Monday, March 22, 2010


Speculation about extraterrestrial First Contact tends to congregate near two poles: negative and positive. On the negative side people speculate that extraterrestrials will be dangerous and we should hope that they don’t contact us. On the positive side people openly welcome alien First Contact and believe it will bring us into a new era of peace and enlightenment.

Michael Michaud tackles many ideas in his excellent 2007 book “Contact with Alien Civilizations”.He does so using the two poles as a way of exploring speculation. Michaud uses a literature review format to cover broad topics covering the spectrum of extraterrestrial considerations. He is one of few authors to attempt an in-depth examination of the impact of extraterrestrial contact on human civilization. While speculation about what aliens might be like can run wild, the question of human impact has more of a focus. We can look to the history of human civilization to try and decide what might happen after First Contact.

Michaud enjoys challenging assumptions.The optimists see aliens providing us with incredible information about science, philosophy and religion. This, they hope, will bring humanity together and allow us to attain a new level of cooperation. This thinking seems to ignore the realities around us. How could extraterrestrial visitation, even in a dramatic Direct First Contact scenario, erase decades of Earth bound division, conflict and political instability? It may provide a new way of looking at the world for many, but for the farmer working a subsistence crop in East Africa or for a factory worker in Beijing, First Contact is going to be a headline in the newspaper and coverage on television. It won’t change the fundamental basics of their lives. They will still struggle to support their families and face the daily challenge of survival. Land disputes, religious conflict and control issues will not disappear after First Contact. They may be impacted by First Contact in the long term, but it is naïve to hope that all of those changes will be for the better.

The larger political struggles that would likely emerge After First Contact may make conflict even more of a problem for humans. Who will control relations with extraterrestrials? Who will profit from those relationships? There is likely to be a great deal of debate and conflict over the issues, especially because we have done so little to prepare for First Contact.

There seems to be a naïve aspect to information transfer among the First Contact optimists, which Michaud does a good job of challenging in the book. High information contact means that we are given vast reserves of extraterrestrial information about intergalactic history, science, engineering, and technology. The optimists see this as beneficial and the primary factor leading us to a new golden age. Michaud sites several authors who question this result. To me, it’s akin to being the kid of a rich celebrity. You have all the money and fame you want, without working for it, without earning it. You never build a craft or acquire new skills, because it’s not necessary. Take a look at the National Enquirer to see what happens to those kids. What will happen to our society if we are spoon fed knowledge?

Probably the most disturbing concept at the optimist pole is the idea of utopia. Why would we expect a future for humanity that bears no resemblance to any point in our history? If life is a struggle and has always been a struggle why would we assume that First Contact would change that fact? Why would we assume that extraterrestrials don’t have their own set of very real challenges and weaknesses? It would seem that understanding those weaknesses may be one of the most important things for us to figure out. If we assume that they are infallible, we might not realize potential dangers in the relationship.

Those on the negative pole usually worry most about aggressive extraterrestrials. Michaud explores the areas around this extreme. He cites Donald Tarter in proposing that cultural, theological and philosophical knowledge could destroy our allegiance to human institutions. Are we really that weak in our culture? Would our religions be that stressed by First Contact? The Roman Catholic Church has already made moves to embrace the idea of plurality in the universe. They recently held a conference exploring the possibilities of extraterrestrial life. Couldn’t other world religions quickly follow suit? Is it so hard to conceive of a god that can create not only humans, but also extraterrestrials? Christians manage to reinterpret the Bible on a regular basis. Would it be so tough to encompass First Contact?

Next up: The Case for Controlling First Contact

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