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Civilizations Beyond Earth

Civilizations Beyond Earth: Extraterrestrial Life and Society

Douglas A. Vakoch
Albert A. Harrison
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Civilizations Beyond Earth
    Book Description:

    Astronomers around the world are pointing their telescopes toward the heavens, searching for signs of intelligent life. If they make contact with an advanced alien civilization, how will humankind respond? In thinking about first contact, the contributors to this volume present new empirical and theoretical research on the societal dimensions of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).Archaeologistsand astronomers explore the likelihood that extraterrestrial intelligence exists, using scientific insights to estimate such elusive factors as the longevity of technological societies. Sociologists present the latest findings of novel surveys, tapping into the public's attitudes about life beyond Earth to show how religion and education influence beliefs about extraterrestrials. Scholars from such diverse disciplines as mathematics, chemistry, journalism, and religious studies offer innovative solutions for bridging the cultural gap between human and extraterrestrial civilizations, while recognizing the tremendous challenges of communicating at interstellar distances. At a time when new planets are being discovered around other stars at an unprecedented rate, this collection provides a much needed guide to the human impact of discovering we are not alone in the universe.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-212-2
    Subjects: Sociology, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables and Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence as an Interdisciplinary Effort
    (pp. 1-28)
    Albert A. Harrison and Douglas A. Vakoch

    During the last half of the twentieth century, rapid advancements in science and technology prompted many people to begin rethinking our place in the universe. These developments included ideas about cosmic evolution (which claims that the universe is evolving in the direction of greater complexity, consciousness, and culture), space exploration, recognition that asteroids and comets pose a threat to the survival of our species, and growing circumstantial evidence that we may share the universe with extraterrestrial civilizations (Harrison 2007).

    Astrobiology and SETI are scientific efforts to find evidence of life beyond Earth (Tarter 2011). Astrobiology is the National Aeronautics and...

  6. Part I. Does Extraterrestrial Life Exist?

    • Chapter 1 Are We Alone? Estimating the Prevalence of Extraterrestrial Intelligence
      (pp. 31-42)
      Seth Shostak

      The idea that other thinking beings inhabit the cosmos is surely more popular today than ever before. “Aliens” (the routine shorthand for extraterrestrial sentients) infest books, movies, and television dramas. Recent polls of the American public show that more than half the citizenry believes they infest deep space as well (Pettinico 2011).

      The proposal that other beings exist on other worlds dates back at least 2,400 years. To the classical Greeks, the cosmos consisted of everything they could see: the Sun, planets, and naked-eye stars. But the Greeks had the temerity to suggest that there might be other cosmoses, other...

    • Chapter 2 Encountering Alternative Intelligences: Cognitive Archaeology and SETI
      (pp. 43-59)
      Paul K. Wason

      The study of human cognitive evolution has long been an important interest of archaeologists. My questions concern whether there are any insights gained from this experience that might be of value in the search for alternative intelligences from other planets, or whether archaeological study really is just aboutuniquely humancognition.

      The answer is some of each, I think, and for this chapter I wish to approach the matter by examining the encounter between modern humans and Neanderthals. Of course, that encounter itself is known only by indirect inference and creative reconstruction. Evidence for actual encounters is indirect. There continues...

    • Chapter 3 The Lifetimes of Scientific Civilizations and the Genetic Evolution of the Brain
      (pp. 60-73)
      Alan Penny

      In considering the design of present and future Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) searches and the interpretation of their (so far) negative results, an important factor is the estimated probability of detecting electromagnetic (EM) radiation from a civilization. This factor depends on the parameters of the search itself and on the probable number of civilizations emitting EM radiation in a manner and at a level that a search would detect it. In estimating the number of such civilizations, an important factor is the average length of time that any such civilization does emit such EM radiation. This lifetime is the...

    • Chapter 4 “L” on Earth
      (pp. 74-84)
      Kathryn Denning

      This chapter proposes a renewed look from an anthropological perspective at the Drake factorL, the average lifetime of a communicative civilization. As an anthropologist and archaeologist with a particular interest in methods of reasoning about the past, I offer here not a new estimate ofL, but some thoughts about how we might investigate this factor anthropologically.

      There has been a great deal of provocative and useful thinking onL. It is a controversial term: some contend that we have no useful data on the subject, while others contend we do; some argue thatLis very short, while...

  7. Part II. Reactions to Discovering Life Beyond Earth

    • Chapter 5 Can SETI Fulfill the Value Agenda of Cultural Anthropology?
      (pp. 87-101)
      Donald E. Tarter

      Intellectual revolutions follow scientific and technological revolutions. That is what I thought and taught in courses about science, technology, and society at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Huntsville is the home of NASA’s largest field center, the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. From the 1960s to the 1990s, Huntsville played a vital role in the Apollo Lunar Program, the Skylab program, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the International Space Station. During these decades I was able to observe at close range the dynamic interplay of scientific, technological, and sociological forces that were generated by our ventures in space....

    • Chapter 6 American Attitudes about Life Beyond Earth: Beliefs, Concerns, and the Role of Education and Religion in Shaping Public Perceptions
      (pp. 102-117)
      George Pettinico

      In the spring of 2005, the National Geographic Channel, the SETI Institute, and the University of Connecticut partnered to conduct a nationally representative survey of public attitudes regarding extraterrestrial life. The telephone survey of one thousand Americans was among the largest and most extensive to date on this topic, measuring public beliefs on various aspects of life beyond Earth never before gauged in such a systematic fashion. This chapter will explore the survey findings regarding basic beliefs about life on other planets, the degree of excitement/nervousness if contact with extraterrestrial life were to be made, expected prevalence of life in...

    • Chapter 7 Cultural Beliefs about Extraterrestrials: A Questionnaire Study
      (pp. 118-140)
      William Sims Bainbridge

      Since European explorers first reached all regions of the Earth, there have been no real “aliens” or “outsiders,” and all of humanity is currently linked into a single, global community. However, it is possible that contact will soon be made with a very different kind of alien—namely, non-human inhabitants of other worlds—and it is worth understanding our own degree of preparation for this event. The concept of extraterrestrial intelligence has become part of modern culture, but it holds different meanings for various groups that can be uncovered through social-scientific research. With that goal in mind, this questionnaire study...

    • Chapter 8 The Science and Politics of SETI: How to Succeed in an Era of Make-Believe History and Pseudoscience
      (pp. 141-156)
      Albert A. Harrison

      Perceived prospects for life beyond Earth have waxed and waned over the centuries, but by the mid twentieth century the notion that we share the universe with other intelligent life made a pronounced shift from fantasy to science. This transition rested in part on a long accumulation of major discoveries including the Copernican model of the universe, which suggests that our Sun and planet are not privileged, and Darwin’s theory of evolution, which contends that life and intelligence are the result of entirely natural processes that could occur anywhere (Dick 1996). Perhaps the defining moments came in 1959 when Giuseppe...

  8. Part III. Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence

    • Chapter 9 Cultural Aspects of Interstellar Communication
      (pp. 159-169)
      Carl L. DeVito

      In our discussions of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), particularly when we focus on the technical problems posed by interstellar communication, we can easily forget just what a momentous event the detection of an alien signal would be. Reactions would range from strong positive interest all the way to fear and paranoia (Harrison 1997).

      Some will want to study the signal, seeking assurance that it is real. Some will caution against any response, feeling that it is better to listen silently and learn all we can before we even consider communication (Shklovskiĭ and Sagan 1966). There are many ways...

    • Chapter 10 Cosmic Storytelling: Primitive Observables as Rosetta Analogies
      (pp. 170-190)
      Harry Letaw Jr.

      The mystique of imagined extraterrestrial civilizations living, dying, and conducting their affairs in far-distant kingdoms among the stars has likely stirred the minds of children for time immemorial. Their mothers have responded to the question “Do people live there?” by gently declaring that we do not know. And that answer stands today in the galactic realm, although it is now resolved negatively for our Moon and, arguably, for several of our planetary neighbors.

      The literature of comic strips, motion pictures, and novels of the particularly wide-ranging genre of science fiction continues to feed the imaginations of both children and consenting...

    • Chapter 11 Direct Contact with Extraterrestrials via Computer Emulation
      (pp. 191-202)
      William Sims Bainbridge

      Radio transmission of human personalities to other stars is a logical corollary of personality capture, the process of gathering sufficient information about a human being’s memories, thoughts, and feelings to allow emulation of the person in a computer, information system, or robot. Steady progress in artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and personality capture raises the very real possibility of transmitting functional avatars of human beings to corresponding extraterrestrial civilizations, and vice versa. These avatars would be high-fidelity autonomous agents capable of perceiving, thinking, and acting in manners very similar to the humans and ETs on which they are based.

      When I...

    • Chapter 12 The Inscrutable Names of God: The Jesuit Missions of New France as a Model for SETI-Related Spiritual Questions
      (pp. 203-213)
      Jason T. Kuznicki

      To date, much of the literature about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) produced in scientific circles has, predictably, revolved around the scientific and technical aspects of the endeavor. In a sense, this is perfectly natural, as we have only recently mastered some of the technologies that might allow communication in the first place. Yet even those messages that we have deliberately broadcast, such as the 1975 Arecibo or the 1999 Dutil-Dumas signals, have often been essentially scientific as well (DeVito and Oehrle 1990).¹ Ironically, any intelligence receiving these signals may already have mastered much of the basic science communicated...

    • Chapter 13 ET Phone Darwin: What Can an Evolutionary Understanding of Animal Communication and Art Contribute to Our Understanding of Methods for Interstellar Communication?
      (pp. 214-225)
      Kathryn Coe, Craig T. Palmer and Christina Pomianek

      In this chapter we shall examine what an evolutionarily informed approach to social behavior in general, and communication and art in particular, can contribute to attempts to communicate with unseen and unknown forms of extraterrestrial life. After a quick overview of evolutionary theory, we take a brief look at the evolution of sociality as we assume that the specializations necessary for the evolution of complex and advanced systems of communication will evolve in other places as they have evolved here on Earth, namely in a social species. Next, we briefly define and summarize communication in an evolutionary context. Then, we...

    • Chapter 14 A Journalistic Perspective on SETI-Related Message Composition
      (pp. 226-235)
      Morris Jones

      The planet Earth is awash in mass communications, almost exclusively in the form of humans trying to communicate with other humans. Attempts by the human race to communicate with other civilizations in the universe are extremely rare. But this has not prevented a small and interdisciplinary pool of scholars from planning communication with other worlds.

      The design of communications strategies and the messages to be communicated have mostly been addressed by scientists in fields such as mathematics, computer science, physics, and linguistics. This has arisen out of the historical origins and technical challenges of attempting to communicate with extraterrestrials. The...

  9. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. 236-239)
  10. Index
    (pp. 240-250)