In this popular science article on meta-SETI, Oman-Reagan voices his concern regarding how our physical presentation to an alien intelligence may come across as offensive in ways that we cannot yet imagine. This is referring to an actual physical encounter between humans and ET who come to visit us (though technically it also applies to cases of us visiting them, but our technology precludes this option presently.) Fanciful as it may sound, he does raise concerns that we perhaps have not up until now considered if such an occurrence were to take place. The problem is that, although we may attempt to take every precaution to present a benevolent outward persona, we are limited by our fundamental biology and hence may inadvertently trigger a negative response from the visitors. To illustrate this point, Oman-Reagan brings up scenarios where they view just our gaze or gaseous respirations as acts of aggression, even though they are critical aspects of our biology. There is even a possibility where the perception of time is different between them and us. The metabolism or rate of life of their species may be such that many of their generations will pass for a single human’s or vice versa. This complicates matters of communication between the “slow” and “fast” race. Alternatively, their social awareness may prohibit or require certain modes of behavior which we do not understand, as pointed out by Oman-Reagan. These differences in cultural mores compounded with biological evolution histories dramatically complicate the possibility for a positive first interaction.
This article reminded me of the situation presented in the recent first contact film “Arrival,” where the minds of the aliens operate significantly differently from ours. Warning: film spoilers ahead! Their perception of time is distinct from ours because their language allows them to convey complex ideas simultaneously. This idea is an extrapolation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of anthropology, the idea that one’s perception of reality stems from the grammatical structure and vocabulary of their language, to the aliens. For example, if a people had no word for the color green, then the hypothesis suggests that would have no ability to conceptulize or discuss the idea of green, and thus perhaps may not even perceive it in nature. This is probably untrue in the case of humans however, since we all share the same wavelength coverage and responsiveness to pigments in the ocular cones and rods. Therefore each human has the opportunity to at least perceive green (excluding color-blindedness) regardless of whether or not there exists a word for green in their particular language. In the case of the heptapods of Arrival, their understanding of time is non-linear and enabled by their circular and atemporal representation of information. While this is a different kind of temporal distinction than what is talked about in this article, it does show how biological differences in cognition may adversely affect the first encounter.