Is SETI Hopeless?

bigstock-aliens-are-near-7345091Today’s manhunt in Boston for the alleged Marathon bomber has pretty much buried yesterday’s story that NASA’s Kepler telescope has discovered three exoplanets that contain water and support life.

The discovery is interesting, of course, but to my mind a little sad because it’s highly unlikely that human beings will ever visit a star system that 1,200 light years away.  So if there’s life there, we’ll never know it.

Our best bet to actually finding out whether there is life on other planets is to continue to explore our own solar system. But when it comes to finding intelligent life, all we’ve got going are a handful of privately-funded SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) projects.

While I sympathize with the enthusiasm of the people involved in such projects, it seems to me that SETI is, as long shots go, an extraordinarily long one.  The problem, as I see it, is that it heavily depends to heavily upon the concept of parallel evolution.

Parallel evolution is an observable phenomenon on earth, with the best example being the emergence of similar animals among placentals and marsupials. The extinct Tasmanian Wolf, a marsupial, for instance, was not greatly different from the placental wolf.

Another good example are anteaters, pangolins, armadillos and aardvarks, all of whom have very different evolutionary ancestors but fill a similar ecological niche.

As I understand it, SETI assumes that that parallel evolution might operate all the way not through to the emergence of sophisticated technology.  It’s an interesting concept, but I’ve begun to question whether it makes much sense.

The reason is that I’ve been reading two books that couldn’t be further from SETI research: 1491 by Charles Mann and Collapse by Jared Diamond.

1491 is about the civilizations in the “New World” before the arrival of Columbus. Of the half-dozen or so centers of pre-Columbian civilization, only one independently developed writing.  Since there had been no meaningful contact between humans in Europe/Asia/Africa for at least 12,000 years, this represents an example of complex parallel cultural evolution.

What’s interesting, though, is that the Incas appear to have developed a completely different way of communicating non-verbally through the selection of different colors of string, tied into different types of knots.

Apparently, nobody has any idea how to even start to translate that method of communication. It’s simply too different from any other form of long-distance, non-verbal communication.

Remember, when comparing the Incan civilization to other civilizations elsewhere, we’re talking about the SAME species on the SAME planet with the SAME types of evolutionary pressures, and yet we end up with something that’s quite divergent.

On an exoplanet, even simple life would emerge with a very different set of evolutionary pressures, probably with twists and turns that wouldn’t happen on Earth.  If a civilization emerged, it seems to me that it’s a bit too “enthusiastic” to expect that such a civilization would use electromagnetic waves for communication in a manner than would be intelligible to humans.

I realize that SETI projects aren’t expecting to hear something like Klingon but instead something more like the series of prime numbers used as a marker in the movie Contact.

Even so, expecting something intelligible may be a lot to ask.

The other problem with SETI lies, I think, in the assumption that civilizations are likely to survive long enough to become “advanced” enough to make their presence known.

As the book Collapse explains, civilizations tend to fragile and impermanent, and that the kind of environmental pressure that we’re putting on the earth cannot be maintained for very much longer, especially since that demand is increasing geometrically.

This way of looking at civilization runs contrary to the “onward and upward” and “better living through science” trend that results in the kind of futuristic societies that appear in genre fiction.

Instead, when things break apart, they break apart hard–in starvation and mass killings–and often leave nothing other than ruins. Put another way, our civilization may not end up being “advanced” for more than a few centuries.

bigstock-aliens-are-near-7345091-1If civilization is inherently fragile, rather than a foregone conclusion of endless advancement, then the likelihood of finding another civilization within “listening” distance gets correspondingly small.

The window gets smaller, both for us and for “them.”

Don’t get me wrong.  The money spent on SETI is so small compared to other kinds of waste (including junk science) that such projects should continue and even have increased funding.

However, expecting such research to pay off may be like expecting to win a million dollar lottery ten times in a row.

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  1. This was indeed fascinating news but you have slightly misrepresented it. "NASA’s Kepler telescope has discovered three exoplanets that contain water and support life" should be "NASA’s Kepler telescope has discovered three exoplanets that MAY contain water and MAY support life." If the existence of exolife had actually been confirmed it would (probably) have crowded Boston out of the news!

  2. There are several problems with SETI assumptions.

    One, that technological civilisations survive long enough to become advanced. Way back in the 1980s it was felt that global nuclear warfare and the resulting civilisation collapse/species extinction was the most common fate for technological civilisations; today it is environmental/biosphere destruction. While Diamond does illustrate that civilisation collapse, at least for our species, is common — he does point out that some civilisations do pay attention to the early warning signs and change their behaviour thus avoiding collapse. Nevertheless, it would be a fair analysis that many technological civilisations do not survive their adolescence. As for ourselves, we are nearing the end of our adolescent period, and we are on the cusp of developing technologies that are extremely powerful — which, like an 18 year old, we could use in a self-destructive manner — and that hold the potential to allow us to solve the problems that we have been collectively avoiding. So, it is possible that we will collapse fast and hard via whatever horrors the militaries of the world come up with using nanotechnology, bioengineering, and artificial intelligence/robotics. Or we, collapse slow and hard as all the birds (in this case crows) come home to roost. Or maybe we only partially collapse; the bulk of the human population dies by the billions, but some of our elites and the populations that they require survive. However, this would be an authoritarian society (corporate control, state socialism, fascism, absolute monarchy) and while human, many of the values that we hold as paramount would disappear under such a society. Or, we don’t collapse at all; that we — at the last possible moment — make that sharp turn that prevents us from racing over the edge of a cliff at 180 km/hr. Problem is, we are basing our assumptions on a single case, ourselves, and our potential future, which is at best uncertain.

    Two, that technological civilisations do not undergo a technological singularity. If the transhumanists are correct, within a couple of generations humankind, as Homo sapiens sapiens, will cease to exist and there will be the myriad variations of Homo novus instead. That a technological civilisation is the last stage of a biological sentient species, before they transcend biology (in part or in whole). However, if this is the normal path of intelligent species, it must take only a couple of centuries to go from where we are right now to be Vinge’s transcendent “gods” that have little to do with space-time as we know it. I say that as we do not observe any evidence of there existing any aggressive or rapacious Type III civilisations anywhere in the neighbourhood. Perhaps our knowledge and our instruments are not strong enough to allow us to detect them, or any cosmic mega-engineering is rendered intentionally undetectable by primitives. But, at the end of the day, if technological transcendence is the normative path for intelligent life, there should be at least one species out there re-arranging the cosmos to suit their purposes who don’t care if primitives can observe their activities and our technology is powerful enough to observe such activities.

    Three, that electro-magnetic communication is the primary method for interstellar communication. Probably not. And if it is, it is going to be using very efficient narrow beam rather than broadcasting loud for all to here. We are now more quiet as a radio source than we were thirty years ago and that trend is only going to continue. Toss in the possible development of more efficient and exotic methods, e.g. gravity waves, and radio leaves the picture entirely. It may be that radio is only something that would be used by early technological civilisations and technological civilisations that survive their adolescence move onto different methods. What we can be certain of is that there exists no “galactic brotherhood”, with relay devices in every potential system, just waiting for the first radio signals to jump in and shepherd that species through adolescence.

    Four, that other intelligent life actually does think like we do. Maybe some do, probably many do not. The so called “language of science” may be more of a human social construct than many would like it to be. Furthermore, the “language of mathematics” may be more universal, but being able to expand beyond mathematics to actual concepts of philosophy may be extremely difficult or impossible.

    Five, that is radio the best way to search for intelligent life. Our own probes and instruments will soon be able to determine if life exists elsewhere in the solar system and if life’s signature is present in the atmospheres of exoplanets. It may be possible to determine that a technological civilisation exist, even from 1,200 light years away, by spectrographic analysis of that planet’s atmosphere. Still indirect evidence, but it would be strong evidence. Another way to search for intelligent life would be via interstellar probes. Within a century we should be able to build self-replicating probes that would eventually (if maximum probe velocity is .08 c) place a human probe within every system of the Milky Way within a time span of 650,000 years. Here, not only do you get to search for intelligent life, you get to explore whole systems at the same time.

    In conclusion, is SETI hopeless? Maybe. Should we fund SETI? Absolutely; if you don’t listen, you’ll never hear anything. I think that we should keep in mind though that SETI and its assumptions are rooted in the limits of our own knowledge and our own technology — so far, it has been the only way that we can search for intelligent life in the universe.

    1. Neil,

      you’re making some of your own assumptions here: civilization collapse could happen at any time during its development – and it could do so for reasons that go far beyond a technological end: Brunner, for example, posited the collapse of a high-tech civ due to economic bankruptcy; or a civ might avoid a major threat and then become so afraid that it rejects technological development (even though it retains the capacity; this is covered to some degree in Brin’s latest – Existence).

      Furthermore, there is no benchmark for the frequency of such collapse – nor does your statement take into account messages that were sent prior to its originator’s collapse but that are still on the way to us. Even if 90% of tech civs collapse, that would still leave hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, that don’t.

      In response to your second point: a tech singularity is not inevitable; nor is “being left behind” even if such should occur. Furthermore, machine-based intelligences are probably the best suited for exploration of the galaxy and for communicating with other civilizations; transcendant species are probably MORE likely to seek out other civilizations.

      In response to three: a civilization possessing better technological means of communication will not have forgotten their earlier tech and will also be cognizant of the fact that, at any given moment, there are likely to be far more civilizations using “lesser” tech to try and communicate than there are those using advanced means. And I fail to see a connection between your statement and your conclusion here; assuming for the moment that better forms of communication are used does not mitigate against a galactic brotherhood; those sensors could simply be waiting for US to start using their current technology.

      Four – seems kind of contradictory, as any technological civilization capable of creating tech capable of interstellar communication would need to be using math and science in order to get there. Philosophically they may not want to communicate, but their “thinking” can not bring about advancement unless it has a well-developed methodology for determining what works and what doesn’t.

      Yes, agreed, more SETI, all the time. Don’t abandon any possible methodology – add.

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