If we found aliens, would we care?

Looking for ‘aliens’. Image credit: Gavin Masterson'

Imagine that you wake up tomorrow and learn that we have discovered proof of alien life on another planet. What would you do?

Everyone would be talking about it - the news media, governments, people in coffee shops, or strangers in the airports. The knowledge that alien life does exist would dominate our collective mental space. We would have so many questions: Why that planet? How did they appear? How long have they existed? Are they primitive or technologically advanced? Are they aware of us? Can we communicate with them? Should we? What can they teach us? Our minds would be filled with curiosity and our imaginations full of wonder. Life would be tinged with excitement and full of potential surprises.

So why do we seem to show a lot less interest in the ‘aliens’ that we already know exist?

These ‘aliens’ are not humanoids with big heads and strangely coloured eyes, intent on making hand signals and talking to our leaders. These ‘aliens’ are all around us - millions of them. They live lives that are nothing like our own. They live in places that we can not. They have unique commuication strategies and incredible complexity. Some of them infest us, others exploit us, and others avoid us at all costs. Some are so tiny we can’t see them, others are so large that we can scarcely comprehend them. Some live for less than a week, others have seen the brith and death of centuries. We know a lot about a few of them, and we don’t even have a name for most of the others. These ‘aliens’ are all the non-human species that surround us here on Earth.

Even if we discover other planets with self-replicating organisms that respond adaptively to the environment around them, would we immediately seek to utilize them, subjugate them, or exterminate them? If you find that last option repugnant, you’re not alone. I only offer it as an option because humans have demonstrated a proficient capacity for exterminating non-human species. The fact that so many of the species that we have names for are in decline and face potential extinction begs the question: “Does the shared ‘galactic postal address’ leave us with less empathy for the ‘aliens’ living alongside us?”

The reality is that humans and ‘aliens’ share a single planet with a finite set of resources. There isn’t enough for everyone to have everything meaning that the needs of survival dominate the lives of every living organism. In the end, the most successful ones thrive and the failures disappear. Humans exist because we are connected from the present day back to the birthday of life by successful ancestor after successful ancestor. Every species living today can say the same thing. The plot twist is that we humans have ended - and are likely to play a major role in ending - many of these heroic lineages' stories.

As far as we know, the only ‘occupied house’ in the Universe is found in a quiet corner of the Milky Way in a small solar system on the third planet from its sun. It might be just one planet, but it’s crowded with an incredible number of diverse life forms. Most of our fellow inhabitants don’t demand our attention, but we would notice if they disappeared. Despite the intense competition to survive, we also depend on many of our fellow earthlings for survival. I like to believe that we can play nice with the other ‘housemates’ by recognising them as the incredible ‘aliens’ we have looked for in the stars. Are some of them annoying? Yes. Are some of them difficult to get along with? Absolutely. Do we hold their fate in our hands? Without a doubt.

For me, the core of conservation/environmental stewardship is a simple premise: “Life on earth is unique in the known universe.” Every species that continues to exist because we conserve it, is one more ‘alien’ species for us to share the universe with.

Gavin Masterson, PhD
Gavin Masterson, PhD

My interests include snakes, lizards, guitar, swimming and exploring either the outdoors or data.