Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


2.4  Science and Science Fiction

In the early 19th century it was still maintained by many that the Moon must be inhabited, or else God's work would be wasted. Thomas Dick carried this idea to its absurd but logical conclusion in his nonfiction theological work entitled Celestial Scenery (1838). First, he noted that the rings of Saturn contain an area of more than thirty million square miles. "It is not likely," he went on, "that the Creator would leave a space equal to nearly six hundred times the habitable parts of our globe, as a desolate waste, without nay tribes of either sensitive or intelligent existence.... "1872

By the mid-nineteenth century this view remained virtually unchanged. Father Angelo Secehi, a Jesuit astronomer, asserted of the planets: "These worlds are bound to be populated by creatures capable of recognizing, honoring and loving their Creator."1905

But as the last century drew to a close, the English poetess Alice Meynell (1849-1922) sounded in verse what was to become the less-chauvinistic modern perspective:

Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels...
O, be prepared, my soul!
To read the inevitable, to scan
The million forms of God those stars unroll
When, in our turn, we show to them a Man.702

This idea that ETs will have their own religions and their own gods has replaced "waste" as the central topic of exotheological debate.

Scientific speculations were often grossly unreliable and misleading, as evidenced by the "Moon Hoax" fiasco. In July of 1822 a German astronomer by the name of Franz von Paula Guithuisen had first reported observing a great walled city on the Moon, near the crater Schröter on the lunar equator. This caused quite a flap, and the stage was set.

The famous British astronomer Sir John Herschel (1792-1871) traveled to the Royal Observatory at Capetown, South Africa in 1834 to commence a full sky survey of the Southern hemisphere. The project was well known throughout the educated world at the time and, added to Gruithuisen's wild claims, may explain the widespread acceptance of Richard Adams Locke's concocted front page story on Sir Herschel's "amazing discovery" of inhabitants on the Moon.

Published in The New York Sun during the first week of September, 1835, the report (called "Great Astronomical Discoveries") claimed that Herschel had turned a powerful new telescope towards the Moon and had observed life there, including forests, bison-like animals, blue unicorns and finally, winged men and women:

We counted three parties of these creatures, of twelve, nine, and fifteen in each, walking erect towards a small wood near the base of the eastern precipices. Certainly they were like human beings, for their wings had now disappeared, and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified.1872

The entire first reprinting of 20,000 copies was completely sold out on the day of publication.

During the second half of the 19th century the French scientist and popularizer Camille Flammarion wrote many discourses on the subject of extraterrestrial life. His On the Plurality of Habitable Worlds was a much-read general treatment of the subject. Another work, entitled Imaginary Worlds and Real Worlds, was a review of all previous writings on the habitability of worlds and the possibility of interplanetary communication.45 In still another volume, Lands in the Sky, Flaminarion stated with conviction:

The Humanities of the heavens are no longer a myth. Already the telescope brings us in touch with their countries; already the spectroscope enables us to analyze the air they breathe.... From the bottom of our abyss we can visualize these far-away nations, these unknown cities, these extraterrestrial people!733

The publication of Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) was soon followed by the development of an idea advanced by Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius: Life may be ubiquitous thoughout the cosmos, carried from planet to planet by tiny space-spores (panspermia).1906

The modern era of scientific xenology was ushered in with Henderson's important little book The Fitness of the Environment (1913), in which the Harvard biochemist attempted to demonstrate that both water and carbon are necessary in any living system on any planet in the universe.879 Superior astronomical data was becoming available, providing a still more accurate view of our solar system and galaxy.

The father of Russian astronautics, Konstantin E. Tsiolkovskii, wrote extensively on spaceflight and the possibility of ETs colonizing the Galaxy ahead of us. Alien civilizations, he pointed out, might well exist at many different levels of technological development;20 in 1925, Tsiolkovskii summarized by noting the distinct probability that "perfection and dominance of the mind" have been spreading throughout the cosmos.702

Fictional treatments of extraterrestrial life proliferated. During the late 19th and 20th centuries the use of aliens became a vehicle for both romantic and far-flung scientific speculative statement.

Achille Eyraud's Voyage to Venus (1865) was the first fictional visit to that planet at a time when the idea of an inhabited Moon was virtually a dead letter.45 In another trip to Venus, Garret Putnam Serviss's A Columbus of Space (1909), we find ape-like cave dwellers and beautiful telepathic humanoids.742 John Munro painted a most delightful picture of life on Venus in A Trip to Venus (1897);1872 Edgar Rice Burroughs also took us to Venus and Mars, as did C. S. Lewis in his well-known trilogy.364,348 And Jupiter's steaming jungles, replete with dinosaurs and pterodactyls, appeared in John Jacob Astor's A Journey in Other Worlds (1894) -- along with a brief excursion to Saturn.742

Voyages to other stars began to be written. With the French author Charles Ischir Defontenay we are transported to the star system of Psi Cassiopeia, in his 1854 novel of the same naine, for a quick dose of haunting space opera.564 David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) likewise is a romance, describing a visit to the extrasolar planet Tormance by spaceship and various adventures with the inhabitants there.1872

But it was certainly "Mars Fever" that inaugurated the present epoch of science in science fiction. In 1877, under unusual conditions of good seeing, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed what appeared to be "channels" crisscrossing the martian surface. Schiaparelli never maintained that his "channels" were relics of alien technology. Yet the word gained something in the translation into English: "Channels" became "canals," with the connotation of intelligent engineering efforts.

This was snapped up by Percival Lowell, an American astronomer who became so devoted to the search for life on Mars that he established an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona for the sole purpose of studying the Red Planet.2009 His two books were widely read. Mars (1896) may have served as the scientific background for H. G. Wells' famous novel The War of the Worlds (1898) in which Earth suffers an invasion by martians. Mars and its Canals (1911) might well have served in the same capacity for Burroughs when he wrote A Princess of Mars (1917), The Gods of Mars (1918), and classical sequels through 1940.

Mark Wicks' To Mars via the Moon (1911) is another enthusiastic depiction of Lowellian Mars: The telepathic martians are found to have advanced canal-building technology and a Utopian socialist system of government. Lieutenant Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (1905) by Edwin Lester Arnold is a fantasy in which we meet carefree, friendly, gracious, but apparently purposeless martians possessing an ideal political system. The martians in Hugh MacCoil's Mr. Stranger's Sealed Packet (1889) have voice-recording devices and electric lighting but are otherwise technologically inferior to earthlings. And in Robert Croniie's A Plunge into Space (1890) we again find the frustrated hopes of finite humans projected onto more advanced aliens: Zero population growth has been achieved, workdays are only two hours in length, and the government is so perfect that there is no need for politicians!1872

Two novels served as a bridge from romantic visits to alien planets in the 19th century to the modern era of science fiction. The first of these, Kurd Lasswitz' Concerning Two Planets (1897), is a fascinating tale of martians who differ little from men physically but are comparatively advanced in ethics, social and physical sciences. Since they are more advanced, Lasswitz reasoned, they will be the first to visit us and not vice versa.1038

The second important work is the aforementioned War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.1951 The interaction of man and alien is explored realistically for the first time. Man must realize that he may someday face enemies with "minds that are to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle."1951 We must also learn humility, we discover: In the end the invaders are destroyed, not by Earth's pitiful military might, but by the lowly bacteria of our planet against which the aliens have no immunological defenses.

After the early 1900's the number of scientific and fictional investigations of the problems and benefits presented by intelligent extraterrestrial races rises almost exponentially. In 1929 Hugo Gernsback coined the term "science fiction,"1896 and the cheap pulps of the 1920's gave way to the technological space opera of the 1930's and 1940's. Still more recently both science and science fiction have become remarkably sophisticated, dealing in detail with interstellar travel, extrasolar alien life, reasonable planetary environments conducive to the evolution of such life, and various particulars of possible alien physiology, sociology, and philosophy.

Xenology, the study of life on other worlds, is indeed "an idea whose time has come."


Last updated on 6 December 2008