• Dirk Schulze-Makuch

The Science of Aliens, Part 7: How Would WE React to Discovering Alien Life

Ready or not, this discovery is likely to happen soon.

A Mexican Fireleg Tarantula, an example of “otherness” on our planet that most of us would have difficulties relating to. (Image Credit: Petr Kratochvil)

In anticipation of discovering alien life, conferences have been held on what such a discovery would mean for humanity. But how would we as humans react to this discovery? That reaction would depend on how advanced the alien life is and whether it would be considered a danger to us.

Let´s start with the possibility that we find microbial life on another planet. In a seminal paper published in Frontiers of Psychology, a team of scientists led by Jung Kwon from Arizona State University reported that people would react more positively than negatively to discovering alien life. They partially based their findings on how people reacted to the announcement of fossil life in the Martian meteorite ALH84001, which created excitement in the scientific community (the discovery itself, however, has remained controversial till today and it is unclear whether it is evidence for the existence of past life on Mars).

However, attitudes toward alien life may have changed a bit after the world’s experience with Covid19. The pandemic showed us that microbial life and viruses could also endanger our species. Nevertheless, I expect that most people would still consider the discovery of microbial life a positive outcome– assuming they notice it. In the past, several scientists have claimed to have detected extraterrestrial life and most people only picked up snippets here and there, yet still don’t know whether microbial life has been found or not (to be clear: none of these claims have been confirmed to date, so the existence of extraterrestrial life is still an open question).

So, what about the possible discovery of complex plant and animal life or even intelligent life? In Science Fiction, audiences are exposed to a range of possibilities displayed from viciously brutal aliens who want to invade us (for example, Independence Day,1996) to benevolent species who intend to guide us to a more bright and peaceful future (for example, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951, 2008). But what would be our first reaction to an alien encounter? If we would see their organic nature and not just their robotic probes or emissaries, we would probably feel repulsed, if not disgusted. Why is that the case? Probably, because humans instinctively feel more empathy and friendliness toward life forms that we are closely related to. Take a moment to consider a bear’s appearance compared to a tarantula. A bear is far more dangerous to humans than a tarantula, yet we feel more at ease around our fellow mammal. One of the most popular toys for kids even is a teddy bear which seemingly ignores the dangerous teeth and claws of a bear. Since bears are more closely related to humans than tarantulas, it’s easier for us to read a bear’s emotions than that of a tarantula. Furthermore, most of us are creeped out by a tarantula’s otherworldly appearance, like their number of eyes, scuttling movements, and how they feed by liquefying the interior parts of their prey and sucking it up into their stomach.

Since we’d most likely not be related to an alien life form at all, chances are we’d feel repulsed toward them, similarly (or even worse) to how we feel toward a tarantula. The degree of caution we would apply to an alien encounter will depend on how dangerous we consider the alien species to be or whether we see them competing with us for the same resources. Any intelligent aliens would likely be social predators, and even if they were friendly, a misunderstanding could easily result in conflicts.

The discovery of alien life forms would also profoundly change how we see our place in the universe and have stark consequences for world religions. I expect that humans would react differently to an alien contact depending on their philosophical and religious beliefs. Reactions could range from considering alien life an imminent threat to people thinking they’re God-like creatures coming to show humankind the path to a better future.

I hope to learn more soon as a diverse research group from the Berlin area that I’m a part of just received the funding notice for a research project called Exploring Otherness on Earth and Beyond. The project aims to integrate perspectives from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. It is based on the idea that humans have long struggled with “otherness,” mostly other human races and ethnicities, and aliens would be on the extreme end of this category. Encountering this type of extreme “otherness” may even threaten the cohesion of our societies. But ready or not, we expect it to happen soon. So we better be prepared!

P.S. You can find my other blogs on the Science of Aliens series on my previous Smithsonian Magazine website.

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