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Civilized Life in the Universe: Scientists on Intelligent Extraterrestrials

by George Basalla

(Oxford University Press, January, 2006, $29.95, 232 pages)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Are we alone?

In a thought-provoking new book, "Civilized Life in the Universe," George Basalla, science historian and emeritus professor at the University of Delaware dives, with pen flailing, into the centuries old, often heated debate over the question of extraterrestrial civilizations.

Although readers will discover where he stands, Basalla's intent is not to answer the question of whether intelligent extraterrestrials exist (and whether we and they could detect each other if they do). Rather, he focuses on the historical and social impact of the question itself.

Why has that question persisted for centuries in both scientific and religious discourse? Why have scientists from Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler to Giovanni Schiaparelli and Percival Lowell to Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking considered it? In particular, what drove Sagan, whose scientific skepticism produced the adage "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," to unabashed advocacy of improbable searches for signs of extraterrestrial civilization?

This is not a book for spectators. Basalla's prose challenges readers' preconceptions at almost every turn. Whether or not they agree with his analysis, they will eagerly join him in the tussle of ideas. Is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (including the modern SETI program) driven by scientific or religious motivations? How important are belief and faith in science, and should the author draw a stronger distinction between those motivations and religious doctrine?

The book's organization is largely chronological, with historical threads identified early and traced from the Middle Ages to the present day. As Basalla notes in the introduction (p. xiii), "the interpretation of existing data, or reasons for the lack of relevant data, has been the main source of controversy for centuries. Intelligent alien beings remain as elusive, and controversial, in the twenty-first century as they were in ancient times when Greek thinkers first wondered about their existence."

Basalla builds his analysis around "a trio of ideas that first appeared in the religious and philosophical thought of antiquity and the Middle Ages." (p. 3) The first two ideas continue virtually unchanged to the present day: The very large scale of the universe and the resulting assumption that Earth is not the only inhabited world in such a vast expanse.

The third idea, the superiority of celestial beings, took a different form with the emergence of what 20th-century scientists called "the principle of mediocrity." This thread leads to the book's most interesting stories and challenging discussions.

Most readers will be familiar with the book's discussion of the last century's debates and discoveries about life on Mars, including Lowell's elaborate descriptions of a technologically adept but desperate race of Martians who had engineered canals to carry melting water to parched cities from the polar caps. They probably know that he translated Schiaparelli's canali as "canals" rather than "channels" to stress what he considered their artificial origin. But they may be surprised to discover that Schiaparelli did not object to that usage. His tacit support probably fueled the popular frenzy, despite scientific skepticism about Martian life and doubt that the hard-to-see channels even existed.

Lowell's speculation followed a long and noble tradition of reading far more into observations of celestial bodies than can be scientifically justified. Kepler wrote in detail about the lunar landscapes with terrestrial features and postulated underground cities inhabited by creatures who were taller than humans since lunar mountains are higher than terrestrial ones.

Over the centuries, as the idea of a plurality of populated worlds became more accepted, so too did the belief that their inhabitants were superior to humans. Even the rise of the principle of mediocrity, which states that the entire cosmos is governed by the same natural laws and has the same kind of suns and planetary systems everywhere, failed to change the popular image of technologically advanced aliens.

In fact, mediocrity can be used as an argument in favor of such beings and civilizations. The line of reasoning is this:

Even if a different physical or chemical form of life emerges on distant worlds, the phenomenon of evolution would shape the development of ecologies there. On Earth, evolution has led to a civilization of beings capable of exploring the universe. That may result from an exceptionally rare set of circumstances and coincidences, but the universe is so large that the similar civilizations have surely emerged countless times.

Most of those civilizations are much older than ours. They have had perhaps millions of years to develop electromagnetic communication and space-faring technologies, not to mention advanced social institutions that maintain peace and preserve their planets' resources. In contrast, human civilization is in its infancy, having developed only a few millennia ago, and large-scale electromagnetic transmissions began in the last hundred years.

The conclusion seems inescapable: Superior civilizations exist, and we have much to gain by discovering them. In this book, Basalla says essentially, "Not so fast!" He explores the sociological trends that have resulted from uncritical acceptance of that conclusion. He also probes the hidden assumptions behind it, disputing the certainty of the existence of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations and the possibility of discovering or communicating with them.

If intelligent extraterrestrials exist, would they send us messages or respond to our signals? Do we even know how to exchange information with them? SETI advocates insist we do, claiming that mathematics is a universal language; but Basalla cites several social scientists who dispute that.

Math-speak advocates might accuse him of leaving out their counter-argument that a species' survival in any environment is inherently mathematical because all living organisms have the ability to recognize and respond to patterns at some level.

It is more difficult to dispute Basalla's claim that scientific theorizing is inherently Earth-centered and anthropomorphic. Human science is a product of human brains confined to human bodies. No matter how much we seek scientific objectivity, we cannot separate our perceptions from human sensory organs and the complex electrochemistry of the human brain and nervous system, which have evolved and developed under the influence of terrestrial and local physical and social environments.

Few readers will buy into every aspect of Basalla's interpretation of this fascinating slice of science history. Still, it is hard to dispute that his research is thorough and his analysis well-stated. SETI advocates and Carl Sagan fans may consider Basalla to be a skunk at the garden party. But most readers will admire his ability to play a role that Sagan himself would occasionally assume, that of agent provocateur who brings attention to an argument well worth having.

Physicist Fred Bortz has written extensively about planetary science for young readers. His most recent book, Beyond Jupiter: The Story of Planetary Astronomer Heidi Hammel, describes three remarkable nights of observing Uranus, Neptune, and the moons of Mars at the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility on Hawaii's Mauna Kea. He is currently researching a book for young readers about the "Cool Science" of Exobiology.