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


26.4.4  Impact on Science and Technology

Anthropologist Leslie White has suggested that all civilization ultimately rests upon a foundation of science and technological achievement. A culture's social order and philosophical assumptions are determined to some extent by scientific knowledge and its application. Xenologists are therefore very interested in the effects on human science if extraterrestrial intelligence were discovered elsewhere in the cosmos.

Arthur C. Clarke offers a highly optimistic vision:

The things we could learn might change our own society beyond recognition. It would be as if the America of Lincoln's time could tune into the TV programs of today; though there would be much that could not be understood, there would also be clues that could leapfrog whole technologies into the future. (Ironically enough, our commercials would contain some of the most valuable information!) Nineteenth Century viewers would see that heavier-than-air machines were possible and simple observation would reveal the principles of design. The still-unguessed uses of electricity would be deomstrated (the telephone, the electric light) and this would be enough to set scientists on the right track. For knowing that a thing can be done is more than half the battle.373

In a Remote Contact scenario, the impact of the message is likely to be fairly small.15,3241 At first only very little about it will be known, save that it exists, and perhaps some general information about the source. This in itself may be very significant, for it will tell us that it is possible for technological civilizations to survive long enough to gain control over tremendous energies and devices. Such information may prove extremely valuable for all of humankind: The Von Hoerner Feedback Effect named after its originator, hypothesizes that the mere knowledge that cultural longevity has been achieved by one culture may enable others to do the same.1054 Using this idea the most harmless message with the greatest potential for good (hence most ethical) would, according to Princeton physicist Gerard K. O'Neill, be "the flash of a lighthouse, a simple message endlessly repeated carrying just enough information so that we know it was formed by intelligence."2710 For the first time in many peoples lives, they would take a look at where they stood in the galaxy and the universe.

Assuming another civilization more generously beams us all the information they have, how would this affect human science? Says Philip Morrison:

And you will have pouring into the radiotelescope's recorders, week after week, month after month, decade after decade, an enormous body of obviously interesting and meaningful postals. You will be able to read them, slowly and fitfully, because they will not be coded but anticoded; the beings who designed them will have thought very carefully how to make the meaning clear. And it will be a large volume of material, not something that the New York Times will publish in its entirety. It will be too voluminous, too technical, too uncertain, too much in need of study. So I do not think we are talking about just a normal enterprise; we are talking about an enterprise more like the development of agriculture than even the discovery of America.24

Scientific shock will thus be mitigated by the long time necessary to receive, decode, and digest the information from the stars. It will require the full equipment of human scholarship over a period of many decades -- in the words of one xenologist, it will more resemble "a discipline rather than a headline or an oracle."22

Even taking the optimistic assumptions about human radio equipment and the maximum bit rates we can receive across interstellar distances, it is doubtful that such messages could ever come to totally dominate human experience. A simple calculation reveals the truth of this. Since about 1011 humans have ever lived; each with an average lifespan of about 109 seconds, and each processing conscious data at a rate of about 10 bits/second, the net human informational heritage is roughly 1021 bits total. According to Philip Morrison, the best analogy to a message from the stars would be the impact on modern thought of the Greek world. As a body of material it can be summed up in about 10,000 books, written from Hesiod to Hero down to the Alexandrians. If we add in the number of volumes of photographs and other materials necessary to describe the architecture, climate, pottery, fish, botany and whatever else is required to give us the context of Hellenic times, then the best estimate is that the total information transmitted to us from the Greeks is about 1012 bits.22 Across a distance of 100-1000 light-years the Arecibo radiotelescope would require decades to receive all of this.

What might the messages tell us? According to B.M. Oliver:

The galactic heritage could include a large body of science that we have yet to discover. It would include such things as pictures of the Galaxy taken several billion years ago; it would include the natural histories of all the myriads of life forms that must exist in the planets of their member races, We could see the unimaginable diverse kinds of life that evolution has produced in other worlds and learn their biochemistries, their varieties of sense organs, and their psychologies. Culturally, we might learn new art forms and aesthetic endeavors.

But more significant will be the societal benefits. We will be in touch with races that have achieved longevity. The galactic community would already have distilled out of its member cultures the political systems, the social forms, and the morality most conducive to survival, not for just a few generations, but for billions of years. We might learn how other races solved their pollution problems, their ecological problems, and how they have shouldered the responsibility for genetic evolution in a compassionate society.3606

There are two major concerns about extraterrestrial messages which crop up rather frequently in the literature. The first of these might be called the Inferiority Syndrome -- the notion that a meeting with a race that is too superior might produce a kind of racial inferiority complex, a sense of worthlessness and utter futility in being human.1766,2170,875,81,24 Or, as G.C. Homans has observed: Anyone who accepts from another a service he cannot repay in kind incurs inferiority as a cost of receiving the service. The esteem he gives the other he forgoes himself.3571 This phenomenon has also been refered to in the literature as "ego blow".3663 While this reaction is certainly possible, in general students do not become disturbed when their teachers appear smarter than they. And if the teachers are so vastly smarter than the pupil (as, for instance, when Einstein teaches his dog a trick), it is likely that the student will remain more or less unaware of the vast intellectual gulf that separates them. The further apart two beings are in sentience, the less they have to talk about and the fewer are the opportunities to display crushing mental superiority.62

The second and more serious objection to the receipt of alien messages might be called the Library Effect. As Joshua Lederberg recently asked,3241 might not the realization that it's "all in the library" somewhere have a demoralizing effect on research scientists?2210,24,2879 Comments O'Neill: "Why continue to study and search for scientific truth on our own? Gone then the possibility of new discovery, or surprise, and above all of pride and accomplishment; it seems to me horribly likely that as scientists we would simply become television addicts, contributing nothing of our own pain and work and effort to new discovery."2710

Philip Morrison counters with the argument that all scientists today must face the possibility that someone has already solved the problem they are working on, or will do so before they can.3241 This does not deter research. Few have rejected schools because teachers and textbooks exhibit learning of which they were thus far ignorant.2865 Whatever the extraterrestrials may know, there will always be new possibilities (recall Gödel’s theorem), and whatever we think we are learning from the ETs will have to be checked out experimentally before scientists should rely on it. Furthermore, says Morrison:

I think the most important thing the message will bring us, if we can finally understand it, will be a description, if one exists at all, of how these beings were able to fashion a world in which they could live, persevere, and maintain something of worth and beauty for a long period of time. Again, we will not be able to translate it directly and make our institutions like theirs; the circumstances will be too different. But something of it will come through in this way. This will be the most important message we could receive. But it will be more of a subtle, long-lasting, complex, debatable effect than a sudden revelation of truth, like letters written in fire in the sky.24

One major difficulty that scientists will have to face whenever they come into possession of alien information concerns trust. Can we trust them not to harm us intentionally? For instance, assume we receive a message which, directly or indirectly, suggests the following advice: "For maximum political stability worldwide, slow your material-technological growth rate to permit your social technology to catch up." While this would doubtless be accepted by many, skeptics might point out that ETs bent on invasion and conquest would find it most convenient to have us keep our material technology in a primitive state.

There is also the possibility that malevolent alien sociologists have learned that all developing technical civilizations must pass through certain critical points, during which time "triggers" inherent in our society or sociobiology could be tripped off to cause rapid destabilization3593 or self-destruction.3594 The ETs might, for example, beam us instructions on how to build compact antimatter doomsday bombs using current (primitive) human technology; similarly with bioneering technology, advanced ecology engineering techniques, and so forth. They may be handing us "poisoned candy," too sweet for us to resist yet too deadly for us to digest. Certainly it is hard to imagine a motive on their part, but since mere information is the energetically cheapest weapon (provided it is effective) xenologists cannot absolutely rule out the possibility. In any event, we should always be extremely wary of accepting any "free" advice.3286

As Michael Michaud, U.S. Foreign Service Officer, reminds us:

Our basic interest will be to protect ourselves from any possible threat to Earth's security. Our second concern would be to assist in developing or to participate in a stable system of interstellar politics that provides an acceptable level of security for all. Our third concern would be to learn from the aliens in order to advance our knowledge of the universe and to add to the tools of civilization. The last interest, so often placed first by writers on this subject, would be meaningless or impossible if the first two concerns had not been satisfied.272,1760


Last updated on 6 December 2008