Assortments of Thought

Barriers Beyond Contact

Posted on: January 5th, 2011

Formal contact with an extraterrestrial species remains one of the most tantalizing possibilities today. While everyone can’t agree on the desirability of such contact, nearly everyone agrees on how significant it would be, for the grand question of our uniqueness in the universe would be answered. Yet it’s possible and perhaps even likely that contact is about as much as we might achieve with an alien civilization, let alone social relations, because the barriers may be too great. Whether they’re out there isn’t the problem; the size and age of the universe guarantees us that. Rather, the problems of contact hinge on how widespread such civilizations are, and whether they have the technology to find and travel to us. For establishing and maintaining social relationships, however, the potential barriers are far greater. Not only could individuals of an alien species require radically different environmental conditions than we do, their varying biological senses and psychologies could present them with vastly different perceptions and understandings of the world, while mismatches of cognitive and linguistic abilities could present problems as well. Even assuming then that a given civilization was at all like ours, which is to say, not so scientifically advanced that we’d have trouble relating to or even fathoming it, we could still be different in ways that would preclude or at least greatly hinder social relationships. Thus the problem in notions of an eventual inter-species community is probably not whether extraterrestrials exist or whether we’ll eventually make contact, but rather that contact may never lead to meaningful social relationships.

There is no doubt that intelligent extraterrestrials exist, because the universe is simply too vast. Indeed, our own galaxy contains at least 200 billion stars, and although the number of planets as yet remains unknown, it must be very, very large, on the order of billions at least. (See the Wikipedia article “Extrasolar Planet,” sec. 5.1, para. 3). Further, there are billions of galaxies besides our own, and the universe itself is over 10 billion years old, more than enough time for stars and planetary systems to have come and gone, and thus for civilizations to have risen and fallen. When these extreme dimensions of both space and time are taken into account, the chance that we are unique becomes virtually nothing. Consider, for instance, that if there were exactly 100 billion stars per galaxy and 100 billion galaxies, then if only 0.0000001 percent of the resulting 100 * 100 billion stars had planets with advanced life, then there’d be 0.001 billion such civilizations, or 1,000,000 of them. While I’ll grant this example calculation is very rough, partly because I’m not versed in universal studies enough to know the numbers offhand, the point is clear. With billions and billions of stars across billions of years, no matter how rare life is, it has to have arisen several times, and at any given time, possibly many times, including now.

Certainty that extraterrestrial civilizations exist doesn’t mean however that we’ll eventually make contact, or, even more doubtfully, come to share meaningful relationships with them, because so many barriers exist that may preclude those things. Contact, for instance, may be unlikely depending on how prevalent advanced life is, and how feasible the technology is for interstellar travel. Although certain to exist then, first, advanced life may be too rare to be anywhere around us. Its prevalence depends on questions we can’t as yet answer, such as how life forms in the first place, why intelligent life evolves, and what “ingredients” are necessary for it. Needless to say, the more specific the requirements, as in the more Earth-like a planet must be in composition and relation to its star, the rarer life must be. On the other hand, if life can develop under varied Earth-like conditions, and even under non-Earth conditions, possibly operating with alternative biochemistries, then it may be much more common. Certainly then a high prevalence of Earth-like planets would bolster the chances for life, since we know from our own existence that Earth-like planets can give rise to intelligent life, but even that prevalence remains unknown, so we know very little of how common intelligent life is. It might be worth noting here that despite the common supposition that life needs carbon and water to exist, and certain temperatures and such, that could very well not be true. Simply put, if life can manage to form on a planet, by that point, evolution by natural selection will do everything it possibly can to sustain it, using whatever resources the planet has to offer. So although certain ingredients may be better suited to life, others may still work, and the big factor would then be how life forms in the first place, not what ingredients are available to it. In any case, the first barrier to contact is simply that alien civilizations may not be widespread.

The next problem is that aliens may not have the technology to reach us, or else may not be able to easily find us. Partly this is an offshoot of the rarity possibility, for the rarer advanced civilizations are, the further away they would likely be, and the harder it would be for them to find us. Imagine, for instance, that a given civilization has no problems whatsoever with deep space travel, yet they live, say, just 1000 light years away. (Which isn’t too far, considering that our galaxy is about 100,000 light years across; that’s 1% of the galactic diameter, roughly average spacing if there were even 100 civilizations in our galaxy.) In spite of their travel capabilities, finding us would require an immense search effort, across hundreds of light years of barren space, possibly to every star and every planet in-between. And that’s assuming deep space travel was both possible and easy for them, for although science fiction would lead us to believe that the technology’s just waiting to be discovered, maybe that’s not the case. The light-speed barrier certainly seems absolute, for instance, not to mention the problems of relativity, and navigating through space at high speeds. Granted, the solution may lie with some form of warp drive, in which ships remains nearly stationary while the space around them contracts or expands, thus considerably “shortening” the amount of space to be traveled. In such a way, relativity problems are avoided, as is the light-speed barrier. Whether warp or other space-manipulating technologies are possible remains, however, a big theoretical question. Thus the second barrier to contact, partly an offshoot of the rarity possibility, is that aliens may not be able to travel to or easily find us.

Then after the foregoing barriers to contact, another set arises regarding the establishment of meaningful relationships, barriers that are perhaps even more significant. First consider, for instance, that our biology could be too different from a given extraterrestrial species’ to enable our mutual presence in an environment, at least without technological assistance, either in the long term or even at all. Indeed, any species is adapted to the environment in which they’ve evolved, including atmospheric composition, gravity level, light conditions, temperature, and so on, plus the elements that were available for building life in the first place, and these would likely vary even for aliens from Earth-like planets. It would be hazardous, for example, for us to spend much time in an environment with stronger gravity, higher solar radiation, or less than about 20% oxygen, lower oxygen density, or the presence of toxic gases, even if the environment was otherwise very Earth-like. Something likewise could be true for an alien species as well. Further, suppose a given species came from an Earth-like planet, but evolved, say, in their ocean. It could be difficult for them just to come on land (assuming their planet had land), much less spend significant time there, just as it would be difficult for us to spend lengthy amounts of time underwater. Finally, suppose a given species evolved with a different biochemistry, possibly using ammonia rather than water as a solvent, for instance, or something even more radical. In that case, there would be a chance that we couldn’t be in the same environment at all, for fear of immediate harm in the form of either us chemically reacting with it. (It turns out then that one factor bolstering the prevalence of life, alternate biochemistries, might also make social contact more difficult.) Of course, environmental suits could mitigate these biological barriers, or at least many of them, but the fact remains that life is optimized for the environment in which it evolves, and so spending time in another could be a hassle at best, and impossible at worst. Thus the first barrier to social relationships with aliens is the inevitable mismatches of biology and environment that could make it difficult for us to spend time together.

Even if living requirements could be handled, however, a deeper problem arises in that a given extraterrestrial species could have very different perceptions of and ways of interacting with the world, leaving us with little or no common social and cultural basis. Indeed, consider that as different as our own cultures are, with differing values and whatnot, at least everyone shares the same senses, perceptions, and fundamental experiences. As well, we can speak each others’ languages if only we try, while we in general share the same level of cognitive ability and thus understanding. Between two species, however, the differences could be far greater, such that society and the world would be fundamentally different places to each of us. First, a given species could simply be on average more intelligent, perhaps enough to hinder equal relationships with them. Second, their senses could provide them with a different perception of the world, one that we couldn’t share just as they couldn’t share ours. This is perhaps a subtle point, but while a being relies on senses to perceive the world, those same senses provide only one of an infinite number of renditions of the world. See my post “Internal Realities” for a thorough explanation of this, but the idea is that while we take our perceptions of light, sound, touch, and such for granted, a given alien species could perceive those physical qualities differently, leaving them with a rather distinct view of the world. Finally, while our cultural understandings and values differ, at least we share the same psychology, such that beneath the differences, a significantly common core exists. With a given alien species, however, our cultural differences would be grounded only in the common psychological elements of being intelligent life-forms, truly greater gaps to bridge than we have between our own cultures. If we struggle sometimes then to bridge our own cultural gaps (or, presumably, a gender gap between women and men), then imagine the challenges in maintaining equal social relationships with extraterrestrials. Thus while it is impossible to say how such differences would affect our relations with aliens, the potential is clearly there for such differences to present the biggest obstacle yet.

One final barrier is that any extraterrestrial species is likely to be far more advanced than us, and that could challenge our societies even as it precluded us from holding equal status in relationships. Indeed, particularly before we’ve mastered interstellar travel, any aliens we meet would likely be scientifically ahead of us not only in space travel, but in energy generation, medicine, and fundamental physics knowledge and such as well. It’s natural that we would seek such knowledge from alien visitors, yet once we did, we’d both face a quandary. We probably wouldn’t like it if aliens denied us advanced technologies, technologies that could solve our energy problems, eradicate many of our health issues, or enable us to travel through space, yet aliens probably wouldn’t want to just give us such technology either. Indeed, if we received such technological advances without having worked for them, it’s possible that we wouldn’t be ready for the fundamental transformations our societies would undergo, while the aliens could fear both for how we might use the technology, and whether it’d be right to so drastically alter our ways of life. (After all, would we go to an uncontacted people here on Earth, and freely give them cars, cell phones, computers, and our general way of life?) And this is all assuming a given species was just a little ahead of us, and not so far progressed that we could hardly even fathom them. Consider, for instance, that once a species develops biotechnology to a certain point, they can literally redesign themselves at the genetic level, and thereby free themselves entirely from evolution’s grasp. They could greatly boost their intelligence, redesign their bodies to suit their purposes, and in all likelihood, spread themselves throughout regions in space in many forms, thereby making themselves immortal. (For such an advanced species, there’s the possibility of developing and migrating to mechanical bodies as well). Although we ourselves are progressing in genetics and biotechnology, we certainly haven’t taken our evolution solely into our own hands yet or immortalized ourselves in any way, and so in relation to a species that has, we would be at a great disadvantage regarding an equal relationship. Thus the final barrier to meaningful relationships with extraterrestrials is that our scientific gap could be so great as to sustain a power imbalance that would preclude equal relationships, and possibly leave us facing beings we could hardly even fathom.

Thus the primary barriers to a potential inter-species community are not whether extraterrestrials exist or whether we’ll eventually make contact, but rather that we may be too biologically, psychologically, or technologically different to sustain relationships between us. Indeed, there is no question that advanced life forms are out there. Whether they’re planet-bound like us; space-faring to a great degree; or even “post-species” in that they’ve taken their evolutionary fate under their control; they’re out there, and for the latter case, probably have been for millennia. But they all have their own unique environmental requirements; perceptions of the world; cultural understandings; and scientific know-how; and these differences may be enough to preclude proper relationships with them. That said, I certainly hope not. While it may be unrealistic to envision relationships exactly as portrayed on TV shows like Star Trek, I’d like to think when we finally meet them formally, we’ll be able to assume our respective positions in a grand community. Certainly there won’t be any need for fear or hostility, unless a particular species we contact is hostile toward us, or some of our own people have trouble expressing tolerance. But that may not be possible, and if it turns out it isn’t, then even once we know we’re not technically alone, we’ll always remains functionally alone, and we’ll have to accept that that’s just how it is. The universe is surely a wondrous place for life, yet one that may not be possible to fully participate in, for any of us, anywhere, and that fact could sadly turn out to be the greatest thing we share.


Applemin, D.S: “Internal Realities,” July 9th, 2009, at The Assorted Blog of Applemin as of Jan. 5th, 2011
[]. “Extrasolar Planet,” at Wikipedia as of Jan. 5th, 2011

©2011, D.S. Applemin. All rights reserved.


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