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“Is the digital age cutting us off from aliens?” This was the question asked Monday by Chris Matyszczyk. Matyszczyk cites a conference in London, organized by the United Kingdom’s national academy of science, whose purpose is to discuss extraterrestrial life. A Dr. Frank Drake, described as “the world’s leading ET hunter,” apparently worries that digital technology is effectively screening us from other forms of life somewhere out there. According to Drake, who founded SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), digital signals beamed into space would “look like noise,” unlike analog signals.
Half a century ago, Drake devised an equation that, according to Govert Schilling, “expresses the number (N) of ‘observable civilizations’ that exist in our Milky Way galaxy as a simple multiplication of several, more approachable unknowns.” Fifty years later, SETI has found no evidence of those civilizations.
The fact that we, as human beings, wonder if there is intelligent alien life somewhere out there is not a surprise. It is only natural to wonder if one is alone; it is part of the human condition, part of what drives us to create, to innovate and to educate ourselves. We see a fence – and we wonder what is on the other side. We see a door – and we wonder what lies within. We look up into the incredible, endless depths of space – and we wonder what could be out there, stretched across a vista that is incomprehensibly eternal. Contemplating such mind-bending mystery, we often turn to God and wonder if the answers might lie there.
The debate in religious circles over alien life has waxed and waned. Some conservative Christians believe that the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is contradictory to their belief system. Others have speculated that the reference to “sheep … not of this fold” in John 10:16 is a reference to the existence of alien beings. There are even those who believe that certain accounts in the Bible (such as in Ezekiel) actually describe encounters with aliens or alien spacecraft, as described in the famous “Chariots of the Gods” by Erich von Daniken.
The world of science fiction is the next, or the first, or the concurrent recourse as we ponder the imponderable. In 1865, Jules Verne wrote one of the earliest examples of popular science fiction, “From the Earth to the Moon.” Verne’s surprisingly prescient novel tells the tale of men traveling by space capsule a century before it would be possible to do so. Even then, human beings were turning to science fiction to express the desire to explore beyond the boundaries of the world – and speculating about what they might find.
Science fiction is, of course, more popular than ever. James Cameron’s blockbuster hit “Avatar,” about a crippled Marine who takes an ambitious assignment to infiltrate native aliens on a far away world, has now grossed more than any movie, ever. Just as Jules Verne’s novel reflected the tide of popular and public opinion in his day, “Avatar” does as well: The movie is a spectacularly animated collage of left-wing melodramatic sentiments, misconceptions and prejudices. It scorns capitalism, rejects commerce, vilifies Western culture, deifies native Americans (for whom the blue aliens in what has been called “Dances with Smurfs” are an obvious analog) and spits on the United States military, portraying Marines working as mercenaries as little better than baby-killing, genocidal maniacs.
The only sympathetic characters in the movie are those soldiers who betray their fellows and turn their guns on their fellow Marines – and the audience is expected to root for the aliens and against all humanity. By the film’s end, the humans have been expelled, sent back to their dying planet. That such a film could shatter all previous box-office records says a great deal about the current state of our society, as reflected in our opinions about space aliens and how we will or should treat them.
Realistically, there’s no reason space aliens should be any different than are we, if in fact they are a form of life similar enough to us that we can relate to them at all. There is absolutely no reason to think space aliens will be any wiser, any more prone to deep and abiding insights into the nature of existence, or any more desirous of harmonious coexistence than are we. Why should we think “We come in peace” is any more likely to come out of their mouths (or maws, or whatever) than out of our own? And why, as Matyszczyk irreverently asks in his CNET column, would we just assume they’re more advanced? How does that follow, and why are we so eager to assume it?
For that matter, if the aliens are more advanced, it would pretty damned stupid of us to act as the traveling Amway salesmen of the universe, beaming our address and phone number into the galaxy and asking that people we don’t know stop by for lunch. We’ve even sent them naked pictures of ourselves, as well as a pile of personal data, in the form of a satellite or two whose only job is to let them know who and where we are. You wouldn’t do that on an Internet bulletin board. Why does it become OK when the venue is the Milky Way instead of Craigslist?
If science fiction has taught us anything, it is that when the talking apes from the future land on the beach in their space capsule, you should help them out of the spaceship – and immediately murder them. They don’t have your interests at heart, and neither do the visiting space aliens. It’s a cookbook, as the old saying goes. If they have to tell you they come in peace, they probably don’t.
If intelligent life exists elsewhere in the galaxy, there’s no reason to conclude we should set aside our common sense or even our cynicism in deciding how to deal with them – and we might just want to reconsider pestering them at all.