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Where Is Everybody?
Anthropology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence
By: Lee Drummond, Center for Peripheral Studies
The Stars Like Dust
Where is everybody? The theoretical physicist Enrico Fermi posed this
question some fifty years ago (in what has become known as the “Fermi Paradox”),
at a time when the scientific community was still reeling from the discoveries of
Edwin Hubble and his two hundred-inch telescope. Through that instrument it
appeared that the Milky Way galaxy, home to our sun and its planets, contained tens
of billions, not hundreds of thousands, of stars like our sun. More daunting still, the
“gaseous nebulae” described by earlier astronomers as dense clouds of interstellar
gas and dust within the Milky Way revealed themselves through Hubble’s telescope
as separate galaxies, impossibly remote and each teeming with an uncountable
number of stars. Hence Fermi’s famous question: With all those stars and,
presumably, planets out there, why were the skies, and especially the airways, of
Earth not filled with alien craft and alien radio messages? Why, in the saucer frenzy
of the immediate postwar years, did the public have to clutch at straws — a smudged
photograph here, a Roswell New Mexico incident there — to bolster its new-found
paranoia of the alien menace? They should be everywhere. But They aren’t. So
where is everybody?
Over the ensuing decades this mystery has only deepened, until it now
presents itself as one of the most intractable enigmas facing scientific and social
thought as we round the corner of the century and the millennium. As we proceed
here, I hope it will become evident that anthropology, far from having to wait out
the scientific debate on the sidelines, offers a real hope of resolving the enigma of
extraterrestrial intelligence.
The Procreant Urge of the World
Until quite recently the existence of planets around our sun was thought to be
a rare occurrence, caused by an extraordinary event such as the sun’s near-collision
with a passing star. It now appears, however, that planets are routine products of
stellar evolution, coalescing along with the embryonic star from a collapsing
“accretion disk” of gas and debris. The billions of stars in our galaxy probably have
billions of planets circling them — a few of which have recently been identified by
the orbiting telescope that bears Hubble’s name.
On many of those billions of planets, conditions are probably favorable to
the emergence of carbon-and-water based life forms. In the half-century since
Fermi posed his question, biologists and paleontologists have been as active as
cosmologists in populating the universe, and in the process demonstrating that the
old anti-Copernican, anti-Darwinian prejudices are untenable. If the cosmos teems
with stars and their planets, it also teems with the building blocks of life and, the
conclusion seems inescapable, with life itself. Complex organic molecules,
including chlorophyll and even amino acids, have been identified in interstellar gas
clouds and in asteroids and planetary debris that land on Earth as meteorites. Those
meteorites may even be responsible for the appearance of life on our planet some
four billion years ago, when Earth’s firey crust was just beginning to cool. Without
some form of interstellar “seeding” process, biologists seem at a loss to account for
the fact that DNA-based organisms, with their elaborate retinue of amino acids and
proteins, were present at the earliest possible moment: as soon as the planet began to
be habitable, life immediately established itself. We, or our distant ancestors, may
indeed be hitchhikers in the galaxy.
Rather than a novelty, a unique product of divine creation, it appears that life
is commonplace in our galaxy, that it is irrepressible and inevitable wherever there is
the slightest chance for it to gain a foothold. Faced with this realization, the last
refuge of our prideful human egos is to assert that there is something very special
about our species, something that accounts for the fact that, try as we might with our
newfound technology, we cannot detect a ghost of a clue of an extraterrestrial
intelligence. Earth may not be the center of the universe, nor the solitary cradle of
life in a barren cosmos, but, we like to tell ourselves, humanity does possess a
unique quality that sets us apart from other life forms. Call it consciousness, mind,
spirit, or even soul — it is that spark of self-awareness and self-determination that
distinguishes us from all other animal species on earth and, supposedly, throughout
the galaxy.
You’re Not From Around Here, Are You?
Unhappily, things are not so simple as this self-congratulatory view of
ourselves assumes. I want to suggest that, as in much of life, the answer to Fermi’s
question is a paradox: There are almost certainly plenty of “everybodys” out there,
but they’re not like anybody — or anything — we have known or even imagined.
As is typical of a paradox, the “We are alone in the universe” thesis contains the
seeds of its undoing — the dialectical tidal forces that pull it apart. If our human
intelligence (our “consciousness,” “mind,” or “soul”) is so very special, then why
shouldn’t their alien intelligence(s) be correspondingly special — why shouldn’t
they also possess unique properties that defy easy representation, in the form of
flying saucers, messages on radio telescopes, or photographs in the National
Enquirer? I do not mean this proposal to be obscure; rather, I believe this is just the
direction in which an anthropological answer to Fermi’s question leads.
For anthropology, and not cosmology or biology, is the “science of
humanity.” Presumably, we make it our business to investigate what, if anything, is
unique to humanity, and how humanity came by its (possibly) unique traits through
the processes of hominid biological and cultural evolution. As anthropologists we
should be acutely sensitive to (and suspicious of) any argument that emphasizes the
uniqueness of humankind — but not simply because of the “uniqueness” claim. The
real problem with the “We are alone” thesis is not that it confers a unique nature on
humanity, but that it insists on assigning us a privileged status. Anthropologists are
all too familiar with this view. Although it pretends to celebrate humankind, it is
just as mistaken, and just as repugnant, as other hierarchical, anthropocentric, or
ethnocentric arguments that have been advanced through the ages to rationalize
oppression and ignorance. Threaten Copernicus, censure Galileo, keep Darwin out
of the classroom, solve the “native problem,” blast the Martian invaders out of the
skies over Washington D. C., and please, oh please, Lord, let us be Your Chosen
People. We are not only alone, but, like Shelley’s Ozymandias, masters of all we
survey. (See below)
Stripped of its xenophobia, an egalitarian version of the “We are alone”
thesis directs us to the answer we seek here. That answer, however, is so deflating
to those prideful human egos I mentioned a moment ago that it is only now
receiving serious scientific attention. Much groundwork has been laid however —
in paleontology by Stephen Gould and in that branch of complexity theory dealing
with “artificial life” by Christopher Langton, Stuart Kauffman and others. Gould
captures the key idea admirably in describing the evolution of humankind as a
“glorious accident,” a wildly improbable, wholly coincidental, and never-to-berepeated series of biological events stretching over four billion years and resulting
(not “culminating”) in the emergence of a conscious, artifactual intelligence. We are
completely unlike anything else that could ever be. And “we” just happened. No
reason. Luck of the draw.
The radical corollary to this interpretation of human evolution is that the
same overwhelming odds must apply to the evolution of sapient life forms elsewhere
in the galaxy. Whatever they are, they aren’t much like folks. Don’t expect their
bodies to have bilateral symmetry (which, Gould claims, was a luck of the draw at
work in the Burgess Shale extinction), dexterous hands, stereoscopic vision, speech,
or those soulful, fetal eyes that stare out at us from the National Enquirer, Close
Encounters of the Third Kind, and E. T.
Contrary to the hopes of graduate students staffing radio telescopes around
the world, they aren’t likely to give us a call. And if they should someday intercept
Voyager I and figure out how to operate its golden disk, they won’t know what to
make of Kurt Waldheim’s greeting (but you’ve got to hope they like Chuck Berry!).
I trust anthropologists weren’t involved in putting that interstellar gift package
together, because the selection reveals a singular lack of understanding of culturalcommunication systems. We may as well have shot a mountain bike out of the solar
system, and hoped that it would make sense when it splashed down on a watery
planet of the Tau Ceti system and was discovered by a quivering mass of cerebral
Travelers in Semiospace
Anthropologists in particular can attest to just how difficult it is to
understand an intelligence different from ones own, whether that is manifested in the
vocalizations of primates, the artifacts of Homo erectus, or the lives of Amazonian
Indians. It is so difficult, in fact, that only in the past couple of decades have
intensive field studies in primatology, archaeology, and ethnography begun to reveal
how much we had missed in earlier research.
Space does not permit an elaboration of this point, but I would like to
propose that the exceptional difficulty of interspecies and intergroup communication
arises from a fundamental aspect of sapience or consciousness: it possesses features
analogous to those of a black hole. Just as a black hole warps the physical manifold
of spacetime, so an intelligence — our own or an alien’s — warps the manifold of
semiospace, creating a deep well or sinkhole from which only distorted messages
To visualize this admittedly abstruse point, take a sheet of paper and draw a
line graph depicting the relative complexity of species, so that you sketch out an
erratic horizon: species like amoebae and bread mold are mere bumps above the
baseline; ants and wasps rate a hillock, monkeys are a small mountain and, of
course, the pinnacle towering over all the rest is humanity (the Ozymandias complex
again). As proud occupants of the peak of that pinnacle we can stare out over the
hills and dales representing lesser species — masters, indeed, of all we survey. Now
invert your line graph. You now have a contour made up of dips, declevities, and
chasms — holes that range from shallow to abysmal. The deepest abyss, of course,
is that representing humanity: our unique nature, so dear to writers over the
centuries, here condemns us to the most restricted outlook of any species. (See
Figure 1. Humanity’s Restricted Outlook (“Event Horizon”) in a Sentient Universe
To conclude in a rush, I would suggest that alien intelligences — and they
are almost certainly down there if not, as The X Files proclaims, out there — possess
a correspondingly restricted access to the universe of sentient beings. We need to
consider how “event horizons” manifest themselves in semiospace. To do that, we
may well need to reformulate the notion of “species” — including our own — as a
system of information or signification in a universe where “information” is not
simply an attribute of matter, but the basic building material of physical existence (a
world of bits, rather than its). I think this sort of approach, murky as it may seem,
will bring us closer to answering Fermi’s question, and long before that fateful string
of binary code comes in on a radio telescope aimed at a distant star.
Lee Drummond is director of the Center for Peripheral Studies, P O Box
477, Palm Springs CA 92262. Ideas previewed in this essay are developed at greater
length in Drummond’s 1996 book, American Dreamtime: A Cultural Analysis of
Popular Movies, and Their Implications for a Science of Humanity (Lanham MD:
Rowman & Littlefield), and in a long essay manuscript, “Culture, Mind, and
Physical Reality: An Anthropological Approach to the Problem of Consciousness.”
For these and other works see . Discussions with an
archaeologist friend, Michael Bisson, contributed greatly to the present work.