The search for life

History has taught us that first contact between radically different cultures rarely goes well. Inevitably the stronger or more technologically advanced culture devastates the weaker. Julius Caesar led the Roman legions across Gaul. Asian hordes marched through western Europe. Africa became a brutal source of slave labor. India and Southeast Asia were dominated by western European powers. Native Americans were nearly destroyed by encroaching trans-Atlantic powers. The list goes on.
The recommendations contained in the Humphrey Institute’s Center for Galactic Relations’ report, “Benefits Inherent to Contact with Extraterrestrial Life,” suggest a course of action that will be extremely hazardous to all of humanity. This report, after arguing for perceived benefits from making contact with life beyond Earth, proposes we actively attempt to make such contact by transmitting a focused radio signal to nearby stars likely to harbor planets capable of supporting life.
Consider for a moment how technologically advanced a species must be to even detect our broadcast. Humanity crawled around in the muck of history for millennia before we developed the scientific understanding that enabled us to use interstellar-capable communication. We have only had this ability for a few short decades and, barring self-destruction or some unforeseeable catastrophe, humanity will continue to prosper for millennia to come with our radios, televisions and other wireless transmissions.
Yet we are still in the infancy of the electromagnetic era. Any other civilization in the galaxy that might intercept our broadcasts will not likely be so primitive. Indeed, the odds are quite high that such a civilization will have had hundreds or thousands of years more than we have had to advance technologically.
Think of it as a 12-inch ruler. At the starting end of the ruler is the discovery of radio technology. At the other end is the average death of a stellar species. All of the inches between represent thousands of years. Our having so recently developed an understanding of electromagnetic principles places humanity but the smallest fraction of an inch beyond zero. Any species that might receive our broadcasts could be anywhere else on the ruler in their development. We may as well still be living in caves by comparison.
Should an advanced alien species suddenly become aware of our existence and take an interest in our planet, what hope would we have of fending them off? When they come cruising into our solar system with ships and weapons beyond even the most extravagant imaginings of our top scientists, we will do what they say or else.
Hoping any aliens we contact are cuddly ETs or noble followers of some “Prime Directive” rings hollowly. The most we could do is pray for their beneficence, and our own history tells us that intelligent beings are not normally so kind. At best we will be colonized and our unique human culture warped to conformity with an alien standard. Missionaries will come to convert us to the glory of the Alpha Centaurian pantheon. At worst we will simply be a nuisance to be removed in order to allow our conquerors to exploit Earth.
Some will argue that this is merely one possibility. A more advanced civilization will be more highly evolved socially and will not destroy us. But should we wager the fate of humanity on such velveteen, science-fiction inspired dreams? Are we willing to gamble that the inhabitants of the Milky Way are more like the United Federation of Planets than the invaders of “Independence Day”? The universe is a cold place — betting against the night is an extremely hazardous endeavor.
Others will claim that if there were intelligent life out there with a desire to do us harm, they would have started their invasion by now. European explorers did not wait for Native Americans to announce their presence; they actively sought out new lands. Would not a sufficiently advanced alien race do the same? Would they not search for other planets rich in the resources they need?
Of course they would, but we have been lucky so far. The Earth orbits a star tucked away on an outer spiral arm of the galaxy. With an estimated 200 billion stars in our galaxy alone, searching around will take an alien species a long time. Just because they have not found us yet does not mean they are not looking. We certainly should not hang a sign reading “Open for Conquest” to help them.
Obviously we should be concerned about the broadcasts that have already been generated by our wireless communications. A sphere with a radius of over 50 light years surrounds our humble planet, announcing our presence to any alien race taking the time to analyze stellar radiation patterns. But the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program has demonstrated such searches are difficult in practice and therefore pose minimal risk. With the multitude of possible frequencies and the inherent weakness of signals intended strictly for terrestrial transmission, the odds of our being discovered are slim.
The focused transmission proposed by the Humphrey Institute, however, is of a different kind. This message would be hard to miss by any race with satellite dishes pointed toward the heavens. That a race looking for planets to exploit would more actively search than those not so interested increases the danger. Moreover, any peaceful civilization that discovers our existence will study our television and radio broadcasts before coming to say “Hello.” When they see how violent we are as a species in our evening news broadcasts, they may decide that the galaxy would be better off without our barbaric species being allowed to develop further. We could easily be seen as a threat that needs to be eliminated.
There is nothing wrong with trying to find humanity’s place in the universe. But we do not need to actively attempt to make contact yet. The SETI project has shown that we can passively scan for signals from alien cultures without revealing our existence to potentially hostile civilizations. Why not find them first, and then decide if we want to make contact? There is safety in anonymity. When we do make first contact, we will be much better off if we can do it on our terms with as much information as possible, rather than under the threat of an invading space armada. In a century we do not want to see an alien Julius Caesar’s record of the conquest of Earth — “Terra est omnis divisa in partes quinque …”
Chris Trejbal worries that he has not yet been abducted by aliens. He welcomes comments to [email protected]