Monday, April 8, 2013

The Reason for Xenology

"The Reason for Xenology"

© 2013

by Jordan S. Bassior

Xenology – the scientific study of alien life and civilizations – is a science unique in that we haven’t yet found any alien life or civilizations to study.  Why, then, does the discipline exist?  After all, there are no real sciences of, say, demonology or unicornology, because we’ve never discovered any real demons or unicorns.  (Mystics and fantasists compile lists of imaginary demons, and fantastists and fangirls lists of imaginary unicorns, but this is not the same as “scientific study” of a subject).

The difference is that we have a very strong suspicion that alien life and civilizations do exist, for the very good reason that we exist, and the same forces which caused life and intelligence on Earth have probably caused life and intelligence on at least some other planets.  We bother to discusss the issue scientifically, even though we haven’t found any such life and civilizations yet, because for various reasons such alien life and civilizations, if and when discovered, are bound to be of great significance to both the study and the destiny of the life and civilization which has originated on Earth.

The Universe is very large.  As we learn more about its structure it becomes apparent to us that the natural forces which generated terrestrial planets around Sol have also generated terrestrial planets around other stars, and what we know of chemistry and paleontology make it very likely that these forces have also generated ecosystems on at least some of those worlds.  Terrestrial planets seem to be common enough that it is very likely that there are alien ecosystems in some of the nearby star systems – say, within 100 or so LY of the Earth.

Such ecosystems would be important to us because they would give us a wider informational base from which to study our own ecosystem.  As long as we have only one example of an evolved ecosystem (Earth’s) to go by, we cannot tell which aspects of that ecosystem are essential to being an ecosystem, and which are chance and incidental features of our particular ecosystem.  Also, since any ecosystem is essentially a colossal natural experiment, taking place over a whole planetary surface and lasting billions of years, it would be rather surprising if we didn’t find some unique and useful results from any particular new ecosystem we studied.

Paleontology tells us that it takes a planet merely a few hundred million years to generate an ecosystem, but billions of years to create sapient life.  Consequently, sapience should be much rarer than life.  It would be surprising if there was no alien life within 100 LY of Earth (indeed, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising if some existed in our own star system); it would not be all that surprising if there were no alien sapients within that radius.  Furthermore, since civilization (agriculture plus writing) occurred fairly late in the history of the ape family, and spacefaring fairly late in the history of civilization, we might expect to find many savage for each civilized sapient race, and many planetbound for each spacefaring civilization, unless of course existing spacefaring civilizations have already colonized many nearby star systems.

Everything I’ve said about alien life applies to alien sapience, civilizations and spacefaring.  Alien sapients would represent different experiments in being smart; alien civilizations in being civilized; alien spacefarers in being scientific.  We would learn through the study of such beings just which aspects of our current sapience, civilization and science are essential, and which accidental.  Additionally, we should be aware that alien civilizations, especially spacefaring ones, might pose a threat to us – it is obviously theoretically possible for such civilizations to attack us, and if they exist they might.  So from purely selfish, even insular motives, we should locate any which happen to be in our vicinity, and be on our guard against them.

Do we know for certain that any of this exists?  No, not yet, and that’s why this is a curious science, for it is studying something of whose reality we cannot be certain.  What is certain is that the more we study the Universe beyond our lonely planet, the wider the base of information we gain for an estimation of the frequency of alien life, sapience and civilization, and hence the more solidly-grounded becomes xenology.

It is dangerous to attempt to walk through our existence as a species with our eyes squeezed firmly shut – better to open them wide to the wonders of the Universe.  And, while we’re dong so, keep a lookout for the tigers.


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