Sunday, April 1, 2012

Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Looking in the Wrong Places

The error we humans make in seeking intelligent life beyond our planet Earth is: (1) we're looking for the wrong sort of thing, and (2) we're looking in the wrong places.

No matter how odd our typical alien appears, they all look like us, i.e., they are anthropomorphic. Even the most bizarre creatures of our movie producers' imagination are anthropomorphized.

They are self-contained, i.e., they have a body, head, limbs, sometimes tails (we humans once had one and still have its vestigial remnant), eyes, usually two, and in the front of their heads, a mouth, often with very scary teeth, and many of the other characteristics common to the human.

Like God, we have created extraterrestrial beings in our own self image.

Given that we have creatures on earth that in no way resemble us, not even in the sense that they have characteristics similar to our own, we should be able to open our minds and consider other forms of extraterrestrial intelligence.

The jellyfish has no brain, no blood, no eyes, no central
nervous system, and some effectively live forever.

Let us suppose, for example, that what we are looking for in the way of extraterrestrial intelligence takes the form of a bacteria. Something called "cyanobacteria" is probably responsible for our very existence. Cyanobacteria somehow showed up on our planet some 3.5 billion years ago and started the process of terra forming (I've written about this elsewhere).

Was this a random cosmological accident, or are bacteria a distributed form of intelligence that travels throughout the cosmos creating the conditions for its own existence, communicating, like our jellyfish, through a neural network like none we've ever conceived?

An artist's impression of the super earth world Gliese 667 Cc.
This brings me to my second point. Recently, a very specialized instrument operated at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) has been dedicated to searching for "exoplanets," that is, planets outside our solar system, that have characteristics similar to our own earth. The High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) is an echelle spectrograph fed by fibers from the telescope in La Silla. The whole idea is to identify and hopefully explore planets similar to earth with the hope of finding intelligent life like our own.

But aren't we constraining our exploration by limiting our search to planets? We have no reason to believe that the cyanobacteria that made its way to earth is constrained to a single planet. Maybe the extraterrestrial intelligence we seek is integral to the universe as a whole. Maybe we exist as an infinitesimal part of the whole; an afterthought of a superior intelligence migrating throughout the cosmos in a never ending quest to find an intelligence like its own. And we aren't it.

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