Saturday, May 01, 2010


Part of the week here – maybe as an antidote to all the dire news, or maybe just because we like that sort of thing – has been taken up with the debate about how advisable it might be to let an extraterrestrial intelligence know we are here. Stephen Hawking didn’t think so. I had reservations, and now I find that Isaac Asimov decided it was, taken as a whole, quite a good idea in a 1978 essay in the now sadly defunct magazine Second Look that was devoted to the search for other intelligent life.

“Even if the speed-of-light limit is not absolute and if there are ways of getting around it, the difficulties may be too great to allow the kind of mass transfer of populations that would be involved in conquest and settlement. It may be that civilizations would use it only as a means for sending out scouting vessels to explore and to gain knowledge of the Universe. Such scouting vessels might have noted Earth’s existence thousands of years ago before civilization appeared on Earth. We would be viewed not as a world for settlement but as a world for interested observation, and if we find that signals seem to be aimed at us particularly, that may be the reason. Finally, even if advanced civilizations find methods for making flights between the stars as simple as we find flights between cities, this does not necessarily mean they would conquer us. We know from our own experience how extraordinarily contentious and quarrelsome the members of an intelligent species can be. We also know how difficult it is to make major advances such as those required in the exploration of space, when the various segments of our species spend almost all their time, money, and effort in quarreling with each other. In fact, it doesn’t really seem likely that humanity will be able to advance into space unless the peoples of Earth abandon war and agree to make the advance a truly cooperative venture. Space exploration is a global concern and can only succeed if it is a global activity.
We might argue, therefore, that any intelligent species that cannot control its contentiousness will destroy itself before it goes out into space (as we may). On the other hand, any intelligent species that makes it way out into space, succeeds in doing so only because it isn’t contentious in the first place, or has learned to control its contentiousness, if it is. It will therefore be more likely to seek a League of Galactic Civilizations than to attempt conquest. For all these reasons, because the advanced civilizations can’t get at us—because if they can they are surely peaceful—because if they can get at us and are not peaceful, we’ve given ourselves away anyhow—we conclude that it is safe (or, at any rate, involves no additional risk) to contact advanced civilizations. Finally, since it is profitable, useful, and safe to contact advanced civilizations, there is no possible conclusion that we can come to but that it is wise to contact advanced civilizations. In fact, it would be very unwise not to!” (Click here for the whole thing.)

Click here for Gustav Holst

The secret word is Gort


Nick said...

OK, they're not contentious with themselves, it doesn't mean they're not contentious with everybody else.

Nothin' brings people together like an "enemy" to conquer. The weirder and harder to understand the better.

Andy Jukes said...

I doubt we will even recognize alien intelligence when it arrives.

Even our definition of “intelligence” can only be considered Earth-centric, right?

Diamond Jim said...

Our definition of intelligence defies the intelligence.