Friday, February 23, 2018


I came across a bit of research lately fromArizona State University that predicts humans would react positively if we were suddenly to encounter extraterrestrial life.

According to findings of a study ASU Assistant Professor of Psychology Michael Varnum, "If we came face to face with life outside of Earth, we would actually be pretty upbeat about it." Of course, what Varnum told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science February 16 in Austin, Texas, flies in the face of the majority of Hollywood movies, most hard SF novels and one hundred percent of video games. Only a few SFR novelists would agree with him, I think.

Varnum’s research considered newspaper articles reporting on the 2017 discovery of Earth-like exoplanets in the “Goldilocks Zone,” the public speculation as to the possible existence of a Dyson sphere around Tabby’s Star in 2015, and news of possibly fossilized extraterrestrial Martian microbes discovered in 1996. In all the articles, the study found, the language used to describe the events was much more positive than negative.

In a second part of the study, Varnum asked 500 participants to predict their own and humanity’s theoretical reaction to the announcement that extraterrestrial microbes had actually been found. Again, Varnum found the predicted response to be overwhelmingly positive.

"I would have some excitement about the news," one study participant said. "It would be exciting even if it was a primitive form."

Hmm. Why do I think this study paints far too rosy a picture of human nature? Seems to me we can’t even conquer our fear of each other, much less of the unknown extraterrestrial alien. Then, too, this image of the classic 1951 SF film THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is indelibly etched in my mind:

Our ambivalence toward both the Other and the Wonders of Science was eloquently expressed even in the very first science fiction novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Woolstonecraft Shelley. I’ve been renewing my acquaintance with that most complex and evocative work through a new series on Netflix (my new favorite channel!), TheFrankenstein Chronicles. 

The series stars Sean Bean (LORD OF THE RINGS, Game of Thrones) as a detective of the Thames River Police, charged with solving the murder of eight children stitched together in a gruesome parody of surgery just as Parliament is taking up a new bill governing the practice of medicine in 1827. The new bill would restrict the practice of medicine only to “surgeons” (those who have been to anatomical medical school), and would limit the source of bodies for anatomical study to the dead of poorhouses and prisons. 

From our modern point of view this would seem to be a progressive move, but in those days, midwives, herbalists and physicians who had learned their trade by apprenticing also provided health care to both rich and poor. “Surgery,” on the other hand, was performed without anesthesia (ether wasn’t used until 1842) or even simple hygiene. Remember, this is before germ theory, and conditions in hospitals were a nightmare. (Lister and Pasteur wouldn’t come along for another 50 years.)

But the biggest controversy over the Anatomy Act centered on the source of bodies for the medical schools. Religious people in those days believed that they would literally rise from their graves on Judgment Day to meet their Maker. In order for this to happen, they had to be intact at death. Thus, the idea of autopsy for any purpose was anathema. All very well for a criminal to serve the purpose of science—he or she had earned Hell. But for a pauper to be cut up (and be denied Heaven) simply because he had died in the poorhouse?

This is the cultural background for The Frankenstein Chronicles, and, coincidentally, for the publication and scandal of Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818. No wonder her book caused such a sensation! The thought of a creature made up of bits and pieces of dead bodies, then re-animated, truly would have been an abomination in that time. And we all know the reaction to that:

Our modern-day misgivings about gene-splicing, genetically-modified organisms, cloning and stem cells derive from these earlier horrified reactions to the idea that humans would dare to interfere with the course of Nature in defiance of God. (Or, as I once saw on the side of a bush taxi in West Africa, Man No Be God.)  We may think of ourselves as more evolved nowadays, but those more primitive instincts still lurk in our psyches.

Just as we harbor a primitive fear of the unknown, the Other that an Extraterrestrial would represent. Stephen Hawking, arguably the smartest man on Earth, says we are right to be afraid; any alien that makes it here from deep space will be so much further advanced than we are that it will consider us as insignificant as ants. You know what happens then.

Cheers, Donna

*Information for this post taken from "Humans Will Actually React Pretty Well to News of Alien Life," Science Daily, February 16, 2018.


  1. I'm inclined to agree with you Donna. Tribalism and fear are a nasty mix. And if the aliens are anything like us, we'd be right to be afraid.

  2. Fascinating blog, Donna.

    "Seems to me we can’t even conquer our fear of each other, much less of the unknown extraterrestrial alien."

    Amen to that. I think we could only hope that any intelligent alien species we encounter that's capable of reaching us across the vast expanses of space does NOT share the same tendencies that we do. Or maybe they've already discovered our war-torn and environmentally ravaged little planet, and decided to give humans a very wide berth. In the same way we might avoid a colony of fire arts.


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