“Preparing for Discovery”: now on your computer screen

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Credit: Library of Congress

For all you curious people who missed it and would like to tune in, the webcast of “Preparing For Discovery,” the Kluge Center/Library of Congress symposium on how we might prepare for the discovery of extraterrestrial life is now archived here.

I posted a preview of the symposium last month.

My talk – “The allure of alien life: from microbes to intelligent life” – is last on the agenda at the link above. (If you listen to it, let me know what you think, yes?) If you want to view my slides or read my full paper, look to the left (”pages”) for a link to them.

I addressed the modern history of public conceptions and perceptions of extraterrestrial life and speculated on how people might respond to the discovery of it. I talked about how pop-culture depictions of “aliens” are not about extraterrestrial life – they’re about us. I talked about the Western-white-male-centric thinking that “otherizes” people who are not like “us” – including fictional intelligent aliens (who are almost always “bad”). And I critiqued what I view as the ideology of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

I attended the symposium in its entirety and found it stimulating and thought-provoking. While all talks were interesting, I’ll mention just a few.

Planetary scientist Dirk Schulze-Makuch gave a fascinating talk about the striking diversity of life on Earth, speculating about the sorts of life that might be able to thrive in some extreme extraterrestrial environments, such as his favorite, Saturn’s moon Titan. (His slide show was terrific, check it out.)

Neuroscientist Lori Marino addressed “the landscape of intelligence,” arguing that the current approach to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – that is, attempting to detect evidence of technology (mainly radio waves) – rests on flawed assumptions. As to what intelligence is, its boundaries are fuzzy, there are no consensus descriptions, and “it doesn’t fit into any theoretical framework.” SETI assumes that human intelligence is the only intelligence we know. And this assumption depends on more assumptions – that human intelligence is unique and that humans are superior to other species.

In a talk entitled “Equating culture, civilization, and moral development in imagining ETI,” anthropologist John Traphagan explained how what we can imagine depends on what we think we know. Our assumptions, beliefs, values, and experiences shape our imaginings. “We” (Western white people) tend to assume that “civilization” —m and definitions of this term are vague – inevitably leads to cultural and moral progress. “There’s little evidence that cultural evolution involves moral progress…. Moral values are cultural products…and they vary dramatically from one culture to another.”

For the record, Traphagan and I were not the only speakers on the agenda who critiqued the Western-white-male-centric thinking that underlies the search for extraterrestrial intelligence…. (It’s the same sort of thinking that underlies rationales for the human exploration, settlement, and exploitation of space, and I continue to be baffled by the Obama administration’s embrace of this old-school ideology.)

The Kluge symposium was organized by Steve Dick, the second Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology (2013-2014). The first Blumberg Chair was David Grinspoon (2012-2013). (I blogged about David’s Kluge symposium last year.) NASA and Kluge did not select anyone to fill the chair for the coming year (2014-2015). Instead, the Kluge Center intends to organize a series of dialogues on astrobiology. We can assume that some sort of announcement will be forthcoming….

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