If flying saucers arrived on Earth tomorrow, we should all prepare to cheer. Well, unless the little green men are intent upon world domination, then we should triumphantly blow them up with our scrappy ingenuity. And then cheer.
An alien invasion would ultimately cause the world to unite, and after defeating the other race, our little Earth would likely become a peaceful, “Star Trek”-like utopia. All the hate, the genocide, the wars, would be a page in a violent history of intra-human fighting.
Humans are rather notorious for liking and trusting people they know or have something in common with while disliking and distrusting people who are foreign to them. In evolutionary psychology, it’s called in-group favoritism, and it explains a lot of human behaviors.
Throughout human history, humans have identified with other humans who are like them, creating “in-groups.” In the Pleistocene Epoch 1.8 million years ago, when early members of the genus Homo appeared, an “in-group” was the hunter-gatherer tribe to which a cave person belonged while “out-groups” were rival tribes.
Human-style rivalry is remarkable in one major way: we help other humans in our in-group who are not our kin. Evolutionarily speaking, this means that a human can gain some kind of gene survival advantage through cooperation with other humans. As early humans started developing technology and later, agriculture, this ability to share resources and cooperate led to larger and larger in-groups. A human is still more likely to cooperate with their family, but we have the ability to create broader in-groups of our own definition.
Today, this manifests itself in the creation of nation states, xenophobia and even sporting culture. Humans bond with other humans who are from their hometowns, share a religion or a political leaning. It explains why MU athletics insists upon not capitalizing Kansas — MU is an in-group, while kU is our rival out-group. In one 2003 study, Harvard University researchers found that college students at two rival colleges rapidly constructed their own university fellows as an in-group and the rival university students as an out-group.*
In the Pleistocene Epoch, it simply would have been too risky for an early human to trust another human from a competing tribe, and we hold onto that psychological relic to be wary of the unknown.
So, what has all this got to do with aliens?
If little green men from Mars were to be discovered, or to invade Earth, “Independence Day”-style, humans would very likely become one big in-group. We Earthlings, all 6 billion of us, would have a common enemy, someone else to call “other.” They will look different from us, have a different language, different technology and beliefs.
And not to mention, they will be from an entirely different planet. To wit, Missourians are divided by a baseball team rivalry based on a geographical distance of 250 miles. Being from space, in many ways, is the ultimate unknown to us. All of the factors that can create in-groups and out-groups among the Earth-bound would be inevitably overridden by a race of sentient beings from another planet.
Thus, the majority of the infighting and conflict between nations and states would end on Earth. The threat of extra terrestrial life will take precedence over mere human squabbles. The larger out-group conflict will take priority over all in-group human clashes. After all, the saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” holds true.
The nations of Earth could start relating to each other much like states in the U.S. do: peaceful parts of a larger whole. The conflicts between different cultures, religions and races would also be de-prioritized as perceived out-group threats. Basically, humans wouldn’t fight so much. I don’t want to say that the ever-prophesized World Peace would come about, but maybe we’d give the United Nations more power and let go of petty differences that hinder useful diplomacy.
I think alien life is somewhere out there — to presume that Earth is the only planet in the vastness of the universe capable of sustaining life is a display of confounding conceit. When it is found, whether seen through a telescope we send through the galaxies or when it arrives here in flying saucers, humans will have some other intelligent species with which to contend and incentive to make Earth a peaceful place to live for us.
*The 2003 study, titled “Implicit Group Evaluation: Ingroup Preference, Outgroup Preference and the Rapid Creation of Implicit Attitudes,” by Kristin A. Lane, Jason P. Mitchell and Mahzarin R. Banaji of Harvard University can be found by request here.
Erin K. O'Neill is an assistant director of photography for the Missourian and a master's degree candidate at the Missouri School of Journalism.