Life As We Know It

Stephen J. Dick. The Biological Universe: the Twentieth Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Albert A. Harrison. After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life. Plenum Trade, 1997.

Two books covering the field of the SETI project. The first provides a detailed examination of the changing status of the idea of extraterrestrial life through this century in both scientific and popular culture, the second is more concerned with the current attempts to communicate with alleged ET's by means of radio telescopes and with trying to make some kind of estimation as to what ET life may be like. Both books look, in moderately sceptical terms at the UFO phenomena Chapter six of Dick provides a discussion of the rise and fall of the ETH in ufology, noting its brief period of potential scientific, almost-respectability in the late 1960's, its decline and reappearance in a wholly unscientific form. Harrison, too, looks at the ETH as a false alarm in the discussion of ET contact. Both authors clearly have a good grasp of the literature on the subject. and their scepticism is not wholly dismissive.

In their treatment of the CETI projects from the 1960's onwards, Dick provides extensive historical detail, while Harrison is more concerned with the implications for contact. Neither writer really engages in a critical discussion of the bedrock assumption of the CETI project; that ET would be sufficiently like us be engaged on the same projects. Harrison is able to understand that ET's would be physically very different from human beings, yet he still has hopes that some would be mentally similar enough to engage in contact.

How realistic is all this. We should note that Harrison tends to equate intelligence with ability to build radio telescopes! A much more realistic definition would be the ability to handle and communicate complex abstract information, some sort of equivalent of articulate language. Of the millions of species on our planet only one has developed articulate language, or developed art and technology. Supporters of CETI and the ETH often invoke parallel evolution to argue that creatures having different biological ancestry can end up with similar appearance and behaviour. Harrison uses the example of sharks and dolphins. However sharks and dolphins share the same habitat, and do have common, though of course very remote, ancestry. However there are no marsupial people, no tool using language-users descended from the new world monkeys, or even from the ouran outans, in parallel to our own descent from the chumperilla complex. Had an asteroid done for the chumperillas as it did for the dinosaurs, it is highly likely that technology would never have developed on earth.

Even within the history of our own species, heavy industry, the prerequisite for radio telescopes and space ships does not appear to have been an inevitability at all. Most human societies, whose inhabitants were just as smart as us didn't develop heavy industry. Most human societies reach a level of technology sufficient to keep the exploiter strata in reasonable luxury and then discourage further innovation. Only one out of thousands of human cultures developed radio telescopes.

Even assuming that by some miracle the inhabitants of Xenos did develop along very similar lines to contemporary Euro-American culture, how long would that culture last. Only 500 years ago the idea of a superior technology would have been interpreted as building bigger and more elaborate cathedrals. Our projects would be incomprehensible in many ways to them. Will we still be dreaming of radio telescopes and space ships in 10,000 years time? Pass even that barrier and we are still face with the fact that in the unlikely event that we did get a message from Xenos there is not much possibility that we could make sense of the result. If you doubt that try to imagine what a panel composed of William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon and John Dee would have made of a computer manual written in Thai or Guajarati (chosen on the grounds that I doubt if even the most polymath Jesuit of the period knew them). Indeed they could never understand a computer manual even if written in English. They would have to become a five year old again and learn absolutely everything afresh and then only if the whole of modem science was presented in a historical and logical sequence.

But the Xenoids won't be our own umpteenth great grandchildren (in spirit if not shape as most CETI/ETH enthusiasts implicitly believe) but entities vastly more biologically different from us than the bacteria which thrive in the sulphur vents on the ocean floor. No exercise of imagination will allow us to understand their life ways. At least reviewing this CETI literature gives me the satisfaction of proving myself more sceptical than that old CETI enthusiast Phil Klass. -- Peter Rogerson, Magonia 62, February 1998.

1 comment:

Terry the Censor said...

You have to admit that using radio waves to communicate with aliens is more reasonable than channeling, which has been the UFO buff's favoured (nearly only) means of regular communication with aliens.