Are we alone? Humans have a lot of questions about alien life. But those beings, if they exist, likely have some questions of their own about humans, queries we may want to answer before we find any life beyond Earth.
That's because the answers we reach will shape how we respond to any such discovery in ways that have profound implications for us and that hypothetical life beyond Earth alike, according to Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist at York University in Canada who focuses on space exploration and extraterrestrial life. Some of those questions, the more anthropocentric ones, are already in the air, underlying conversations about the search for life.
But other questions would benefit from a shift in mindset that is uncommon in the field, Denning told Space.com. "We're still thinking [about a detection of extraterrestrial life] in terms of an intellectual problem about us and our place in the universe," she said. "[We] haven't thought through the consequences for that other life."
One key struggle may be the tendency to emphasize the question "Are we alone?" which Denning said speaks more to the recent history of science than to humanity in general. "A lot of people have already made that leap. They've already assumed that life is prevalent," she said.
It was only when science-minded people could get a very good look at neighbors like the moon and Mars that those assumptions began to change. "Thanks to astronomy, the universe kind of emptied out briefly in the mid-20th century," Denning said. "Up until that point, most people assumed it was full." And deciding for ourselves whether we are alone can't necessarily shape our response to a discovery beyond the degree of surprise with which we meet it.
Extending our interrogative and contemplative energy beyond that one question may turn out to be more helpful. Those questions could include how such a discovery will be announced. This has been discussed, but those conversations haven't kept up with the pace of change in society, Denning said. Chances are low that the sort of controlled, authority-laden announcement planned during previous decades would be pragmatic today.
"Any kind of scientific discovery now takes place in real time, in public view, and that involves all kinds of disagreements," Denning said. "You end up with different camps, and they're kind of fighting it out over Twitter or whatever. What is a nonspecialist audience supposed to think?"
Once we do have a new version of that conversation, it shouldn't stagnate again, since future decades will need to consider different circumstances once again, she added.
Denning said she also wants people to be more aware of how different communities may respond to the same new information and why. Because of different lived experiences, vulnerabilities and ways of seeing the world, a discovery that is exciting for some people may upset others. That variety of perspectives could be even more instructive in conversations about how humanity responds to the discovery of aliens: Approaches that some people see as maximizing humanity's opportunities could feel risky or threatening to other people, Denning said.
Figuring out how to respond to a discovery of life in a way that truly reflects all of humanity means finding a way to pull all those threads together into the same discussion. "We have to have, I think, better conversations about how do we talk about a discovery," Denning said. In particular, she said, those conversations need to include a much broader swath of humanity than they currently do.
And those discussions also need to recognize that societal confidence and credence are changing over time as well. Announcements or advice that may once have gone unquestioned because they came from an authority that no longer has such preeminence, Denning said. "All of this takes place against a backdrop where there is a crisis of scientific authority, particularly in America," she said. "There are just big problems with trust in expertise overall."
The conversations we have right now about potentially finding life lack another component that Denning said is vitally important: how we treat that life. "What we do with life on Earth? A lot of it is really awful," she said, pointing to millennia of consumption and captivity and disruption. "We control and contain and rework it culturally in absolutely every way that we can."
While the topic of planetary protection includes conversations about how to protect life both on Earth and beyond it, those discussions tend to view any extraterrestrial life as a scientific opportunity not as an ethical obligation, Denning said. That isn't good enough for her, she said, especially given what she called "the expansion of post-planetary capitalism."
There's reason to worry about the exploitation of alien life, given the precedent we have on Earth for what extraterrestrial life could look like: tiny so-called extremophilic organisms that can live in bitter cold, extreme heat, high saltiness and other difficult conditions. Those organisms, their genetic material and the compounds they can produce are highly sought after by companies looking to commercialize medicines and other valuable compounds. Denning said the same factors would affect any extraterrestrial extremophile life as well.
"When you see considerable private interest now in looking for life in the solar system, is that purely a scientific intellectual question with no hope of actual return?" Denning said. "Or is there something that either is at work now or would inevitably be at work at some point in terms of recruiting that life into some form of financial gain?"
Denning's concerns about these issues are strongly rooted in her background as an anthropologist, she said. She pointed to the likelihood of primates, "the creatures that are most like us," being made extinct in the wild within decades because of human activities.
"Those are the realities that anthropologists live with every day. That this is the truth of who we are and what we do," Denning said. "It's not all that we are, and it's not all that we could do, but left to our own devices, when we don't engage our higher reasoning and engage in protective actions, then some people have to protect life-forms from other people."
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