Cultural Evolution, Extraterrestrials, and Active SETI

In an interview for Business Insider, astronomer and former head of SETI Institute Jill Tarter, responded to Stephen Hawking’s concerns about Active SETI, or sending messages to possible extraterrestrial civilizations rather than simply waiting and listening for signals from said intelligent aliens. Hawking has noted that sending out our galactic zip code might bring disaster upon us in much the way that superior technological societies have tended to ruin less advanced societies right here on Earth.

Tarter thinks there is a flaw in this line of reasoning, because a society advanced enough to get here would be nice, rather than naughty. “The idea of a civilization which has managed to survive far longer than we have,” states Tarter, “and the fact that that technology remains an aggressive one, to me, doesn’t make sense.” Tarter thinks that long-term survival, including limiting population, would require “evolutionary trends” that would lead to a cooperative society that is not aggressive.

This is a nice idea, but it is also quite flawed. For example, this way of thinking assumes that evolution is linear and teleological, or that it has some sort of goal. Evolution doesn’t work like this. It is simply change. The only direction, if we can think of it that way, comes from the fact that evolutionary change happens in an environment that limits the scope of possible successful mutations.

If being aggressive works well in the environment in which ET lives, then ET will be aggressive. And if ET has figured out how to get of its planet, then population isn’t a problem. And, in fact, population growth may become a cultural imperative, much as we have seen in highly aggressive societies like the Japanese Empire prior to World War II.

A significant underlying problem in Tarter’s —> Read More