Summary: In pragmatic detail, Harrison examines the human consequences of contact with such an intelligent extraterrestrial entity. Except for fictional accounts, no one previously has explored as comprehensively the many ramifications such contact would pose for those of us who live in what we believe to be technologically advanced societies. Just what would happen if we learned that we were not at the top of the evolutionary pyramid?
After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life, Albert A. Harrison, New York: Plenum Press, 1997
Most people have become comfortable with the notion that there may be intelligent extraterrestrial life elsewhere in the universe. Even the conservative astronomer Carl Sagan calculated that it was mathematically probable that such life must exist. Sagan’s book Contact, later made into the 1997 movie of the same name, postulated that a life form could contact humans here on earth. The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute employs people using radio telescopes to explore the heavens for signs of intelligent life. Recently the National Air and Space Administration created the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NABI) to consider the development of ET life forms. NABI examines the possibility from the standpoint of materials and conditions necessary to support life. They also consider the implications of the origin of life and question whether life is a cosmic imperative.
In After Contact Professor Al Harrison of the University of California-Davis thoughtfully takes the obvious next step. In pragmatic detail he examines the human consequences of contact with such an intelligent extraterrestrial entity. Except for fictional accounts, no one previously has explored as comprehensively the many ramifications such contact would pose for those of us who live in what we believe to be technologically advanced societies. Just what would happen if we learned that we were not at the top of the evolutionary pyramid?
Harrison first lays out the background information surrounding current search methodologies used by SETI and their radio-telescopic efforts to listen for signs of life. He also covers the supporting probabilities that mathematically suggest that some form of extraterrestrial life should exist elsewhere in the universe. It is not just in independent evolution of ETI on some far distant planet that life could exist, but also through a seeding or colonization effort. The search for ETI, he argues, requires a broad multidisciplinary approach. The complexities of communication should contact be established demand that a wide variety of sciences would be necessary including biologists, physicists, chemists, computer scientists and linguists just to name a few. Harrison states that while there is no compelling evidence that we have been visited by an ETI, there are sufficient clues to make exploration worthwhile. Further, the enormity of the impact on society dictates that these are prudent steps.
In an overview of popular literature regarding UFOs and other aerial phenomena, he demonstrates a breadth of understanding of the material widely available to the general public. This is an important addition as it provides the background from which people are making decisions about their beliefs in ETI and probability of contact. It also shows why there is a dramatic disconnect between the general population and most mainstream scientists.
Living systems theory of James Grier Miller serves as a foundation for considering how extraterrestrial organisms and societies might function. Based on building blocks of matter, energy, and information, living systems theory is a logical approach to potentially disparate life forms. After all, there is no known reason for unanimity among advanced extraterrestrial life forms. Harrison goes beyond the organism level and considers what factors might impact ET societies. These include such varied considerations as resource bases, processing of information, decision-making strategies, adaptation and use of energy, and development of culture. He then addresses the fundamental issues related to first contact; how it might be made, who would do it, and how that information would be transmitted to the public.
After Contact considers the various ways in which information concerning ETI existence would be received and acted upon by the public. There are many fictional accounts of ET contact, as well as scientific studies of people exposed to unusual or stressful events, from which inferences of psycho-social reactions can drawn. The individual and societal differences in responding to such a dramatic discovery are examined.
Travelling beyond the initial encounter, Harrison discusses the inevitable complex issues in building of relationships between the ETI and humans. In this section he has considered in some depth just what types of interactions might transpire. He then explores the consequences to our societal structures such as the economy, political systems, impact on values and beliefs, and differentials in technological development.
After Contact is a comprehensive and thought-provoking examination of the inscrutable aspects of an encounter between humans and an advanced extraterrestrial intelligence. It is a must for anyone interested in the possibility that an initial event might occur within his or her lifetime. The book is a landmark publication and serves as a signpost for directing further research into a most fascinating, and under resourced area of science.
Reviewed by: John B. Alexander, Ph.D.