The revelation a while back that Winston Churchill had written a paper on aliens isn’t too surprising.
The great statesman was literate, erudite, deeply interested in history and the sciences, and knew many of the key figures in the British scientific community. What he had to say was very much in line with the thinking of the day – at the same time, the 1930s, young men such as Arthur C. Clarke and the British Interplanetary Society were thinking along the same lines.
Back then the question was whether there were actually extra-solar planets at all. And if there were, did they host life? But it had a twist – one we don’t often realise. The questions were also posed around the unspoken assumption of ‘one planet, one intelligent alien species’.
The idea flows from the old liberal-progressive notion of ‘progress’ as an automatic mechanism and humanity as the pinnacle of that process, somehow separate from and above the plants and animals. In the 1920s and 1930s, certainly popularly, there was the supposition that planetary life ‘evolved’ by some kind of inevitable process from fish to amphibians to reptiles to dinosaurs to mammals and eventually produced the crowning pinnacle of the system, an intelligent species. Preferably Tory, or at least Tory-voting.
These days we know this sort of thinking is dead wrong. The twists and turns taken by complex life on Earth – meaning something larger than a bacterium – are so random at times that we can certainly rule out ‘inevitability’. The whole biota has been smashed up, more than once, by planetary-scale disasters – comet impacts and volcanic activity among them. Each time, life has survived – but its course has been changed.
Put another way, we have a sample size of precisely one, so it’s risky to generalise. Who says that a planet will produce just one intelligent species? Maybe every species on a planet emerges with human-scale intelligence. Or maybe none evolve. After all, who says intelligence is a survival advantage? At the moment, it doesn’t seem to be. Most of the great apes and every species of human so far have died out – Neanderthals, the Red Deer Cave people, Denisovans, the ‘Hobbits’ and so forth – except us. And I’m not too sure about our chances, either, if things keep going as they are.
I figure that once we do find alien life, it’ll be like nothing we imagined. And that includes the nature of any intelligence. Just as we’ve often imagined ‘aliens’ as being, in effect, mirror images of ourselves, we usually also suppose that ‘their’ intelligence will express itself like ours – inquisitive, actively seeking to expand the boundaries of knowledge and exploration – but will it? Who says ‘their’ intelligence will be like ‘ours’ at all? It might be so different we don’t even recognise it as such, or view the products of their intellect as a ‘civilisation’.
We might, indeed, have already found the aliens – and not realised it.
If you want to check out my take on aliens, go grab my sci-fi novella ‘Missionary’, available in print and as Kindle download in the first Endless Worlds anthology.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017