NPR logo Message From The Heavens: Moving Beyond The Killing Instinct


Message From The Heavens: Moving Beyond The Killing Instinct

Can intelligent creatures ever escape the killing instinct? Adam wrote yesterday about the issue of how we should best prepare for a possible (although rather far-fetched) alien invasion, citing Hawking’s much-hyped apocalyptic warning of how aliens are out there to get us and Greg Bear’s books on alien invasions.

The article is timely, as it links with the expectations of many in the SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) community that a signal originated by an intelligent alien species will be detected soon, possibly within the next few decades. In 20 years or so, SETI antennas will scan about 10 million stars. Not much if we consider the roughly 200 billion stars making up the Milky Way, but a representative sample nonetheless.

The question, of course, is what is it that we will be listening for?

In Monday's Scientific American article, science writer Tim Folger explained that the challenge is not only the detection but the interpretation of the message. Whoever watched the movie Contact or read Carl Sagan’s novel that inspired the movie, knows that to find an “intelligent” signal we must be able to discard all the other stuff — in radio waves — that is generated by a host of natural astrophysical processes. There is a multifaceted hum in the cosmos, a choir of many voices, so to speak: radio galaxies, stars, pulsars, molecular clouds, and, in the microwave range, the humming from the time atoms were first formed, an echo of the big bang itself.

An intelligent alien signal must be short and clearly engineered, displaying a complex structure that separates it from the cacophony out there. The expectation is that the information would be buried in narrow periodic pulses as changes in amplitude and frequency. The problem is that to resolve such a signal radio astronomers need an antenna about 10,000 times bigger than the biggest we have right now, the monster radio antenna in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, measuring 305 meters across (about 3 football fields).

So, if we are incredibly lucky to be scanning the radio sky in the frequency band that matches the alien signal (like when you tune in your radio to your local NPR station but here we have no real clue where to look), we won’t understand at all what’s going on.

The aliens in Contact were much nicer, giving us clues that we could easily recognize. That, of course, implies that their communication was intentional and that they knew us well. These are not straightforward assumptions, although they do make for a wonderful story.

We know precious little of our own psyche. Using our base knowledge as a springboard to speculate about alien intelligence can be very dangerous and shortsighted. Yes, we need to start from somewhere and what is usually assumed (as in Hawking’s and Bear’s messages) is that the laws of evolution and the implied survival of the fittest will dictate intelligent behavior at all levels. In other words, smart creatures can’t ever escape their beastly makeup; wherever there is life, there is the killing instinct.

I beg to differ.

To me, the sign of a highly evolved intelligence is precisely its control of the killing instinct. In humans and other high primates, the killing instinct is tribal; we join tribes, find safety in them, and protect them with all we’ve got. We create distinctions such as state, nation and clan, and lodge ourselves within them. As we draw boundaries around ourselves we exclude all the others: they don’t belong and consequently are different from us, usually inferior.

Aliens capable of surviving themselves long enough so that they could devise technologies to communicate and possibly travel across space would have to have evolved beyond this primitive behavior. The opposite possibility is rather dreary: all life kills, irrespective of its intellectual sophistication; the more evolved the species, the better its killing toys, while its morals remain anchored in the beast within. If that’s the case, we are doomed, as they were. This could even be an explanation to Fermi’s Paradox, why aliens haven’t visited: because the stronger kill the weaker and the killing keeps going on to a point of mutual obliteration.

I hope not. The fact that we are now pondering these questions is, to me, a sign that we are slowly moving forward. We have survived 60 years of atomic bombs and seem to reaching a level of mutual assurance; the threat is obviously very much there, but so is the awareness that an all out nuclear conflagration is a war with no winners. There is also rising awareness of our planet, of what we eat, of how we plant, of the needs of others less fortunate than us, the folk with access to NPR.

Perhaps we are witnessing the beginnings of our own transformation into a more evolved species, less tribal, more open to embracing change. Sure, the world remains highly polarized, divided by religious bigotry and greed. It’s easy to paint a horribly bleak picture of the future, as it’s done everyday countless times. It’s time we turn the page collectively and move on to the next level of civic sophistication.

The message we hear from the stars may say something about who “they” are, how sophisticated their language is, their coding ability and the like. But it will say much more about who we are, and what kind of long term future we’ll have, if any. Meanwhile, we should learn from their persistent silence and take control of our destiny.