Anthropologists explain how to approach aliens parked in Earth orbitS

It happens all the time in science fiction stories: aliens park their vessels in Earth orbit, and things go pear-shaped. But what if this scenario unfolded in real life? What would be the best thing for us to do? We asked several anthropologists the best way to go about communicating with truly unknown life forms.

For this thought experiment, you have to imagine a ship has parked in orbit, but has not shown any signs of hostility. It's just sitting there. So what do we do next? More importantly, what would be an ideal, ethical response, rather the fist-in-tentacles response Will Smith made famous in Independence Day?

This very question has been a topic at the annual CONTACT conference for twenty-five years running. Anthropologist Jim Funaro, who founded the conference, said anthropologists are ideal consultants for extraterrestrial communication:

Because of their century of experience in “intraterrestrial” fieldwork and their commitment to a multicultural approach, anthropologists may be the most appropriately-trained scientists to inform protocol for, and initiate encounters in, contact situations whenever and wherever they occur. A primary rule in ethnographic field work: Make no assumptions.

In other words, we first need to keep a completely open mind, and not assume anything about the aliens' culture and preferred methods of meeting new life forms.

Debbora Battaglia, an anthropology professor at Mt. Holyoke College, has studied how humans deal with ideas of the "alien," including extraterrestrials. She told io9 that if she had to sum up the best ethical response in one word it would be "hospitality." Humans should extend hospitality to the visitors as we would "to any alien entity, including the human variety illegal alien." She also speculated about some of the kinds of communication we need to prepare for:

Send a linguistic anthropologist to learn to communicate — the visitors might be nonhumans, so the anthropologist might need to crack the code of, say, jellyfish communication: this is the shape we'd take to be best adapted to long duration space travel. Jellyfish have decentralized nervous systems and "see" with their tentacles, so perhaps we'd need to translate their nonverbal language.

Then determine what they know that we don't about the pluriverse by asking them what they most want to know about us.

So don't assume that our aliens will speak or write. They may use signaling systems that we barely recognize.

David Graeber, an anthropologist and author of the bestselling book Debt: The First 5,000 Years, amplified Battaglia's points about difficulties with language. He told io9:

We simply have no idea how different they'd really be. Probably different in ways we couldn't imagine. I remember hearing [linguist Noam] Chomsky remark once that maybe one day we'll be able to see all human languages as dialects of a single language, and at first that seemed absurd, and then I thought, well, anyone who speaks Chinese can learn Quechua and vice versa, but look at dolphins - they seem to have some kind of language but despite 50 years of study we haven't even been able to figure out the units. And they're at least on the same planet. Who even knows what alien forms of communication might consist of? For all we know there are aliens monitoring us now but have made no contact because they're similarly unable to figure out our language. So I'd imagine that we'd probably have to just hope they're way smarter than we are, at least in this capacity, and would kick things off themselves.

Given these limitations, Funaro said that one possible way to communicate with the aliens would be to "perform," or act out how humans talk to each other:

One technique we have found helpful in CONTACT’s 25 years of ET contact scenarios: The value of “performances” in order to communicate to an alien sentient species, without a common language, our expected or acceptable norms of behavior – ethics, if you will. By playing out these simulations – of course, taking into account the sensory modalities of the ETs – we were able to dramatize situations with preferred or alternative outcomes – what we think is fair – and provide a possible and safe context for their response.

So instead of trying to talk to the ETs, we'd show them how we talk to each other and hope it makes some sense. This is actually not unlike what Ted Chiang imagines in his incredible short story "Story of Your Life," where humans meet aliens whose language is so perplexing that linguists can only figure it out by watching them speak and write to each other.

Other anthropologists expressed extreme skepticism that we'd ever encounter a scenario like the one I described. Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist at York University, has devoted considerable time to pondering how humans approach space exploration and the search for alien life. "I think the scenario is very unlikely," she told io9.

She added:

If a fleet of alien ships did actually materialize in low Earth orbit, I think the question of what "we" "should" do would be moot, because governments and corporations with spaceships, satellites, anti-sat weapons, and space stations, would be acting in what they reckoned to be their own best interests. Of course they should all have xenoanthropologists on their staff, just in case, but they probably wouldn't. (Or maybe I've just missed the job ads.)

Denning said that one part of the scenario that seemed particularly unbelievable to her was that humans could actually get their collective act together and behave well with another species from space. In email, she wrote:

In a perfect future where there was stable world peace and prosperity and some kind of international council of experts whose authority was uncontested and which made decisions about space which made everybody happy (and I can hear the gnashing of teeth of those who find such a concept repugnant because they prefer the notion of unfettered free enterprise in space) and thus we would all sit down to have a nice calm chat about what we should do about the aliens who have just appeared... and that just about sounds even less likely than the aliens showing up, doesn't it?.... well... I think we'd probably want to indicate to the alien ships that we were aware of their presence and receptive to communication from them, and then let them take it from there. If they've showed up on our doorstep, they would presumably know something of us already, and would presumably have some pretty fancy technology that outstrips our own (i.e. we don't have interstellar flight capability), so to a certain extent, the ball would be in their court. We could just put a ship or two of our own near them, and wait. Hopefully we could choose positioning that wouldn't look overtly threatening. If they signalled in some way, of course we'd want to have plenty of experts in signal processing, cryptography and linguistic analysis working on it, but unless they had already studied us and were trying very hard to make things clear for us, there would likely be ambiguity in any communication.

Douglas Raybeck, an anthropologist at Hamilton College, agreed with Denning that aliens parking in orbit was about as plausible as Earth people deciding to do the right thing by them:

What should happen and what is likely to happen are dramatically different prospects. If they are in orbit above us, that indicates a greatly superior technology. In order to get here, they would have to violate what we know about the speed of light, or they would have had to make a journey of almost unimaginable duration. If they have not made any hostile moves, we have to assume that their intentions are benign. Unfortunately, this will not prevent rampant paranoia from becoming part of the national posture of the United States and other countries. That which is new and that which we do not understand is fearful.

Like Funaro, Raybeck thinks that we'd want our alien translators to be anthropologists, science fiction writers, linguists, and others who have experience thinking outside the box about culture. But, he scoffed, "the likelihood of government officials listening to, let alone heeding the advice of such folk approaches the nano level."

Still, Raybeck did think there was a likely avenue of communication with the aliens:

They have arrived likely because they spotted one of our many technological signatures ranging from radio, television, radar, to elements in our atmosphere such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and a slew of other undesirables that indicate the presence of technological civilizations. In all likelihood, they will have already monitored our varied broadcasts and will likely be actively doing so in real-time to assess our response to their appearance. Ideally, we would broadcast through the radio and television messages of welcome by a range of world leaders possibly from the United Nations giving the illusory sense that we can speak with one voice and a common purpose.

Though the UN does have a council for dealing with outer space issues, CONTACT founder Funaro was as dubious as Denning and Raybeck when it came to the "illusory sense" that there is anything like a representative of humanity. He wasn't sure if it would ever be possible for real humans to meet these extraterrestrials:

Who speaks for Earth? No doubt, supposedly international groups like the United Nations, a superpower or coalition thereof or multinational corporations would attempt to preempt negotiations with diverse motivations, bedeviled by hackers using various electronic media. The typical human beings, true representatives of our species, are unlikely to have any say in the encounter, submerged as they are in the political, economic and social infrastructure of nation-states and globalization. Thus, the true multicultural diversity of our species may not be initially apparent to the new arrivals.

Here Funaro highlights a common complaint made about science fiction, which is the idea that there could ever be such a thing as a unified "planetary culture." Many SF stories assume that every planet has a single culture, despite evidence to the contrary on our own world. It's possible that aliens will make the same mistake with us. Or, even if they don't, they will never be given a chance to investigate human diversity because they will only be granted audiences with the rich and powerful.

As we think about the most ethical way to approach alien visitors, it's useful to keep Battaglia's single word — "hospitality" — in mind. As she pointed out, this is how humans should greet each other too, but we rarely do. It's no wonder that so many of our fantasies about alien first contact are full of war and destruction. But that's why we need to start re-imagining these scenarios now, and trying to come up with better alternatives. After all, we don't need to meet aliens to start testing out what it would mean to approach an unknown culture with hospitality rather than hostility. We can start right here, on Earth.

Annalee Newitz is the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Pre-order a copy today!