anthropologist Kathryn Denning of York University in Toronto, Canada studies the very human way that scientists, engineers and members of the public think about space exploration and the search for alien life.
By Adam Mann
Before we can understand an alien civilization, it might be useful to understand our own.
To help in this task, anthropologist Kathryn Denning of York University in Toronto, Canada studies the very human way that scientists, engineers and members of the public think about space exploration and the search for alien life.
From Star Trek to SETI, our modern world is constantly imagining possible futures where we dart around the galaxy engaging with bizarre alien races. Denning points out that when people talk about these futures, they often invoke the past. But they frequently seem to have a poor understanding of history.
For instance, in September at the 100 Year Starship Conference — a symposium created by DARPA for thinking about long-term spaceflight goals — Denning noted that the conference was framed as an extension of old traditions of exploration, for example mentioning Ferdinand Magellan as an exemplary hero who circumnavigated the globe. Not only did Magellan not circumnavigate the globe (he was dismembered in the Philippines before finishing the task), his mission was not entirely laudable.
“It’s easy to forget that it’s also a story of slavery, war, betrayal, hardship, violence, and death — not just to those who signed up for the journey, but a lot of innocent bystanders,” Denning said during a talk March 30 at the Contact Conference, an annual meeting dedicated to speculation about SETI and space exploration. The misuse of the past matters when thinking about the future, she added, because it deludes people, giving them a poor understanding of how history actually moves.
Wired spoke to Denning about contact with extraterrestrials, the rhetoric of the Space Age, and what it means to be human in the universe.
Wired: What does the field of anthropology bring to thinking about space exploration and SETI?
Kathryn Denning: Anthropologists are good at looking at discourses, and the stories that people tell to structure their lives and their behavior. So there are anthropologists working on the discourse surrounding interstellar flight. And anthropologists have always worked on the phenomenon of UFO abductions and aliens on Earth and that sort of stuff.
With respect to SETI, one of the main contributions is just grounding all of that speculation about other civilizations in actual physical data. In terms of civilization or civilizations, we only have one example — Earth.
And there’s a lot of data here, which has been very poorly mined so far. If people are drawing generalizations about civilizations elsewhere in the universe that don’t even hold here on Earth, then maybe we should throw them out.
Wired: What are some instances of wrong ideas about civilization that get invoked in talking about extraterrestrials?
Denning: I think one good example is the variable of L, the lifetime of civilizations, which dominates the Drake equation. [An estimate of the number of intelligent extraterrestrials that could exist in our galaxy.]
The speculation on this has been frankly goofy sometimes. I mean you can make up basically any value of L that you like and justify it in some way. So people say we should try to use Earth’s data to look at it. We should ask what really does cause civilizations to collapse or revert to a lower order of complexity or technological regime.
And, well, we’re still working that one out actually. We have so much work to do and I think that’s important for people to understand that our models of civilization here on Earth are not as solid as popular culture frequently assumes them to be.
Similarly, many people hold outdated ideas regarding scenarios of contact. We have our iconic case studies, such as Columbus landing in the Americas or Cortez and the Aztecs. But most of those have been revamped with additional historical work in even just the last 30 or 40 years.
So when I hear that standard model of Columbus or Cortez, frankly I want to roll my eyes. For example [Steven] Hawking says — interminably and repeatedly — that when Columbus showed up in the Americas, well, that didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans. And therefore we should similarly be worried about trying to attract the attention of an alien civilization.
The problem is that it tends to misrepresent Earth’s history. These stories get invoked in models of contact with an alien society, but it’s a biased retelling of Earth’s history and it’s usually not a very good one.
The underlying narrative there is that it went poorly for the Native Americans because they were the inferior civilization. And, by extension, it would go poorly for us because the other party would be the superior civilization. But that simply wasn’t the case for the Native Americans.
One of the reasons I do the work I do is to try and have people get the history a little bit straighter.
Wired: There is an oft-heard narrative for alien contact: after we find a signal, it would revolutionize everything, and humanity would put aside their differences and come together as one. How do you take that narrative as an anthropologist?
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.
Wired: In terms of space exploration, you’ve said that it’s like we’re entering a new Space Age. Why do you say that and what does it mean?
Denning: I think the biggest difference from the past is the role of corporations. Obviously nation-states have always used contractors, but they’re now achieving a degree of independence that is unprecedented.
When you have private companies that are planning on flying not just to the moon but also to Mars, that’s new and that’s different. We don’t have the government systems in place to deal with that sort of stuff because the outer space treaty and all our international agreements are geared toward nation states.
There are new legal discourses emerging but nothing moves as fast as private enterprise. It’s been specifically set up to move quickly, so nothing moves as fast as, say, the X prize.
Wired: The 1950s/60s Space Age often invoked the rhetoric of colonization or frontierism in thinking about their goals. How do these ideas play out in modern space exploration?
Denning: The ideological stages of colonization are still well underway. As soon as you have technology on another world, that constitutes a de facto claim of some kind. So, in a way, everyone watching Spirit and Opportunity are watching Mars through these robot’s eyes.
That’s not just an interesting kind of little jaunt; it’s a way of making Mars not only human but also American. When you’re naming features on other worlds after people here, these things constitute claims.
For example, NASA renamed the Mars Pathfinder lander the “Carl Sagan Memorial Station.” Any archeologist or anthropologist will tell you that one of the most effective ways of colonizing territory, at least ideologically, is through your dead.
Wired: Is there something you’d like to see as the narrative of the new Space Age?
Denning: I’m going to borrow a term here from a scholar named Bill Kramer. He spoke at the 100-Year Starship Conference and he suggested that instead of boldly going, we humbly go.
To me that really encapsulates it. Instead of getting out there as quickly as possible and using the systems that we used here on Earth, like extracting resources as quickly as possible in order to fuel whatever it is that we’re trying to do. What if we went instead with a collaborative, conservationist stewardship in mind?
What if instead of making messes that we don’t know how to clean up, what if we slowed down a little bit? Because the urgency is manufactured. I mean, I want to see space continue to be explored. It’s cool, and there’s stuff out there that we would like to know.
It doesn’t have to be the answer to all of our needs. Sure, we can harvest sunlight from solar arrays in orbit around the Earth but that’s going to have its own technological problems and geopolitical implications.
But the main problem with energy and resources here on Earth isn’t always that we don’t have enough: it’s that the distribution is unequal, and simply harvesting more is not going to resolve that. Chances are it’s just going to continue to increase inequity, and that doesn’t work well for anyone.
I think what everybody should be learning is that these immense disparities cause profound instabilities, which you have to continue to have to deal with. So I just don’t see it as the answer.
Space colonization is held up as being the natural next stage in our social evolution. Not only that, it’s an absolute necessity for the survival of the species. But if we are our own existential threat, then how does that follow? Wherever we go, there we are.
So the suggestion that ever increasing technology is the solution to problems that have been created by our technology is barking mad.
Wired: In some sense, we have a deterministic view of history when it comes to space exploration: We will go from airplanes to spaceships to conquering the galaxy. Where does that narrative come from and what do you see as some of the downsides of it?
Denning: I think it comes from two places. One is a specific version of history that’s quite progressivist and techno-philic. It’s a version of history that says we just increase in our energy consumption, we increase in our complexity and we increase our goodness. It all ratchets up together, and it’s a kind of Singularity argument.
But it’s combined with this fundamentally apocalyptic view that the current order of things will one day be superseded by another. That’s kind of a Judeo-Christian thing. And it’s sort of a funny coincidence that the future is up there [points skyward]. In many popular space narratives, the heavens and Heaven really swap out. It sounds pretty glib but it’s so frequently suggested that it’s hard to dismiss.
The idea is that longevity – immortality, in fact — the future and our destiny are all up there. And there’s simply no logical reason that should be the case. We have no evidence suggesting we can live anywhere for long periods of time other than on this planet. In fact, the evidence is steadily accumulating that’s it’s going to be really hard to do anything else.
We have problems with bone loss and blindness. Plus we have no evidence that we can reproduce safely in space. These are fairly big stumbling blocks and so this vision of a happy shiny future in space, it’s just so mythic.
Wired: Do you see that as changing, do you think people are coming to understand the problems with the previous narratives?
Denning: I think some are and this is one of the glories of humanity. But we’ll always have a tremendous diversity of opinion.
You’re always going to have these people who think Heaven and the heavens are interchangeable. And they’re going to be looking toward the stars for all kinds of religious or quasi-religious purposes.
Then you’re going to have the extension of the planetary protection mode of thinking. The people who are fundamentally thinking about environmentalism and stewardship and inequity. And then you’re going to have the people interested in militarization, and so on.
You’re always going to have this diversity of viewpoints, of motivations, and behaviors, and I mean: Welcome to Earth.
Wired: You write in a paper (.pdf) that someone in “the physical sciences might say ‘aha, here you have X which, by analogy, means that you must have Y, which means you have Z.’” On the other hand, “a scholar in the human sciences will often not venture past X.”
Denning: Right, we rarely get as far as Z. Most of the time, anthropology is not working as explicitly with a predictive model, it’s a much more descriptive model.
Wired: How do you see that difference between the physical and social sciences play out in the SETI discourse?
Denning: I think there’s been a lot of interesting discussion around the question of whether or not decipherment of an extraterrestrial signal would be possible.
Anthropologists tend to assume the answer is, basically, no. Unless you’re in direct contact, it would be very difficult to establish enough common language. Whereas the physicists and mathematicians tend to say, ‘Well all you need is math.’
And then the anthropologists laugh and it goes on. Maybe that tells you more about the various disciplines than about whether or not contact is possible, but that’s an entertaining and interesting problem.
Wired: What do anthropologists say when they look at the enterprise of SETI? That is, what does it say about us as humans that we are searching for others like ourselves in the universe?
Denning: It’s an interesting question and you can look at it in different ways. In one sense, its just the extension of a long tradition on thinking about what might be out there, which has just gone through a new technological manifestation.
Some people ask me: When did we first start thinking that there might be extraterrestrial life? And my reply is: When did we start thinking that there might not be? The sky has always been very busy, and the default position has always been that it’s populated. That doesn’t mean anything but that ideological substrate has always been there.
Only 200 years ago, we thought there could be people on the moon. Then, we got a good look at the moon and saw, well there’s no Lunarians there. And then there were the Martians — Lowell and all that — and it wasn’t very long ago, less than 100 years ago. As our range of vision keeps on moving outwards, the aliens keep on moving outwards too. And that’s one way you can look at SETI; it’s the logical trajectory of an idea that’s always been around.
And, of course, you can look at it within a religious framework. Our 20th century western culture includes Christianity and beings populating the Heavens. But anthropologically speaking, SETI also could be seen as being a reaction to the collapse of traditional religion.
In a universe where you’re no longer expecting God to provide the order, we are forced to ask: where is the order? Where’s the sense to it all and what are we then a part of?