The silence of space aliens

Image credit: NASA Universe, via Flicker (cropped).

National geographic alien silence jokes.

For more than 50 years, we have been listening to the cosmos for transmissions that would reveal the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life.

To date, no one has bothered to call.

Is it something we said?

As the silence continues, the alternatives narrow. (1) We are alone in the universe as intelligent beings or (2) “the morbid alternative: intelligent life periodically emerges on other worlds, but has a tendency to self-destruct.” (3) A third possibility is that extraterrestrials know about us but obscure their presence for some reason.

Possibility #2, that extraterrestrial civilizations have a tendency to self-destruct, has been seriously considered by some who look to humans’ bad example of creating devastation “during our relatively brief time as the dominant species on this planet” .

That’s why a trio of scientists recently published a guide to help astronomers detect alien apocalypses – whether the chemical signature of a world filled with rotting corpses, the radioactive sequelae of nuclear war, or debris remnant of a Death Star storyline where an entire planet is shattered. [Emphasis added.]

Extinct Aliens and Design Inference

Here we see the stuff of design inference. It could be called Cosmic Forensics. Since forensics is a type of science of intelligent design (e.g. determining whether a death was natural or intentional), why not apply the same principles to extraterrestrial beings? It is, after all, a search for extinct aliens. intelligence (SEETI). This is a goal far beyond astrobiology, the search for biomarkers that could indicate life down to the microbial level. SETI and SEETI are looking for beings “at least as intelligent as us”, as Seth Shostak likes to say.

The clues for SEETI could be very indirect and weak:

SEETI’s research, however, does not look for biosignatures – signs of life. Instead, scientists must hunt down necrosignatures — signs of death – who would be indicate destruction on a colossal scale.

Consider a scenario in which biological warfare quickly wipes out the population of a planet. The microorganisms that cause decomposition would gorge themselves on alien corpses. In doing so, they would excrete chemical compounds, dramatically increasing levels of methane and ethane in the atmosphere.

If the size of the population of the extraterrestrial world were comparable to that of Earth, the methane and ethane gas would dissipate in about a year, so there would only be a short window of opportunity detect the cataclysm.

Howeverif the biological arsenal included a genetically modified virus capable of jumping between species, so the planet’s casualties could also include its animal life. In this case, the telltale signs of catastrophic biological warfare could be visible for several years.

The afterglow of a nuclear holocaust could be another clue. Planets generally do not atomize. A smart cause should have pushed the button.

Evidence of intent

It is repugnant to think of world destruction, but intelligent design does not distinguish between moral goals and immoral goals. ID is simply looking for evidence of something intentional. Like SETI, SEETI depends on the researcher’s ability to tell the difference between a deliberate act and a natural act.

SEETI thinkers even consider extraterrestrial “speculative technologies”. If advanced civilizations create self-replicating nanobots that go wrong, they could reduce a planet to a “gray slime” of dust where once an intelligent society thrived.

But, what kind of evidence would exist for that heinous act? A remote possibility is the detection of artificial compounds in the debris disk, indicating that the planet was once home to a technologically advanced civilization.

A “heinous act” is an intentional act, involving moral and intellectual responsibility. We don’t call a lion shooting down a wildebeest “odious”. Something abnormal has happened.

More of the same?

Perhaps as evolutionists, the trio of scientists envisioning SEETI as a research program view human planetary destruction on a continuum with animal death – just a particularly egregious advanced form of ecological collapse. So why call it SEETI with the emphasis on the “I”? Animals like birds and dolphins have intelligence. Is human intelligence just the same thing?

Their language betrays something unique about human intelligence that carries over to extraterrestrial intelligence. They talk about war. Animals have predator-prey relationships, but they do not engage in war. Animals do not “genetically modify” other organisms in order to destroy them. Animals do not create “artificial compounds” that can be distinguished from natural compounds.

SEETI thinkers look for signs of intent. Even in global death, they believe they could separate natural causes from intelligent causes. This is design inference.

This article was originally published in 2015.

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