Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


26.4.2  Social Impact of First Contact

How will first contact affect our society? It is again important to distinguish between Remote Contacts (perhaps by radio), in which impact would be minimized, and scenarios involving Direct or Surprise Contacts (e.g., Bracewell probes, UFOs), wherein impact would be at a maximum.

When the first message from the stars is received, the impact may be expected to be similar to that of other major discoveries in the past. Most likely, life will continue on much as before. For instance, while the heliocentric cosmology advanced by Copernicus in 1543 was an intellectual bombshell for churchmen and university professors, the average man remained unaffected by the revelation. In the last century the revolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin caused quite a stir in high society at the time, but there was little social impact until decades later when the Scopes "monkey trial" came to public attention The discoveries of modern science in this century -- the expanding universe, the DNA molecule, and so on -- have diffused into society at a fairly slow pace. Nowadays, remarks one writer wryly, people are actually bored with the notion of men walking on the Moon. We are accustomed, he says, "to receiving graphic new cultural and intellectual inputs via TV and movies -- views of far-off lands, strange people, and curious customs -- but are very little affected by them. A long-distance radio message from the stars would seem relatively innocuous."3257

Many philosophers have insisted that, in the long run, humanity will undergo a dramatic change in perspective. The smallness and uniqueness of our Earth will suddenly be thrust upon us. Humans may become more aware of their common humanity. Philosophy Professor James L. Christian believes that "at last we will have a mirror by which we can look at ourselves as human beings."1620 Apparently Lenin, the founder of Soviet bolshevism, agreed. In a conversation with H.G. Wells in 1920, the Russian leader is reported to have remarked:

All human conceptions are on the scale of our planet. They are based on the pretension that the technical potential, although it will develop, will never exceed the terrestrial limit. If we succeed in establishing interplanetary communications, all our philosophical, moral and social views will have to be revised. In this case, the technical potential, become limitless, would impose the end of the role of violence as a means and method of progress.3586

But what of the average person? How would he react? It is possible that a few people, upon learning of the Contact, might plot to destroy all major radiotelescope facilities so that no messages could be sent out (the "Earth Security League"). Or the destruction of all observatories may be motivated by religious fervor to "avoid evil temptation" or to "turn one’s ear from the Devil."3630 Others might plot to send messages (where these had been prohibited by the government), in order to establish contact with the "angels from space," the "ministers of our salvation," or the much-needed "facilitators of higher consciousness" (the Sentience Liberation Front?) Still, the majority of people would probably remain unaffected. Says Arthur C. Clarke:

Although the philosophical -- and sensational -- impact of such a discovery would be enormous, after the initial excitement had ebbed, the world would probably continue on its way much as before. Once he had read a few Sunday supplements and watched a few TV specials, the proverbial man in the street would say: "This is all very interesting, but it happened a long time ago and hasn’t anything to do with me." And he would be quite right.373

Even in the context of a Direct Contact with extraterrestrial life, many writers believe that so much cultural preconditioning has taken place that the event would come as an anticlimax rather than a shock. Ian Ridpath speaks from personal experience:

I recall joining an audience of several hundred people at Caxton Hall, London, in 1973 to hear Duncan Lunan describe what he believed might be a radio message from an alien space probe. The scene reminded me of nothing so much as Professor Challenger’s public address on his return from the Lost World, in Conan Doyle’s book of the same name. The press had heard of Lunan's ideas, and the meeting had been widely publicized. But there was no panic; no hordes tried to force their way in, and the audience remained calm throughout. A similar religious orderliness prevails at UFO group meetings. From this I can only conclude that people are either thoroughly prepared to meet extraterrestrials, or that they don’t believe what they are being told.3257

Still, the social impact of meeting ETs "in the flesh" may be enormous. Public interest certainly will be at a peak.2166 In one of his recent science fiction novels, James P. Hogan describes the scene near a well-publicized first contact site:

A peppering of colors, becoming denser as the hours went by, appeared on the green inland slopes that overlooked Ganyville, as the first spectators arrived and set up camp with tents, sleeping bags, blankets and picnic stoves, determined to secure and hold a grandstand view. A continuous cordon of jovial but overworked policemen, including some from Italy, France and Germany since the numbers of tiny Swiss force were simply not up to the task, maintained a clear zone two hundred meters wide between the rapidly growing crowd and the perimeter fence, while on the lakeward side a flotilla of police launches scurried to and fro to keep at bay an armada of boats, yachts and craft of every description. Along the roadsides an instant market came into being as the more entrepreneurial members of the shopkeeping fraternity from the nearby towns loaded their stocks into trucks and brought the business to where the customers were. A lot of small fortunes were made that day, from selling everything from instant meals and woolly sweaters to hiking boots and high-power telescopes.3518

For weeks or months following the encounter, business worldwide will operate in slow motion due to absenteeism, daydreaming, extended coffee breaks, and higher incidents of industrial accidents. The stock market will fall precipitously for a brief time. Uncertainty, change, and threatened disasters always depress the Dow Jones,1173 but stocks will slowly recover as it is discovered that the aliens represent no serious immediate threat. Selected industries may suffer permanent depression if it appears their product may be rendered obsolete because of an influx of advanced extraterrestrial technology.

Media industries will boom; motion pictures, TV documentaries and interviews, fact books and novelizations, opinion polls, magazine articles, Broadway plays, "Sounds of Space" records, special exhibitions and other events pertaining to the ETs will capture and hold the public attention. Tourism will increase to the locale of the original alien landing site. "Alien jokes" will make the rounds in governmental and business circles; a wealth of "star-slang" should appear; new drinks will be named after the space creatures and their physical attributes; aggressive merchandising will exploit the ready market for ET-oriented toys, games, tee-shirts with catchy slogans, masks, alien dolls, helmets, buttons, bubble gum, bumper stickers, wall posters, models, pendants and rings, articles of clothing, automobile designs, haircuts and toothpaste and "authentic replica" alien artworks, instruments and musical scores.

Fads of imitation may spring up on college campuses and elsewhere in the community especially among younger people who are still searching for an identity. Much like the behavior of the devotees of Star Trek, and the imitative "toga parties" that sprang up across the U.S. following the release of the popular movie "Animal House," fans of the ETs and their culture may try to adopt alien ways, manners of dress, and customs. Some of these may prove particularly offensive to the general American public -- the aliens may have "disgusting" habits, such as that of Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai who is accustomed to drinking his own urine (one 8 oz. glassful each morning) for its supposedly rejuvenative properties.3627 Others may promote détente. According to one "Trekkie" anecdote:

Fanzine publisher Fran Hitchcock was walking past the Soviet embassy in New York City recently when a ball flew over the fence and landed at her feet. As she threw it back, she noticed the waiting boy was wearing a blue Mr. Spock shirt. She made Spock's Vulcan sign for "live long and prosper" (palm facing out, hand split between the middle and fourth finger). Not a word was said but the Russian boy returned the Vulcan greeting.3587

There is a tremendous potential for the enrichment of art, music, dance, literature, architectural design, and other aspects of human culture. A wonderful new richness of experience could be ours. To witness the visual art forms of an alien species that "sees" with sound (such as intelligent extraterrestrial dolphins), the music of sentient creatures that "hear" with scent, or a ballet performance by graceful unjointed multiped alien dancers whose native habitat is three-dimensional (sea or space) could vastly expand the cultural horizons of mankind.

On the other hand, what happens to those artists who desperately want to adopt or mimic alien ways, but are physically incapable of doing so?2929 Weird skeletal structures, metabolisms, and muscle distributions within the body will permit some ETs to see, hear and do many things beyond human abilities. One can imagine severely culture-shocked dancers or painters willingly undergoing delicate, painful and expensive surgery on limbs or eyes in an attempt to emulate the extraterrestrial mode of expression.

The orgiastic frenzied nature of some religious dances such as the Greek Dionysiac rituals have emerged repeatedly throughout history, the most extreme examples being the quasi-religious dance hysterias that broke out during the Middle Ages. Periodically there are outbursts of "primitive" dancing, often touched off, many believe, by contact with some new dance influence. An example in recent times is the strong influence on Europe of North/South American and West Indian dance forms during and after each of the two World Wars. Exhibitions of peculiar alien dances in terrestrial theaters may cause similar effects.

Another response to Direct Contact may be a change in our eating habits. Besides the possibilities of strictly imitative behavior, consumption of meat may fall to an all-time low.2117,712 Human beings, note philosopher Robert Nozick, justify the eating of meat on the grounds that the animals we kill are too far beneath us in sensitivity and intelligence to bear comparison.3202 An encounter with another sentient species will focus attention on interspecies relations and the way we treat other "intelligent" species on this planet -- dolphins, primates, dogs, pigs, goats (we eat them).3380 If representatives of a truly superior extraterrestrial race were to visit Earth and apply the same criterion, they could proceed to eat us in good conscience. That is, if we allow ourselves to dine on the semisentient nonhumans who share our planet with us, what ethical barrier can stand in the way of highly advanced, hungry aliens seeking to augment their otherwise drab starship menu with a side order of hairless-primate meat?2136 There may be a strong resurgence of vegetarianism.

American society may be analytically divided into numerous subcultures, each of which will have its own peculiar reaction to the first contact event. While the exact response will depend heavily upon the nature of the alien, the method of encounter, and the character of the media coverage, a few tentative generalizations may perhaps be offered.

For instance, if the extraterrestrial sociobiology includes within the species a sentient male and a nonsentient female sub-race (like Larry Niven's fictional Kzinti), it is hard to imagine that the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other women’s rights groups would be very happy about it. Violent confrontations with representatives of the alien culture are not inconceivable. On the other hand, aliens with perfect equality among the genders (there may be more than two) or monosexual ETs might be more readily accepted, and could even serve as the basis of a new publicity campaign in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment or other similar political issues of the day. Hermaphroditic, parthenogenetic, and variable-sex aliens would be perplexing and difficult to deal with conceptually by all parties concerned.

Age could be another distinguishing element. Older people grown used to the prospect of imminent death and the expectation of Social Security benefits might resent the appearance of beings who hold out the promise of rejuvenation or medical cures for senescence and aging of which they could not personally partake (because of irreversible prior deterioration). Younger persons would welcome the opportunity to remain youthful forever, creating a new kind of "generation gap".

Diehard football and baseball fans would become incensed when the Super Bowl or the World Series was pre-empted to cover some event involving the aliens. Political activists would resent the government’s preoccupation with the extraterrestrials, believing that the encounter had diverted official attenton from the immediacy of their cause. (Some might turn to terrorism or other extreme tactics to regain the public spotlight.) Devout fundamentalists will curse the "atheists from space" (if the aliens are atheists), or denounce the aliens' own religion as heretical (if the aliens are theists). Industrialists will want to learn how to drill, mine, and mass produce goods more efficiently; environmentalists will want advanced lessons in planetary conservation. Antitechnologists will beg the ETs to keep their mouths shut, but their very arrival will bear testimony to the practicality and utility of high technology for any developing civilization. The space program will be vindicated and funding increases will be authorized without delay by Congress, provided the alien visitors do not preach a message of technological evil.

The ETs may become international celebrities, traveling around the country and the world meeting the public. The author is reminded of film clips of people cheering and chasing after a train, from whose caboose a strange large-eared creature waved a tiny hand and smiled at the crowd. The occasion was "Mickey Mouse’s Fiftieth Birthday," in November 1978. Asked Jack Perkins, an NBC newsman, with unexpected aptness: "Do you know many humans who would draw those kinds of crowds?"

Would new cults and other organizations spring up in response to the presence of the extraterrestrial visitors?262,3628 People who remain skeptical or uncertain as to the reality of the Contact are unlikely to develop a grassroots antigovernment campaign unless there is a clear-cut threat or deprivation to mobilize collective action.3636,3637 At the other end of the "believer" spectrum, however, many existing groups may be preadapted for extreme behavior and may mobilize into action (proselytizing, organizing demonstrations, etc.). The Directory of the Religious Bodies in the United States (Garland,1977) lists twenty-three distinct denominations which originated from purported contacts with beings in flying saucers.

According to the unidentified Yale psychologist who participated in the 1973 study chaired by Leon Festinger:

There are the religious doomsday cults that thrive on flying saucers and little blue humanoids. All the publicity about their "thing," on which they practically held a monopoly until the upcoming TV show, will mobilize them to become more active in making statements to the press; some will predict that the alien civilization will destroy the earth next Tuesday. When their prophecies fail, some of these groups will react the way the doomsday group studied by Festinger, Riecken and Schachter1757 did -- markedly increasing their proselytizing behavior. Other such groups, however, may limit themselves to a "joyous reunion" when their prophecies fail, as did the members of the "Church of the True World" studied by Hardyk and Braden.3576

The proselytizing activity of some of the doomsday groups will be matched and possibly exceeded by that of religious youth groups, like the jesus freaks, who will treat the [Contact] story as a long-awaited sign that superhuman forces are at work in the universe. Many of the people who were impressed by the Chariots of the Gods1326 (the book and the movie) and who are longing for an out-of-this-world hero like the Stranger in a Strange Land2643 will rally to the cause of the blue humanoids and endow them with superhuman loving kindness and messianic qualities. Support for the messianic religious movement -- in the form of joining the group, participating in religious ceremonies, etc. -- will be greatly increased insofar as the authenticity of the aliens is attested to by reputable scientists and political leaders. (A messianic movement in Europe several centuries ago was given just such impetus when leading authorities of the time endorsed the authenticity of the messiah, as described by G. Scholem in Sabbati Sevi.) But the messianic movement may be limited in its appeal, attracting mainly those already predisposed to religious fringe movements. It will have more widespread appeal if the aliens encourage it, directly or indirectly, by claiming that they will help earth people to save themselves from the evils that beset mankind. In this case, a much more popular messianic religious movement is to be expected, especially if it is endorsed by prestigious national leaders.1640

Xenophobia -- the distrust of strangers -- is another likely response by many people. Inhumane attitudes towards human "monsters" and congenital "freaks,"3609 the 17th century public persecutions of suspected witches in Salem, Massachusetts, and countless other episodes of poor treatment of foreigners1846 lead the author to conclude that some will welcome the aliens' arrival with hoots and jeers of derision, open hatred and jealousy, and sadistic plots for exploitation. Will we exhibit the infamous "Cockroach Response", where we try to stamp out an alien creature simply because it is different?720 (Asks Ray Bradbury: "Confronted with beings resembling cockroaches will we pause to consider whether their IQ is 50 or 250? Or will we simply build the grandest shoe in history and stamp them out?"147) According to science fiction writer Katherine MacLean:

When we read the National Geographic on historical fiction, and when we read science fiction we are eager to understand and enjoy the stranger and find adventure in the strange, we change from xenophobes to xenophiles, lovers of the outlandish, finding mental refreshment in the strange universe the world becomes when viewed through strange eyes.

The function of intelligence is to understand, predict, and control the unfamiliar. It enjoys functioning. So we will travel looking for alien races and they will travel looking for us. But when we see each other, interesting differences suddenly become terrifying abnormalities. Surprise becomes fear; fear becomes war.3097

Perhaps it will turn out that there is nothing in the natural world, however strange its appearance may be, that we cannot eventually grow accustomed to.81 But the fear that strangers may pose a threat to native culture is endemic to most societies on Earth.3525 During the 1800's fully one-third of the American population supported "nativist" (xenophobic) movements.1846 When extraterrestrial beings visit Earth, the perceived threat to human culture may become so intense as to impel many to search for a measure of security in organizations promising to perpetuate those traditions we call our own.3643,3344,3610

The Yale psychologist from the Festinger study continues:

If the dissimilaries between the aliens and us are stressed in the mass media, and if the visitors continue to be kept in isolation, and if there are no promises of interaction between mankind and other representatives of the extraterrestrial civilization, then the more hostile type of fringe-group movements will be aided in recruiting more participants. These groups are generally made up of people who have seen better days and who chronically project evil intentions to out-groups. Many of the members seem to be addicted to patriotic fervor, directed against enemies from within and from without, because it provides them with compensatory feelings of restoring their lost status.243,3638 (There may even be plots to abduct and kill the aliens.) But as long as the mass media continue to emphasize the main message of the upcoming TV press conference -- that the aliens are benign, friendly, and cooperative -- the Blue Menace movement is not likely to become anything more than a slightly expanded fringe movement.1640

There is also the distinct possibility that humankind may suffer from the effects of "culture shock" in varying degrees. Culture shock has been described as a profound disorientation suffered by the traveler who has plunged without adequate preparation into an alien culture. There is in any Direct Contact situation the immediate danger that first encounter might wreak such profound changes in terrestrial society that people would become alienated from their own culture.

Anthropologist A.L. Kroeber of the University of California at Berkeley has described the related phenomenon of "cultural fatigue" among the Polynesians of Hawaii. Captain Cook had discovered the islands in the late 16th century, and during this contact the natives had observed the Europeans repeatedly broaching a number of local religious taboos (women could not eat bananas or coconuts, men and women could not take meals together, etc.) without suffering any punishment at the hands of the gods. In 1819, five months before the first missionary landed on the islands, the Hawaiians in a single stroke abolished their religion. Says Kroeber: "The main factor seems to have been a kind of social staleness; the Hawaiians had become disillusioned, and tired of their religion. In addition, the whites enjoyed prestige with their guns, steel tools, and big ships; and, by extension, their only vaguely known religion was probably accounted superior."889 (Margaret Mead has described a similar effect among the Manus in New Guinea.3625)

The less advanced culture involved in the Contact may be subject to peculiar cultural pathologies. The New Guinea Cargo Cults are a familiar example of this.1218,895,3599 After extensive contact with Western culture and artifacts, native islanders developed a powerful conviction that spiritual entities would deliver large cargoes of technological goods into the hands of true believers. Other examples of such retrogressive behavioral systems include the Slave Society of Jamaica,3597 the Peyote Cults and Ghost Dance of certain American Indians,3635,812 the Kingdom of Father Divine,3645 and of destructive potlatch among the Kwakiutl, the aboriginal inhabitants of Vancouver Island in Canada.2581

Is this a likely prospect for Western civilization? Anthropological evidence seems to suggest that such extreme pathologies generally result either from extensive physical contact between disparate cultures, or from territorial expansion by the stronger society, or both. If we are overwhelmed by an aggressive extraterrestrial race, we may see the emergence of cults on Earth which zealously glorify or denigrate our interstellar captors. Furthermore, research shows that millenarian movements, uprisings and cargo cults generally accompany the first stages of culture contact, while political movements and the emergence of churches and separatist sects appear only in more advanced periods of contact.3590

Of course, physical contact and the exchange of artifacts are not essential for cultural response. Although it is probably true that no society has ever been dominated by another solely by radio contact, much of Western civilization is based on ancient Hellenic tradition. Like a kind of Remote Contact, our society today reflects many of the values and principles of an "alien" culture thousands of years, rather than thousands of light-years, distant from us.


Last updated on 6 December 2008