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TV Review

Is There Anybody Out There?

The question of whether we are entirely alone in the universe is one that has perplexed philosophers, scientists and daytime talk-show hosts across the aeons of time. BBC2's Horizon addressed itself to that very issue last month enquiring whether somewhere out in the vast expanses of the universe there is a planet (or planets) just like Earth. If there is, do they know about our existence and have they monitored our activities in any way? Are they aware of all our social and cultural developments? And if so, did they understand 3-2-1?

To be fair, Horizon restricted itself to discussing the strictly scientific advances surrounding the various recent attempts to discover the existence of hitherto unknown planets, particularly the efforts of the successful team based in Scotland. This was entirely worthy from the point of view of a respected science programme like Horizon, but it did unfortunately entail prolonged discussions about seemingly randomly-spaced dots on endless pieces of graph paper. All in all, it was quite possibly not what a lot of viewers had in mind when they switched on.

It did, however, beg questions which will no doubt be returned to time after time. Foremost among these of course is if—as seems to be the case—other planets exist elsewhere in the universe, how likely is it that some of them can support life? Is it the case, as some scientists have recently maintained, that Earth coalesces such an entirely unique combination of properties to sustain life that it is highly unlikely that life will exist on any other planet?

Socialists are naturally in no better a position to judge this than anyone else, though it is worth mentioning that the view that We Are Alone has always seemed a particularly unscientific one given the vastness of the universe and the multiplicity of its star systems—moreover, it smacks somewhat of a search for a scientific justification for the creationist sympathies of some scientists, sympathies that are often lurking at a deeper ideological level.

To go boldly
If intelligent life does exist elsewhere then it is quite possible that some of this life will be aware of our existence, and if so, then they will surely look at us with a little pity. How could it be otherwise with a planet populated by an intelligent and technologically-developing group of mammals who are to all intents and purposes a slave species, under the parasitic domination and control of a tiny group from their own number? As Gene Rodenberry, the founder of Star Trek, tried to tell the waiting world before William Shatner got in the way, sophisticated and technologically advanced life-forms are unlikely to be living in conditions of self-imposed artificial scarcity elsewhere, in societies based on slavery and exploitation like we have on Earth.

It is interesting to socialists how often science fiction writers—those most typically granted licence in such matters in modern society—return to this theme despite the ideological hegemony of the ruling capitalist class and the mindset associated with it, dominated by everything consequent on private property and competition. Some scientists have shown an ability to explore this theme too. These have included an American called Fred Steckling, who wrote a seemingly kooky book some years ago which was among a number at the time attempting to argue from official NASA sources and photographs that alien life-forms of some kind had a base on the moon. The fixed constructions and vehicles Steckling claimed to identify in the photographs included in his book were of such a colossal magnitude that he contended that:

". . . whoever they are, living on the Moon, or using it as a base, must have solved the economic aspects in the construction of such vehicles long ago. This in turn suggests great co-operation and consolidation of people, talents and experts into one genuinely co-operating labor force . . . This no doubt suggests that whoever they are up there, they are more advanced than us. One could speculate further, that with such great co-operation, there would result a common language and economy with perhaps the elimination of the monetary system entirely. It is logical to assert, pursuing this same line of thought, that this seems to be the reason why the officials [NASA and US Intelligence] have chosen to ignore these inexorable truths" (Alien Bases On the Moon, p.28).

If Steckling was arguing logically from an unfortunately flawed premiss in writing this, he was at least more advanced in his application of the materialist conception of history than the bizarre Leninist outfit the Revolutionary Workers Party, whose periodical can still be found occasionally in the darkest recesses of Housman's bookshop. For those who don't remember, this was the Trotskyist sect which claimed that if socialism is impossible in one country (true enough) then it must be impossible on one planet as well (“that is illogical, captain”).

Of course, the underlying point about all this speculation over the existence of other life forms (and it is, at the moment, only that) is that it should not get in the way of attempts to solve the very real problems of humanity down here on planet Earth. For that is a large part of the problem with searches for extra-terrestrial intelligence and all the rest of it—whether done through Horizon's conventional scientific methods or not. If all the well-meaning individuals out there who have spent their time looking for some sort of salvation or rescue by extra-terrestrials had concentrated on the real and concrete task of struggling to free humankind from our self-imposed chains, then we may well have dispensed with the need for alien assistance quite some time ago—whether any was forthcoming or not.