What An Anthropologist Thinks of the Search for Alien Life

By Veronique Greenwood | April 5, 2012 11:49 am


In the search for life beyond our planet, astrophysicists and astronomers are usually the starring characters. Through SETI, they are listening for transmissions from aliens, and through telescopes like Kepler and research in arid regions of Earth they are studying what it might take for life to arise elsewhere. But those scientists are themselves being studied: by anthropologists. Wired has a thoughtful interview with Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist who specializes in understanding how people think about space exploration and alien life. Here’s one choice tidbit, in which she describes what she thinks of one common story of first contact: a signal from intelligent life electrifies humanity, which subsequently settles its differences and unites under a common banner.

Denning: One way to read that, in the most general sense, is that it’s a narrative that makes us feel better.

One of the things that astronomy and space exploration in the 20th century has done is force us to confront the universe in a way that we never did before. We had to start understanding that, yeah, asteroids impact the earth and can wipe out a vast proportion of life, and our planet is a fragile spaceship Earth. I think this has given us this sort of kind of cosmic anxiety. And it would make us feel a whole lot better if we had neighbors and they were friendly and they could enlighten us.

One of the things that runs through the whole SETI discussion is our problems with technology. There is an inherent assumption that the equipment needed for communication across interstellar space would necessarily evolve in tandem with weapons of mass destruction. Therefore any society that survived long enough to make contact with us would have solved their technological problems. I think that’s a very hopeful take on it. These stories of contact and what it would do for us, they’ve emerged in concert with these anxieties about the universe and questions about our technology. I think in some way it’s almost like a coping mechanism.

Read more at Wired.

Image courtesy of Velo Steve / flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Origins, Space
  • Milan

    Its always funny to hear our willingness to kill each other described as a problem of technology…

  • Sunny D

    It’s always funny to hear people discuss whether greater intelligent life exists when it’s already been confirmed by the sixth man to walk on the moon.

  • Kraig

    If there is life beyond our universe that would be exciting however if there is chances are they would either be microbial and unable to send radio signals or way more advanced and using such an advanced form of communication (that wouldnt be radio frequency based) we wouldnt know anyway in which case they would probably try to visit us and history shows us that when an advanced civilization visits an unadvanced one the tendancy is to conquer and enslave. in this case lets hope for the best case scenario a sharing of knowledge and technology

  • Sandra

    Sunny D is never funny.

  • Wil


    Would you care to expound upon that statement a little bit?

  • James

    “I think this has given us this sort of kind of cosmic anxiety. ”

    Nope, very small change of me dying directly or indirectly from an asteroid.

    “I think in some way it’s almost like a coping mechanism.”

    and no

  • Jody

    While I have had an interest in cosmology for many years, unless every country on Earth agrees to disband with atomic weapons, petty political and/or religious differences, and very importantly every human on Earth must make a major shift in our energy use- humanity will cease to exist within the next 20 years.

  • Sunny D

    @Sandra:Sorry for coming off as arrogant. I can see that statement sounding like that.
    @Wil:I can’t elaborate. It speaks for itself. I think it’s the shrewdest evidence we have of their existence, and the only proof that can’t really be viewed as a person spreading false information on the internet about a subject with such a bad stigma. Dr. Edgar Mitchell (his name) may believe in paranormal phenomena, but that doesn’t discredit what he said. He spoke on many occasions, including CNN, if you want to find it on YouTube.

  • floodmouse

    “One common story of first contact: a signal from intelligent life electrifies humanity, which subsequently settles its differences and unites under a common banner.”

    How likely is that, really? When has humanity ever been united about anything? It seems far more likely that all kinds of factions would have different plans for interacting with the alien civilization. Some people would want to blow it up, some people would want to start an import business and get rich, other people would want a cultural exhange program, etc., etc., etc. Good science fiction stories would have to take that into account . . .

  • Bensabio

    I kind of sort of think that if a reputable scholar has to preface her statements with “kind of sort of,” maybe the statement wasn’t that well thought out to begin with. If scholars can’t speak with any more confidence than that of a confused teenager, maybe the language has finally kind of sort of lost its instrumental utility. RIP.

  • http://kforcounter.blogspot.com Cody

    I disagree with all the doom and gloom, apocalyptic, mumbo-jumbo. It’s very likely our pollution will cause severe pain in the near future, and in the long run an asteroid could pose a serious threat, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which at least a few homo sapiens sapiens, (hundreds or thousands even), won’t survive and eventually rebound.

    Just as small mammals survived the Chicxulub impact/K-T extinctions, how could the mighty humans with their canned-goods not survive a similar event? Same with all-out nuclear war—though neither a large-scale nuclear exchange nor a serious impact seem too likely to occur anymore. (The cost-benefit of a Russian-American nuclear war is essentially infinite cost & virtually zero benefit, and the LSST is expected to find all the remaining NEOs (unless one really sneaks up on us), and even a few years notice could be enough for our species to divert most rocks, let alone decades or centuries of warning.)

    If there ever is an ‘approximate apocalypse,’ I predict the next few generations will be strongly dominated by the families of the few truck-drivers who had the good sense to divert their canned-good cargo to their rural homes.

    For me, the excitement of finding extraterrestrial intelligence would be in part due to the insight into the likelihood of a planet developing life/intelligence/technology/etc., and in part due to the potential to advance our knowledge of mathematics, physics, and greater science in general. Unfortunately, the Fermi paradox (or more appropriately, the lack of von Neumann probes), suggests to me that there ain’t no one nearby with anything like our level of sophistication.

    I suppose I do also find it a bit sad for the reason that I think our petty squabbling over proto-historical superstitions could be quelled a bit by an indisputable demonstration that we are not the only organisms in the universe capable of sophisticated thought/communication/technology/etc.. I do expect us to discover strong evidence of extraterrestrial life in my lifetime (next 3, 4, 5 decades hopefully!), with the increasingly powerful telescopes eventually resolving atmospheric spectrums with clear chemical markers—but intelligence, and even multicellularity, are likely far rarer than microbial life. (Based on the one data point of Earth life.)

    I don’t really buy into the “they’ll be a threat” like Stephen Hawking and Kraig suggest either. It seems that any organism capable of traveling the unfathomable span of interstellar space must solve all its resource needs completely independently of any planet and star, and so will not be resource bound in the same way we are. Traveling from the nearest star to Earth for resources would be like driving from the Yukon to the southern tip of Chile for the last few drops of gasoline left on the planet—or really much worse. And this is all assuming interstellar travel is even possible, though it does seem likely given the enormous amount of time our species appears to have in the future.

    The historical lessons of exploration/exploitation are lessons after all, and may not apply to advanced civilizations. If in a million years we are out exploring the galaxy and come across a planet with an intelligent civilization roughly equivalent to 21st century humans, how compelled would we be to exploit or enslave them? (Right now we even try to avoid contaminating other celestial objects with terrestrial organisms—like avoiding crashing probes into Europa—so we can be sure if we find life that it’s unique. Though we might not be competent at it, we are making an effort!)

    In the movie Contact, Ellie says, “it’d be like going to Africa to step on an anthill…” to which her opponent replies, “and how bad would we feel if we stepped on an anthill in Africa?”, to which I always wanted to hear her reply, “I’d feel really stupid for paying thousands of dollars in travel fees just to squash a fascinating phenomena of insect culture!”

    And one last point about the matter—our civilizations seem to evolve towards greater equality, greater care and empathy for one another as well as other species, away from exploitation and violence. And many of the most intelligent individuals throughout history seem to be ahead of the curve in this respect, with the greatest visions for peace and progress. I think technological progress is closely tied to the safety and security individuals feel in a society, and mixes of cooperation and competition operating on all scales. It may be naive optimism on my part, but it is hard to imagine these same trends wouldn’t be visible in other intelligences, whether extraterrestrial or artificial even.

  • floodmouse

    @ Cody: This is a great post, and you have thought out your ideas carefully – but of course, I disagree. :)

    (1) Cody says: “Our civilizations seem to evolve towards greater equality, greater care and empathy for one another as well as other species, away from exploitation and violence.” – The most primitive known society, the Kung San in Africa, displays almost perfect equality and a high level of empathy. Recent examples of modern civilization: Genocide in German in the 20th century; slavery abolished in the U.S. less than 200 years ago (a fraction of the time the Kung San have been around, happily subsisting in the desert); genocide, child armies, and slave workers on chocolate plantations in the Third World (20th-21st centuries). I see no evidence of a trend toward greater compassion.

    (2) Cody says: “I think our petty squabbling over proto-historical superstitions could be quelled a bit by an indisputable demonstration that we are not the only organisms in the universe capable of sophisticated thought/communication/technology.” – I can’t help but think that different countries, political parties, and ethnic groups would all try to draw the alien civilizations into taking sides in our local petty conflicts. I also think the alien civilizations might have petty internal conflicts of their own, and maybe we would get caught in the crossfire.

    Differences of opinion welcomed! Impossible to expand intellectual horizons without experiencing new ideas. :)

  • tall blue ape

    well well well! 80 beats comments section is hoppin’ tonite!

    SETI: complete waste of time and money. A radio signal? Really? Carl Sagan obviously never read Vernor Vinge, is alls I’m saying.

  • carlosjerson2000

    We are all looking in the wrong place, the whole point of searching for extraterrestrial life is to find something with certain degree of intelligence, in that way we won’t feel like we are that very weird exception in the universe, we want to find out some company, to know we are not alone.
    Nobody want to find some stupid microbes, that can certainly be very exciting, but it is not what we are looking for at the end, after a finding like that, we will not stop searching, it is simply not enough. However, i think it is time to realize that maybe, we really are after all, that very exception to the rule.
    What i am saying is: an external observer is not supposed to mix with the environment that he is observing at, right? like watching an eagle hatching fall from its nest and get killed by a predator, anyway, sometimes, the observer can be stared back from the same creatures he is studing at.
    What about if we were those very same aliens that we are trying to find in space? it cannot be denied that we have visitors, there is every kind of evidences, from stone carvings to video recordings, they have been here since the beggining of humankind, and they are still out there with us, watching us, studying us, or better explained: observing firsthand the way they were evolving along the centuries like some anthropologist and historians from the future, never getting really involved with us.
    Of course, being ourselves the exception to the rule, we will always do exceptional things, like abducting some few naive and unprevented individuals to run every kind of crazy tests and analysis of our body chemistry and biology, including extracting some of our precious bodily fluids; wouldn’t that be the dream of the life of any scientist? to run all kind of experiments in a living specimen of a Neanderthal? or even better, an Australopithecus Afarensis?
    Talking about a paradox: it doesn’t make sense that they have helped us in the past? by helping ancient cultures with some valuable knowledge such Math, Astronomy and Medicine they are helping themselves to thrive in the future, and by promising that they will be back sometime in the future, they are letting us know that they CAN come back at their will, they are just not telling us that, we shuold start dismissing the silly idea that aliens are hostile beings that will come over to conquer and enslave, probably, they are very capable of such thing, but if things were like that, they would have done that long ago.
    Why come here and help humankind and after that kill everything? it is just simply nonsense.
    In conclusion, i think that the little green man is us, evolved, hairless, eyes wide open, big brains, traveling in time, not in distance, let’s face it, as long as we have a mass, we will never travel faster than light, (if we even make it at a given moment in the future), as per the little information collected about them so far, the little green fuc***s and their fancy spaceships does have a mass, and they travel fast but not enough, that means they are using other method to travel here, traveling in distance will always consume time, that is a fact, the answer is not to travel distances, they understood that already, the you of the future is not travelling distances at all, but it is travelling in time, i don´t think travelling to the future is possible either because future is something that simply doesn’t exist yet, too many variables, but somehow, travelling to the past and back to the present could be the answer, same thing happens when astronomers stare to the end of the universe, they are looking to the past right?, then, if we can look at the past through distance, we are not that far from the answer, the problem reside in our brains, we are not that advanced yet, our brain desn’t grab the key to solve the puzzle yet, it catches some glimpses, but i trust that in the future, (that could be tomorrow or some few more millenia who knows), we will be able to overcome this little detail, everything is a matter of time, right?
    What do you think, nonsense?, Please, leave a comment.

  • Sofia23

    My new theory is that every so many thousands of years aliens reconfigure our DNA and add new blood into our equation so we can move up the ladder in thinking, behavior, beliefs etc… I am not sure I can call it evolution because it involves them putting something new to what is already there. I have watched the Steven Spielberg TV series Taken and the movie Epoch and more and more I am thinking that this is what is fixing to happen in the future. The Sumerian tablets talk about the making of the new man, the Bible talks about Adam and Eve as being the first and throughout the world we read about stories like that. The Mahabharata is another tale of past alien involvement.

    I think the question is not if but rather when mankind is uplifted to a new level. God is only a personal concept; race, creed, culture and nationality are only by-products. We let go these attachments and suddenly light starts pouring in.

    Please feel free to question my theory. I do not have the real answer either…:)

  • Mike

    I think the fact that we had no contact yet is evidence that we are using wrong tools. Probably radio communication is a very short interval in intelligent life history. It is probably replaced by a more advanced technology that we are not aware of. So far we are below the radar for them.

  • Sofia23

    Quantum physicist Michio Kaku regarding Aliens… It is a must see….



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