14 December 2012


We have again been taken to task for not taking the ETH seriously.  I have commented on this in Magonia over the years, and here is another go. The trouble with the supporters of the ETH and SETI is that they really don’t have any clear idea what they mean by “advanced extraterrestrial ntelligence” and often have quite self-contradictory ideas about the presumed ETs.
It might clarify matters to find out what other intelligences think about “advanced intelligence”. First I asked one of the squirrels that inhabit my garden. He had a clear idea of what an advanced intelligence might be able to do, it would be able to locate, store and retrieve nuts far better than he could.

A rather narrow interpretation you might think, so one day when I was sitting in the garden I asked my neighbour’s cat Tinkerbelle when she came round to visit. She also had a clear idea of what an advanced intelligence might be able to do, it might be able to fly all the better to catch birds, swim underwater to catch fish, and to run like the wind all the better to catch mice. Several friends’ cats, Oscar, Morgan and the late and very much lamented Leonard agreed with her, a sort of feline consensus.
In other words they are imagined to do squirrelly things or catty things only a lot bigger and better. The point of this Christmas fairy story is that we do the same; we imagine that aliens, especially advanced aliens will do peopley things. Thus proponents of the ETH and SETI will talk of aliens being millions or billions or years ahead of us, of being to humans as humans are to barnacles, yet in the next breath they have them doing the same sort of things that late 20th early 21st century human beings do or imagine doing such as building spaceships, radio telescopes, computers and the like. They are imagined coming to earth in structured craft like upmarket lunar modules, indeed using bases like the US forces in the Pacific war, and gathering samples like astronauts on the moon. Indeed the “advanced technology” of people like Stanton Friedman already looks very dated. It just seems that the purpose of the ETs for him is simply to vicariously carry out the frustrated dreams of his youth.
It might help people to grasp what they mean by advanced intelligence, so here are some possible human and post human steps: 
  1. Broad cultural  and scientific similarity, their knowledge could be learned in say a five-year post university course, the distance between us and them is that between 1912 and us
  2. They are cultural beings like us, we could learn their culture if it was taught from infancy upwards, the distance between us and a Domesday peasant, a Neolithic farmer or a Palaeolithic hunter gatherer.
  3. They are hypercultural beings their culture is much richer than ours, their vocabulary much more complex, and so perhaps their mental processes, even taught from babyhood we would struggle to understand large parts of it. The difference between us and Homo Heidelbergensis?
  4. They are metacultural beings, most of  their mental world is as irrevocably incomprehensible to us, as art, science, literature, theology, music etc. etc. is to a chimpanzee, we may just about have vague intimations of some of it, but its depth is forever beyond us
  5. They are meta-meta-meta etc. beings, the distance between us and mice
  6. The metas run into hundreds, the distance between us and whelks ...
  7. ... and bacteria
And beyond that nothing to compare unless it is  rocks or cosmic dust. That is just a sort of ladder of our own future, aliens are going to be much stranger. Here is a possible table of alienness:
  1. They are somewhat anatomically different from us, but share the same basic physiology   (people and cats)
  2. They are physiologically different from us but share a common biochemistry  (DNA etc.)  with people and plants)
  3. They are biochemically different from us (not based on DNA) but share a common chemistry (i.e. carbon based life forms)
  4. They have a different chemistry, either a very different kind of organic chemistry or a chemistry based on some other element  (people and computers?)
  5. They aren’t based on atoms and molecules at all, but something else
Please note that all the vast diversity of life on earth has a common ancestry and is part of “The One Kindred” (and that might apply to possible Martian microbes if they share a common ancestry connected through meteorite exchange.   Real aliens will  have no genetic connection to us, even if based on DNA or RNA and their evolutionary history will be very different, they will be genetically  more remote from us than slime mould and sea weed. They are not going to be, pace Star Trek or Star Wars, people in funny prosthetics, who broadly look and think like us, or are likely to be engaged in bigger and better versions of our current interests. It is highly unlikely there are going to be cosmic Singapores; the universe is likely to be a much stranger and more interesting place than that.

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