Communion Of Dreams

Why bother?

There’s a good piece by Seth Shostak over at about the possible motivations an extra-terrestrial race might have for visiting our pale blue dot. (Shostak is one of the principals of the SETI Institute, and knows whereof he speaks when he addresses these kinds of issues.) First, he dismisses the usual SF plot devices of an alien race wanting our turf, our resources, or even our bodies:

Taking our cue from Tinseltown, I note that most cineplex sentients come to Earth either to solve some sort of ugly reproductive crisis or simply to take over the planet. The former doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. You can’t breed with creatures at the zoo, despite the fact that most of the base pairs in the inmates’ DNA are identical to yours (note that this is a biological incompatibility, and not just zoo regulations). The aliens, needless to say, will have a different biochemistry, and probably no DNA at all. Forget, if you can, the breeding experiments.

Taking over the planet would only make sense if there were something really special about our world. The best guess of the exoplanet specialists is that the number of Earth-size planets in our galaxy exceeds tens of billions. That doesn’t sound like our hunk of real estate is terribly privileged.

They won’t come here to mine our minerals, either. The entire universe is built of the same stuff, and while the solar system has a higher percentage of heavy elements than found in many stellar realms, it turns out that this is precisely the condition that seems to foster planet formation. In other words, ET’s own solar system will be similarly blessed with these useful materials. So why would they come here and incur multi-light-year transport charges?

Why, indeed? These various issues are ones which are discussed in the course of speculation about the alien artifact discovered in Communion of Dreams. And while I never actually reveal the motivations that aliens might have for having left the artifact on Titan in my novel, I do have thoughts on the subject (which might come out in a future sequel to Communion.)

Be that as it may, Shostak does go on to make a pretty good argument that if indeed there are a large number of technological civilizations out there, that they may just not consider us worth the trouble of contacting/visiting. Again, from the article:

Then again, there’s that last point: they just want to learn more about us. Well, perhaps so. Maybe that’s really what’s interesting about Homo sapiens. Not grabbing our habitat, saving our souls (or our environment), or subverting our industrial output — but assaying our culture. I’m willing to consider that even very advanced beings might find our culture mildly worthy of study.

Keep in mind that if they’re near enough to find us, that implies that there are many, many galactic societies (otherwise the distances between any two of them will be enormous). If there are lots of them, then we’re just another entry in a big book. Once again, not all that special. Kind of like another weird fish found in the Atlantic. I don’t expect mammoth expeditions to be sent our way.

It is a good point. I would counter, however, that we have seen plenty of evidence in our own history of people going to enormous trouble to bother to learn about seemingly trivial things. One only has to look at the difficulties encountered in sea-faring during the time of the great naturalists – people were willing to go to great expense, to risk great hardship and a fair chance of death just to add another entry into the botanical texts or to discover a new species. Even today we mount insanely expensive expeditions into the deep ocean just to expand our knowledge.

We have no evidence of extra-terrestrial life, let alone advance civilizations. Yet I think that you can make a fair case that any space-faring race which may exist must have some degree of curiosity – and that curiosity may alone be reason enough to come check out the new kids on the block, whatever the hurdles or cost.

Jim Downey

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

One of the greatest of human desires is the urge to conquer. If the aliens share some of our personality, they would have wanted to take over the Earth just for the sake of it.

Comment by leafless

leafless, I tend to agree with you, and as I’ve written before it would be foolishly naive to assume that any (other) intelligent race we might contact would be peaceful.

Jim D.

Comment by Communion of Dreams

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