The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

book covers

Review: Civilized Life in the Universe

Civilized Life in the Universe: Scientists on Intelligent Extraterrestrials
by George Basalla
Oxford Univ. Press, 2006
hardcover, 248 pp., illus.
ISBN 0-19-517181-0

One of the most fascinating—and controversial—endeavors in the history of the study of the universe has been what has come to be known as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). For the last few decades, scientists have used radio telescopes (and, in a few cases, optical telescopes) to scan the skies, looking for signals of an artificial, extraterrestrial origin. These searches have failed to identify any such signals, engendering debates on whether there are any other civilizations out there—or, at least, civilizations that can be detected with our search techniques (see “The Park hypothesis”, The Space Review, May 30, 2006; and “The economic alien”, The Space Review, June 5, 2006.) The failure to date of SETI has led some to question the effort in general: is this all just a waste of telescope resources and money? Historian George Basalla fires the latest salvo in that debate in his book Civilized Life in the Universe, arguing that SETI is perhaps fatally flawed.

Basalla’s second point, the anthropomorphic bias of SETI, is a stronger argument. Basalla, though, gets trapped in anthropomorphic arguments of his own.

Basalla, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Delaware who studies the history of science, traces the history of the study of, or at least contemplation about, intelligent civilizations on other worlds for most of the book. After an initial discussion of the early (17th and 18th centuries) belief that intelligent beings might live on the Moon, Basalla devotes a large portion of the book to an examination of Mars, whose prospects as the home of an extraterrestrial civilization soared in the 19th century, based on claims by the likes of Percival Lowell that the planet was crisscrossed with canals, and remained high well into the 20th century. (Basalla notes that Carl Sagan obtained a NASA grant to study Viking Orbiter images, looking in vain for features that might be ruins of an advanced civilization.) Later in the book Basalla traces the history of SETI from the early radio searches and the development of the Drake Equation to current efforts.

It’s toward the end of Civilized Life in the Universe where Basalla is the most controversial, leveling a sharp critique of SETI in general. As he writes in a concluding chapter:

Two powerful strands run through the scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The first strand is religion. There is religious sanction for populating the heavens with superior beings. The second is anthropomorphism. This is the tendency to describe the intellectual and social lives of those beings in human terms.

The first argument is touched upon earlier in the book, as Basalla claims that those who have believed that intelligent civilizations exist in the universe are invoking, consciously or otherwise, religious beliefs that supported the existence of life on other worlds, in particular “superior celestial beings”. However, the argument is not that convincing, at least in the present day: one need not invoke religion to hypothesize that intelligent life may exist on other worlds, a hypothesis that can be tested using search techniques like SETI.

Basalla’s second point, the anthropomorphic bias of SETI, is a stronger argument. SETI is predicated on a number of assumptions of the scientific and technological capabilities of any extraterrestrial civilizations, as well as their culture; otherwise, they would have neither the ability to nor the interest in broadcasting radio signals into the cosmos. “Many SETI scientists conclude that alien societies are little more than advanced copies of modern extraterrestrial civilization,” he writes. “If extraterrestrial societies exist, they are not simply million-year-old versions of the industrial civilizations that currently flourish on Earth.” Basalla, though, gets trapped in anthropomorphic arguments of his own: he criticizes those who believe that extraterrestrial civilizations might be long-lived by noting that civilizations ultimately become too complex and collapse on relatively short time scales. That, however, is based on the history of civilizations on Earth: why would that also hold true for extraterrestrial civilizations?

While that anthropomorphism may exist in SETI (leading one to wonder, perhaps, if it should be renamed SHETI, for the search for humanoid extraterrestrial intelligence) it’s hardly clear that this is a fatal flaw in the effort. Basalla argues that anthropomorphism is deeply embedded in science in general, yet we do not give up on other areas of research because of that. Recognizing that anthropomorphism is important so that scientists and the public alike can understand the limitations of SETI, but not discard it entirely.