Monday, August 24, 2009

Talking to aliens

When I was at High School we had assembly every day. The whole school assembled in the hall and sang hymns, listened to a Bible reading and joined in prayers followed by the headmistress reading out school notices. I used to sit cross-legged on the floor in my school uniform wondering what it was like in the French schools during assembly and what their school uniforms looked like. What I didn't know was that French schools don't have anything resembling assembly and the children don't wear uniform.

I can't help thinking that when we write science fiction about aliens we are just as blinkered as I was then. Take for example:
At least one species, the Manti, were found to be intelligent. [...] Within several months of first contact, the scientists were able to develop a common language with the Mandi.
(From Conundrum on Titan by Patricia Stewart on 365 Tomorrows.)

I'm not sure that I can believe that if we find creatures that are less intelligent than we are that we will manage to find a common language. We don't seem to have done very well with chimps or bonobos and we certainly don't treat any Earth animals as intelligent beings on a level with ourselves.

If we meet aliens that are more intelligent than us, I wonder if they will treat us as we do the chimps, yet this is assuming that their culture is in many ways similar to ours. Somehow that feels rather like wondering what hymns the French children sing in assembly.


JaneyV said...

We didn't waste school time with assembly in Ireland either. We did have Masses on feast days (I went to a Jesuit school) but the Head did the daily announcements over the tannoy system which generally just took a couple of minutes.

If we met a more primitive alien race it could only be because we visited their planet (obviously if they visited us they'd be more advanced as we can't travel that far in space yet). As this hasn't happened yet I would hope that there would be a system of protocol put in place for just such an occurrence. For instance should a planet's most intelligent species be similar (in IQ) to a chimp - ie having an established societal system and rudimentary tools, I can't imagine there would be any attempt to communicate. I expect they'd be studied - as would the rest of the planets systems. If however they were more evolved - similar to cavemen-possessing language (however simple) and writing (cave drawings?) I suspect that there would be a policy of non-interference. I think that would be the only ethical thing to do.

As for the more intelligent aliens - we get down to what if any system of ethics they may have. They may see us as immature children - or food!

Wouldn't it be great if we did get to the stage where a system of space ethics had to be put in place? I wonder if they'd call it the Prime Directive?

fairyhedgehog said...

I can't help feeling that we're somehow hypocritical in wanting equal rights with more intelligent beings but refusing to confer those rights on animals that don't have our level of intelligence. I sure hope aliens wouldn't consider us as food although that seems entirely possible.

I would love there to be a Prime Directive. I hope they'd choose a Jean-Luc Picard type to lead the way and not someone like that horrible Janeway.

JaneyV said...

I think right now at this point in our evolution, humans are terrible hypocrites. I would like to think that we will evolve further and become more respectful of the species that we inhabit this planet with. My first instinct would be to stop immediately animal testing which is (IMHO) utterly barbaric. I hope that future generations will look back on this time and feel utterly perplexed. I hope that it wouldn't even occur to them to treat animals - and the planet in general, the way we have.

Was Janeway horrible? I don't remember her actually bothering me - but she was a bit "meh". But Jean Luc - I feel all aflutter just thinking about him - flawed, passionate, brave and deeply moral.

We'd be in good hands with him. ;0)

fairyhedgehog said...

I'm completely with you on animal testing and there are alternatives.

I found Janeway abrasive and her voice grating. Whereas I very much like your idea of being in the good hands of Jean-Luc. He always seemed so very civilised. And dreamy. Oops, sorry, I meant brave and deeply moral, of course.

JaneyV said...

Dreamy? -absafragginloootly.

I'd even venture to say 'hot'.

McKoala said...

Did you ever wonder about assembly in Scotland? I can tell you about that foreign land... OK, it was once a week and apart from the accent it wasn't so different from yours!

fairyhedgehog said...

Jane, oh yes!

McK, I thought about France because I was learning French. They didn't teach us Scottish.

Whirlochre said...

I read somewhere about a scientific theory proposing that aliens will look like us, though I can't remember where or why. I think there may be a book by that title — Aliens Will Look Like Us — but despite Googling, haven't tracked it down.

Presumably this means that when aliens finally arrive, they'll consider me so useless I'll be spared, and somebody else will have to be eaten.

Adam Heine said...

Interesting post. I'd think if aliens were more intelligent than us, we'd be able to find some way to communicate, but you have a good point. What if they are so different from us that the mere concept of communication is irrelevant? What if they could only communicate via (for example) smell, and had no oral or gestural capabilities (not enough for language anyway)? It might be impossible.

Dang I love sci-fi. Where else do you get to think of stuff like this in all seriousness?

Bevie said...

Reading history, people don't seem to have changed much in five or six thousand years, so I very much doubt we'll be anything other than what we are should we reach the place where we travel to other planets.

If that happens, God help whatever living creatures/beings are there for, prime directive or not, we'll treat them all like possessions. Even Jean-Luc violated the prime directive when it suited him.

More likely, we would find ourselves like James T Kirk, who seemed to believe our way of living/thinking should be imposed on all other living things in the universe.

I guess I'm just cynical.

Sophie in the Moonlight said...

As a kid in the U.S. we had assembly every morning. We had to stand up, hand over heart, and say the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, sing a patriotic song or too, and then listen to the principal or teacher blab for a bit. If one didn't insert the under God bit in "one nation under God", then the child was ostracized and called a commie and worse. The whole separation of church and state continues to be a bit murky over here. Other continues to be viewed with suspicion and hatred and we can't even give equal rights to our LGBT brothers and sisters.

I hope that whichever alien race that decides to land on Earth lands across the pond. Y'all will be much more reasonable in dealing with any differences. Not perfect, but more reasonable for sure.

Robin B. said...

What a wonderful way to put this, FH!

Adam Heine said...

Sophie, you probably would've died in my elementary school. In addition to the American flag, we pledged allegiance to the Bible and the Christian Flag (yeah, there is one) every morning. Of course it was a private Christian school, so the separation of C&S was covered.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Pledge of Allegiance, check. Prayer? Can't remember.

Jean-Luc Picard? Double check. Even I think he's dreamy. I'd sit and listen to him talk for hours. I know. Exactly what you'd do, too.

We have taught gorillas and dolphins some sign language. Not sure if anyone's tried it with chimps, but I think they might have. Not like this research is getting much notice though.

Stacy said...

If we meet aliens that are more intelligent than us, I wonder if they will treat us as we do the chimps, yet this is assuming that their culture is in many ways similar to ours. Somehow that feels rather like wondering what hymns the French children sing in assembly.

Well, you know, just in case, there's always this:

fairyhedgehog said...

Whirl, the theory that aliens will look like us doesn't sound very scientific to me but I'm glad to know you won't get eaten.

Adam, I wonder if you could use smell as a language. It's a good idea for a story.

Bevie, you're not saying that Jean-Luc was other than perfect? Shame on you! Sadly, I think you're right though and our record doesn't bode well for the future.

Sophie, I've never understood the separation of church and state in the US. I wonder if it would be different over here if it happened as we're mostly pretty secular anyway. Thanks for the vote of confidence in us over here!

Robin, Thanks!

Sarah, I think they've taught dolphins to understand some communication but I don't know if it goes both ways. Chimps I think can use sign language. I get the impression that it's all rather basic, though, at about two year old human level.

stacy, what a very useful book. it has tips on Mental Struggle, Physical Struggle, Protective Rage and Repellents. I wonder what they use as a repellent. Maybe Whirl can give us some tips as he's sure he won't be eaten.

Lisa said...

Yes, you raise some good points.
Imagine if the aliens are peaceful vegeterians, we might appear pretty darn barbarian!

fairyhedgehog said...

That's a good point, Lisa. I wonder what they'd do.

Richard N said...

Of course, everybody is assuming 'the aliens' will be some form of animal 'as we would recognise it'... but what if they're something a bit more 'alien', which we may recognise as a plant rather than an animal?

Or what if we don't even recognise that they're alive at all because they're on such a different scale to us, either physically or temporally?

Who says they need to have a body at all?
Some humans claim to have figured ways to leave theirs, and generally we don't believe them... however, what if they're actually right and some species have evolved beyond the need for any 'physical presence' at all?

Just my two-pennorth. ;-)

fairyhedgehog said...

Those are all good points, Richard, and give a lot of scope for writing different kinds of science fiction aliens.

Ana said...

Sounds like most memorable assembly days. I think the unknown has somewhat turned into the expectant known in this world. It's like humans need to make certain of what everything is, before acknowledging the very existence of it, thus bypassing what it could actually be. It is the same with ghosts. There is a lot than meets the eye, because it is in the eye.

I think Richard N raises a good point in regards to human experience, and doubt. We need to understand that just because, an 'alien' so to speak doesn't fit into the set criteria, it doesn't make it less believable. That is the same with human experience. Just because we don't experience it ourselfs, doesn't mean it is our place to disbelieve those who have.

(I have had an outer body experience, but that is not as what it seems-not in the criteria that everyone seems to believe in anyway)

Thanks for stopping by my blog, and your most encouraging and grateful words. :)

fairyhedgehog said...

Hi Ana, I don't disbelieve other people's experiences but I am aware that I may interpret them differently from the person who has had them. We all see things differently.

I'm glad you found my comment on your blog to be encouraging. It is a very beautiful blog.

David said...

Unfortunately, I don't know any real life historical precedent for anything like a prime directive.

Hopefully we won't be digestible to anything which didn't evolve to eat us.

I actually wrote a short story, one of several on hold while I finish my first novel, where aliens want to economically exploit Earth, the solar system, and humans. They don't do anything crass, like bomb us or threaten to conquer us. They hide in the asteroid belt for a few decades, learn our languages from radio and television transmissions. Then they get the nations of Earth competing for Octoid friendship and technology.

fairyhedgehog said...

Hi David! I'm afraid you're right about the prime directive. Most of history is the exact opposite of that.

Your story sounds interesting. What very subtle aliens.

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