"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, June 8, 2012


In a funny and informative article in the London Review of Books, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v33/n22/jenny-diski/what-might-they-want  reviewer Jenni Diski surveys the recent literature on UFOs and shows how views about extra-terrestrial life reflect more about ourselves than what we might be looking for.  Most importantly, we are so constrained by the forces that shape us and by the bio-physiological nature of our perceptions, that we cannot possibly imagine an alien intelligence; and therefore have simply created an anthropomorphic view of it. 

The problem with that ‘blue sky thinking’ we were introduced to by New Labour is that we happen to perceive the sky as blue only because of our particular physiology and arrangement of senses on this particular planet. ‘Blue sky thinking’ doesn’t so much encourage limitless imagination as embed in its own metaphor our absolute inability to think outside our perceptual and conceptual limitations. We can’t help but do it our way. We get a poor enough result when we use ‘blue sky thinking’ to figure out innovative ways to deal with economic or social problems, and do no better contemplating the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. We think of aliens and immediately cut them down or up (or some other inconceivable dimension) to our size. They can be bigger or smaller, their heads huge, their eyes bulbous; they are usually humanoid, occasionally reptilian, but they are always recognizable as variations on the theme of life on planet earth. This is as true when we set out to imagine alien behavior as it is when we imagine their shape.

At the same time we should be able to assume that alien forces exist which have no relationship whatsoever to us.  Aliens may have evolved on such a different path that their perceptual system might not even include a spectrum which includes the light, matter, energy that we know.  An alien ‘spaceship’ might glide through our universe without even being aware that we exist.

We might be imagined by an alien intelligence, and our being has been generated by it.  Perhaps we are dream-toys invented for the children of Zog.  Or perhaps the entire universe is one alien intelligence – the Roswell version of God.  The chances that alien beings are unimaginable are far greater than if they look like us.  Part of our limitations is that we are unable to imagine alien life that is not comprised of the same basic elements that ours is – nitrogen, hydrogen, phosphorus, and all the rest.  Our space probes of Mars and Venus are hoping to find traces of these native elements and, if we are lucky, some primitive viruses that might be a precursor to intelligent life as we know it.  This would satisfy our ‘little green men’ hopes because while it is unlikely that Venusian viruses would ever evolve into a Ronald Reagan, say, or a dog.  They might be variations on a theme – ovoid heads, thin, delicate fingers, and springy legs – but would never get it entirely right.

In 1967, astronomers in Cambridge listening to deep space with their new radio telescope heard signals pulsing at precise and regular intervals. One possible explanation they came up with was that they had tapped into an invitation to say hello sent out by intelligent beings from another galaxy. Martin Ryle, the future astronomer royal, was in charge of the group. His response was unambiguous: if they had really found extra-terrestrials they should immediately dismantle the new telescope and not tell a soul about the signals, on the grounds that they wouldn’t be able to resist replying and alerting the possibly hostile aliens to our existence in this cozy, un-invaded corner of the universe. In fact, they had discovered pulsars. Stephen Hawking agrees: ‘If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.’

It is far more interesting to think of alien invaders than alien saviors, of course.  For every ET, Strange Encounters, or Cocoon there are hundreds of movies depicting hostile alien forces out to destroy Earth.  It is much more fun to see the devastation of New York City in fiery blasts, tidal waves, 12.5 Richter-scale earthquakes than the sweet things generously saving old folks and having starlight sex with their keepers.  We have loved Godzilla, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The War of the Worlds, Alien, Night of the Living Dead just like we love slasher flicks, scary movies, and murder mysteries.  Just like The Evening News, we love violence, mayhem, torture, horror, and slow death.

If we don’t create intergalactic aliens, we create rapidly-mutating, flesh-eating viruses or genetically modified creatures escaped from the lab to hunt us down. 

When the truth seems to be out there, our best bet for surviving would appear to be not to let a pin drop while circling our wagons. They might be peaceable seekers after companionship in the universe, but they might not be, and far safer to overestimate ETs’ aggressive tendencies than risk inviting Wellsian Martians or Wyndham’s triffids to do their worst. We are star stuff, and if star stuff is anything like us, it would be wise to reason, we should be very wary indeed.

Ryle and Hawking aren’t the only ones who suppose that if they’re beeping us, there’s something they want, and if there’s something they want and we have it, they’ll certainly come and get it. Better to err on the side of planet survival and assume that they are greatly in advance of us technologically, and hostile. After all, they’ve been sending out radio feelers for millennia and we only got our radio telescope the other day. In relation to aliens, we invariably consider ourselves to be the junior thinkers and makers, though often we imagine we are nicer.

But they are so much older and more savvy that in all likelihood they’ve used up their own planet’s resources and are looking around the universe for a handy new planet to inhabit. Ours, we think, would be just dandy for the kinds of alien we imagine. So answer them and chances are they’ll be enslaving us or harvesting us for food, interbreeding with, or genetically modifying us so that our children are born with uncanny blue eyes and an emotionless stare that turns all human hearts to stone.

We are running out of resources, overpopulating the planet, and causing premature demise because of global warming, so aliens must be having the same problems; and just to be safe, we better indeed circle the wagons.  Once again, it is hard to imagine an alien civilization without the problems we have.  If life will always be composed of nitrogen, oxygen, and hydrogen, then it will evolve more or less like ours; and if alien life is similar to ours, they will have the same problems.  Or so the argument goes.  It is beyond us to think of ethereal beings living on starlight or some exhilarating energy in Black Holes.

That is one standard story of human contact with extra-terrestrials. Another view is that they have been watching us, even walking among us, for millennia. Quietly waiting for us to outgrow our reptilian, mammalian and higher primate incarnations until our poor homo sapiens brain finally fangled the right telescope to hear their signals. Like wise parents, or paternalist gods, they are giving us our head in adolescence and will be on hand to teach us what we really need to know about the meaning of life and the universe when we are ready (see Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick). Or – another benevolent scenario – they are like those concerned parents who would, we’ve been told, have prevented the recent earthly riots. They have already stepped in, alarmed at the way earthling civilization is going and have been taking steps to prevent us blowing ourselves up or indulging ourselves to pieces. The free-will thing may have prevented us from growing as wise as we could be, but imagine what the planet would be like without their surreptitious interventions.

This is what I call the Non-God Theory of extraterrestrial life.  Whereas God never steps in, and just lets us suffer, and through our suffering realize our spiritual nature and our aspirations for the better world of heaven, aliens actually intervene.  They are patient, non-judgmental, and beneficent.  They have taken political sides, and are actively liberal. They want to prevent wars and are concerned more about world peace than protecting vital national interests; but this only means that despite our electoral politics we are all progressives at heart.

What we don’t want to accept is that aliens might simply not be interested in us.

Aliens have nothing but contempt for us, or they love us. Oddly, they don’t seem to be indifferent to us (how could anyone be?), though this is surely the best explanation for the apparent absence of signals, given – so the calculations go – that there are at least ten billion planets in the universe capable of producing intelligent life. Even this bit of arithmetic may be based on our incapacity to think beyond ourselves. A recent paper I don’t pretend to understand uses ‘a Bayesian analysis of the probability of abiogenesis’ to show that life might, after all, be very rare…

We are looking for them, the argument goes, so they must be looking for us.  The worst scenario ever would be that aliens do not exist.  We are alone.  As Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying”. 

There is one well-respected believer in the ‘little green men’ theories of alien intelligence, and he is the author of The Myth and Mysteries of UFOs, Thomas Ballard.

Bullard is a board member of the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS), a privately funded research group set up in 1973 to make UFO studies more academically respectable – ‘the flagship of scholarly excellence for the field’… He publicly switched from doubter to believer in the fact, at least, of unidentified flying objects, having decided that in spite of all the false sightings there was ‘a stubborn, unyielding residue of incredible reports from credible people’. Bullard holds that ‘the body of data points to an aspect of the natural world not yet explored by science’ and goes further, to say ‘that enough threads of coherent experience exist to reject cultural explanations as less than the whole story, though cultural influences contribute much to our interest in the phenomenon even as they do much to confuse our understanding of it. Both sides deserve the serious attention they have never received.’

So maybe flying saucers with humanoid occupants do in fact exist, and Bullard gives hundreds of examples of people abducted, probed and prodded by alien scientists; or unexplained lights, apparitions, appearances, and interactions.  At the same time, he is enough of a cultural anthropologist (PhD, Indiana University) to understand how human myths have influenced our sightings.  We may have actually seen something, Bullard, contends, but it may have been conditioned by our cultural history:

Aliens who whisk innocent sleepers off to their spaceships and give them medical examinations or impregnate them are only doing what fairies and hobgoblins have been doing since long ago and far away.  In Western European culture, mermaids drag sailors to the depths, Oberon and Puck do a number on Bottom, Rumpelstiltskin demands a human child of his own in return for a magical favor, the witch entices lost children into a gingerbread house, the inscrutable Pied Piper, dressed half in yellow and half in red, seduces away rats and then, when the citizens of Hamelin prove incorrigible, whisks off the younger generation. In the Bible there was a time when giants walked among us and sons of God or angels mated with fair-faced human females, or appeared to individuals to tell them that they were pregnant with a changeling, or to deliver a warning of things to come and save the world from itself. These stories of underground and parallel worlds have comforted or terrified human beings for centuries. Why wouldn’t we include the space above our heads in our narratives, and why wouldn’t we update the stories?

Whether reality, myth, imagined musings of the unhappy who really would like a transformative ride in a flying saucer, UFOs and the alien civilizations from which they are supposed to come have given us welcome willies, philosophical speculations, and historical perspective.

In a subject where the lack of non-anecdotal evidence means it is only possible to believe in extra-terrestrial visits, not to prove them, a cultural description is probably the only alternative to evangelical sermonizing. Evangelism works wackily both ways: in 1997, Pat Robertson called for people who believe in ‘space aliens’ to be stoned to death, since if ‘space aliens’ did exist they (and therefore believers in them) would be nothing more than agents of the devil trying to lead people away from Christ.

What more is there to say?

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