when we start speculating about what advanced extraterrestrials are like, we are really just talking about ourselves.
For as long as scientists have looked for alien life, they have conceived them in our own image. The quest arguably began with a 1959 Naturepaper by the physicists Giuseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison, who argued that “near some star rather like the Sun there are civilizations with scientific interests and with technical possibilities much greater than those now available to us.” The two scientists further posited that such aliens would have “established a channel of communication that would one day become known to us.” Such alien signals would most likely take the form of shortwave radio, which is ubiquitous through the Universe, and would contain an obviously artificial message such as “a sequence of small prime numbers of pulses, or simple arithmetical sums.”
Nothing in this suggestion was unreasonable, but it’s self-evidently the result of two smart scientists asking: “What would we do?” Cocconi and Morrison’s proposal to look for familiar types of signals, coming from familiar types of technology, has heavily conditioned the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) ever since. Today, the Harvard astronomer Avi Loeb thinks it might be good to look for spectroscopic signatures of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmospheres of alien planets, apparently in the conviction that aliens have fridges like ours (or perhaps they’re just crazy about hairspray). Other scientists have proposed finding aliens by looking for their light-polluting cities; their starship Enterprise-style antimatter drives; or the radiation flashes from extraterrestrial nuclear war. It all sounds dreadfully… human.
The obvious defense is that, if you’re going to bother with SETI at all, you have to start somewhere. That we have the urge to search for life elsewhere probably owes something to our natural instincts to explore our environment and to propagate our kind. If–and this does seem rather likely–all complex life in the universe originated through a competitive Darwinian evolutionary process, isn’t it reasonable to imagine that it will have evolved to be curious and expansionist? Then again, not all human societies seem intent on spreading beyond the village, and whether Darwinian selection will continue to be the predominant shaping force on humanity over the next millennium (never mind a million years) is anyone’s guess.
The problem with basing SETI on projections of our own impulses and inventions is that it constrains our thinking along a very narrow path.
Fermi’s ‘paradox’ is still cited as an argument for why intelligent life must be rare in the Universe. Among the possible resolutions offered by the SETI Institute, whose name advertises its goals, is: “Aliens have done cost-benefit analyses that show interstellar travel to be too costly or too dangerous.” Maybe “the Galaxy is urbanized [but] we’re in a dullsville suburb.” Or perhaps Earth is being preserved in isolation as “an exhibit for alien tourists or sociologists.”
how can we move beyond solipsism and tired Hollywood tropes?
One tip is not to be too distracted by science fiction.
When we apply human-centric narratives to SETI, we need to remind ourselves that we’re merely looking into a distorted mirror. Such a warning could prod us to be more daring and imaginative in thinking about alien life, as well as to ponder whether there might be a more rigorous way to explore the range of possibilities.
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