I feel confident in saying that evidence of life beyond our planet would render most of our cultural, historical, and religious conclusions moot. Contact with extraterrestrials could become the single most important event in our recorded history. Are we alone in the universe? The question has already been answered, technically. There was life on Mars at some point, though the fossilized bacteria found on an approximately 13,000-year-old meteorite that struck the Earth is a lot less dramatic than the David Bowie song. Interesting as that is, it’s the little green men (and women) that I’m concerned about.
The belief in intelligent life in the universe is considered plausible enough that we sent a treasure trove of photos and music in both of the Voyager space probes in 1977. We assumed that extraterrestrials would not only be receptive to Stravinsky and Chuck Berry but that they are hip enough to want to own the vinyl. Lest we get too optimistic about humanity, there were several omissions that only served to confirm that our foibles and prejudices were all too human: the song “Here Comes The Sun” by The Beatles was originally included as a sample of modern pop music but EMI rejected its inclusion on copyright grounds, because aliens care. Also controversial: the nudity of the two human figures on the Voyager plaque, deemed pornographic (by idiots).
These small squabbles momentarily derailed what should have been a larger collusion of humans coming together to represent humanity, but they did send out a more accurate message of what humans are really like. The disagreements also form fuel for one of the more depressing theories as to why we haven’t made first contact yet: if we assume that other older planets and galaxies have an evolutionary head start on us, we could be considered so primitive that we are not capable of intercepting the message.
This leads us to the question of technology. By sending our radio signals into space, there is little to suggest that aliens will be able to receive the messages, understand them, and respond in a way that we could also receive and interpret the information correctly. Radio itself is a somewhat primitive technology compared to how far we have come in the last hundred and twenty years. There is little to suggest that aliens have a comparable technology at their disposal, beyond speculation. We are just now able to start planning a manned mission to Mars. If aliens exist and are capable of responding, they most likely already have the drop on us.
That’s also ignoring the idea that humans aren’t worthy of receiving a response back. If I were an extraterrestrial observing humans from afar, I would take one look at ISIS, creationism, and conspiracy theories and try a different planet. There is a theory that extraterrestrials, savvy enough to be aware of humanity, have such advanced technology that they are able to cloak themselves and their communications outright so that we live in a dim bubble, shooting radio signals into an unresponsive void. For their protection or ours, I couldn’t say.
On the subject of the void, there is an even bleaker theory yet: the conditions on Earth were so uncommon that we really are the only intelligent life in the universe. Considering the infinite size of the universe and the sheer number of planets and galaxies, it seems mathematically improbable that this is the case, but I wonder. Looking back over the evolutionary record, a series of crapshoots and misadventures on a planet that was just the right temperature and placement from the sun to sustain us, it is easy to imagine just how fickle other planets and habitats throughout the universe could really be.
There was a time on the earth when dinosaurs were in charge and all it took to subvert the order of things was an asteroid striking the throne (or a gradual extinction due to climate change via volcanic emissions, if two million years counts as gradual). What we either fail to remember (or intentionally submerge) is that humans are just another form of mammal on a planet full of them. We are special only by the evolution of our brains and our ability to walk upright. If any of a trillion factors had gone differently for us, we would still be hobbling around with our hands covered in shit, beating each other to death over fruit. If you factor in how inhospitable most of space is, the chance of a lifeform similar to ours dwindles significantly.
I question whether or not I would like to know the truth of extraterrestrial life and intelligence. I would be lying if I said it didn’t give me a shiver of anxiety. Knowing that there are beings out there similar to us would make our place in the universe less special, and depending on how advanced their technology and society is, it could make us look warlike, primitive, and idiotic by comparison. It could also be dangerous. What is to say there isn’t a species of life out there which is more violent than ours? There is precious little preventing us from being stomped out like a cockroach. Once the answer of alien life is taken out of the box, it can’t be put back in. If humans tend to freak out about relatively minuscule things now, which we do, I can’t imagine the response to a final answer as to whether or not we are alone in this life. Until then, we send out our signals and wait.