In “The UFO Question (Part 1): NASA, Harvard, and the Pentagon are all taking UFOs seriously now,” we discussed new initiatives aimed at studying the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, as well as new investigations pertaining to UFOs mounted, often in secret, by governmental agencies.
Then, in “The UFO Question (Part 2): The Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox,” we compared Drake’s estimates regarding the number of alien civilizations that could be expected to develop within our own galaxy to Fermi’s assertion that we’re likely alone because we have yet to hear or see any other forms of intelligent life.
Most recently, in “The UFO Question (Part 3): If aliens are out there, why can’t we hear them?” we addressed the two suppositions our search for alien life has thus far been based on: that a galaxy lousy with alien life would result in evidence we’re able to detect and that aliens capable of traveling through the massive expanse of space would be interested in meeting us. We then addressed the issues with the first of those two suppositions.
The second supposition our hunt for alien life has been based on that we’re addressing is the idea that aliens would engage with us if they saw us. Unfortunately, this one is equally as baseless in science. Here on earth, we coexist with literally millions of other species and, to date, we haven’t been able to effectively communicate with any of them.
We share a great deal of DNA, a mutual home world, similar diets and even invite some of these species to live in our homes and become parts of our families… but we’re no closer today to teaching a dog to talk than we were a thousand years ago. Inter-species communication just isn’t something we’re good at — or potentially something anyone could be for that matter.
Neil Degrasse Tyson once took a question from an audience member at an event about alien life, and to paraphrase his argument, he explained that humans and chimpanzees have identical DNA save that last 1% that differentiates our species from one another. In that 1%, you’ll find the entirety of human capacity for tool usage, flight, radio communications, space travel and Tinder. Everything that makes us human, that elevates us above the intellectual capacity of our ape cousins, falls within that tiny genetic difference.
If we were to encounter another species that also shared nearly identical DNA with us humans but that was only that 1% more capable of advancements than we… they would likely perceive us in much the same way we perceive chimps: adorably similar, perhaps — but lacking in the intellect required to engage as peers. And that’s if we had that much in common to start with.
Instead, an advanced alien species would be more likely to treat us like we treat animals in the savanna’s of Africa. When human scientists want to tranquillize a rhino to put a tracking device on its back, we don’t land our helicopters in the middle of the herd and request an audience with their leader. We shoot one with a dart from the sky, do as we see fit, and then re-release the rhino. It’s up to that rhino to make sense of its experience. If they were able to tell one another stories, other rhinos may not believe what happened, but some would bolster the claims with their own sightings of strange crafts in the sky that make a thunderous noise and are full of weird white-skinned bipedal creatures.
The simple truth is, we can’t find any common form of communication with species we evolved alongside and share a genetic lineage with, and often, we don’t even perceive less developed creatures as worthy of an effort toward engaging in communications at all. We walk past ant hills with same disregard advanced alien species may have as they fly past planets like earth: so inconsequential and common, there’s really no use in spending the afternoon trying to shake hands with their queen.
So, if the building blocks of life are indeed incredibly common, and it’s unlikely we possess the technology required to eavesdrop on their communications or the mental capacity to engage with them directly if we were to end up face to face, a somewhat reasonable argument can be formed. If UFOs really are visiting earth, they’re likely relatively uncommon (like an entomologist at an ant hill), they potentially don’t see us as a species they could even try to communicate with, and their technology would likely be so advanced it would be difficult to differentiate from magic — or science fiction — for most of us.
In a way, that sums up the past 75 or so years of America’s fascination with flying saucers.
Ultimately, we’re no closer to answering the UFO question today than we were back when we called them Foo Fighters during World War II, but in terms of our species’ history — that’s a pretty brief effort. In terms of our planet’s history, it’s not even the blink of an eye — and in terms of the universe’s history, all of human civilization is so tiny it falls in the margin for statistical error. Answers to the hardest questions can’t always be found so soon and it may take some time before we’re equipped to even ask the right ones.
Because, for now, the view is pretty limited from our ant hill.
Feature image courtesy of NASA