If aliens showed up, would humans stay together?

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Source: Antares_StarExplorer/Shutterstock

This story is true.

It was November 1985, in Versoix, a suburb of Geneva, Switzerland, and the world was still in the grip of a cold war between Western democracies and the Soviet Union and its allies. Ronald Reagan, former B-movie actor, sci-fi fan and rabid anti-Communist turned US President, sat chatting with Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union, the authoritarian communist nation Reagan, two years earlier , had stigmatized “the empire of evil”.

The two bigwigs had taken a break from their schedules to walk around and talk informally through interpreters at a cabin near the official meeting place. They faced each other in comfortable armchairs beside a fireplace lit by a crackling log fire. The talks, both official and unofficial, had come to nothing, but at one point, Reagan, the science fiction fan, abruptly asked Gorbachev: “What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help? “

“There is no doubt about it,” Gorbachev replied.

“Me too,” Reagan said.

The Geneva talks did not result in any concrete treaty, but they did provide a watershed moment in which each leader acknowledged that the other was serious about trying to stop the nuclear arms race and working to a form of peace between the two superpowers: a breakthrough that would eventually materialize in START, the 1991 strategic arms limitation talks.

And the personal detente between Reagan and Gorbachev, informed and perhaps initiated during this conversation about the invaders from outer space in the cabin, also sheds light on the fundamental dynamics of cooperation and conflict between the humans, and the possible effects that the discovery of “someone from outer space”, or some form of extraterrestrial life, might have on how humans choose peace, or war: a question that does not may only gain more relevance as the former Soviet Union, in March 2022, under its President Vladimir Putin, continues to wage a ruthless war against the independent republic of Ukraine.

cooperation in the brain

There is no need to look for evidence of how often human tribes, ethnicities and nations fight each other, or how they also cooperate. The fabric of history is woven through the warp and weft of peace and conflict. In the human brain, the same general areas, the frontoparietal network as well as the anterior insula, light up to fight or make friends, both read the same, although in these areas researchers from the University of Washington found, a corner of the medial prefrontal cortex is more focused on cooperation (which its authors also claim is “socially rewarded”) than on defense mechanisms.

In the record, there is also ample evidence of how people – usually men – in power used the threat, and sometimes the reality, of outside invasion to unify divergent factions. Nativist demagogues of various stripes—for example, the Know-Nothings in 1850s America—often found popular support, usually among the less educated and vulnerable, by vowing to block waves of supposedly foreign immigrants. invade their native soil.

Too often tactics have been used to justify war. As Ian Kershaw wrote in The SpiegelAdolf Hitler’s “relentless denunciation of the supposed powerful enemies of the nation – Bolshevism, the Western ‘plutocracy’ and above all the Jews (linked in propaganda to both) – reinforced Hitler’s appeal as a defender of nation and bulwark against threats to its survival, whether from without or from within.”

On the Allied side of World War II, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor silenced within hours the powerful “isolationist”, anti-war voices of American figures such as radio personality Father Charles Coughlin, Senator Charles La Follette, Aviator Charles Lindbergh, and Ambassador Joseph Kennedy. More recently, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have solidified American public opinion to the point of supporting enthusiastically, and with little tolerance for dissent, the knee-jerk invasion of Iraq by the United States – a country that had nothing to do with the September 11 attacks. , and whose government had been actively hostile to the responsible Islamists.

And, again, we have the current example of Russian President Vladimir Putin. As it is widely suspected that the ex-KGB agent made his way to power by conspiring with agents of the KGB’s offspring, the FSB, to blow up apartment buildings in Russia in 1999, acts of terrorism which he then vehemently blamed on an external threat – the Islamists of Chechnya, when the Chechens were no longer at war with the Russian Federation and no longer had any reason to antagonize it. The resulting spike in Putin’s approval ratings allowed him to take over as president and launch another war against the Chechens, consolidating his grip on power.

It is obviously the same Vladimir Putin who rallied Russia around the theme of external threats, NATO and the West, to prevent neighboring Ukraine from allying with the Western enemy. Today’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is the result.

Life on other planets?

These examples are all, of course, Earth related. And, although we have no solid evidence of life outside our own planet – despite a large number of unexplained “UFO” type sightings – the sheer size of the known universe and our knowledge of how RNA-based life on Earth probably arose, makes the existence of other “extraterrestrial” life forms statistically very likely.

Just think of these statistics: One hundred trillion galaxies exist in the known universe – a number essentially impossible for our minds to comprehend – and each contains 100 billion stars, which is one septillion (1 + 24 zeros) of stars. stars. . Astronomers estimate that each star has at least the same number of orbiting planets. And 7.6% of these stars appear to be similar to our own sun, and a quarter of their planets (19 sextillion, or 19 + 21 zeros), according to Keppler’s observations, are probably “Goldilocks” (“just-right “) planets: similar to Earth in size, nature and proximity to their sun.

Mumbling numbers at the rate of 10 per second, it would take you or me well over a billion years to count to a sextillion. And there’s probably 19 sextillion Earth-like planets that could, in theory, generate conditions similar to those that gave rise to life on Earth, regardless of the likelihood that extraterrestrial life is very different from our own (methane-nitrogen ice spiders , anyone?), and come from planets that are in many ways unlike Earth.

Which brings us back to this cottage on Lake Geneva, and the immediate question of how humans might react to the detection of extraterrestrial life of any kind. Consciously or not, humans always consider themselves, psychologically speaking, as unique. Whatever the statistics suggest, we see the universe as a mysterious dark space, silent and empty of life, of which our human consciousness is the luminous and noisy core. Galileo and Copernicus upset our assumptions when they proved that the Earth was not the center of the solar system; Charles Darwin took human arrogance down a notch when he suggested that humans, far from being created by God on the sixth day, were in fact the descendants of apes; but our sense of self is still essentially religious, of a life form created by a god, or gods, or archetypal animal spirits, whose uniqueness is in any case a given.

All of that would change if another life form, certainly very different from our own (despite the mostly human images of aliens we’re used to from “Star Trek” and “Star Wars”) were detected on another planet. Suddenly, we should perceive the Earth not as the cradle of universal consciousness, but as another planet among many that have given rise to this strange chain reaction of chemicals that we call life.

If, as the odds seem to indicate, some of these life forms turn out to be sentient in some way, it would follow that we might eventually have to interact with them. Earth’s history and the reactions of Reagan and Gorbachev suggest that the presence of an outside power could allow the different peoples of our own planet to recognize and celebrate their essential identity when faced with the prospect of dealing with extraterrestrial beings. .

There is some evidence to suggest that educated humans are okay with non-threatening, methane-ice-spider-type aliens, and even very religious people might be able to accept the idea of ​​life formed outside of the planet. enclosure of their earthly god. The SETI Institute (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) has even promulgated guidelines advising a rational, open, global and scientific approach – based on the so-called Rio scale – to deal with the discovery of extraterrestrial life.

Unfortunately, when it comes to clever non-terrestrial life, our cultural records suggest we’re more inclined to see this as a threat: see the countless Klingons and other evil aliens in “Star Trek,” “War of the Worlds,” “Twilight Zone,” and “Independence Day” , as well as the experts who warn that an extraterrestrial civilization capable of making contact with us may well be far more advanced militarily than ours.Earth history reflects this cultural bias, suggesting that our go-to instinct might be to regard extraterrestrials as hostile and to prepare for war.

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