SETI: A Critical History: 8. Plausible Non-Humanoid Extraterrestrials

infrared vision

Fig. 11. What an ETI with infrared vision might see when visiting Earth229.

exposed termite mound

Fig. 12. A termite colony is a superorganism232.

I would like to include all those beasts; all of those I would take as a bonus.
– P. Morrison


The Soviet CETI team, evolutionists, and philosophers each noted that non-humanoid ETIs might have natures – cognitive structures, consciousnesses, and intelligences – that construct realities differently than humans, and that this might pose problems for a SETI-style search. Although the authors of all three "nature"-based critiques talked about non-humanoids, they were almost entirely silent as to what, exactly, a non-humanoid ETI might be like.


In the 1970s scientists began to offer just such insights. These constituted the fourth and final formative contribution to the new "nature" segment of the ETI discourse. These plausible new non-humanoids served to make the "nature"-based critiques we have been examining concrete; by doing so they constituted a kind of SETI critique of their own. They stood as a prima facie challenge to SETI's key assumption of mediocrity and to the possibility that beings with radically different cognitive structures, consciousnesses, and intelligences can communicate.


SETI graphic


Two sets of circumstances combined to produce an environment ripe for the rise of scientifically plausible non-humanoid ETIs. The first was the rehabilitation of "mind" as a legitimate subject of scientific discussion. Once the birth of cognitive science provided a vocabulary for discussing human cognition, consciousness, and intelligence, potential contributors to the ETI discourse could modify those ideas to produce non-humanoid analogs. The second requirement was advances in a wide diversity of fields, from entomology to weapons-systems research, that formed the bases of such modifications. We can illustrate this process of constructing plausible non-humanoid ETIs with a simple example. In the 1970s the neurobiologist Roger W. Sperry pioneered research into the different functions of the left and right hemispheres of the human brain. Informed by this advance in neurophysiology, a contributor to the ETI discourse might then construct a plausible non-humanoid ETI species in which two individual beings, each of whom had the capabilities of one hemisphere of the human brain, constituted a single cognitive structure, consciousness, and intelligence.


Although increasingly numerous, finding the plausible non-humanoid ETIs that sprouted up from the mid-1970s onward takes considerable digging. Moreover, the magnitude of the change taking place in the traditional ETI discourse remains obscured until these ETIs are pried loose and examined in the aggregate. There is no peer-reviewed journal, nor for that matter any other kind of journal, that regularly features ideas about scientifically plausible non-humanoid ETIs. One indication of how far ETIs are from being considered a legitimate scientific subject is the fact that the circulation of ideas about these ETIs, even very sophisticated and serious constructions developed by world renowned scientists, takes place in the popular culture.


Ideas about plausible non-humanoid ETIs are found in both non-fiction and fictional sources. The most relevant non-fiction genre is the popular exposition of ETI science described earlier. However, the genre offered only limited opportunities to potential commentators because, as we saw, for two decades after SETI's inception SETI-Science dominated the genre; indeed, to some extent the genre was about SETI during that period. As a consequence, non-humanoid ETIs struggled for recognition there.


Fictional sources offered more outlets for the scientists and other contributors with ideas about plausible non-humanoid ETIs. Fantasy science fiction is not concerned with the plausibility of its ETIs. Of course, the overwhelming majority of fantasy science fiction ETIs are plausible, but only because they are humanoid. Plausible non-humanoids are not found in fantasy science fiction. "Hard" science fiction, a hybrid between non-fiction and fiction in which the characters and plots are fictional but are based on widely accepted science, has been a particularly popular vehicle for expressing ideas about plausible non-humanoids. People wanting to express serious scientific ideas about subjects the scientific community did not yet recognize as serious, such as ETIs, have used hard science fiction for a long time. Johannes Kepler's Somnium, or The Dream, is probably the earliest example of hard science fiction.218 He wrote it in 1609 but, possibly with Giordano Bruno's charred remains in mind, arranged to have it published posthumously, in 1634.219 In the book an Icelander named Duracotus is magically transported far into outer space, to the "island" of Levania. The majority of the narrative is given over to a detailed astronomical description, based on Kepler's pioneering observations, of how the Moon, planets, and stars move about the sky, when seen from different vantage points on Levania. The Moon's craters, of such perfectly round design as to suggest that an intelligence had a hand in constructing them, inspired Duracotus to posit the existence of a race of (humanoid) ETIs he called Privolvans.220


Olaf Stapledon constructed hard science fiction's first plausible non-humanoid ETIs in his novel Star Maker. He published the book in 1938, the same year the Mercury Theater broadcast its famous radio version of War of the Worlds and Superman, the first comic-strip ETI (a humanoid), made his debut. Star Maker's narrator mind-travels through the universe where he meets a number of ETIs, including "composite beings." These beings include a "bird cloud" ETI on a planet whose surface regularly flooded. To escape the floods the animals that evolved there were small and had wings to keep them airborne until the floods subsided. Their small size prevented them from evolving brains with enough complexity to be called intelligent. As a consequence, the intelligence that evolved was a collective consciousness among the swarm of animals. This ETI's intelligence "was an expression not of the single individual organism but of a group of organisms."221 Another of Stapledon's planets was so large that gravity, rather than floods, prevented the evolution of beings large enough to have intelligence. There, a similar collective consciousness emerged, this time among insects.


cover of The Black Cloud
Fig. 10. 1957: science fiction; 2007: science.


(top) Cover of The Black Cloud (1957); (bottom) Could extraterrestrial life be found in particles of interstellar dust (like that which obscures the giant molecular cloud DR21, shown here)?


In 1957 – the year Sputnik flew – the physicist Fred Hoyle published perhaps the most-quoted hard science fiction novel featuring a plausible non-humanoid ETI, The Black Cloud. Hoyle's life-form was an enormous, widely dispersed, but highly organized group of molecules floating in intergalactic space. Lacking any biological or mechanical parts to wear down, it was immortal. Moreover, it was intelligent; its individual components functioned like neurons that communicated at the speed of light, forming a gigantic brain. Of particular relevance is the fact that one scientist in the novel tried to communicate with the cloud by radio signal – this was two years before Cocconi's and Morrison's seminal SETI paper – but died because his neurological circuits became overloaded by the experience of contact.222


Both Stapledon and Hoyle made their non-humanoid ETIs plausible by following the two-step process described at the beginning of this chapter. Each began with an instance of established science. Stapledon drew on observations about the intelligent behavior of insect colonies and hives dating back to Aristotle, and Hoyle used basic molecular chemistry and physics. They then used these to modify some aspect of human cognition, consciousness, and intelligence. It so happened that the modification both authors chose was to disperse their ETI's consciousness across a number of constituent entities.


Starting, ironically, at about the same time the SETI project crystallized, four types of scientifically plausible non-humanoid ETIs appeared with increasing frequency in popular expositions of ETI science and hard science fiction: ETIs with non-humanoid sensoria, superorganism ETIs, neutron star ETIs, and superconductor ETIs. As early as 1970, at NASA's first SETI conference, Morrison acknowledged the existence of this menagerie.


I would like to include all those beasts, the silicon beasts, the plasma beasts, beasts that live contentedly near triple stars and take advantage of the three different colors, and whatever else you can invent. Imagine whatever you want, there is plenty of possibility for invention; all of those I would take as a bonus. 223


He did not, however, acknowledge the challenge that these ETIs posed to his SETI project. This odd non sequitur was reminiscent of the night in 1962 when he began a presentation on SETI by asking the question at the core of all the "nature"-based critiques – "whether or not we could recognize living things of a very different form from our own" – but then ignored it. These episodes suggest that Morrison may have had a blind spot when it came to the possibility of non-humanoid ETIs and, possibly, to the "nature"-based critiques generally. Sagan and Drake showed signs of having a similar blind spot when they designed the Pioneer 10 plaque just a few months after Panovkin explained the problems in sending such a communication. It is possible that these critiques were too abstract to be understood by someone with little exposure to cognitive science. The increasing appearance of plausible non-humanoid ETIs gave these abstractions a concrete form. As such, they played an important role in making the critiques of the Soviets, the evolutionists, and the philosophers of science more widely accessible, with obviously unfortunate consequences for SETI.


ETIs with non-humanoid sensoria

A being's sensorium – its cognitive system and brain – filters data about external and internal environments and constructs realities from what is selected. We construct humanoid realities; beings with different sensoria might construct non-humanoid realities. In the 1970s a significant number of non-humanoid ETIs of this type appeared in popular expositions of ETI science and hard science fiction. The timing is noteworthy for two reasons. First, ETIs with modified sensoria appeared in the ETI literature almost as soon as the scientific insights that inspired those modifications were validated. Also, this particular type of non-humanoid ETI posed an immediate challenge to the SETI-Science assumption of uniformitarianism at the same time philosophers of science also questioned this assumption. SETI's organizers rarely modified SETI-Science. Perhaps the fact that they abandoned uniformitarianism was, at least in part, due to the fact that the critique of uniformitarianism was both spelled out and then illustrated with plausible examples.


SETI graphic


During World War II the German entomologist Karl von Frisch recorded the now-famous "figure 8" waggle dance that honey bees perform to communicate information to their hive-mates about the direction and distance of a food source.224 Von Frisch hypothesized that it was the bees' compound eyes, known as ommatidia, that enabled them to apprehend this information, but it was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s, or about the time the SETI and CETI teams were meeting for the first time at Byurakan-II, that enough was known about how these ommatidia actually functioned to allow entomologists to confirm von Frisch's hunch.225


The thousands of tiny lenses in an ommatidium, each pointed in a slightly different direction, result in a multitude of slightly different perspectives that allow honey bees – and a number of other animals – to take note of and remember the direction of the sun. This is because the sunss light is polarized, or radiated outward at a fixed angle. For example, if the sun's rays were coming at you in this angle, "l", when you were at the food source, and were coming at you at this angle, "\", when you arrived back at the hive, you would "know" that you had traveled eastward since leaving the food source. Experiments have shown that, by using this onboard positioning apparatus, a bee can give its hivemaster precise directions on the location of food ten kilometers away. Scaled for relative size, the bee's feat is analogous to a human giving precise directions to something over 500 miles away.


Once von Frisch's hunches became widely accepted science, they were quickly translated into ideas about possible non-humanoid ETIs. A number of commentators imagined a being whose consciousness is constructed by inputs from such compound eyes. The best treatment is by the anthropologist and psychiatrist team of Doris and David Jonas. They hypothesized that a being with ommatidia would construct a very different reality than the one we perceive. For example, time and object might be fused in ETI's consciousness, in the same way a bee sees a "10 o'clock blade of grass" or a "3 o'clock blade of grass" depending on the angle of the sun's polarized light.226


At roughly the same time philosophers of science questioned the SETI-Science assumption that mathematics must, due to uniformitarianism, be a universal language, the Jonas's suggested that ETIs with bee-like consciousnesses might never develop some of the mathematics we use.


Many circumstances that would have presented mathematical problems to us were not problems at all ... because their eyes and type of vision demanded a brain function that interpreted angles, averages, and probabilities automatically and instantly. The result of this brain function could then be seen by them as a quality – as something that is, and not as a problem that has to be calculated. 227


Others analogized from new military technology to conceive ETIs with non-humanoid sensoria. The US Army and civilian subcontractors began to develop thermal imaging technology during the Korean War, primarily to permit night-time targeting of weapons systems. Human vision only sees about one seventieth of the electromagnetic spectrum. These new technologies enabled us, in effect, to extend the range of our vision into the infrared, or heat, region and thus to "see" at night. Once the military established these technologies, ETIs with the ability to "see" different or expanded regions of the electromagnetic spectrum plausibly entered the ETI literature. Psychologist Joseph Royce, for example, hypothesized that it is "quite possible that extraterrestrial beings have evolved ... the sensory components necessary for seeing such light wavelengths as the cosmic, gamma, ultraviolet, infrared, and Roentgen rays."228


These speculations shared the common theme that reality is a being-specific construct, heavily influenced by the information made available by its sensoria. Relatively small changes in sensoria can produce important differences in the contents of a being's consciousness. In the hard science fiction novel Man Plus by Frederik Pohl a being's "great faceted eyes took in nearly an extra octave of radiation." When those same eyes were trained at a television its cognitive structure and consciousness constructed a reality more granular than what a human saw. Although the being's filters were able to admit and use more visual data than humans, doing so rendered it unable to perceive the content in the image, three girls singing and working.


SETI-Science relied on its assumption of uniformitarianism to minimize the differences between "natures" to the point where communication is possible. A common speculation in the SETI literature is that ETI's message might be in the form of a video broadcast; the assumption is that the image would be self-evident to us. However, as Pohl"s example illustrates, even relatively small differences in sensoria can produce worldviews that struggle to communicate with each other, even by means of a faithful moving-picture reproduction of the sender's observed reality.230


A final example of plausible ETIs with non-humanoid sensoria was made possible by the efforts of both military engineers and biologists. Sonar made its debut during World War I, as a tool to detect icebergs and submarines. In the 1940s Donald Griffin pioneered the study of biological sonar, or echolocation, in bats. In the 1970s the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote an essay entitled, "What Is It Like To Be A Bat?" It went on to become something of a classic in the ETI discourse. Nagel used the example of sonar in bats to explore the idea that beings with different sensorial might be mutually un-knowable.231



Superorganisms are the most common non-humanoid ETIs. Their non-humanoid natures are not the result of non-humanoid sensoria. Instead, a large number of individual entities, each of whom may or may not be intelligent, come together in a superorganism to form a collective consciousness and an intelligence different from that which its constituents might possess. There are three "sub-species" of superorganisms. The most common are those modeled after insect colonies and hives; others are modeled after computer networks and the idea that an entire planet or comet is a single living system.


SETI graphic


The idea of an insect superorganism has been traced back to Aristotle. He noted that, while individual bees are not intelligent, the entire bee hive exhibits intelligent characteristics.233 By the 1930s entomologists extended the idea to include ant and termite colonies.234 By the late 1930s the term "superorganism" had become part of the entomological lexicon.235


Before 1910 entomologists described superorganisms in terms of the social nature of the members' behavior. In that year zoologist William M. Wheeler became the first to describe a hive as a single biological entity. He noted that an ant colony exhibited the three "fundamental activities" of an organism: nutrition, reproduction, and protection. Moreover, "the most general organismal character of the ant-colony is its individuality. Like the cell or the person, it behaves as a unitary whole, maintaining its identity in space, resisting dissolution, and, as a general rule, any fusion with other colonies of the same or alien species."236


In 1938 the geneticist Alfred H. Sturtevant hypothesized that natural selection operated on an entire hive as well as on an individual member. Around this same time Stapledon constructed his superorganism ETIs. Then in 1964 the anthropologist William D. Hamilton demonstrated conclusively that natural selection operates on hives, not just on the individual bees comprising the hives, by showing that bees exhibiting altruistic behavior in which they sacrificed themselves for the good of the hive actually enhanced the preservation of their own genes.237 By the early 1970s the animal psychologist T. C. Schneirla demonstrated that ant colonies, like bee hives, functioned as individual evolutionary units.238 And by the mid-1970s zoologist D. L. Hull outlined a general theory of the evolution of insect superorganisms.239


Thus, at roughly the same time the American SETI project began to crystallize, entomologists confirmed that insect superorganisms are, from a biological perspective, "beings." This development set the stage to posit the existence of scientifically plausible non-humanoid superorganism ETIs based on the insect model, and a wide variety of contributors did so. These included science writers like Poul Anderson, hard science fiction authors like NASA's Joseph Green, philosophers including Lewis White Beck, Wilfred Desan and Nicholas Rescher, and scientists such as Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen.240


The idea of machine superorganisms entered the scientific ETI literature in 1966. The computer scientists Roger MacGowan and Frederick Ordway suggested that in a machine-intelligence ETI "an integrated brain may have its components dispersed over interstellar distances.... It can be hypothesized that there may be a single superintelligent automaton, centrally located in the galaxy."241 Probably the best known example of a machine superorganism ETI is the Borg Collective ETI featured in back-to-back episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1990; they attracted one of the highest audiences in the history of the series.242


Even more recently, the astrophysicist Gregory Benford imagined a planet in which polygonal, tile-like beings constantly bump into each other – suggesting the gating of computer circuitry – and thereby form complex patterns that comprise the "intricate ecology of the mind." They co-opt all the resources of their planet, demonstrating that "an entire world could give itself over to life-as-computation."243


A third sub-species is perhaps best thought of as superorganism ETIs based on the cybernetic model. This type of superorganism ETI has been a prominent feature of the ETI discourse since SETI began. The British chemist James E. Lovelock worked for NASA in the 1960s. Like Sagan, his colleague there, Lovelock developed instruments to detect life on Mars. While working on that project the idea occurred to him that homeostatic feedback loops – the core of a cybernetic system – might be operated by the terrestrial biota to stabilize the Earth's temperature and certain critical chemical conditions, especially in the atmosphere. For example, if the level of carbon dioxide in the air increases, the biomass of plants will increase to scrub this excess amount via photosynthesis. Lynn Margulis, a microbiologist (and Sagan's first wife), refined Lovelock's idea and aggressively promoted it. For our purposes, the important aspect of this theory – Lovelock called it Gaia – is that it ascribes functions to a planet that were traditionally assigned only to individual organisms. In this sense, Lovelock's theory is analogous to those of the entomologists who ascribed being-like attributes to a hive or colony. In other words, Gaia conceives of an entire planet as a superorganism.244 Some observers have thought of a comet in the same way.245


Isaac Asimov published a novel based on the Gaia concept featuring an ETI that took the form of an intelligent planet-superorganism.246 In 1961, the year of the Green Bank meeting, the Polish intellectual Stanislaw Lem wrote a novel about another superorganism ETI that took the form of an entire planet. Solaris is a staple of the ETI discourse; probably only Hoyle's The Black Cloud, another superorganism ETI, is quoted more often. The planet Solaris functioned as a single sentience. "It was already generally agreed that there was life on Solaris, even if it was limited to a single inhabitant." Close observations "convinced the scientists that they were confronted with a monstrous entity endowed with reason, a protoplasmic ocean-brain enveloping the entire planet and idling its time away in extravagant theoretical cognition about the nature of the universe."247 Like the Soviet CETI team, whose members were certainly familiar with his writings, Lem found the challenges of trying to communicate with an ETI that represented an enigmatic, radical Otherness intriguing.248 In his novel, Soviet scientists examined the planet-being at close range, from a space station, for a century yet found no way to communicate with it. "It's like wandering about in a library where all the books are written in an indecipherable language. The only thing that's familiar is the color of the bindings."249


SETI graphic


The expanded ETI discourse that included superorganism ETIs even began to make unscheduled – and presumably unwelcomed – appearances at SETI conferences. In his talk on "The Possible Forms of Intelligence: Natural and Artificial" at NASA's first SETI conference, artificial intelligence pioneer John MacCarthy warned the participants, including Morrison, Drake, Sagan, and Oliver, that "we tend to presume civilizations composed of many independent beings with distinct individual goals interacting with each other, but this is not inevitable."250


At Byurakan-II the topic of superorganism ETIs came up on two separate occasions. The physiologist David Hubel supposed that "in a sense one can think of a beehive or a termite colony where, in an abstract way, the individual insects would be comparable to the individual nerve cells of our nervous system. It is really unnecessary to complete the thought. One can be as abstract as one wishes."251 Later, during the long and heated discussion examined earlier, the American astronomer Tommy Gold, who told the meeting that the idea for Hoyle's Black Cloud originated with him, warned against "chauvinism" when considering the form of ETI's intelligence. Drawing an analogy to ant colonies Gold described a being that lives forever and is thus able to develop a superior intelligence. He ended by warning against assuming ETIs are humanoid. "What we can conclude from this is that we must think very widely as to what it takes to develop intelligence and not take us [sic] so much as a model of what is necessary."252 This, of course, was the very point the Soviets were trying to make at the time. Although the American SETI team did not respond to it, they certainly heard it. Sagan was paying particularly close attention. At one point Gold referred to the ant colony using the plural pronoun "they," despite the fact that he already established that the individual ants surrendered their individuality to the collective intelligence of the colony. Sagan interrupted Gold to correct his grammar, scolding Gold to refer to the ant colony as "He, not they."253


It never became clear whether the American SETI team registered the fact that non-humanoid ETIs posed a threat to their project. SETI pioneer Barney Oliver went so far as to impiously suggest in 1981 that "I can imagine, though I can't tell you how, that this [intergalactic] life, in a network of communication, could form a sort of super-consciousness throughout the galaxy that in ways we can't foresee now ...."254


Indeed, SETI itself is, in a sense, premised on a kind of superorganism. Its definition of "intelligence" is the ability to communicate by radio, and this property is best thought of as manifest at the level of a society, not an individual, for two reasons. First, the conception, construction and operation of a radio dish antenna require a large number of people. More importantly, an intergalactic radio conversation can only take place between societies, not individuals, at least not between individuals with humanoid life spans. A single two-way exchange with an ETI only one hundred light years away would take two centuries. As early as 1962 Bracewell pointed out that contact "would not be a conversation at all, but rather a two-way flow of information. It should better be regarded as contact between communities rather than between individuals, because human lives are not long enough for one individual to interact."255


There is an almost eerie absence of individuals in the SETI literature. In the first paragraph of the first SETI paper Cocconi and Morrison define SETI's subject as "societies."256 SETI's founders agreed, when they first met at Green Bank in 1961.257 Shklovskii first Soviet paper on SETI in 1960 posed the question, "Is Communication Possible with Intelligent Beings on Other Planets?" but the question he tried to answer was whether humans could communicate with other civilizations.258 In the first sentence of his opening remarks at the first Soviet CETI conference the chairman announced that "this conference is devoted to the problem of extraterrestrial civilizations."259


Thus, before SETI was five years old a convention had been established in the SETI literature that "ETI" referred to the intelligence manifest at the level of a civilization. Like the Drake Equation, another convention in the SETI literature adopted early in the project's timeline, the notion that ETIs meant civilizations impeded any discussion of individual beings or, therefore, the kind of cognitive structures, consciousnesses, and intelligences they might have.


Neutron star beings

In the 1930s astrophysicists hypothesized that the remains of certain kinds of stars could be found in a neutron star, or an exploded supernova in which the star's protons and electrons fused to produce neutrons. The gravity on a neutron star would be as much as seventy million times that of Earth's gravity and its surface temperature could be thousands of degrees hotter than our sun. Clearly these were not places in which life and intelligence as we normally think of them might originate and evolve. In 1967 Jocelyn Bell, a British graduate student, and her adviser Tony Hewish discovered the first pulsar, a kind of neutron star, and thus provided experimental confirmation of what had previously been a bizarre theoretical construct.260


In related developments, it had been known since the 1960s that the neutrons and protons that make up an atom's nucleus are, in turn, made up of constituents called quarks. The force that acts between quarks is one of nature's four basic forces, and is now known as the strong force or color force. In 1973 David Gross, Frank Wilczek, and David Politzer articulated a theory to explain how this force operates, known as quantum chromodynamics (QCD).261


As soon as astrophysicists confirmed that these massive aggregations of neutrons existed, and physicists began to explain how they interacted, ETIs inhabiting neutron stars began to appear in the ETI discourse. The British scientist John Taylor was the first to establish the plausibility of neutron-star ETIs by describing in detail how they might originate and evolve. In the same year QCD was advanced Taylor published a book in which he imagined beings whose consciousnesses were shaped by encounters with quantum mechanics, rather than with the classical Newtonian physics that makes "common sense" to us. These ETIs would have notions of space and time profoundly different from ours, given the distortions of both that accompany the intense gravity of a neutron star. Taylor reckoned that their intelligence would


initially be totally different form our own. It would have an inherently probabilistic flavour, since they would continually be involved in quantum mechanical effects, none of which is certain. There would not be, for such beings, the logic we see in the world around us: either a thing is or it is not. They would have a far wider range of possibilities: an event occurs with such and such a probability. Sense could only be made in their experience of many such events; single occurrences would not be relevant. 262


In 1980 the physicist Robert Forward brought neutron star beings to fictional life in his often-quoted hard science fiction novel, Dragon's Egg. In talking about his ETI, Forward points out that, as unlikely a candidate for intelligent beings as they may seem, the "Cheela" have the same degree of complexity as intelligent biological beings because both have the same number of nuclei, or constituent parts.264


A number of commentators raised issues that bore directly on the intersection of the SETI project and this very strange, but plausible, type of non-humanoid ETI. For example, the difference in time-frame regimes between neutron-star beings and humans would pose significant barriers to our attempts to communicate with them, or even to detect them. The psychologist John Baird noted that


units such as nanoseconds (billionths of a second) or light-years (the distance light travels in a year) have no psychological correlate in human experience, and yet either of these units could be important in trying to communicate with aliens.... The scale bounded by a person's lifetime may be pitifully small when considering dialogue between extraterrestrial cultures, where we may face a realm of time and distance that far exceeds the sum experience of the human race throughout its existence on this planet. The enlarged reference scale creates unique problems. 265


The life functions of neutron star ETIs would take place at the speed of light, making our electro-chemical pace seem sluggish. The physicist and biochemist team of Gerald Feinberg and Robert Shapiro noted that time would pass orders-of-magnitude more quickly for neutron star beings than it would for us.266 In their highly respected textbook The Search for Life in the Universe Donald Goldsmith and Tobias Owen argue that, for such beings, a lifetime would be infinitesimal. Evolution could and would happen in fractions of a second, and the species would quickly become extinct.267 One of the most thoughtful contributors to the literature describing non-humanoid ETIs, science writer Gene Bylinsky, noted that, with life-forms that last nanoseconds, "obviously, there wouldn't be any way for us to communicate with such life, or, for that matter, even to detect it, since it might be invisible."268 The science writing team of Terence Dickinson and Adolf Schaller, who specialize in astronomical topics, make the reciprocal point that beings whose life functions occur at the speed of light might not even "recognize us as a life form because we would appear frozen in time."269 Taylor reckoned that neutron-star beings, if they visited Earth, might conclude that the low gravity limited the development of intelligence here.270


As bizarre as these ETIs are, one commentator even suggested that the origin of life and evolution of intelligence would be more likely on neutron stars than on an Earth-like planet. "Natural evolution might work a million times faster than in this creaky old biological world of ours. And because the rates of processes are much higher, the probabilities of producing intelligence are also much higher on any given timescale."271


Superconductor ETIs

In 1957 – again, just two years before Cocconi's and Morrison's paper – John Bardeen, Leon Cooper, and Robert Schrieffer advanced a theory explaining superconductivity in simple alloys, at temperatures close to absolute zero. Superconductors made of synthetic materials, able to be used in more normal conditions outside the laboratory, began to appear in the 1980s, and superconductor ETIs appeared in the ETI literature at the same time.272


Feinberg and Shapiro were the first to suggest a way sentience could arise in cold, dark cryo-biospheres. They illustrated their idea with a species of ETI they call "H-bits." The H-bits' habitat is so cold that everything except the lightest elements, hydrogen and helium, is frozen. No chemical reactions take place. Energy and order come from the rotation of molecules in three-dimensional lattices. Although the source of this organization is unusual, its ability to produce complex beings should not be underestimated. According to the authors such rotations "can be as orderly as that on Earth resulting from the repeated occurrence of nucleic acid strands with a specific arrangement of bases."273


Not long thereafter the hard science fiction author Robert Silverberg published a short story, "Sunrise on Pluto," in which he depicted a superconductor ETI that astronauts discovered on Pluto. The humans were able to make out that the beings were beings, and even that they had a nervous system of sorts. "In the unthinkable cold of Pluto, how appropriate that the life-forms should be fashioned of silicon and cobalt, constructed in flawless lattices so that their tissues offer no resistance to electrical currents. Once generated such a current would persist indefinitely, flowing forever without weakening – the spark of life, and eternal life at that!"275 The astronauts failed, however, to penetrate the beings' radical alterity to appreciate that they were intelligent.


SETI graphic


Shortly after SETI's conception, contributors to the ETI discourse began to construct hypothetical, yet plausible, ETIs with non-humanoid cognitive structures, consciousnesses, and intelligences. These plausible non-humanoid ETIs initially struggled for recognition because SETI-ETI dominated ETI portraiture and SETI-Science dominated popular expositions of ETI science. In other words, SETI's humanoid assumptions crowded out the circulation of ideas about non-humanoid ETIs from the two segments of the popular culture in which they were most likely to arise.


By SETI's twenty-fifth anniversary the plausible non-humanoid ETIs had grown in number and diversity to the point where they served as concrete affirmations of the "nature"-based critiques of a SETI-style search. These critiques shared a common core: ETIs need not be – and in fact were unlikely to be – humanoid, and SETI might not be able to understand or even detect messages from non-humanoids. It became increasingly difficult for SETI's proponents to ignore this critique, especially given that it arose in multiple places. What Morrison boldly called a "bonus" in 1970 – the growing population of non-humanoid ETIs–proved instead to be a key agent in the gradual dissipation of support for the project he conceived. The disconnect between SETI and the ETI discourse that provided SETI's deep context threatened to become unsustainably great; it is to this topic that we turn in Part III.



217. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/08/070814150630.htm, accessed 10 April 2009.
218. Basalla, 25.
219. Bruno was burned in 1600 for, among other heresies, promoting the idea that ETIs exist.
220. Johannes Kepler, Somnium, in Edward Rosen, trans., Kepler's Somnium: The Dream or Posthumous Work on Lunar Astronomy (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967).
221. Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker, 1938 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), 111–2.
222. Fred Hoyle, The Black Cloud (New York: Signet, 1957).
223. Ponnamperuma and Cameron, 175.
224. Karl von Frisch, Bees: Their vision, chemical senses, and language (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press), 1950.
225. Karl von Frisch, The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees, Leigh E. Chadwick, trans. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993). See, e.g., W. H. Hiller et al, "The optics of insect compound eyes," Science 162 (15 November 68): 760-7; R. Wehner, ed., Information Processing in the Visual Systems of Arthropods (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1972); or G.A. Horridge, ed., The Compound Eye and Vision of Insects (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975).
226. Doris and David Jonas, Other Senses, 86.
227. Ibid., 75.
228. Joseph Royce, "Consciousness and the Cosmos," in James L. Christian, ed., Extraterrestrial Intelligence: The First Encounter (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1976), 188.
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231. Thomas Nagel, "What Is It Like To Be a Bat?" in Mortal Questions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 165-80.
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234. See, e.g., T. C. Schneirla, Selected Writings of T. C. Schneirla, Lester R. Aronson et al, eds. (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1972); and Eugene N. Marais, The Soul of the White Ant, Winifred de Kok, trans., 1937.
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237. William M Wheeler, The Ant Colony as an Organism, in G. H. Parker, ed., Essays in Philosophical Biology (New York: Russel & Russel, 1939), 8.
238. W. D. Hamilton, "The Genetical Evolution of Social Behavior I and II," Journal of Theoretical Biology 7 (1964): 1–16, 17–52.
239. T. C. Schneirla and Howard R. Topoff, eds., Army Ants: A Study in Social Organization (San Francisco: Freeman, 1971), Chapter 14.
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242. Star Trek – The Next Generation, "The Best of Both Worlds," broadcast 18 June 1990 and 24 September 1990.
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247. Stanislaw Lem, Solaris, trans. Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox (New York: Walker & Co, 1970), 20, 22.
248. See S. A. Kaplan, "Some General Topics of the Problem of Extraterrestrial Civilizations," in Kaplan, 247–53.
249. Lem, Solaris, 159.
250. Ponnamperuma and Cameron, 86.
251. Sagan, CETI, 77.
252. Ibid., 49.
253. Ibid., 123.
254. Swift, 105.
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256. Cocconi and Morrison, 844.
257. Pearman, 288.
258. Shklovskii, Is Communication Possible?, 5–16.
259. Tovmasyan, 1.
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266. Gerald Feinberg and Robert Shapiro, Life Beyond Earth – The Intelligent Earthling's Guide to Life in the Universe (New York: William Morrow, 1980), 381.
267. Donald Goldsmith and Tobias Owen, The Search for Life in the Universe, 3rd ed. (Sausalito, CA: University Science Books, 2002), Chapter 10.
268. Gene Bylinsky, Life in Darwin's Universe (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1981), 148.
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274. Feinberg and Shapiro, Life Beyond Earth, 390.
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