Daily Archives: April 29th, 2010

SETI’s Take On Aliens

All week long I’ve posted articles and essays written by various folks both for and against Stephen Hawking’s premise that an advanced nomadic interstellar culture might act aggressively toward us.

In a post yesterday on Centauri Dreams, Paul Gilster posts a small article about SETI’s Jill Tarter, and a statement from Philip Morrison:

I love Philip Morrison’s statement that ‘SETI is the archaeology of the future,’ quoted by Jill Tarter in a recent opinion piece on CNN. Archaeology is all about the past, and the targeted beacon we might detect from a civilization a thousand light years away would have information about its past, not its present state. So while the information would not be up to date, it would be deeply informative, telling us by example that at least one civilization had lived long enough to survive the danger of self-destruction by means of its own technology, or at least long enough to send the signal.

The longevity of a technological civilization is the crucial factor in so much of this discussion. Give it a high value and the chances are that any civilization we encounter will be older than our own. That concerned Stephen Hawking enough to worry about what a powerful, nomadic culture might do to a life-bearing world it encountered. The other side of the coin is what Tarter suggests, that longevity brings with it a measure of wisdom. Suppose we make not just electromagnetic contact but actually encounter an alien culture in our own system:

Well, one thing is for sure: If they can get here, then their technology is superior to ours, and not just by a little! Arthur C. Clarke’s third law is, “Any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic.”

Can we be certain that their magic would do us harm? I would hope that Hawking would agree that a large value for L (a requirement for that magical, star-spanning technology) could also mean that their distant civilization had found a way to stabilize itself in order to survive and grow old. That might require outgrowing any aggressive and belligerent tendencies that may have characterized their youth.

Paul Davies makes much the same case in an essay this morning via the Wall Street Journal, although Davies is more emphatic:

…suppose by some fluke aliens did come to visit Earth in the near future, then comparisons with Columbus are in any case wide of the mark, and reflect the rampant anthropocentrism that pervades much speculation about alien life. Just because we go around wiping out our competitors doesn’t mean aliens would do the same. A civilization that has endured for millions of years would have overcome any aggressive tendencies, and may well have genetically engineered its species for harmonious living. Any truly bellicose alien species would either have wiped itself out long ago, or already taken over the galaxy.

I prefer Jill Tarter’s approach, which notes that an advanced society might have to outgrow its aggressive tendencies to survive. Davies takes that conjecture and elevates it to a principle: “A civilization that has endured for millions of years would have overcome any aggressive tendencies…” Perhaps. But we’ve never encountered such a civilization, and have no way of knowing how it would behave.

Tarter is careful to note that the SETI Institute isn’t involved in broadcasting messages, but in listening to the universe to learn what might be out there, adding “If signals are detected, everyone on the planet should have a voice in deciding how to respond.” That assumes, of course, that we pick up a targeted transmission rather than extraneous signals from a civilization merely going about its business. The latter case still leaves the question open: Inform another intelligent species of our existence, or continue to listen and learn?

There seems to be a slight consensus toward the ‘if they are advanced enough for interstellar travel, they are enlightened’ meme.

That might be the case, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on that premise.

I lean toward the ‘listen and learn’ crowd. Also, don’t UFOs fall into the “Any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic” category?

Notes & Queries 4/28/10