Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Extraterrestrial Contact: Human Exceptionalism

First contact with an extraterrestrial civilization raises a few questions about how we perceive ourselves as humans. Where goes anthropocentrism in the wake of extraterrestrial contact? Are we forced to challenge our belief that humans are superior to other creatures on Earth? How about our role in the wider universe?
Anthropocentrism is another way of expressing the idea of exceptionalism. Exceptionalism is most often used these days in the American context. American politicians refer to exceptionalism as a way to show the American government and society as unique in history and something that other nations should aspire too. Most recently, Vladimir Putin criticized the concept of national exceptionalism in an op-ed in the New York Times, in reference to planned American actions in Syria.

Human exceptionalism is understandable. Currently we stand along in the universe, at least from our perspective. We dominate our planet in many ways. We could, and often do, change the environment to suit our wishes. If this has a detrimental impact on other species- oh, well, sorry, human needs come first. There has been a backlash against such thinking. The discovery of a rare spider in Texas recently caused a $15 million highway project to come to a screeching stop. Environmentalists across the globe are engaged in battles to protect the habitats of other creatures. But if First Contact with an alien civilization ever did occur would we be inviting dolphins or whales to share in the experience? Would we bother to consult dogs? Laugh if you want, it’s our anthropocentrism that drives the humor. Aliens wouldn’t necessarily think the same way. They might not care about dogs or dolphins or they could care very much, even taking the time to learn how to properly communicate with such creatures. 

It seems to me, though, that the biggest question of human exceptionalism in the wake of high information First Contact is how we will react. We can lord over cats and chimpanzees, but how about intelligent aliens? If they could reach us, or communicate with us, they would likely be quite intelligent, perhaps much more so than us. If that’s the case, where goes human exceptionalism? Into the waste basket?

And perhaps that’s a concern for life forms considering a visit to Earth. Will humans be threatened by visitors and react with violence? It seems unlikely, but we have lots and lots of weapons. Anything could happen if we’re scared enough.

This larger existential question is what interests me. Who will we be, in our own minds, when we discover that there is at least one other intelligent civilization out there? How will we place ourselves in this new understanding of our universe? I think in some respects we might be better off if it was revealed that there are dozens of civilizations out there. At least in that case we would not automatically compare ourselves solely with our new visitors. It might be easier being just another fish in the pond, than an inferior fish to the only other fish in the known pond.

There is also the question of how aliens would view human exceptionalism. We may very well hold our views even after other intelligent civilizations are revealed. We could feel that the human way of life is superior to the way of living for other intelligent beings. After all, many Americans consider their country exceptional and there are plenty of other countries on planet Earth. What ramifications would such a thing have on a long term relationship with extraterrestrials? Would aliens consider that way of thinking a threat? And then there is the flipside- alien exceptionalism. Would they feel superior to us? Would they expect us to take on their characteristics? That could be an extremely disturbing turn of events.

Most people would not worry about such things in the wake of First Contact, and certainly not in the immediate, heady days of discovery. However, I do think it’s an important topic for social scientists to consider, as it could have profound implications for our long-term human development After First Contact.

What do you think? Join the conversation on the Alien First Contact Facebook page.

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