momentous event — an actual encounter with the intelligent aliens in question, for example, or the development of a method of travel that would allow humanity to set off in search of them  — or the accumulated results of such many events as the detection of intelligent extraterrestrial life would, over time, result in profound changes in human social relations. The key phrases, though, are “over time” and “accumulated”. With the exception of events of truly world-shaking significance (an attempt by the intelligent aliens in question to conquer Earth would probably qualify), single events are generally unlikely to have an enormous impact on humanity in general. Instead, they tend to produce change in conjunction with other events and over the course of fairly long periods of time, so that in the end, it appears as if life is going on just as it had before.

Richard W.

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