SETI: A Critical History
Part II Expanding the ETI discourse
Chapter 8. Plausible non-humanoid ETIs
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.
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.
|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
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.
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
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
|Fig. 11. What an ETI with infrared
vision might see when visiting Earth229
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.
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
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
|Fig. 12. A termite colony is a superorganism232
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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(7. The philosophers' critique of SETI) | Part
III. Implications of the expanded ETI discourse for SETI: Introduction