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Alien Scientist: Alien Techno-Generation

Author: Stephen Marshall, Issue: November 2004, Topic: Alien Scientist, Science

In Guns, Germs and Steel, the anthropologist Jared Diamond argues that a technological society has an advantage over a non-technological one because of the accumulated knowledge of the society as a whole, rather than the intelligence of its individual people. In other words, the individual whose society supplies them with the knowledge of how to light a fire or split an atom will have a technological advantage over another individual, of exactly the same intelligence, whose society has not learned these particular tricks.

So a modern human who fires off a bunch of atoms in the form of an inter-continental ballistic missile is not necessarily any cleverer than a hominid who uses a bunch of atoms in the form of a large rock to hit another hominid over the head with. And although we may feel satisfied that we know so much more than the ancients about, say, the structure of the cosmos, the ancient astronomers individually understood much more about the motions of the stars and planets - even from a flat-earth perspective - than many modern people, most of whom could probably not identify any specific astronomical object beyond the sun and moon.

When it comes to imagining what kind of intelligence might be possessed by extra-terrestrial life, we usually imagine that aliens who make it to Earth must be from an advanced civilisation. But, remembering not to confuse collective technological capacity and individual intelligence, we should not be surprised to be gatecrashed by some really stupid aliens joyriding in the most advanced starship, or visited by a rustic space-raft piloted by some seriously cerebral but scientifically backward aliens, with little more than an astrological grasp of celestial logistics.

To help understand how these scenarios might come to pass, we could consider how some civilisations become more technologically advanced than others in the first place. According to Diamond's analysis of Earthlings, it's partly an accident of local circumstance, in that some peoples were blessed with an environment better equipped to harness for human ends than others. Some societies simply had a more user-friendly habitat, with a better set of flora and fauna to work with - tasty and easy-to-grow plants, and animals that could be readily tamed and trained, milked and fattened, and finally mulched back into the ground, all for humanity's benefit.

Similarly, there must be a variation in environments favourable for alien life to develop the intellectual and technological capacity to explore other worlds. Some extra-terrestrial habitats must provide some aliens with a better starter-kit than others. One lot might be favoured by some homely sun-lit planet, replete with techno-friendly geology, self-assembly furniture-trees and naturally occurring alphabet-soup. But another lot might be stuck on a recalcitrant backwater of a planet, overgrown with poisonous plants, and populated by alien bees that don't bother making honey, or alien dogs that won't fetch sticks. Of course, we have some creatures like these on Earth - there are wasps and cats after all - but we have more than enough 'useful' partnerships with our fellow Earthlings to feel on the whole we have a good deal.

Overall, Earth wasn't a bad home to grow up in, in the first place. We are blessed with a planet that is not too warm and not too cold, but just right. This is not surprising, since in a sense 'we' wouldn't be here otherwise.

The feeling of being 'at home in the universe' can be widened to take in the 'anthropic' cosmological principle, which effectively argues that the whole universe - not just the lumps of matter and energy, but the physical laws themselves - seems to be conveniently constructed and calibrated in a way that serves to generate intelligent life. This may appear anthropocentric to some extent, as it seems to privilege humanity's place in the cosmos - though it could just as easily make a household cockroach or an extra-terrestrial sentient soup-sentence feel the same sense of self-importance.

On the other hand, it doesn't necessarily mean that our home universe is especially favoured, if we consider that the entire universe could be just one cosmic 'bubble' that managed to pop into existence for a while, rather than any number of alternative bubbles that collapsed before anyone was around long enough to notice, or write up the results in the trans-universal annals of science.

It is, in the end, through the recording and transmission of knowledge that we pass on our technological advantages to successive generations of people - if not successive generations of alternative universes.

<< Science News: November 2004 | Master Index | Sending Emergency Relief Packages to Niigata >>

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