Wednesday July 6th 2011

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Human Compulsions Among the Stars

What are the odds for survival of a technological society? We don’t know yet, having but one example to work with, but it’s interesting to speculate, as Ray Villard does in a recent online post, about the kinds of intelligence that may evolve in the universe. All too often we equate technology with intelligence, which may skew our view of projects like SETI. Energized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Diego last week, Villard is thinking that intelligent life may have appeared on our planet not once but twice, and one of those life-forms is never going to be found by listening to radio wavelengths.

The case for cetaceans seems strong. Here’s Villard on the matter:

Physiologically, dolphins have a brain architecture and brain mass-to-body mass ratio that is closer to that of humans than for any other species on Earth. Many years of experiments on captive dolphins show that they are self-aware, have a sense of self-identity, do detailed problem solving, interpret symbolic language, and exhibit empathy. Dolphins form complex societies with groups segregated by sex and age, alliances, and conduct long-term nurturing of the young.

And whereas apes and humans appear closely in evolutionary time, cetaceans do not, making the case for independent emergence of a far different kind of intelligence than humans possess, one adapted for life in the ocean. The argument is interesting on its own merits because the emergence of dolphins and whales as self-aware beings implies that evolution has established two different routes to intelligent life on the same planet. That would make a strong case that self-awareness is a common feature on any planets where complex life-forms establish themselves, and would seem to bode well for extraterrestrial civilizations.

SETI, of course, is quite another matter. A world populated only by dolphins and whales is not one that is going to be sending strong beacon signals at 1420 MHz to nearby worlds. The Fermi paradox? Maybe the ‘where are they’ question is answered by the thought that they’re on many nearby worlds, but don’t necessarily have the technological means to tell us so. Villard goes a step farther still and asks whether creatures that do develop technologies aren’t the most hubristic, the builders of guns, cars and refrigerators also being capable of creating thermonuclear devices and bacteriological weapons to destroy themselves.

At the AAAS meeting, Seth Shostak opined that we would have an interstellar greeting from another civilization within the next twenty-five years. He bases this on the fact that we’re reaching so many stars now that within two years, we’ll have surveyed as many stars as we did in the past fifty years, since Frank Drake first fired up Project Ozma to listen to Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti. Villard notes that this exponential rise offers the best chance for success when it reaches the top of the slope and begins to flatten out. He quotes Shostak as saying “If we don’t have a detection by the year 2035 then something is wrong with our fundamental assumptions.”

But our fundamental assumptions are constantly being challenged with every new discovery in planetary science and astrophysics. Why should SETI be any different? The possibility of intelligence evolving in such a way that it has no technology seems clearly demonstrated here on Earth. But we should also be asking whether even technological societies necessarily have the same urge to communicate that seems to drive us. Is reaching out across the stars a fundamental impulse of intelligent life, or is it a trait of our species alone, and if the latter, what is the impulse behind it? If we can’t assume alien civilizations will share our technologies, neither should we assume they would share our compulsions. A lack of SETI success by 2035 may simply tell us that the quest for knowledge of the wider universe may be a human philosophical quirk.

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This article was originally posted on Centauri Dreams