John W. Traphagan
In my class on SETI at the University of Texas at Austin, my students’ first exam asks them to respond to the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man”. The episode raises questions about the dangers of potential contact with extraterrestrials and our capacity to understand their motivations. The phrase “To Serve Man” can be read two ways: 1) to provide service to humanity, or 2) to provide humanity as a dinner entrée. I ask students to think about whether or not the scenario in the Twilight Zone episode makes sense and, consequently, whether or not contact with aliens might be dangerous.
The responses are interesting and often quite creative. During this term, one of my students, Katie Blair, wrote one of the more interesting essays I’ve encountered. She argues, “[t]he aspect of the “To Serve Man” episode that I don’t agree with is that the aliens would eat us…because of all the junk the average person puts into their body. Humans are probably the most fatty and cancerous form of meat to consume. As the Standard American Diet becomes globalized and widespread in other countries, more and more humans are getting fat, developing cancer, and fighting diseases. An intelligent species would not want to consume meat that is that toxic.”
I was intrigued by this idea, in part because it raises the important question of what intelligent aliens would gain, or lose, by coming into contact with humans. And it addresses the often-claimed idea that aliens would come here to exploit resources, including humans. Rarely is this question framed in terms of whether or not the resources on Earth are worth bothering with. Some SETI thinkers have pointed out that the volume of natural resources on Earth would not make the planet of any value—the asteroid belt and outer planets have far more in the way of mineral resources than does Earth. My student’s essay raises the question of whether or not humans would make a good meal for ET and she makes a pretty good case for the likelihood that ET would find us pretty unappetizing.
While “To Serve Man” might be an unlikely scenario for first-contact, both the episode and Katie’s essay raise an important question about what humans represent as a resource of interest to ETI. It doesn’t seem that we would be worth much as a food source, but is there anything else? What knowledge do we possess that might make us of interest to ETI? Perhaps that is just as toxic as our bodies given our propensity for war, greed, and hatred. This is an important point to consider when thinking about both SETI and METI—do humans have anything to offer intelligence from another world? Would our knowledge and culture be viewed as interesting or repulsive? The answers to these questions are not possible to determine, but there is value in considering how we might appear to intelligent beings from elsewhere.
As for my class, these types of questions also allow us to turn inward and reflect on the nature of human society and intelligence. When we think about how ETI might respond to humanity—whether we are seen as toxic or interesting—it allows us to reflect on the nature of humanity from a less self-centered perspective.