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Postcards from the Galactic Edge

A few scientists are trying to determine how to teach
extraterrestrials the ABCs of human culture

It's a scenario that many scientists dream about—one day, radio telescopes on Earth suddenly pick up irrefutable evidence of a coherent message, a message from across the heavens, an interstellar greeting card from an extraterrestrial civilization far, far away. Can you imagine the impact—the excitement, the anticipation, the profound implications, the philosophical tsunami that would sweep through the culture? How would we respond to that cosmic hello? How do you greet ET? What happens when planet Earth is suddenly holding the galactic talking stick and it's time to share? Well, before you to get too concerned about putting our interstellar foot in our planetary mouth, you'll be glad to know that there are those who have spent quite a bit of time thinking about this very question.

Doug Vakoch, a social scientist at the privately funded SETI Institute (SETI is an acronym for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), has an official title custom-made to elicit double takes—the Director for Interstellar Message Composition. It is Vakoch's job to explore questions that most of us have never even considered. Questions like: What aspects of human culture do we want to share with our galactic neighbors? Do we communicate the universal elements of our planetary civilization or highlight the many differences? Do we talk about science, music, art? And one of the fundamental questions to preoccupy this unusual scientist is: What to do about religion? How do we communicate the ethical, moral, and spiritual side of human culture?

Vakoch is not the first to consider these issues. The late Carl Sagan helped to fashion some of our initial forays into extraterrestrial communication with the Pioneer and Voyager spacecrafts. But today, those messages seem limited, “more a message for us than a message for extraterrestrials,” says Vakoch, explaining that there was a tendency in those messages to “avoid anything with controversy.” (There were no images of war, for example.) Also, there was a focus on scientific knowledge at the expense of giving potential ETs “a more complete picture of ourselves.” But finding a consensus on a subject like religion can be a dicey business, which is why Vakoch's work with SETI has focused more on two core concepts to communicate who and what we are to our cosmic brethren: altruism and evolution.

Altruism is obviously essential to our understanding of spirituality, and evolution is becoming more and more so every day. But how do you communicate that to an intelligent species with no human context? Evolution, which as Vakoch explains includes “cosmic evolution, geological evolution, biological evolution, and the evolution of culture,” at least seems possible to represent with imagery, but the abstract concept of altruism demands some new thinking. That is why Vakoch has enlisted some of today's best minds to tackle the issue at conferences like Encoding Altruism: The Art and Science of Interstellar Message Composition, held last year in Paris. Participants embrace the challenge of thinking about human culture from the perspective not just of another species but of a life-form that is the result of an entirely different planetary process of biogenesis and social evolution—putting themselves in the shoes of aliens, so to speak.

Still, there may be some aspects of human culture that we share with our alien friends, knowledge that is truly universal. Indeed, who's to say that the essence of our religious sensibilities might not be similar, even across the cosmic ocean? Will ET have any understanding of altruism—or of God, creativity, or emptiness? It's an intriguing contemplation. And in a world where so many are struggling to understand the perspectives of the people down the street, much less in Iraq or Afghanistan, it's encouraging to know that a few scientists are keeping the bar set high. So when ET finally calls, none of us may exactly be ready, but at least we might not make such egocentric, ethnocentric, humancentric, or Earthcentric fools of ourselves, and maybe we'll earn a little more respect from the Joneses on planet X.


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This article is from
Our Collective Intelligence Issue


May–July 2004