To Find Alien Life, Expect the Unexpected

Highlights of a Library of Congress symposium on first contact with extraterrestrial life

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Will life be the same everywhere?

Last week experts from a variety of fields answered a call from Steven Dick, the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology at the Library of Congress, to meet for two days and discuss the possible discovery of extraterrestrial life and the impact such a discovery would have on society. The symposium consisted of individual talks and panel discussions, along with remarks by Rep. Lamar Smith, chair of the House science committee, Mary Voytek of NASA’s astrobiology program, and Steven Dick, who spoke on how far we have advanced our understanding.

Some spectators from the media and “UFOlogists” in the audience may have been disappointed when Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute  opened by stating that no signal from extraterrestrial intelligent beings has been discovered as yet. On the first afternoon I gave a talk about the “Landscape of Life,” which—as philosopher of science Carlos Mariscal put it—is extremely difficult to evaluate, since N still equals 1: There is only one biosphere we know of. And given that life on Earth is already extremely diverse, we can only image how diverse it would be in the universe.

Neuroscientist Lori Marino continued with a presentation about the “Landscape of Intelligence” among animal species on Earth, and anthropologist John Traphagan spoke about how cultural and ethnic differences influence how we imagine aliens (and often reveal more about ourselves than about the aliens!). Marino pointed out that human interactions—such as historical encounters between aboriginal and western cultures—are often used as analogs for a first contact with extraterrestrials. A better analog, she says, would be our relationship with whales, dolphins, and other intelligent species on Earth.

The morning session of the second day included philosopher Carol Cleland taking up a question that nicely complemented Marino’s talk: What would be the moral status of indigenous microbes on Mars or intelligent extraterrestrial animals? Philosopher Susan Schneider spoke about artificial intelligence and whether we might expect to contact not organic beings, but rather a “machine mind”—some sort of robot, android, or Borg. Brother Guy Consolmagno of the Vatican Observatory then considered the theological implications of first contact. To the question “Would you baptize an extraterrestrial?” he responded, “Only if he desires so!”

The second day’s afternoon session included more elaboration on the theme of cultural bias in the field of astrobiology/SETI. Clearly, we’ll have to free ourselves of our own cultural mindsets to fathom what aliens really might be like. A technologically advanced octopus? A superior hive mind? Or maybe a smart, individually inclined warm-blooded animal like we see in the movies?

Personally, I expect—based on evolutionary biology—a social predator, probably an omnivore (eating both animals and plants). There is a reason why cows are pretty stupid. They only need to graze and run away from predators. On the other hand, the predator has to be smart to eat the cow and anticipate its future movements. And of course, there’s always the possibility of swarm intelligence, as in my own sci-fi novel Alien Encounter.

There was plenty to talk and think about at the meeting, and it’s not too soon to start the discussion. Some SETI researchers expect to detect intelligent signals within the next 25 years, given the current progress in technology. Who knows, perhaps we’re receiving the signals already, and just don’t see them or know how to interpret them!

Videos of many of the symposium talks are here at the NASA Astrobiology site.

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