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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Question of the week: Why are the extraterrestrials in the pop sci books so smart?

Consider the following quotations from science pundits on what extraterrestrials would be like if we ever met them:

Think again of those astronomers who beamed radio signals into space from Arecibo, describing Earth's location and its inhabitants. In its suicidal folly that act rivalled the folly of the last Inca emperor, Atahuallpa, who described to his gold-crazy Spanish captors the wealth of his capital and provided them with guides for the journey. If there really are any radio civillizations within listening distance of us, then for heaven's sake let's turn off our own transmitters and try to escape detection, or we are doomed. Fortunately for us, the silence from outer space is deafening. What woodpeckers (they are the only species on the planet to have developed means to dig holes in living trees to eat insects living under bark) teach us about flying saucers is that we are unlikely to ever see one.
- Jared Diamond, <>em

So far as I know, every such story has alien intelligences which treat humans as approximate equals, either as friends or foes. It is assumed that I will either be friends, anxious to communicate and trade, or enemies who will fight and kill, or possibly enslave, the human race. There is another and more humiliating possibility - alien intelligences so superior to us and so indifferent to us as to be almost unaware of us. They do not even covet the surface of the planet where we live - they live in the stratosphere. We do not know whether they evolved here or elsewhere - will never know. Our mightiest engineering formations they regard as coral formations, i.e., seldom noticed and considered of no importance. We aren't even nuisances to them. And they are no threat to us, except that their engineering might occasionally disturb our habitat, as the grading done for a highway disturbs gopher holes. Some few of them might study us casually - or might not.
- Robert A. Heinlein, Grumbles from the Grave

"You might imagine an uncharitable extraterrestrial observer looking down on our species over all that time—with us excitedly chattering, “The Universe is created for us! We’re at the center! Everything pays homage to us!”—and concluding that our pretensions are amusing, our aspirations pathetic, that this must be the planet of the idiots.
- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

Oh yeah? Why, exactly, must an alien race of intelligent life forms be way smarter or nobler than us?

What if we find intelligent life on a planet in another solar system - meaning that we stumble onto a vast spherical trailer park full of slack-jawed losers who drink, swear, fornicate, and fight all day, and promptly blame us for all their failures and problems, even though they and we would not have voluntarily even met. ...

Okay, then again, maybe it won't happen like that. But just why is my supposition so much less reasonable than anyone else's? Think about it. Why exactly do some people need to see intelligent aliens as so much nobler or smarter than us?

Find out more about my book,, go to By Design or by Chance?


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