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Civilizations Beyond Earth: A Different Angle – Part 2

by Larry Klaes, space exploration enthusiast, science journalist, SF aficionado. The article first appeared at Centauri Dreams.

Part 1

Public Perceptions of ETI

Professional SETI researchers and other scientists tend to avoid the public perceptions about aliens, which they find to be full of undisciplined ideas and a tendency to buy into stories and reports about sightings of alien spaceships and their occupants. A fear of being lumped into the fringe realm of pseudoscience is among the top reasons why SETI has stuck with remote searches of distant star systems. However, there is a slowly opening acceptance that some ETI might send probes to our Sol system to observe us discreetly, perhaps in the Main Planetoid Belt or using nanotech devices or even smaller observing and data collecting technology scattered across Earth.

Several chapters of the book are devoted to polling the general public on the subject of alien life. Unrestrained by scientific parameters and paradigms, their theories and beliefs range from having aliens be the saviors of humanity to our destroyers. They also tend to be much more accepting of the idea that many ETI may already be here monitoring us.

In an ironic twist, the public often thinks of the physical appearance of alien beings as essentially humanoids with a large head and eyes, no visible ears, and slim bodies. On the other hand, scientists who focus on exobiology see life taking on many different forms on different worlds due to evolution. Nevertheless, because we know so little about life beyond Earth, a wide variety of viewpoints can be a welcome thing, as there are times when a different perspective on such a subject could be the key to discovery.

Among the most interesting papers in this collection were the ones where different human cultures interact with each other in space and time. In “Encountering Alternative Intelligences: Cognitive Archaeology and SETI”, Paul K. Wason looks at one of the fifteen humanoid species which have shared this planet with us, namely the Neanderthals. Although they existed in Europe around the same time with modern humans and even interbred with each other, their branch of the family tree died out roughly thirty thousand years ago. Clues from the archaeological record indicate that Neanderthals were quite different in many fundamental ways from current humanity despite being hominids which evolved on Earth. Even though their brains were a bit larger than ours, Neanderthal was not as sophisticated in many ways if we go by the evidence that has survived the ages. Regarding how scientists have learned as much as they do know about Neanderthals, Wason said: “Could it be also that one of the best ways of preparing for interstellar communication with other intelligences would be to engage in more study of how human intelligence works?”

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Several centuries ago, there were two genetically related but otherwise very different human cultures which did interact with each other and for which we have extensive records of those encounters. In “The Inscrutable Names of God: The Jesuit Missions of New France as a Model for SETI-Related Spiritual Questions,” Jason T. Kuznicki, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, describes what happened when a group of Roman Catholic Jesuits sailed to North America starting in the Seventeenth Century to convert the native tribes living around the Canadian side of the Great Lakes region.

Armed with the tools of their religion, which included the presumptions of French philosopher Rene Descartes and Saint Thomas Aquinas that reason would inevitably bring everyone to the conclusion that the Christian God and souls exist, the Jesuit missionaries soon discovered that the Native Americans they met did not share these views or come to any of the same conclusions as the Jesuits thought would happen in matters of deities and the afterlife.

Here were fellow humans separated by a few thousand miles of ocean and yet the two cultures not only had wildly different views on many things, they also lacked the words of their languages to clearly get across their ideas on spiritual and religious matters. Now imagine what might take place between two entirely different species from separate worlds light years apart. Would an alien species even have a religion?

One aspect of Kuznicki’s paper which was not touched upon were the underlying motives for the Jesuits being in North America and attempting to convert the natives there: The French wanted to secure the New World for themselves from the competing British and Spanish powers. Having the Native Americans as allies would certainly help their cause, either through assimilation or coercion. Should an ETI contact us via interstellar transmissions or arrive in person at our world, this is one aspect of such an encounter that requires the study of historical precedents from our species. The scientists would assume the alien visitors are just explorers, but the historian might think otherwise. Even an ETI that came here with the purpose of doing what it thinks is good for us might have unexpected consequences for humanity.

The Question of Artificial Intelligence

Civilizations Beyond Earth does have its limitations. The focus is mainly on biological entities, which makes sense considering the authors. However, to not offer at least a few papers by some computer experts on artificial intellects, or Artilects as coined by Hugo de Garis, is hardly advancing our knowledge base of all scientific aspects of ETI. In this respect it is no better than focusing on radio as a means of interstellar detection and communication while ignoring Optical SETI and searching for Dyson Shells and alien probes in our Sol system.

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Granted, there is a paper by William Sims Bainbridge titled “Direct Contact with Extraterrestrials via Computer Emulation”, which proposes the idea that a person could have themselves downloaded into a computer simulation as an avatar, or at least a psychological reproduction of themselves. Bainbridge envisions the avatars being beamed into space via radio waves to do the exploring and contacting with ETI.

Presumably this would have to be an enhanced version of the humans who choose to go this route, otherwise we encounter the limits of understanding an alien mind that would be little different than if we tried to comprehend an ETI with our own selves. Other chapters do deal with the complexities and difficulties in trying to communicate even basic concepts to an alien species, especially if we have few frames of reference. Would an Artilect with its faster computing speeds and much larger data storage do this better? Would sentience be required for this task or just a highly sophisticated simulation resembling awareness? Perhaps a revised edition of this book will add papers devoted to these questions concerning Artilects.

As Seth Shostak says in his article “Are We Alone?” regarding the Drake Equation, but which could also mirror what is missing and incomplete from this book:

“In other respects, [the Drake] equation might be too cautious. It assumes that all transmitting cultures are still located in the solar system of their birth. This ignores the possibility of colonization of other star systems (difficult, but not forbidden by physics), or the possible deployment of transmitting facilities far from home. In addition, it does not deal with the development of synthetic intelligence – thinking machines that would not be constrained to watery worlds orbiting long-lasting stars. In short, it makes the assumption that “they” are much like “us.”

For those who might argue that we may be unable to deduce the thought processes and motives of artificial minds far larger and faster than our own, the same could be said for any kind of biological alien species: Such beings could take on many forms and be just as inscrutable as an Artilect, yet that has not stopped many humans of all stripes on this planet from offering their views on organic ETI. One advantage with Artilects is that we can work towards actually creating or simulating them and thus have direct access to another intelligent mind.

Unfortunately, many people fear that Artilects could use their superior intellects to dominate or destroy humanity, just as they also expect advanced ETI to arrive in starships with similar goals. Whether that may ultimately happen or not, this general fear combined with a limited education on and cultural ridicule about the subjects relevant to SETI/METI have made their “contributions” to the reality that over half a century after the first serious SETI program, traditional searches continue in a largely sporadic fashion with limited funds, seldom expand beyond the radio and optical realms, and remain dominated by astronomers and engineers.

Human Expansion into the Galaxy

These views and paradigms also extrapolate to interstellar efforts such as Worldships, self-contained vessels carrying thousands of people on multigenerational journeys to other star systems. The goal of these Worldships is to colonize suitable planets and moons in the target system or at least collect resources from them before moving on to other galactic destinations.

How those who will remain onboard for perhaps many centuries will survive and adapt has been studied far more in the pages of science fiction than anywhere else, for obvious reasons. Will those who arrive at their intended worlds be radically different from their ancestors back on Earth? Will their interaction with any ETI they encounter diverge from the initial intentions of those who sent them off into the galaxy? As said earlier regarding Artilects, perhaps a revised edition of this work or a new book altogether devoted to very long term exploration and its consequences on those who make the voyage both aboard the Worldship and upon the places they settle will make inroads to answering these questions.

There is a strong desire or perhaps even a natural reaction to colonize any Earthlike exoworlds as part of some cosmic manifest destiny. Unless we terraform some barren rock, a planet similar to our own will be so not only in terms of size and environment, but also due to having life upon it. Even if none of the organisms on this alien world are sentient (and how exactly will we define that?), do we have the right to introduce terrestrial species there? If the situation was reversed and an ETI arrived at Earth to set up a new home, even if they desired a peaceful coexistence, imagine the reaction from humanity.

Even a robotic mission could cause unforeseen issues in the future. Already at this early stage in our expansion into space we have five probes and most of their final rocket stages heading beyond the boundaries of the Sol system into the wider Milky Way galaxy. Although none of them will be functioning by the time they could ever reach another star system, their very existence drifting and tumbling uncontrolled and aimless through deep space might one day become a problem for beings of which we are completely unaware at present.

We can declare that the galaxy is much too vast and these probes far too small to ever gain notice by any intelligences out there. We can say that any beings who could find these emissaries from Earth would have to be quite sophisticated and savvy with the ways of the interstellar realm and thus capable of dealing with a comparatively primitive, ancient, and inactive derelict from a species such as us.

In the end, however, the truth is that we do not yet know who or what is occupying the galaxy with humanity. We cannot say with certainty how an alien species might react and respond to an unexpected visitor from another world – though we can make some pretty good guesses as to how our civilization would behave in a similar scenario.

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As we have already discussed with regards to SETI and METI, again the astronomical scientists and space engineering and technical fields often differ in their views on these matters compared to the anthropologists, sociologists, biologists, and historians. At least some of the gaps between the disciplines were bridged by the incorporation of messages and information packages on the Pioneer, Voyager, and New Horizons space probes. Whether these “gifts” will be recognized and understood by the recipients is yet another unknown factor, but they are a step in the right direction.

The issue of our physical intrusion into the Milky Way will become even more prominent and serious as we develop and launch probes – operated by Artilects most likely – designed to reach and explore other solar systems. In this case, humanity may receive responses from other intelligent beings in a matter of years or decades as opposed to millennia. What may happen and how our descendants might handle an ETI reaction will depend on how far our culture has come in terms of being more wide ranging and inclusive in our understanding of the Cosmos.

Civilizations Beyond Earth may be a slim book, but it is a good introduction to fields that need to be vital parts of any serious discussion of the scientific activities regarding extraterrestrial intelligences. If SETI and METI remain lopsided in their thinking, methods, and executions, the stars will likely continue to remain silent for the human species for a long time to come.

Not to know if we are either alone or one of many living beings in the Universe when we finally have the awareness and ability to answer this very important question would be a tragic shame, an affront to the very reason we have science and a civilized society in the first place. Let us not answer the L portion of the Drake Equation too soon from a lack of wonder, education, and funds.

6 Responses to “Civilizations Beyond Earth: A Different Angle – Part 2”

  1. Walden2 says:

    Athena, I thank you again for posting my latest piece here.

    I strongly recommend reading this 2012 interview with anthropologist Kathryn Denning of York University in Toronto, Canada. She also authored the paper in Chapter 4 titled “‘L’ on Earth”:

    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/04/space-anthropology/

    Denning nicely flips on their heads all the usual tropes about history and humanity made for decades by the SETI traditionalists. I was especially pleased to see her take down Stephen Hawking’s endlessly used quote about how getting the attention of advanced aliens will have us being treated by them the way Columbus treated the Native Americans 500 years ago.

    I have been protesting his analogy since it came out around 2009. I also said that Hawking may be a smart cosmologist but when it comes to aliens, he knows no more than the rest of us. His ideas always did sound like he took them right from the 1996 science fiction film Independence Day anyway.

  2. Walden2 says:

    Another relevant paper online by Kathryn Denning:

    http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1936/669.full.pdf

    Is life what we make of it?

    BY KATHRYN DENNING

    Department of Anthropology, York University, Toronto, Canada

    Although astrobiological or SETI detections are possible, actual invasions of sentient extra-terrestrials or plagues of escaped alien microbes are unlikely.

    Therefore, an anthropological perspective on the question suggests that in the event of a detection, the vast majority of humanity will be dealing not with extra-terrestrial life itself (whether intelligent or not, local or distant), but with human perceptions and representations of that alien life. These will, inevitably, derive from the powerful influences of culture and individual psychology, as well as from science.

    It may even be argued that in most detection scenarios, the scientific data (and debates about their interpretation) will be nigh-irrelevant to the unfolding of international public reaction. ‘Extra-terrestrial life’ will, in short, go wild.

    From this premise, some key questions emerge, including: what can
    scientists reasonably do to prepare, and what should their responsibilities be, particularly with respect to information dissemination and public discussions about policy?

    Then, moving beyond the level of immediate practicalities, we might also ask some more anthropological questions: what are the cultural substrates underneath the inquiries of Western science into extra-terrestrial life?

    In particular, what are the stories we have been told about discovery of rare life, and about contact with other beings, and do these stories really mean what we think they do? Might a closer look at those narratives help us gain perspective on the quest to find extra-terrestrial life, and on our quest to prepare for the consequences of detection?

  3. Athena says:

    Thank you for sharing the article, Larry! I find Kathryn’s views interesting in themselves and a necessary counterbalance to the triumphalist “We just need rockets!” contingent.

  4. Christopher Phoenix says:

    Kathryn’s interview is very interesting, and exposes the fact that a lot of contemporary ideas about alien life tell us more about their proponents’ psychology and culture than about an hypothetical extraterrestrials.

    The warped views of history regarding past exploration is particularly disturbing- regularly I see people making claims like “The rewards [of interstellar travel] will be nothing less than infinite knowledge, infinite power, infinite wealth, and immortality.”, without the slightest attempt at justification. That quote comes from this, a transcript of a talk Geoffrey A. Landis conducted with other participants for a defunct SF magazine.

    A cursory study of the history of human migration and exploration will show that early voyages of exploration were slow, often unpleasant, and had high mortality rates. Why, then, do we expect that space exploration will be an easy romp into a shiny future of sexbots and immortality? We could quite easily suffer great hardships, or even the loss of entire starship crews. Isolated settlers could, again, suffer many hardships or even a loss of technology after planetfall, if they aren’t very lucky.

    I have a question, though, Athena- why is it that no one mentions centrifugal pseudogravity modules when the health threat posed by microgravity comes up? Zero-g is bad for our health, and reproduction will be very risky or impossible without gravity. However, a slowly rotating cylindrical module will create a sort of pseudogravity, ensuring the crew remains healthy.

    The main problems with these scheme right now is that it requires constructing large and elaborate structures in space, and is undesirable for a laboratory conducting microgravity experiments (like the ISS). But it should be within the reach of a starfaring technology to build such rotating modules!

  5. Athena says:

    I believe they’re thinking of relatively nearby voyages (to Mars, for example). I suspect they will try to jumpstart missions of that length without tackling the gravity aspect, hoping/wishing that weight-bearing exercise may compensate. Of course, that’s not an option for generation ships (or developing embryos).

  6. Walden2 says:

    Lone Signal: First Continous Message Beacon to Find and Say Hello to an Extraterrestrial Civilization

    by Nancy Atkinson on June 12, 2013

    Although scientists have been listening for years to search for indications of other sentient life in the Universe, just a few efforts have been made by humans to purposefully send out messages to the cosmos. Called METI (Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence) or Active SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), these messages have so far been just one-time bursts of info – or “pulses in time” said Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra.

    Haqq-Misra is leading a team of scientists and entrepreneurs who are launching a new initiative called “Lone Signal” which will send the first continuous mass “hailing messages” out into space, starting later this month. They’ll be specifically targeting one star system, Gliese 526, which has been identified as a potentially habitable solar system.

    And yes, the general public can participate.

    “From the start we wanted to be an experiment where anyone on Earth could participate,” said Haqq-Misra during a press event on June 11, 2013, announcing the project.

    “Our scientific goals are to discover sentient beings outside of our solar system,” said Lone Star co-founder Pierre Fabre, also speaking at the event. “But an important part of this project is to get people to look beyond themselves and their differences by thinking about what they would say to a different civilization. Lone Signal will allow people to do that.”

    Lone Signal will be using the recommissioned radio dish at the Jamesburg Earth Station in Carmel, California, one of the dishes used to carry the Apollo Moon landings live to the world.

    Full article here:

    http://www.universetoday.com/102844/lone-signal-first-continous-message-beacon-to-find-and-say-hello-to-an-extraterrestrial-civilization/

    To quote:

    While some scientists have indicated that sending messages out into space might pose a hazard by attracting unwanted attention from potentially aggressive extraterrestrial civilizations, Haqq-Misra thinks the benefits outweigh the potential hazards. In fact, he and his team have written a paper about the concept:

    http://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1207/1207.5540.pdf

    “We want to inspire passion for the space sciences in people young and old, encourage citizens of Earth to think about their role in the Universe, and inspire the next generation of scientists and astronauts,” said Lone Signal chief marketing officer Ernesto Qualizza. “We’re really excited to find out what people will want to say, and the science of METI allows people to do this – to think about more than their own backyard.”

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