Carl L. DeVito
We are told that we separated from the other animals in the Garden of Eden. By partaking of the fruit of knowledge we came to know good and evil. At that point we lost our innocence and parted from our simpler brethren, and we can never return to our once idyllic state. We went from living in harmony with nature and the other animals to a position of separation. A separation that some have interpreted as giving us dominance over all creation. This perceived dominance has led to our hunting animals virtually at will, putting them into zoos, and making them amuse us as part of circus acts. We destroy their habitats to make room for our cities and roads and we accord them no “inalienable rights”. We may, as current developments seem to indicate, pay dearly for this. The biosphere seems to be unraveling as species disappear at an alarming rate and, as much as we try to distance ourselves from the other animals, we are a part of that biosphere. But dominance is the role we have assigned ourselves and we must live with the consequences.
Our separation from the other animals, however, seems to have brought with it a kind of loneliness. We seek the company of others who, like ourselves, are intelligent. Some see our assigning the term “intelligent” to ourselves as arrogance. But we are the only species that has developed science, art, music and literature, so in this sense at least, we are intelligent. This is the real gap between us and the other animals and, on the cerebral level, it is wide and obvious. On the biological level, however, the gap is not so great. We are part of a subtle and inter-connected ecology and forgetting that may be something we ultimately learn to regret.
Our loneliness, if that’s what it is, takes a curious form. It seems that from time immemorial, and in virtually every culture and every age, people have believed that we were not alone; that we shared the Earth with other intelligent races. Humanity is not monolithic of course, not everyone believed this, but enough did so that the traditional tales of such “others” are common and persistent. After all, we developed intelligence and self-awareness, why couldn’t some other species do the same? It the past we could assert that such others lived in the forest, or over the next mountain, or somewhere across the sea. We can no longer do this. The Earth is too well known. It is easy, and tempting, to dismiss such a belief as the product of ignorance and superstition. But then why didn’t the belief die out as our knowledge of the world increased? Why is it that encounters with non-human intelligence are told of even today? And can it be that the impetus to find alien intelligence out among the stars comes from the same ancient loneliness?
Is there any value in discussing alien intelligence? After all, we have not yet found even primitive life “out there.” We quote the futurist Alvin Toffler:
If life in outer space does not exist, we are justified in inventing it. All individuals are influenced by the glancing images that rebound from the mirrors around them. We shape our personae in response to our own reflection in the social looking glass. In quite the same way, whole cultures in today’s densely inter-communicative world are affected by the reflections they produce in other cultures—real or imagined. To put it another way: What we think, imagine or dream about cultures beyond the earth not only reflects our own hidden fears and wishes, but alters them.. … For more than a century anthropologists who study so-called primitive cultures have held up a reflecting mirror to the assumptions of industrial society. In this glass we are able to recognize our own ethnocentrism, our narrowly materialistic values, our powerful yet limiting assumptions about time, space, logic and causality. But other aspects of our own culture remain unreflected. Because the cultures examined by anthropology have been, for the most part, less technologically advanced than our own, less differentiated and less rapidly changing, vast reaches of our own way of life are unilluminated by either contrast or comparison. It is as though the light reflected backward on ourselves left large patches of dark shadow.
The darkness of these patches is intensified by the very fact that the other cultures under study by anthropology have been human cultures like our own, meaning that we share with them not only common body forms and sensory apparatus, but common needs for food and energy, a common capacity for verbal expression and common reproductive systems—all of which subtly structure our assumptions about reality. In contrasting ourselves with other humans we can only go so far.
It is here that “extraterrestrial” anthropology, …, comes into play. Precisely because it deals with cultures that are (or, more exactly, might be) more technologically advanced than our own, as well as less so, because it deals with life-forms radically different from our own, it ultimately casts light on some of the hidden reaches of our own culture. It raises the critique of cultural assumptions to a “meta-level.”
Thus it calls into question the very idea of cultures based on a single epistemology, of single time tracks or merely human sensory modalities. It forces questions about intelligence and consciousness. It makes one wonder whether our assumptions about probability apply universally. In the course of all this, it also begins to give intellectual shape to the whole question of space exploration and its relationship to our world.
I wrote this blog in the hope of getting feedback from our group, especially the social scientists in the group, regarding the various contentions expressed above. Does thinking about alien life, the alien life METI is concerned with, shed light on our own society? If so, what does it show? As our space faring activities expand in scope shouldn’t we give more thought to the human side of the endeavor; to how this endeavor affects how we see ourselves? And how has our entrance into space changed us? These are questions that, I think, deserve our attention.