Our ‘Alien’ Ancestors: Has history prepared us for First Contact?

Updated: Mar 6, 2020

When I was a child, I was the sort who would secretly wish that aliens would touch down and whisk me away to a distant star system. There, I imagined a life would be waiting for me that was filled with wonder and purpose. Like most children who have this type of fantasy, it stemmed from a sense of being an alien myself; an outsider on my home planet. Luckily, with the passage of time and experience, I began to find that Earth wasn’t such a bad place to be (however slowly).

However, as I got older I couldn’t help wondering if there really was some other form of sentient life out there amongst the stars. This question was later satisfactorily answered with an understanding of probability and, to a lesser degree, the understanding that the universe is perhaps more vast than we are capable of imagining. Still, there was another question that proved to be most difficult to answer;

What might it feel like to be face to face with another sentient being, from an entirely separate gene pool?

Our "Alien" Ancestors

I’ve gotten quite deep into exploring this idea, even as an adult. Being in the presence of something completely inhuman is merely the first hurdle. From there, we’re faced with the task of communication. How could we possibly open a dialogue? Do they even have ears or a voice to participate in the way that we humans are accustomed? And, if so, finding a common ground might still be more difficult than expected. An old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Darmok, comes to mind (“Shaka, when the walls fell.”).

This sort of thought experiment can be a lot of fun, but when it comes to answering what it could feel like, it might be that our distant ancestors had a much better idea than us modern humans.

The astonishing fact is that the further back we follow the fossil records, the more primates pop up that bear a striking resemblance to ourselves, but aren’t quite the same. Indeed, if some of these distant relatives were discovered to be alive today, perhaps off on some remote island, it seems likely that they would be smack dab in an uncanny valley, of sorts. What they might look like and how their minds work could be something just as foreign to us as any spaceman from another galaxy.  It’s incredibly interesting to imagine what it must have been like to be an early homo-sapiens interacting with another branch of the homo genus.

As is well known, all life on Earth is related and our ancestors were still interacting with very similar apes, but this seems to be about as close a comparison that we are likely to find while isolated to our home planet. As things stand, we cannot interact very intelligently with other species on Earth, despite being relatives. The closest we might come to understanding what an odd predicament it may have been, is to imagine something like an upright gorilla which displays human-like intelligence and emotional range, but with an incomprehensible type of speech (if any at all). This image might be a bit off-putting, especially when musing over which traits are more human and which are gorilla-like. To experience the company of such a being would prove to be rather confounding, to say the least. This confusion and curiosity, odd as it might seem, may have been a simple fact of life for ancient human species. If you’d like an even closer view of this idea, I highly recommend the 1981 film Quest for Fire. It’s set in just such a time period and does a fantastic job of exploring some human variants that might help you to evoke a reaction similar to what our ancestors’ must have been like.

Alien DNA

Now, let’s get a bit weird with it. Recall to mind whatever sort of gorilla-man hybrid you dreamt up when reading the last paragraph and then imagine that it was biologically possible for it to have fertile offspring with humans. Oh, sorry, that’s a bit to far, isn’t it? Well, if you have an interest in evolution, genetics, or early human species, you will already be aware that this sort of thing is exactly what happened. Most notably, our homo-sapiens ancestors bred with homo-neanderthalensis, commonly known as Neanderthals, but this is thought to have occurred with other species in the homo genus as well. An in-depth analysis of your DNA will show what percentage of Neanderthal genes you possess. Unfortunately, we do not have as much information on the other species with which our ancestors had offspring in order to make such a determination.

I didn’t write this article just to point out the promiscuity of ancient humans, but taking such things into account simply adds to what is, I believe, a more profound truth about the whole matter of what it might be to face our alien overlords. As strange as some of these prehistoric humans might have been, as alien and foreign as that all might seem to us now, is still but a fraction of how truly strange it would be to be sat across from a sentient lifeform, again, completely outside of our gene pool. Think about it; every creature you have ever seen or interacted with is a distant cousin of yours. Every tree, bird, fish, insect, and freaky platypus mashup—all of these have genes that can be traced back to a common ancestor, with all other life on this planet. As such, we have absolutely no context that could possibly apply to such a meeting.

The Communication Problem

We have, as of yet, been unable to even understand the language of dolphins; how could we stand a chance at understanding something with lineage even further outside of ourselves? It turns out that, much like the universe, this endeavor is likely stranger than we are even capable of imagining. But, If my years of binging Star Trek have taught me anything, it’s some sort of uplifting message of hope and prosperity (and fornicating with the locals, of course); even if all of the sentient aliens in the franchise are suspiciously humanoid. Unfortunately, vicariously travelling the galaxy in the U.S.S. Enterprise (not Voyager, get out.) hasn’t really prepared us for a real alien encounter (although, I will defend the valuable philosophical topics explored in the series to the death). Does this mean that we and our descendants will forever go without knowing what it is like to be in the presence of an alien intelligence? Perhaps not.

It may very well be that the alien experience will be made possible in the same way humans have always made things possible; technology. In the coming decades, a successful artificial intelligence (A.I.) could end up less like standing in front of a mirror and more like peering through the looking glass. As we work toward creating the perfect A.I., it seems plausible that we are likely to meet some truly odd minds that are out of this world. How this could play out is, of course, anyone’s guess (and perhaps warrants another article). With time, the A.I. conversation will only become more and more relevant in our daily lives. And then, one day, we’ll know.

For better or worse, we will know what it is like to speak to someone who is not a distant relative; but this time, we might not be able shag away our differences.

About the Author:

James S. Bray has been a practicing oneironaut for nearly a decade and an active participant in the online lucid dreaming community for the past five years. He began creating lucid dreaming related videos, reviews, and tutorials on his YouTube channel in 2012, under the pseudonym SpaceTimeBadass. James is also a member of Team Lucid Dream.

You can find James on all social medias @SpaceTimeBadass.

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