Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Extraterrestrial Contact: Embracing the Weird

You could call it the ultimate exercise in diversity acceptance. If we have trouble understanding and accepting other races and cultures here on Earth, how would we handle extraterrestrial First Contact? Perhaps the most important step would be overcoming our expectations.

We have spent most of human history trying to conquer our surroundings. We seek to control our environment through agriculture, technology and science. We have expectations of how living creatures should live and sometimes its well apart from what nature has designed. There was an interesting article in the New Yorker recently by Elizabeth Kolbert called “Recallof the Wild”. She describes a nature preserve in the Netherlands that seeks to recreate a paleolithic ecosystem. As Kolbert describes it’s just the latest attempt at “rewilding”. Now, clearly this project shows human attempts to control and shape the environment. It also provides a flip-side to that idea. The ecologist largely responsible for the Oostvaarderolassen, as the preserve is called, has attempted to introduce species similar to those that would have been found in a Paleolithic ecosystem in that area of Europe. The idea is to let the introduced animals reproduce and settle in the nature preserve without much interference from humans. That has lead to die-offs, especially in the winter. Kolbert describes Dutch TV stations showing video of animals starving to death. It’s part of the natural process but one that humans find it hard to accept. There was outrage among many in the Netherlands. One could argue that a man-made ecosystem should have man-made controls to help prevent such harsh natural die-offs.  They have suggested her culling by shooting animals unlikely to make it through the winter. However, the entire debate shows our attempt to humanize nature. Humans like to see nature as a pastoral setting. We want to see the abundance of biological diversity, but we want it to behave as we think it should. Natural behaviors and outcomes can be brutal and sad from our perspective. We can’t truly accept that the natural system works that way. We even call nature “Mother Nature” in an attempt to anthropomorphize the natural environment.

So, what would we do if we were to meet aliens some day? It seems likely that we would make judgments about their appearance, actions and society based on our human characteristics. That makes sense- we have no other lens to consider extraterrestrial intelligence. However, that lens could also be problematic. If we have trouble accepting the brutal side of our own natural environment, how would we accept beings from a vastly different environment? Would we think less of them because they had characteristics that we consider unacceptable?

Extraterrestrial contact with intelligent beings would require a great deal of diversity understanding. We would need to set aside our human expectations and learn about aliens in an objective way. This may be fine for the academic community, which is used to considering challenging ideas as part of the job. For other humans it could be quite tough. The appearance, culture and actions of aliens could be off-putting. That could lead to public resistance to diplomatic relations.

A certain amount of caution from the public is to be expected and would be quite healthy. The last thing we would want to do is consider aliens to be better than us and seek to transform ourselves to better fit their way of being. There has to be a middle ground of learning and understanding, while also protecting who we are and what we hold important in our civilization. It will be up to world leaders, academics and scientists to establish this path and help the human race stay on course. There may be Oostvaarderolassen moments when it comes to what we learn about extraterrestrials. It’s critical that we keep learning and don’t let our human perspective get in the way.

Come join the discussion on the Alien First Contact Facebook page.

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