Can You Ever Really Know an Extraterrestrial?



Knowledge about aliens might be as dangerous as the aliens themselves.

Imagine that you’ve lived your entire life in a small village deep within a continental wilderness. For centuries this community has been isolated from the rest of the world. One day you go out exploring, skirting the edges of known territory. Suddenly, and against all expectations, you stumble across a signpost embedded in the ground. The script is highly unusual, foreign, but the text is clear enough. It says, simply, “We Are Here.”

The question is: What happens next?

There might be happiness and celebration to mark the end of isolation, or the news might be met with a shrug. But human nature suggests it’s more probable that this discovery triggers a chain of events that lead to utter disaster.

Suddenly your safe haven is threatened by an unknown “them.” Your time-tested principles of governance and social order are put under pressure. Gossip, rumor, and conjecture will gnaw away at your stable home. Barricades and armed forces will be raised at enormous cost, crops and repairs will be forgotten. A community will lurch toward its own collapse. Yet there is little more than a half-realized idea represented by this impersonal signpost, a whispered implication that infects the world with its ambiguity.

This tale is not the opening sequence of a B-grade movie, but an allegorical version of what might, just possibly, happen after we solve one of the oldest scientific and philosophical puzzles—whether or not we have neighbors “out there” in the wilderness of the cosmos.

Today, the prospects for finding evidence of life beyond the Earth fall into three well-known categories. First is our exploration of the solar system. Mars is arguably the prime target because it offers a planetary template that, while alien, best parallels certain terrestrial environments—and it is directly accessible. At this very moment we have robotic wheels on Martian regolith and sharp eyes in orbit. More Mars missions are lining up: NASA’s MAVEN should be entering orbit as you read this, as should India’s Mangalyaan craft. And plans are afoot for the InSight seismological probe, Europe’s ExoMars, a Mars 2020 rover, a sample return, as well as the ever-present speculations for sending a human contingent.

But Mars is not the only fruit. The icy moons Enceladus and Europa both exhibit hallmarks of subsurface liquid water. In the case of Europa, a dark ocean with twice the volume of all Earth’s surface oceans conceivably exists in contact with a rocky core—with potential for a deep hydrothermal oasis. Recently discovered geyser-like eruptions into space from both offer hope of a sampling mission to look for signs of life.

In the second category, vastly farther beyond, lie the exoplanets. We now know this population to be enormous—tens of billions of terrestrial-scaled planets ranging from geophysical youth to old age. Some of these worlds could be passable Earth-analogs. The chase is on to measure the atmospheric chemical composition of at least a few of the nearest such worlds, looking for the fingerprints of a biosphere. NASA’s 2018 James Webb Space Telescope and the next-generation of 30-meter diameter Earth-bound astronomical observatories possess the capabilities to make crude measurements of such components.

Third, there is the ongoing search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. Scouring the celestial radio and optical spectrum for structured, artificial signals—this is the highest-risk, highest-reward effort of all.  Success would not only mean that life exists somewhere else, but that there is recognizable technological intelligence other than ours in the universe.

As an information-obsessed, intensely social species, we’re particularly vulnerable to memes. And not all memes
are innocuous.

But the knowledge being sought from all these efforts could change far more than just our scientific understanding. Like a sign in the wilderness, the potential exists for new information to infect our collective consciousness before we’ve realized what’s happening. It is capable of seeding our minds with ideas that take on their own form of life as competitive agents that question the status quo, seeping into our thoughts and behaviors. In fact we already have a label for these types of self-propagating, evolving packets of information—we call them memes.

In 1976, writing in his book The Selfish Gene, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins proposed the term meme to describe something that spreads within a culture; whether it’s a catchy phrase, chairs with four legs, a style of clothing, or an entire belief system. In this sense a meme is a mutating, replicating piece of human cultural evolution—a viral entity.

As an information-obsessed, intensely social species, we’re particularly vulnerable to memes. And not all memes are innocuous—some become toxic when they meet other established memes. Witness the clash between Western mores and conservative Islam.

What if we discovered that we are surrounded by chemically incompatible aliens, and learned that all that we thought was inevitable and optimal about our biology and evolution is merely a fluke? Such a discovery runs counter to our Copernican ideals and upends any tidy rationalization of the deep connections between life and the fundamental constituents of the cosmos…