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


26.4.1  The Acculturation of Humanity

Anthropologists have made a careful study of the problems and processes involved when two alien cultures enter into contact with each other. In a Remote Contact, when communication is limited to, say, data transmitted on radio waves with a lengthy time delay (decades, centuries, even millennia), most of cultural change takes place by way of diffusion. Diffusion is simply "the spreading of culture elements and complexes from one society to another."888 Diffusion is inevitable when peoples of diverse cultures are in contact, whether that contact is friendly or hostile, direct or through the medium of intermediate societies. Diffusion is generally considered a rather slow process -- new elements are fitted into the existing framework, a kind of cultural jigsaw puzzle, often with considerable modification in the process.3598

Since the 1930's many anthropologists have become interested in culture contact situations that involve, not the mere adapting of new elements to the existing cultural framework, but rather the significant and rapid restructuring of one or both of the cultures in contact. Xenologists have found such studies give much needed insight into the possible effects on human society of a Direct Contact with sentient extraterrestrial beings. Since travel, commerce, and even tourism between the stars should be a simple matter for Type II stellar and Type III galactic civilizations (the societies most likely to send visitors to Earth), xenologists believe it is important to study the kind of rapid change that can result from continuous physical encounters between alien races and humanity. This process has been called acculturation by anthropologists and social scientists.1765

A number of important variables are determinative of the process, extent, and rate of acculturation. According to specialists in the field, there are a number of primary factors:

1. Power. Culture contact may be marked by equal or unequal social dominance of the communities involved. In a situation of unequal dominance one of the parties controls by force or some other kind of power a disproportionate number of the responses made by the subordinate community. In equal dominance the relationship is between peers.

2. Mutual Respect. Culture contact may be marked by varying degrees of mutual appreciation. At one extreme is a situation in which each party respects the way of life of the other. If one is larger in scale and possesses greater social power and more knowledge, these resources are used not autocratically but to help the other party develop in whatever direction the latter chooses. Such a relationship exists as the ideal in colonial policy. At the opposite extreme one community is interested primarily in exploiting the other. The situation is marked by fear, rivalry, or ethnocentrism. Neither values the other's language. Change is regarded either as something to be avoided at all costs or as necessary in order to eradicate an unwholesome way of life.

3. Hostility. Acculturation that is hostile features not only violence but also discrimination and rejection. In the western United States during the Second World War American-born Japanese experienced considerable prejudice from local Americans. After they migrated to Chicago they entered a situation of 1ow discrimination that seemingly fostered a high rate of cultural borrowing.

4. Regulation. Controlled acculturation means that the culture contact situation is regulated deliberately. The purpose of such regulation is to govern the rate of change and maintain a fairly high degrees of general persistence or stability. The rules may be formulated by the subordinate community [in a Direct Contact, that's us] by any other party involved. The joint agreement between the United States and Canada to build radar stations and airstrips in far northern Canada contains a provision that "all contact with Eskimo, other than those whose employment on any aspect of the project is approved, is to be avoided except in cases of emergency."890

5. Cultural Difference. The extent to which cultures in contact differ in technology, ideology and values, social structure, and so on will play an important role in acculturation.

6. Intensity. Contacts may involve a few selected representatives of one or both cultures, or may involve colonization and massive contact. Are the persons in contact missionaries, traders, government officials, of high or low social status? To what extent is the flow of innovations one way or reciprocal? These variables may change through time when contacts are prolonged, and the nature of acculturation will vary accordingly.888

In general, we would expect. the most ethical Contacts to be marked by (at least apparently) equal power, mutual respect, lack of hostility, close regulation, minimal cultural differences, and the lowest feasible intensity of contact. But of course we have no guarantees that all contacts with humanity will be properly managed to maintain the highest possible ethical content.

According to Ralph L. Beals and Harry Hoijer of UCLA, depending upon the variables mentioned above, several kinds of processes may occur during culture contact between humanity and an alien race. Several may be operative at the same time:

Substitution -- a new trait or complex of traits that substitutes for pre-existing traits and performs the same functions may be adopted. Structural change is minimal.

Addition -- new traits, complexes, or institutions may not replace existing elements but may be added to them. Significant structural change may or may not be involved.

Syricretism -- new and old traits may be blended to form a new system or subsystem. Structural change is apt to be considerable.

Deculturation -- contacts may cause loss of part of the culture without replacement. For example, on the economic level, substitution of pre-made goods may cause loss of technology; imposition of exterior governmental authority may cause loss of institutions or functions.

Origination -- new structures that do not have obvious roots in either culture are invented to meet changing needs.

Rejection -- the changes demanded may be so great or so rapid that a large number of individuals cannot accept them. Efforts are made to resist change. In extreme form, rejection may be accompanied by high rates of abortion and infanticide, attempts to return to the past, rebellions, and religious movements involving supernatural support or sanctions. The irrational content of large-scale rejective movements often is high.888

Anthropologists have identified end-states of cultural contact when dissimilar communities interact. In the case of a Direct Contact, humanity may find itself in one of the following four "terminal processes":

1. Social Extermination -- Extermination comes to socially subordinate communities, especially those which seek to resist a more powerful invader by force. Others may be destroyed by the ravages of disease or by internal wars fought with newly acquired military hardware. One culture loses membership until it can no longer function.

2. Stabilized Pluralism -- One culture loses full independence but persists as a subculture, forming a caste, class, or plural society. Cultural borrowing is regulated, and the origination of change is stabilized. The subordinate society isolates itself as much as possible from interaction with the socially dominant community, allowing it to preserve a large portion of its own cultural heritage.

3. Symbiosis -- Two or more communities may be brought into a state of complex interdependence as a result of culture contact. Each society becomes specialized in a different direction but finds itself dependent on the roles or services provided by the other. A new internal and external structural equilibrium is achieved. Selective change may continue, but at a slower pace. Specialized elements may be compartmentalized, new structures added without abandonment of the old.

4. Assimilation -- Also known as merger or fusion. The two cultures become indistinguishable and in time form a single culture. Assimilation is favored by five specific conditions. First, the interacting parties should have considerable similarity and compatibility between linguistic and other cultural elements. Second, at least one party should be ready to learn from the other. Third, contacts, both direct and mediated, must be frequent between parties. Fourth, assimilation is rewarded (by employment, promotion, higher income, security, or prestige). Fifth, symbols and rituals should express unity in place of emphasizing social distinctions.890

Applying the above to the situation of a Direct Contact between humans and aliens, the worst thing that could happen to us is social extermination. Since most or all of the weaker culture’s heritage is lost, this alternative represents tremendous information waste and hence is maximally unethical according to our universal standards of first contact. Unfortunately, xenologists cannot guarantee that extinction may not occur.

Assimilation is somewhat more ethical, as some of the cultural data contained in the subordinate society is preserved. But the thermoethical arguments against colonization and imperialism apply here: Imposition of the cultural elements of one group upon another destroy a functioning sociocultural paradigm which decreases the ability of the living universe (taken as a whole) to process survival information. Similarly symbiosis, in which humanity becomes dependent upon an alien society for its livelihood and well-being, represents the partial loss of various aspects of the human survival paradigm. Information is lost, hence is unethical.

The best we can hope for is some form of stabilized pluralism, in which humanity is permitted to retain most of its present structure and institutions, with careful infusions of small bits and pieces of the alien culture over a long period of time. While we'll lack full independence, change will be sufficiently regulated to allow us to retain most of our own cultural heritage and to continue evolving in our own unique way.


Table 26.3 Patterns of Acculturation as a Function of Coercion and Cultural Similarity
(after Rothstein3369)
Level of Authority and Coercion
Low Cultural
High Cultural
Low Coercion  Coexisting Dissimilar Cultures Assimilation of Subordinate
  Coexistence of structures, persistence of roles and institutions in each group Merging of roles and institutions toward superordinate group
High Coercion Culture Creation by Subordinate Group  Parallel Similar Cultures
  Emergence of new patterns of social organization in subordinate group  Segregation or apartheid  


Sociologist David Rothstein of Alfred University has studied the sociocultural dynamics of intergroup contact and is prepared to offer some predictions as to the outcome of culture contact given certain initial conditions.3369 Rothstein views two variables as primarily determinative of the adjustments to be expected during acculturation. First there is the level of coercion or force, the level of power or authority which the superordinate culture imposes on the subordinate culture during their mutual interaction. The second major variable is cultural similarity, the degree to which the worldviews and social structures of the two cultures are compatible. These two factors may be used to predict in a general way the probable result of interaction between humanity and an extraterrestrial civilization. As Table 26.3 demonstrates, Rothstein’s methodology indicates that in cases of contact with ETs (low cultural coincidence, low structural compatibility) the restrained use of force and overt authority will result in humanity retaining its own institutions and heritage. In the event of higher levels of coercion, historian McNeill's predictions may come to pass: Confronted with hostile aliens, mankind may be stimulated to produce new patterns of social organization and novel cultural elements.


Last updated on 6 December 2008