Emma’s piece on extraterrestrial anthropology brings up several important points to consider when thinking about how we view potentially intelligent life in the universe. The idea that intelligent life may exist in the universe is an idea that has led to several science fiction creations in pop culture. She highlights that the popularity of the hit show Ancient Aliens has brought about contentious issues between untrained Ancient Astronaut theorists and academically trained anthropologists and archaeologists. I would add that there is a problematic consequence to the dissemination of false information from a network such as The History Channel. The persistent belief that aliens aided humans contributes to a detrimental judgment of people from the past. Academics used to perpetuate the idea that “primitive” people were subhuman and less intelligent, however we know that is not the case today (White 2007:4). Believing that ancient people were not capable of amazing feats is not only inaccurate, but also completely negates their capabilities and ingenuity.
Pop culture has also shown that the alien other evokes feelings in us, ranging from fear and dread as in the movie Aliens (1986), to a more empathetic response as in E.T. (1982). The uncertainty of not knowing who or what is out there in the cosmos sparks the human imagination. We wonder if those potential alien life forms will be like us and we can project our own fears and desires onto them. At this point in time, there is no evidence to suggest that there is intelligent life outside of Earth; everything else is speculative.
With recent space technology, planetary scientists such as MIT Professor Dr.Sara Seagar have been collecting data on exoplanets. The data shows that there is an abundance of “earth-like” planets in the universe, which are planets that have conditions and planetary properties similar to Earth, therefore have a greater potential of harboring life. These recent discoveries have made headlines and have brought about discussions in academia as well. Emma mentioned that anthropologists also research those who are in alien cults and people who believe that they were abducted. These two points create an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, we imagine difference in space: strange worlds and creatures, while on the other hand we seek other worlds that are like our own. We seem to yearn for both the exotic and the familiar.
Historian Steven J. Dick suggests, “It would seem that the social sciences, and anthropology in particular, have the potential to illuminate a subject whose central concerns are, after all, societies and cultural evolution, even if the setting happens to be extraterrestrial” (2006:3). Social psychologist Albert Harrison explains further, “Anthropology is replete with stories about the frustrations and difficulties that people, who have different languages, cultures, and ways of viewing and evaluating the world, have had understanding and communicating with one another” (Harrison 2011:68). Anthropologists can offer a unique perspective in regards to how humans on earth perceive potential life in the cosmos. Additionally, some have the knowledge of linguistics fused with cultural awareness. Those abilities can lend a hand when decision makers are contemplating whether or not we should or shouldn’t be trying to contact or detect other life forms.
If intelligent life did exist and aliens wanted to visit Earth (a highly anthropocentric point of view), what would we say to potential visitors to our planet? How should we try to contact them? Should we contact them? What would an encounter be like? In the Star Trek: First Contact (1996), there is a stereotypical scene of a small group of people aghast at the arrival of an alien with one “chosen one” who speaks to them. This scene also occurs in The Last Starfighter (1984). Yet, is that how the first encounter with aliens would play out? Anthropologists play a crucial role in this discussion, which is why NASA has recently released a massive e-book titled “Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication.” This publication examines topics such as encountering alien cultures, SETI, radio transmission, messages and cultural values. Recently, “anthropologists and archaeologists have worked on SETI-related topics through assessment of the possible evolutionary paths to intelligence; review of historical precedents for contact between civilizations; simulations of contact; and…consideration of the challenges of interstellar message decipherment and composition” (Denning 2014:97). Investigating potential contact scenarios is no easy feat. The idea is to establish some commentary for preparations, if the day does come when we make contact with extraterrestrial life. Understanding our own mirrored images of what it means to be alien will benefit not only humanity, but also those visitors from space that we may meet along the way.
Denning, Kathryn (2014). “Learning to Read Interstellar Message Decipherment from Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives.” Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication. Eds. Douglas A. Vakoch Washington, D.C: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Office of Communications, History Program Office.
Dick, Steven J. (2006). “Anthropology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” Anthropology Today. 22. pp. 3–7.
Harrison, Albert A. (2011). “The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Astrosociology and Cultural Aspects.” Astropolitics. 9(1). pp. 63-83.
White, Leslie (2007). “Man and Culture.” The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome. Left Coast Press: Walnut Creek, California.