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Anthropology, Archaeology and SETI
May 23, 2014 11:05 AM   Subscribe

Archaeology, Anthropology and Interstellar Communication is a free book (PDF) from NASA. The premise is that communication with alien lifeforms will have some (cautious) analogues to interpreting past cultures, and to the work that anthropologists and linguists do cross-culturally. Among the 16 chapters are: Beyond Linear B - The Metasemiotic Challenge of Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence; Learning To Read - Interstellar Message Decipherment from Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives; and, Mirrors of Our Assumptions: Lessons from an Arthritic Neanderthal.
posted by Rumple (27 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Also available from NASA as MOBI or EPUB, as part of their history series (all linked publications there are PDFs, and AAIC isn't listed there [yet?])
posted by filthy light thief at 11:09 AM on May 23 [4 favorites]


This looks awesome and I'm definitely going to read it, and I'm glad people are thinking about this stuff already. But if we ever do encounter intelligent alien life, I predict it will immediately look starkly, completely ridiculous.

Imagine the least human-like creatures on our planet, like deep-sea tube worms or Venus flytraps, and then think about the fact that we're WAY MORE SIMILAR to them than we are to any conceivable alien. And then think of the 'smart' animals, like octopuses, with which we still have absolutely no way of communicating beyond basically "um, hi, I exist." It won't be like talking to a human with different cultural practices and language, it'll be like talking to some sort of inch-high colonial fungus that communicates through spores only 10,000% weirder than that. Imagine a being with none of our five senses. How are we gonna talk to THAT?
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:26 AM on May 23 [2 favorites]


"history series" link returns a 403 error. That said, I'm going to have to dig further into this.
posted by jgaiser at 11:30 AM on May 23


How are we gonna talk to THAT?
Traditionally, you request to be eaten first.
posted by b1tr0t at 11:31 AM on May 23


Imagine the least human-like creatures on our planet, like deep-sea tube worms or Venus flytraps, and then think about the fact that we're WAY MORE SIMILAR to them than we are to any conceivable alien.

Maybe not. To get here, they're going to need to develop a technological civilisation. To do that, they're going to need to harness fire. So that means an atmosphere with free oxygen, tool use, and a certain minimums on brain size (and therefore body size). As there are no large six- or eight-legged animals here, I'd bet that four-legs is the optimum. And the only way to become a tool-user if you've got four legs is... to stand on your hind legs. I think there's a lot of smart bipeds out there.

Vast gulf, sure. But tube worms, nah.
posted by Leon at 1:07 PM on May 23 [2 favorites]


To get here, they're going to need to develop a technological civilisation.
Just because that is the path we are on doesn't mean others must follow the same route.

A purely biological 'civilization' might propagate itself to other star systems via spores floating out of their atmosphere, or thick bacterial mats layered on the rocks that cap volcanos. The sense of time of such a civilization would be vastly different from our own. Or we could be the end (or intermediate) result of their exploration systems.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:27 PM on May 23 [2 favorites]


/me invokes the Fermi paradox on Panspermia.
posted by Leon at 1:31 PM on May 23


To get here, they're going to need to develop a technological civilisation. To do that, they're going to need to harness fire. So that means an atmosphere with free oxygen, tool use, and a certain minimums on brain size (and therefore body size). As there are no large six- or eight-legged animals here, I'd bet that four-legs is the optimum. And the only way to become a tool-user if you've got four legs is... to stand on your hind legs. I think there's a lot of smart bipeds out there.

You're assuming SO MUCH here though! DO they need to use fire... or does their planet have some other easily harnessable energy source? Does their atmosphere even include oxygen? Do they even have brains in the sense that we'd understand them, or some other biological information-ordering system entirely? Based on their atmosphere and other factors, who's to say what size they might be? The reason we have mostly four-legged large animals here is most likely down to random chance rather than some sort of inherent supremacy of four-leggedness (just read Wonderful Life for a lengthy explanation of this)- and of course, you're assuming they HAVE LEGS at all, rather than tentacles or pseudopods or prehensile fur or gravity fields.... and of course, you're also assuming that intelligence necessarily implies the development of technology as we understand it in the first place.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:32 PM on May 23


The sense of time of such a civilization would be vastly different from our own.

That's the idea I find most fascinating: An alien life form might live and act and adapt in something approaching geologic time or on much shorter timescales than we do. There's no reason to think life has to have the same time orientation we do. We might just mistake some variations on life for slow-developing natural processes. There are so many different axes along which we could differ from alien lifeforms that it's very possible we wouldn't even recognize it if we saw it.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:39 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]


You're assuming SO MUCH here though!

Fun, isn't it...

DO they need to use fire... or does their planet have some other easily harnessable energy source?

Such as?

(just read Wonderful Life for a lengthy explanation of this)

Book, I assume? Internets are patchy on this train, and the first page of Google results is... imperfect.

and of course, you're assuming they HAVE LEGS at all, rather than tentacles or pseudopods or prehensile fur or gravity fields....

When they evolve, they get out-competed by antelopes. Who then stand up.
posted by Leon at 1:41 PM on May 23


The reason we have mostly four-legged large animals here is most likely down to random chance rather than some sort of inherent supremacy of four-leggedness

Hey, wait a sec! Leg at each corner! Any more and there's more to go wrong with little increase in stability, any less and you're significantly less stable. How can that be random chance?!?!?1

It's the same reason we have more four-legged chairs than any other kind. Convergent evolution, right there. Horses and chairs. Also aliens.
posted by Leon at 1:45 PM on May 23


Such as?

Perhaps nuclear materials are so abundant that every native lifeform has evolved resistance to gene-altering effects, and they can be easily used for fuel. Perhaps they discover an exothermic reaction between two chemicals which are pricelessly rare here but abundant there.

Also, do they even need such a source? Imagine a human world where no one ever figured fire out. How would this have precluded them from developing hunting, agriculture, cities, and all the rest? I don't know that it would. It would be different, yes, but not impossible.

Book, I assume?

Yep


"Gould proposed that given a chance to "rewind the universe" and flip the coin of natural selection again, we might find ourselves living in a world populated by descendants of Hallucigenia rather than Pikaia. This seems to indicate that fitness for existing conditions does not ensure long-term survival, especially when conditions change rapidly, and that the survival of many species depends more on chance events and features, which Gould terms exaptations, fortuitously beneficial under future conditions than on features best adapted under the present environment (see also extinction event)."

Leg at each corner!

Octopuses, slime molds, fish, snakes, vines, birds, spiders, and so on find your leg-o-centrism very distasteful

There are so many different axes along which we could differ from alien lifeforms that it's very possible we wouldn't even recognize it if we saw it.

Yes- and knowing humanity, we'll probably start an intergalactic war when some space explorer blows his nose on an intelligent lifeform while trying to talk to a house or some shit.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:47 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]


Perhaps nuclear materials are so abundant that every native lifeform has evolved resistance to gene-altering effects,

Nuclear materials aren't that abundant, because they tend to decay.

I'm not saying the weird and wonderful is impossible, I'm just saying that the well-worn path probably ends up with bipeds, 1.5 - 2.5 metres tall (modulo local gravity), with forward-facing eyes.

If there is a well-worn path to intelligence, it's more likely that we're on it than that we're one of the special cases, yes?
posted by Leon at 1:52 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]


I'm not saying the weird and wonderful is impossible, I'm just saying that the well-worn path probably ends up with bipeds, 1.5 - 2.5 metres tall (modulo local gravity), with forward-facing eyes.

How did we end up with so many non-bi-pedal lifeforms on earth then? Or do you mean only to include life that looks and behaves sort of like humans in your scope? I mean, dogs are intelligent. Dolphins are intelligent. Octopuses are intelligent. Maybe not intelligent in a human like way, but whoever said ours is the only kind of intelligence that matters?
posted by saulgoodman at 1:59 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]


To do that, they're going to need to harness fire. So that means an atmosphere with free oxygen, tool use, ...

(Perhaps not.)

[Okay, youse other guys responded before I got this typed up, so please indulge me if I pile on. My hypothesis envisions a sentient critter, more or less out side of our notion of sentience, or for that matter, critters.]

If they evolved in the mid-layers of a gas giant, say, similar to Jupiter, they may have been able to develop sailing technology in directions that seem peripheral to the way we think about it. To us, a motor is just another version of a way to get a horse to pull a cart. So, to them, modifying notions of power, derived from their star, might look more like a sail than a rocket engine. We already hypothesize that interstellar sails may provide a source of impulse from "interstellar winds." So, why not just use a gas-powered pack containing a sail on a longish rope. You shoot the rope out far enough to employ the sail, which tugs you out of the immediate, steeper part of their gravity well, and eventually moves you in whatever direction you wish to travel.

Our mentality is geared to a finite life span. Maybe theirs would be oriented to a collective mind that exists independent of the cells (or analogous units) that comprise them, in which the unit's mind never really expires, but continues to be informed and modified by time, leaving the individual cells to come and go without substantially altering the unit's mind. We are a collection of myriad cells and peripheral life-forms (bacteria), none of which are recognized as the "being" that our minds think we are.

So, why not a life form that uses a gas bag instead of a skin bag as an envelope? They have no use for a screwdriver or a hammer or their equivalents. Maybe they can generate their tools using the chemical factories that have already evolved in their "bags." Maybe some of the bags are specialists of one sort of another. It's not too much of a stretch to think of a being that can scavenge what it needs to thrive by simply cruising through its environment with its mouth open. Their world may never have developed predation on any meaningful level, and maybe the struggle we see as a part of our existence never occurred in their environment. In which case they may be unaware of such notions as competition, or war, or taxes or subservience. To deal with changes, they don't need to be driven by necessity, or some notion related to survival, merely curiosity.

Our sensory skills are finite. So might theirs be finite, but they may possess a truly exotic set of sensors, which we have spent millennia to conceive and develop: infra-red or X-ray sensors, for example. They may not be time-bound the same way we are, so they may not have any of the linear concepts that we use to measure things. It took us several thousand years to learn that space and time are not two different things, so who knows what other perceptual errors we enjoy that they may not have been required to overcome.

Us: Hellooooo out there.....helloooo....

They alfabag: what's that noise?

They bravobag: I dunno, but it came from that rock.

They alfabag: yeah, whatever. It doesn't look interesting, so let's just eat it and move on.

They bravobag: That's fine with me. Mmmmm, these sparky little (radio waves) sure are tasty...

Contact with ET doesn't have to be all that scary, but I'm not going to bet the ranch on him having big eyes and duck feet. On the other hand, if they look like the guys in Independence Day, I'm not going to count on Will Smith to deal with them for me.
posted by mule98J at 1:59 PM on May 23 [3 favorites]


I'm honestly not convinced that certain octopuses don't constitute "intelligent life" right here and now.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:00 PM on May 23


"Gould proposed that given a chance to "rewind the universe" and flip the coin of natural selection again, we might find ourselves living in a world populated by descendants of Hallucigenia rather than Pikaia.

Sure, sure... but if they had evolved into our niche they still would have ended up looking like us, whatever the source material.

Look at a dolphin and a shark. Same niche, same body plan. Environment shapes evolution... and tool users on warm wet rocks will be to us as dolphins are to sharks. And you need a warm wet rock to be a tool user. It's catch 22.

I'm honestly not convinced that certain octopuses don't constitute "intelligent life" right here and now.

They're something all right.
posted by Leon at 2:18 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]


But we're discussing life that formed under conditions and in environments alien to ours. So why would they look like us? There are life forms right here on earth that it took us most of our history to recognize as lifeforms... And we have absolutely no scientific consensus on what intelligence actually is. There are slime molds that take over mammals and manipulate their behaviors. We might not want to admit they're intelligent, but they can still p0wn our own intelligence, so the distinctions between these different kinds of intelligence seems a little academic to me.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:27 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]


what intelligence actually is

Well there's the crux. For the purposes of this discussion (it's a book about communicating with aliens), it needs to be able to transmit information to us or turn up on the doorstep.

Whether anything that doesn't do that is intelligent or not is a moot point, because we won't get to interact with it.
posted by Leon at 2:39 PM on May 23


I was disappointed/alarmed when I saw that a French literary theorist was one of the authors...that's not the place one normally looks for people to make sense. But, on a quick read, the paper seemed pretty good. I'm pretty familiar with Peirce, and that bit checks out (again, on a quick read).

Sure, sure... but if they had evolved into our niche they still would have ended up looking like us, whatever the source material.

I'm with Leon on this. Aliens will likely be different than we are...but the weirder you make them, the less likely they become...
posted by Fists O'Fury at 2:57 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]


I'm with Lem on this. Aliens will likely be incomprehensible.
posted by ovvl at 4:56 PM on May 23 [1 favorite]


One key fact is that if we are not alone, then there will be a myriad of vastly different beings out there and at least some of them should be sufficiently similar to humans to share at least some concepts, such as mathematics and beauty.
posted by GeorgeDidIt at 6:28 PM on May 23


Unrealistic Beauty Standards: Extra Terrestrial Edition
posted by b1tr0t at 7:09 PM on May 23


Yes! Thanks for sharing this. Having an anthropology background myself and being a huge fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was tempted to do an independent study on this very topic a few years ago. Conjecture about what we might actually encounter aside, I do think that cultural anthropology would have a lot to offer should we ever encounter an alien lifeform. Obviously in cultural anthropology we're dealing with humans, but the deeper understanding of culture as something that makes so many of us alien to each other is what anthropology brings to the table. Any intelligent alien lifeform will likely have in common with us the manipulation of matter and have ideas built around that manipulation of matter, perhaps have ideals about family and procreating (even if that just means some sort of simple cell division and, even weirder, some sort of seppuku apoptosis), etc.

If you don't believe that we could communicate with "some sort of inch-high colonial fungus that communicates through spores" watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, which taught me more about what culture is than nearly any cultural anthropology class I ever took.
posted by katherant at 9:58 AM on May 24 [2 favorites]


Hey, wait a sec! Leg at each corner! Any more and there's more to go wrong with little increase in stability, any less and you're significantly less stable. How can that be random chance?!?!?1

You're assuming design. There is no design

Primitive creatures developed relatively undifferentiated segments with a limb per segment [think Trilobites]. Simple DNA coding could produce large numbers of segments.

Later evolution resulted in limbs becoming fewer & more specialised, so the modern world still has multiply-semented lifeforms [centipedes et al], as well as decapods, octopods, hexapods, quadrupeds.

The major land-animal groups happened to descend from fish which were quadrupeds - that's the chance bit.

Given similar circumstances, it's entirely probable that the land animals could have descended from a different group.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 9:36 PM on May 25


Why Search For Aliens? A Beautiful Answer, In Under 30 Seconds.
posted by homunculus at 12:49 AM on June 6 [1 favorite]


Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why alien invasions scare us
posted by homunculus at 12:49 AM on June 6 [1 favorite]


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