In my last blog post I looked at some of the reasons it’s not surprising that we haven’t yet discovered signs of life elsewhere in the universe. Life signs are hard to unequivocally identify as such, because other things might be the cause. Alien species might be so different that we can’t recognize the energy signatures or communication transmissions their societies produce. And space is so incredibly vast that our search efforts have covered only a miniscule portion of even our own galaxy.

But let’s say we ultimately succeed. What will we do if we encounter life on other planets and in other solar systems? Will we protect it? Exploit it? Or destroy it out of fear of contamination, or simply because it’s in our way?

The questions get even bigger when it comes to advanced, sentient life forms. Will we look at them as friends or enemies, benefactors or threats? It’s much too facile to say that it will depend on how they treat us. We should know ourselves well enough to understand that what we bring to a relationship, on whatever scale, is what we’ll probably take from it. When Europeans arrived in North America, some looked for harmonious cooperation with the indigenous peoples and got along well with them (though their arrival still wasn’t good news for the original inhabitants). Others sought to conquer and subjugate, and immediately made enemies. And that was among fellow humans. Concepts like friendship, kinship, cooperation, loyalty, duty, authority, and many other critical social dynamics may have no equivalent at all in an alien culture, or radically different applications and priorities. We can’t know ahead of time, so does that mean we shouldn’t prepare at all?

No, that would be foolish. Even though alien mindsets are by definition hard to predict, we have to try. Even more importantly, we need to be clear about our own motivations, and establish strong rules about how we will behave regarding alien life at all levels of development. Just as the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 forms the basis of how we deal with local space bodies, we need similar laws to be established governing our interactions with alien life forms. We need this before we make such a discovery. It’s no good locking the barn door after the horse is gone. Whether the aliens we discover are benevolent, malevolent, or ambivalent, our relationship with them will get off to a better start if we can demonstrate that our species abides by strict laws that ensure we’re not reckless aggressors or exploiters ourselves, and that we’ve built a good foundation toward understanding and cooperating with others.

Where would we begin to formulate possible responses to extraterrestrial life forms, in all their potential variety? Laugh if you like, but I think a great start would be to gather all of the human/alien encounter stories in science fiction and evaluate the interactions described in them! Who has given more thought to such scenarios than us? It would be a large task, I admit, but so is scanning 33,000 light years of space.

Speaking of which, although SF stories over the decades have gradually prepared our minds to accept the idea of alien species, those depictions haven’t all been positive, to say the least! Conclusive evidence of a civilized race beyond our planet would panic many people and send shockwaves through our global economy. Even the most optimistic of us won’t be able to totally shrug off movies like Alien or Independence Day. So we have to prepare ourselves and our society for that reaction—if we can’t, then we shouldn’t be in such a hurry to draw attention to ourselves. For the past century, we’ve been spewing radio and TV signals out into the cosmos like a giant locator beacon. Even worse, much of its content would give an observer the impression that we’re unrelentingly warlike and violent. We can’t call those signals back, but maybe it’s past time to find a way to block them from going beyond our atmosphere (although internet-based entertainment sources like Netflix are helping).

I’m all in favour of passively searching for signs of life in space. I am most definitely not in favour of deliberately calling attention to ourselves. Let me simply ask: if the native North Americans of the 15th Century had suspected that there was even one chance in a hundred that the arrival of Europeans on their shores would have the effects it did, would they have built big signal fires on the beaches inviting one and all to come and visit? (They didn’t—it’s a metaphor for what some scientists suggest we should do, which is just incredibly naïve.)

It might not be possible to ever fully prepare ourselves for First Contact with an alien species. Lets not blindly rush into it!

There’s another reason that might explain why we haven’t yet detected signs of civilization elsewhere, and it’s a disturbing one. It’s possible that, once species advance in technical knowledge to the point where they can control planet-changing chemical processes (like human carbon emissions) and hugely destructive energies, they may destroy themselves. If that’s true, and inevitable, or even quite common, the span of time during which their civilization might be detectable from light years away could be quite short. Humans are now capable of annihilating ourselves, but that’s only been true for a century or so. What if most highly-advanced technological societies don’t make it much longer than that? Consider that we’ve only had instrumentation capable of scanning the heavens over multiple wavelengths of light and radio frequencies for a half-century or thereabouts. If there were an advanced civilization radiating lots of energy into space from a solar system fifty light years from Earth, they would have to have been doing so within the past century for us to even know they existed. And only if their radiations were aimed this way, and if we were looking in the right place!

What if, when we venture out into interstellar space, we encounter the remains of such extinct cultures? Science fiction is full of such things, from Clarke’s Rama, to Niven’s Ringworld, Pohl’s Gateway technology, to the Stone from Greg Bear’s novel Eon. Scientists (and SF fans) get excited about what we could learn from alien civilizations, dead or alive, that would advance our technological capabilities. If you ask me, there are deeper lessons that are much more important for us to learn. Such as how such cultures interact peacefully with others. And how to survive our own ever-increasing planet-killing powers.

We want to know if we’re alone in the universe. Okay. While we’re looking, let’s do everything we can to prepare ourselves for the answer.