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Ready for S.E.T.I...

Credit: fotocelia Getty Images

Topics: Commentary, Existentialism, SETI

It is my observation we haven't quite mastered terrestrial encounters with other hominids of differing cultures or shades of Melanin. So, an actual encounter with extraterrestrial life would be at this moment in our existence daunting. We're not ready, for extraterrestrials, or very frequently, each other.

When ‘Oumuamua, a mysterious interstellar object, swept through our solar system last October, it elicited breathless news stories all asking the obvious question—is it a spaceship? There were no signs it was—although many people seemed to hope otherwise.

Throughout history most strange new cosmic phenomena have made us wonder: Could this be it, the moment we first face alien life? The expectation isn’t necessarily outlandish—many scientists can and do make elaborate, evidence-based arguments that we will eventually discover life beyond the bounds of our planet. To true believers, what may be more uncertain is whether or not such news would cause global panic—which depends on how our minds, so greatly influenced by our Earthly environment and society, would perceive the potential threat of something utterly outside our familiar context.

If it’s a discovery somewhere in between the extremes of an extraterrestrial microbe and rapacious, hostile aliens laying siege to Earth, will people respond differently based on the era or society they live in?

Our brains are wired with ancient circuits to defend us against predators. But as we navigate through the world, experience can also shape what we come to accept or to fear and how open we are to novelty. This study only looked at U.S. responses but two neuroscientists think the results might have been very different around the world. “If you look at societies that are much less open and much more xenophobic and so on, they might perceive [finding extraterrestrial life] as much more negative and unsettling,” says Israel Liberzon, a professor of psychiatry, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan who was not part of the study.

“Culture may be a strong determinant of how we respond to novelty,” says Cornelius Gross, a neuroscientist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory–Rome who studies the neural circuitry of fear and was also not involved with the research. “People came to America because they were novelty seekers, so we’ve selected for [that] and then continued to foster novelty seeking and place it very high on our list.” Furthermore, Shostak says, a person’s religious beliefs could play a powerful role in shaping their reaction to learning that humanity is in fact not as universally special as many traditions hold.

Is Humanity Ready for the Discovery of Alien Life? Yasemin Saplakoglu, Scientific American

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