There are two types of movies about aliens (outer space aliens, not immigrant aliens). In the first type, the aliens are mysterious but somehow kind and gentle. Examples include “ET” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”. These aliens have overwhelmingly superior technology and could probably crush us like a bug. But they choose to interact with humans out of curiosity and basic benevolence. This is the “Star Trek” approach, where superior intelligence can mostly be expected to act at a higher order. In other words, with superiority.
The second type displays the opposite type of behavior. In these films, aliens are profoundly evil and dismissive of humanity. Examples of these films include “The War of the Words” (original and remake) and this summer’s execrable “Independence Day” sequel. Movies with evil aliens tend to feature a lot of human infrastructure being vaporized. In the more recent “War of the Worlds”, evil Martians came to earth to suck our blood and transform the planet to their liking. At one point, the Bayonne Bridge was blown up by death rays (this was before the current project to raise the bridge for more boat traffic).
The combination of evil aliens with superior technology poses difficulties for script writers. In general, the story needs to include a future for humanity, a happy ending. That ending is inconsistent with the capabilities of aliens that can wipe us out and want to do so. Film writers address this challenge by inventing ridiculous 11th hour plot devices. In the “War of the Worlds”, the Martians are felled by an earth virus. In the first Independence Day film, earth pilots somehow fly up to the Mother Ship and download a computer program that disables the entire alien computer network. Mankind is saved to live for another day, and thus appear in the next sequel.
Outside of the cinema, to date all efforts to detect aliens have not succeeded. Beyond the occasional flying saucer, there is no evidence proving that there is sentient life in the universe beyond earth. This is probably a good thing. If aliens treated us the way we treat lower life forms on earth, mankind should expect the second type of alien to visit, not the first.
In the modern era, we have transformed the planet to better address our human comforts and needs. Anthropologists have started to refer to the current geologic era as the “Anthropocene”, the era dominated by humankind. Our development of infrastructure and industry has led to massive changes in earth’s surface, oceans and atmosphere. While the changes are mostly directed to address short term human goals, some global changes like addition of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may have the opposite effect in the longer term.
The Anthropocene has been a time of increased rate of extinction of species on earth. One author refers to it as the Sixth Extinction, as many groups of animals and plants die out. The Sixth Extinction is not caused by an asteroid or some other external cataclysmic event. The cause of the cataclysm in this case is believed to be us. Human changes to the environment have been so drastic and have happened so quickly, that many groups of flora and fauna have not been able to adapt to new habitats.
During the Sixth Extinction, we have been assuaged in our dealings with other species by the notion that our sentience is uniquely a human experience. Other animals may have other kinds of consciousness. But they are not sentient, and by implication we are free to interact with them for our benefit, not theirs. Recently, evidence suggests that this is not so. Intelligence and sentience appears to be not black and white, but on some type of continuum. Most people would agree that when interacting with mammals, there is consciousness and individual behavior. as when you play with your dog and realize that someone is there and something is going on behind that snout beyond instinct and rote behavior. If animals have some form of sentience, then it takes a bit of cognitive dissonance to play with your pet pig before having a pork hot dog for dinner.
In “The Soul of an Octopus”, author Sy Montgomery makes a case for the intelligence of non-mammal species. While mammals are more or less like us, octopuses are closer to truly alien beings. They are invertebrates with eight tentacles, suckers, and the ability to rapidly change skin color to camouflage their bodies. Unlike a dog or monkey, an octopus is profoundly not human and strange. Ms. Montgomery writes about her interactions with individual octopuses at the New England Aquarium. By her descriptions and cited research, the creatures are said to display innate intelligence and personalities. They seem to think and interact with some level of sentience.
Even fish in the aquarium may have personalities and feelings. A lot of this discussion, of course, is anthropocentric. There is really no way to know if fish have feelings, at least with our current level of technology. But if they did, what then? Should we encounter aliens in the future, our moral argument for at least insisting on the friendly type would not be there. Superior aliens would certainly be inclined to interact with us for their own bidding. After all, look how superior humans have treated their own superiority on earth- by reshaping the environment for human comfort, (inadvertently) killing off many species and eating or subjugating the rest.
On the list issues to be dealt with, worrying about interaction with space aliens is not towards the top of the list. It is not even on the list. We have bigger fish to fry (so to speak). But strangely enough, these concerns are in the background of infrastructure projects today, and here’s where this story gets back down to earth. Unlike the recent infrastructure past, where we participated in the taming of the frontier and the march of progress, today we begin to recognize needs for sustainability and long term environmental issues. How we measure this and compare results is a great challenge. All of our previous infrastructure design work has been largely geared towards evaluating short terms costs and benefits. Now we must better consider the long term. But it can be an apples and orange comparison, with too much complexity to fit into neat type studies and unambiguous recommendations of past projects. For example, a bridge type study may provide a project recommendation for the lowest cost alternative. But when you add long term costs (which have to be calculated objectively), environmental considerations and aspects of sustainability, the recommendation may change.
As we struggle to revise the infrastructure design-decision process to better evaluate long term effects, we start to live in a world where the environment is treated differently- for human benefit, of course, but also with deeper understanding of the overall continuum of life. This future world assumes that we engage in better mutual treatment of ourselves and avoid a return to the stone age. At that point, we may all decide to become vegetarians.
Until it is determined that celery has feelings as well.