Astrosociology: The Human Dimension of Outer Space

by Paul Gilster on October 25, 2013

Kathleen Toerpe, PhD, is a social and cultural historian who researches the human dimension of outer space through an emerging field called “astrosociology.” She is the Deputy CEO for Public Outreach and Education with the Astrosociology Research Institute, volunteers as a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, is active with the 100 Year Starship initiative to lay the groundwork for future interstellar travel, and provides space outreach consulting through Stellar Outreach, LLC. She also teaches social sciences and courses in critical and creative thinking at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and has spent her spare time hunting for exoplanets and extraterrestrials as a citizen scientist. She can be found on Twitter at @ktoerpe.

by Kathleen Toerpe

Kathleen D. Toerpe-photo

Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses- especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.
– Leonardo da Vinci

When da Vinci admonished his students to open their eyes to a wholistic understanding of their world, he hardly could have been thinking about an emerging 21st century academic discipline called astrosociology. But his Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind provide a useful lens with which to focus on a field that explores how human behavior, social interactions, institutions and belief systems are all connected to outer space.

What is Astrosociology?

The short answer is that astrosociology studies the human dimension of outer space. How are humans – right here and now – affected by what goes on in outer space? How will we be affected in the future? And, in a reciprocal relationship at the heart of the discipline, how do humans – our interactions, institutions and belief systems – affect space research, exploration and the future success of off-world human settlements?

Our ability to purposively imagine ourselves interconnected as part of the larger social structure of space forms the theoretical underpinning of the discipline, extending C. Wright Mills’ concept of a sociological imagination more widely than he himself might have imagined. In his foundational two-part Inaugural Essay: The Definition and Relevance of Astrosociology in the Twenty-first Century (2004), sociologist and astrosociology founder Jim Pass identifies the structural forces at play and coins a new term, astrosocial phenomena, to distinguish those “social, cultural and behavioral patterns related to outer space.” In short, the human dimension of outer space.

Pass developed the field as a subspecialty within the broader academic discipline of sociology and the reception hasn’t always been warm and welcoming. At times seen as competing with research in the more established niche of the sociology of science and technology, astrosociology has often received a warmer welcome from space professionals than sociologists. To be fair, there is oftentimes a speculative bent to astrosociology that pushes hard against the empirical, data-driven ethos of traditional sociological research. But it is precisely that ability to speculate – while at the same time producing and applying numerical and narrative data to create tangible and testable hypotheses – that infuses the field with Mills’ celebrated call to imagination.

Multidisciplinary Focus

By nature of its all-encompassing focus – after all, human social behavior related to the enormity of outer space is a rather large research arc – astrosociology is necessarily multidisciplinary and collaborative. Just as astrobiology syncs with biology, chemistry and physics to research microbial life on Earth in order to anticipate and recognize life elsewhere, astrosociology uses our whole knowledge of human behavior and interactions to understand, anticipate, recognize – and, in applied astrosociology, to mediate – both the relationship between space and humans as well as humans among themselves while engaging in space activities. That net is far-flung and draws in many disciplines.

Astrosociology Research Institute Logo

Who owns the minerals found on asteroids (yes, even asteroids comprise assets as well as risks); what laws regulate space tourism; what ethics guidelines apply to microgravity research on children; how does long-duration space exploration affect crew health, morale, productivity and relationships back home; who speaks for Earth in the event of a ETI contact; how does human imagination use science fiction to inspire or “beta test” science fact; how do political, religious and cultural ideologies affect funding and popular support for space exploration; how do divisions such as nationality, race, gender, and class affect who is chosen for missions – and grants – and who remains behind? The breadth of research topics may mirror the expanse of space itself! So while astrosociology was born from the proverbial rib of sociology – and owes much to the discipline for its theoretical underpinnings in conflict theory, functionalism and interactionism – the offspring has matured to include professionals from the entire spectrum of the social and behavioral sciences, the performing and literary arts, and the humanities. Psychology, political science, history, economics, literature, theology, anthropology and dance are just a few of the academic departments that play in the astrosociology sandbox. All are welcome because all shed light on another aspect of the human experience as it relates to space, or again, in Pass’s words, as it creates and reveals astrosocial phenomena.

For myself, I am a social and cultural historian – deeply immersed in the sandboxes of both history and sociology – with a passionate desire to use education and outreach to move humanity from a disconnected and often parochial worldview to one that is ready for wonder, discovery and engagement. Along the way, what we learn about who we are in space may have profound implications for who we are on Earth. To echo the theme of the recent 100 Year Starship 2013 Symposium, Pathway to the Stars, Footprints on Earth, astrosociology is in the business of looking at footprints.

An Emerging Research Field

As an academic field, astrosociology is, admittedly, an energetic newcomer. After all, ten years is not a long tenure among ancient collegiate stalwarts like History, Physics or Literature. But research that is inherently astrosociological in content, approach and tone has been ongoing for decades. William Bainbridge’s sociological study of spaceflight (1976); Howard McCurdy’s analysis into the inner workings of NASA (1993); Allen Tough’s research into ETI contact (1998); and Frank White’s identification and analysis of the overview effect (1987) – among many, many other examples – all coalesce around astrosociological themes and astrosocial phenomena. More recently, Karl Aspelund’s insightful 100 Year Starship presentation at last year’s 2012 Symposium – on the practical and cultural challenges of clothing a human interstellar expedition – reinforce both the eclectic and the multidisciplinary nature of astrosociological research.

In 2011, the academic journal Astropolitics devoted a special issue to astrosociological research. Helmed by special editor Christopher Hearsey, the issue featured articles by Pass further defining astrosocial phenomena; Albert Harrison on the cultural aspects of SETI; Hearsay’s own examination of the nexus between law and astrosociology; David Lempert’s study of the challenges in creating space habitats; Simone Caroti’s essay on the role of science fiction in astrosociology; and Virgilu Pop’s work on the relationship between space exploration and climate change. The Institute for Advanced Studies in the Space, Propulsion and Energy Sciences (IASSPES) has sponsored three symposia in astrosociology (2009, 2010 and 2011) through its technical venue, the Space, Propulsion and Energy Sciences International Forum (SPESIF). And the Astrosociology Subcommittee, headed by Dr. Pass, welcomes collaborative research through the Society and Aerospace Technology Technical Committee of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

Astrosociology Research Institute

The Astrosociology Research Institute (ARI), co-founded by Pass, sociologist Marilyn Dudley-Flores, and aerospace engineer Thomas Gangale in 2008 as a non-profit educational institute, facilitates cutting-edge astrosociological research and education. In addition to its quarterly newsletter, Astrosociological Insights, ARI has developed a college and professional-level course titled Introduction to Astrosociology, which forms the foundation for its Astrosociology in the Classroom initiative. This course fills a crucial gap in schooling social and behavioral scientists about space-related issues as well as educating space scientists about the human dimension of their research. We hope to begin offering this course online in the coming months along with a textbook anthology of readings on astrosociology. Equally exciting is the upcoming premier of the peer-reviewed Journal of Astrosociology, which has just issued its first call for papers. It will be the first academic journal dedicated to the study of the two-way relationship between human society and the outer space environment. Upcoming original research sponsored by ARI focuses on the selection, training and challenges faced by a new class of “private astronauts” whose presence reflects the increasingly entrepreneurial nature of space exploration. There are busy times ahead for the Institute!

To return once more to da Vinci . . .

Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.

We have returned to the skies many times since our first flight beyond Earth’s gravity, and one day, perhaps, our children or grandchildren will live there, raise their children, and build new, human spacefaring societies on distant planets or moons. They will go there as social beings connected to each other and to the past they leave behind on Earth – bound by common goals and torn apart by divergent myths – but always changing what it means to be human by their interactions with each other and their environment. Those who stay on Earth will be no less affected. We are not there yet and we do not yet understand what it will all mean. But the field of astrosociology, following da Vinci’s dictum to “see the connections,” is asking the questions right now, in the thick of it, as it is all unfolding – wondrous and fresh, messy and complicated. And we invite you to join us!

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{ 24 comments }

James D. Stilwell October 25, 2013 at 10:04

Another great post to bookmark…

She includes, “To return once more to da Vinci . . .

Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

This reminds me of a great short story called ‘Surface Tension’ in which amphibious human beings, seeing there are stars above the watery surface, go to a lot of trouble learning how to break through this surface tension, learn to breathe air, and go on to become successful land animals called the human race…

A. A. Jackson October 25, 2013 at 12:40

I cannot help but note, as I always do, that prose science fiction got there first:

Raymond Passworthy: Oh, God, is there ever to be any age of happiness? Is there never to be any rest?
Oswald Cabal: Rest enough for the individual man, too much and too soon, and we call it death. But for Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First, this little planet and its winds and ways. And then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and, at last, out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the depths of space, and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning…
-H.G. Wells – Things to Come

The truth of the matter was something much more subtle and tremendous than any plain physical miracle could ever be. But never mind that. The important thing was that, when I did see the stars (riotously darting in all directions according to the caprice of their own wild natures, yet in every movement confirming the law), the whole tangled horror that had tormented me finally presented itself to me in its truth and beautiful shape. And I knew that the first, blind stage of my childhood had ended.”
― Olaf Stapledon,- Odd John

All explorers are seeking something they have lost. It is seldom that they find it, and more seldom still that the attainment brings them greater happiness than the quest.
-A.C. Clarke -City and the Stars

It was not the site of the earth which surprised him – it was the smell. …. This earth and air smelled alive. There was the odor of plants, of water, of things which he could not even guess. The air was coded with a million years of memory. In this air people had swum to manhood, before they conquered the stars. …. It was the wild free moisture which came laden with the indications of things living, dying, sprawling, squirming, loving with an abundance which no Norstrilian could understand. No wonder the descriptions of the earth had always seemed fierce and exaggerated!
― Cordwainer Smith, -Norstrilia

Consider how odd it would be if all we knew about elephants had been written by elephants. Would we recognize one?
- Alice Sheldon/James Tiptree Jr.

I could go on and on and on…..

Paul Gilster October 25, 2013 at 15:44

So true, Al. The riches of prose SF are inexhaustible, and I’m always surprised when I hear people talking about science fiction and realize that they equate the entire genre with movie SF of the past 20 years! They’re missing out on a lot.

By the way, you hit upon one of my personal favorites with the Cordwainer Smith reference.

Mundus Gubernavi October 25, 2013 at 20:04

Q. Who owns the minerals found on asteroids (yes, even asteroids comprise assets as well as risks)
A. Whoever finds the minerals and mines them. Let’s not make the same mistakes in space we have on Earth. Let’s spread the wealth equally among those who want to work for it and not allow individuals or corporate entities to exploit other people’s work for their own selfish gain, or place arbitrary obstacles on who gets what; feudalism must die. There is plenty of space for every human being alive to independently utilize floating rocks. Let’s not get greedy (for no reason); simple as that. Let’s help each other up the stairs, so to speak.

Q. what laws regulate space tourism
A. Laws (as we know them) are a part of our Earth-based evolutionary experience. Of course a transition will take time, but maybe we can (or will) adapt ourselves to something different in the future (benevolent anarchy?). Let people come and go in and out of space as they please. If someone wants to take their own privately owned spaceship to Uranus for some brief sightseeing or a family getaway, then let them. Who am I to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do with their spaceship? If we can send people to space in a peaceful manner now, then we have already leaped over a significant hurdle and shown ourselves to be capable of the necessary discipline.

Q. what ethics guidelines apply to microgravity research on children
A. The problem of children is another part of our evolutionary mechanisms at work. We all start out as them, so it is inevitable. I don’t think it will be a problem, so long as we respect them and understand their limitations, acknowledging special care to the fact that their bodies are still developing.

Q. how does long-duration space exploration affect crew health, morale, productivity and relationships back home
A. We can only find out when we get to that point. Looking at the psychology of contemporary space crews should give a good start.

Q. who speaks for Earth in the event of a ETI contact
A. It won’t matter. If they are intelligent enough to communicate with us and have space travel of their own, then there is a possibility of evolutionary conflict. Species are interlocked in a symbiotic battle for neither good or bad. We can only hope our contact is able to be as peaceful as possible. We are a very violent species that operates through intimidation, dominance and coercion via the DNA continuum of our planet. We don’t necessarily have anything nice to teach other sentient beings. Take a look at what we’ve created– domesticed animals are the most tragic example of what kind of beings we are; which doesn’t give me an optimistic outlook on life coming from other worlds. I mean, even if we think about the mythological entities we have written and told stories about really existing somewhere in the cosmos, that is even more terrifying.

Q. how does human imagination use science fiction to inspire or “beta test” science fact
A. It is probably the greatest inspiration for science fact. Religion and holistic traditions also are big contributors.

Q. how do political, religious and cultural ideologies affect funding and popular support for space exploration
A. They create a checks and balance system necessary to keep overly zealous Darth Vader wannabes at bay.

Q. how do divisions such as nationality, race, gender, and class affect who is chosen for missions – and grants – and who remains behind?
A. It shouldn’t. All terrestrial life, not just humans, have a right to propagate themselves and their ways of life throughout the universe. There are disparities present that can be eliminated through education– the force that obliterates ignorance, cultivates empathy and humility, and gives insight into the elimination of such disparities. However, we must take into account the people who reject interaction outside of their immediate existences within their communities. We must respect those people and stay out of their way, while at the same time figuring out a way to let them know what we, as their brothers, sisters, and cousins, are planning–it is their right, too.

P.S. I use “We” as a term for my own expressed opinion. Everyone has a say and everyone’s differing views are of equal importance in shaping the future of society in space and on earth.

Eniac October 25, 2013 at 20:14

I love the H.G. Wells quote. So much insight, and such a long time ago….

Wojciech J October 26, 2013 at 6:36

It might be interesting to hypothesize how societies in space colonies might develop in long-term compared to human society. The need to be constantly protected for unforeseen emergencies and potentially deadly events would probably create a culture with focus on long-term planning and organization, which might see Earth cultures as particularly reckless and careless.
Another factor to consider is that a successful settlement by necessity would attracted highly educated and professional people which would have influence on the shape and ideas of the society. I think this differs a bit from past experience on Earth with colonization.

Wojciech J October 26, 2013 at 6:45

Also-wouldn’t astrosociology already be able to study interactions, group behavior and social dynamics(true, in small groups, but still) in astronauts and crews of space stations?

Jer October 26, 2013 at 9:53

When the time comes: that choosing to live out a significant part of your life on a planet (say Earth, for example) is just as likely (say in a resource intensive, interesting, emotionally-compelling -type way) as traveling through interstellar space (perhaps with a destination, perhaps not) in a group (maybe dozens, maybe 1000s) with a mutual desire to travel together, do you think that society, in general, will become space-faring and simply disperse throughout (perhaps 1000-1 space-planet ratio)? I am not convinced that the pull of being in a large body of people on a planet (even comfortably spread out) and having no scarcity worries would be enough to keep people from simply ‘taking a group of significant people, a spaceship, and going’. My point: that an advanced society will actually not be solar system-based, but dispersed in tiny packets of desirable people and interesting content, constantly moving (all resources, desirable life goals brought along, and life-span issues resolved, of course). What does this say about humanity’s fundamental sociology? Is it possible to surround yourself with the ideal people (or their simulacra) and all the knowledge and experiences (visual and tactile) you wish to immerse yourself – pack that on a ship and go? What if communication with others (for conversational purposes only) was limited to yearly (assuming that all knowledge and desirable experiences were packed into a ship)? Is a physical planet (with its likely uncertainties and limited ‘physical’ places) a sociological imperative to what it means for us to be human?

David Cummings October 26, 2013 at 11:15

Excellent post.

I couldn’t help thinking of the ISS as I read this post.

We already have a growing population of humans who have lived in space and we are learning a lot from them.

As important as astroSociology is astroEconomics… and even astroHomeEconomics ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2013/09/14/the-skies-the-limits/ )

As mundane as the ISS is compared to the concept of interstellar travel (the ISS doesn’t even completely clear the atmosphere), it is currently our only off-earth living space and remains an extremely important experiment, in my opinion, despite what its critics have to say. In my opinion.

The ISS is currently our ONLY laboratory for human life in space, whether the subject is medicine, sociology or house-cleaning.

Tarmen October 26, 2013 at 18:55

These are all interesting questions. I expect that challenging and unforgiving off-Earth environments will tend rapidly to differenciate populations such that new varieties of H.sapiens will emerge. This will be counter-trending to globalization on Earth. Again tip of hat to SF. Conflict may result from the estrangement of the new humans from the classic humans. Let alone estrangement from AIs and their creators. I think it possible that us ‘classic’ humans, after long competition with H.astro, might go extinct like H.neanderthal humans 20 000 yrs ago.

Sean M. Brooks October 27, 2013 at 4:26

As a Catholic I was interested by Dr. Toerpe’s inclusion of theology as one of the factors which will affect and influence astrosociology. It reminded me of science fiction written from a religious or theological point of view: the Space Trilogy of C.S. Lewis; James Blish’s A CASE OF CONSCIENCE; the Instrumentality of Mankind stories of Cordwainer Smith; and stories by Poul Anderson such as “The Word to Space,” “The Problem of Pain,” “The Season of Forgiveness, THE DAY OF THEIR RETURN, THE GAME OF EMPIRE, etc.

I even dabbled in writing an essay I called “God and Alien in Anderson’s Technic Civilization,” speculating on how a religion from Earth, Christianity, might affect non human rational beings.

A. A. Jackson October 27, 2013 at 13:19

@Sean M. Brooks

Quite right!
Not to forget Ursula K. Le Guin’s works, especially The Left Hand of Darkness.
Phillip K Dick’s works.
Frederik Pohl (those with C.M. Kornbluth too)….
Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke…..
Every good SF writer explored all these ideas(and more!)…. 100-50-years ago to the present , I am glad some people notice.
Great profit can be harvested from the fine writers of SF prose, too long pigeonholed in an under appreciated (imagined) genre ghetto.
It’s a little better now.

Tarmen October 27, 2013 at 15:19

Of course the Dune series had great sociological angles too. The Guild travel monoply, the Teilaxu gene techs, the noble House Atreides and the ignoble Harkonnans. The Bene Geserat mystics and their devient evolved challengers returned from Magellenic Cloud – the Honored Matres.
Frank Herbert is required reading!

Mundus Gubernavi October 27, 2013 at 15:44

It is interesting to think about, Sean. Inversely it would be just as interesting to speculate about an extraterrestrial species beating us to it and arriving here on Earth to proselytize their own beliefs. There’s a book by Lester del Rey titled “For I Am a Jealous People” (1954) where ‘I AM THAT I AM’ has abandoned humanity in favor of an alien race to invade Earth. It leaves me reminiscent of imagining the Merkabah (chariot) described in Ezekiel’s vision in the Bible (Ezekiel 1:15-21), also hinted towards in the Nicholas Cage film “Knowing”; an extraterrestrial spacecraft used by said god to travel the cosmos. The way it is described in the Bible is obviously a reflection of the prophet’s own visual simulacra, but imagne how we might describe it if we in the 21st century ever got to see it first hand? Intersecting wheels inside of wheels covered with eyes (Ophanim), exotic creatures (the Cherubim [Ezekiel 1:1-10; 2 Samuel 22:11; Psalms 18:10]) and precious metals (the throne of lapis lazuli [Ezekiel 1:26]), etc. Sounds a lot like some type of pimped out spaceship to me.

Also, the short story collection of Jacek Dukaj titled ‘W kraju niewiernych’ (In the Land of the Unfaithful) (SuperNOWA 2000), in which one short called “In partibus infidelium” portrays a universe where Catholicism spreads throughout much of the universe and an alien ends up being chosen as Pope.

In affect, I believe ancient world religions would have to prepare for the responsibility of trying to universalize the terracentric/geocentric references in their holy texts if trying to gain converts from extraterra/non-geo experiences; mainly, references of the end of the world or an afterlife–how would this be relevant to beings unaffected by the occurences of Earth? How do you explain to species unaffected by terrestrial plagues (like diseases and biological disabilities, or even death) and geo/topo/meteorological disasters unique to Earth?

It’d be fascinating to meet a species whose members have never experienced death; much like the biologically immortal species here on Earth (i.e. Tardigrades, Planarian flatworms, Turritopsis dohrnii, and Hydra), albeit our terrestrial cousins being able to die via injury or disease–but what if we came across true immortals, or biological immortals who never experienced injury or disease before?

I fear their first test would be to see if they could die; and if they did, well how do they come back to tell the others whether they experienced life after death or not? Hmm…

Mundus Gubernavi October 27, 2013 at 16:42

@Sean, I also read your essay, [http://poulandersonappreciation.blogspot.com/2013/02/god-and-alien-in-andersons-tecchnic.html] (is that the essay?)

Really cool! Thanks for sharing.

Although, doesn’t the Bible say that our species is uniquely created in the image and likeness of the creator, and given dominion over all other species? Would we expand this trait beyond ourselves to other, non-human species–or would that Biblical concept thus make conversion of aliens unnecessary, nullifying the necessity of evangelizing them–would we see ourselves as dominant over them or annex them into the definition of ‘Man’? And also, aren’t there other beings in Christianity (like fallen angels) who are rational, intelligent beings, yet unable to be converted or rather, reverted? Apparently Christians have gained authority over these beings as well (Luke 9:1; Mark 6:7; Matthew 16:19 & 28:18).

I’m aware that the Christian understanding of angels is not a biological one (it is spiritual; they are spiritual, non-physical beings), while any extraterrestrial life we encounter may be very biological–or who knows what exactly is out there?

Lots of room for speculation and deep discussions if we do find other intelligent life, it seems.

Sean M. Brooks October 27, 2013 at 23:19

Dear Dr. Jackson and Mundus Gubernavi:

Many thanks for your kind comments. I’ll try to reply to your major points in this note.

Dr. Jackson is quite correct to list other examples of SF writers who have speculated on how a faith and religion might develop on other worlds. I can only plead that it would be impractical to list every one of them in a comment box note! And I certainly agree as well that it’s high for SF to no longer be rigidly stuffed into a genre pigeonhole.

I’m grateful for Mundus Gubernavi’s comments. ESPECIALLY since he went to the trouble to look up my little essay in Dr. Paul Shackley’s “Poul Anderson Appreciation” blog. Yes, Mundus Gubernavi, you found the essay I mentioned in my previous note here.

Yes, I have read Lester del Rey’s “For I Am a Jealous People.” Very interesting if not very plausible! And I am aware of how commentators have puzzled over the very strange Merkabah described in Ezekiel 1.15-21. Some writers have gone really over board and argued that Ezekiel was trying to describe an alien spaceship.

I’ve not read Jacek Dukaj’s story, but it certainly would not bother me if the Catholic Church came to believe non human rational beings could also be Christians. Which logically means we might even have a non human pope.

I don’t think the plagues mentioned in the Bible would be so strange for non human rational beings to understand. If they too have “fallen,” then they too will have their own diseases and illnesses. It seems easy enough for me to think other races will have their own woes, both from diseases and natural disasters like earth quakes, etc.

I don’t know if it would even be possible for a non human race to be “naturally” immortal unless it was also UNfallen. In that case, I can think of two possibilities: humans might try to corrupt such an unfallen race and either succeed or not succeed. C.S. Lewis, in his essay “Religion and Rocketry,” leaned to the view that an unfallen race would likely be able to repell human efforts to corrupt them.

Again, I am glad you found my essay “God and Alien in Anderson’s Technic Civilization.” And I’m pleased you thought it interesting. Perhaps I should have included in it an explanation that the “image and likeness of man” to God should not be understood in a crudely physical sense. I suggest looking up Anthony Boucher’s story “Balaam,” which revolves around this very point. Boucher had a Catholic priest in that story quoting a catechism to the effect that “Man is a creature composed of body and soul, and made in the image and likeness of God.” The priest went on to say a little later: “….but none of these creatures [plants and animalsl is made in the image and likeness of God. Plants and animals do not have a rational soul, such as man has, by which they might know and love God.” So, if non human rational beings exist, then they too share in the image and likeness of God by virtue of having a rational soul.

And “dominion” SHOULD NOT be understood as mankind having a right to enslave non human rational beings. I absolutely reject that idea. I do believe our race has every right to colonize, if possible, UNINHABITED and unclaimed terrestroid planets.

Tarmen October 28, 2013 at 9:49

Religion is a nice luxury if the choice is between freezing in the dark a hundred light-years from home and colonizing a living earth-like planet with indigenous life…..
We will colonize the planet. Or some of us will colonize the planet, and some of us will freeze in the dark. That’s how we survived the Ice-Age and many ‘Others’ did not.

Mundus Gubernavi October 28, 2013 at 14:32

Interestingly enough, I had a priest as a teacher during my freshman year in high school, and I remember dabbling in that particular story you mentioned by Anthony Boucher and C.S. Lewis’ essay.

There is a paralleling example of a Christian missionary (named Daniel L. Everett) traveling to the South American Amazon in order to evangelize a specific group of natives, called the Pirahã (however, they call themselves “Hi’aiti’ihi”, meaning ‘straight ones’ [everyone else not a part of their community are called 'crooked ones' or 'crooked heads'.]). He ended up learning their langauge and culture and found them relatively unique to almost all other known native groups of that region (and the world), particularly because he believes that their language doesn’t possess relative clauses, numbers, colors or grammatical recursion. There is a film called “The Grammar of Happiness”, which tells all about it, which will be made available for free on his website soon, and there are previews for it by the Smithsonian channel. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDM8G5tuHF8&feature=share&list=TLlRYIBgEr0fqbNQsKr1f75nO-yPMn9PJ1

Ironically, he ended up abandoning his beliefs after being influenced by their way of life.

These group of people remind me of your fallen/unfallen example. From the Christian perspective, these people (like all of humanity) are in a “fallen” state. From their own perspective, they are perfect and everyone else is ‘crooked’ or ‘unstraight’ and they repel attempts to assimilate outside influences, much like the unfallen beings C.S. Lewis envisioned.

I believe the relationship between the Pirahã and Everett to be a strong example of how a peaceful interaction between ETI and humans would be.

Sean M. Brooks October 29, 2013 at 2:57

Hi, Mundus Gubernavi:

Thanks again for your comments. I am skeptical, however, the “Straight Ones” can be truly analogous to what might happen if humans meet a truly good and “unfallen” race on another planet. The “Straight Ones” would seem to be an example of a hitherto unknown tribe living in a remote and isolated corner of our world. And once contact was made with the outside world, the “Straight Ones” will be inevitably affected in both good and bad ways by that contact.

While the aliens we see in Poul Anderson’s story “The Martyr” are not exactly “unfallen,” it’s still a good example of speculation about what a truly good and wise non human race, which also happened to be technologically advanced, might be like. The story can be found in a collection of Anderson’s shorter works called THE GODS LAUGHED.

Mundus Gubernavi October 29, 2013 at 15:22

Thanks, Sean. I’ll be sure to read it.

You are very correct in stating that the Pirahã will be inevitably affected for better or worse (as would any form of ETs, not only ETI we would encounter directly or indirectly). Although, where I draw the connection of this human group to ETI is allegorical. I mean, of course they have universally human flaws and desires; they are no different than you and I in our own communities and belief systems; their behavior and beliefs (or lack therof) are not unique–they’re 100% human. What I am alluding to stems from the remarkable fact that they have successfully created a generational perpetuity that, as evidenced in their langauge, is perserved via their basic evolutionary needs.

For example, let’s say a serpent in the jungle told a Pirahã woman that if she ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil she would be like a god, knowing good and evil. The response of the woman would be influenced by the fact that in her culture there is no evolutionary need for her to know anything she hasn’t already known and learned–and that she would not have a desire to be like anything but what she is–other Pirahã women. Her cognition doesn’t inhibit her from thinking about it, or from even eating the fruit, but her language and culture do. Meaning, she would have to create something new to communicate such an expression through her language or culture, much like how Eve told the serpent she would die if she ate it, drawing from her influences of apparent immortality and community (of her husband Adam, and her god who she received this information from).

Basically, my point is, if an ETI species is capable of communicating with us (and wants to), it will most likely be a gradual process based off of evolutionary needs, much like how we approach each other here on Earth when newly communicating and exchanging cultures and ideas.

Mundus Gubernavi October 29, 2013 at 15:50

In fact, after watching “The Grammar of Happiness” documentary and reading some of Dan Everett’s writings, I would even go so far as to postulate that, for the Pirahã, their culture is the equivelent of what Eve’s god is to her (allegorically, in my above example).

Sean M. Brooks October 30, 2013 at 2:46

Hi, Mundus Gubernavi:

First, you obviously know more about the “Straight Ones” than I do. Which necessarily limits what I can say about them. Secondly, however, I don’t think it was “evolution” which these “Straight Ones” the way we see them or are they used to be. Rather, it was the CULTURE they worked out over generations which created the “generational perpetuity” they had or have.

As you may know, the temptation story of Adam and Eve is actually a sophisticated allegory designed for teaching theological ideas in ways that could be understood by people living in ancient Israel. The redactors of the Old Testament had no hesitation taking over and adapting for their purposes stories which had their origins in Babylon. So, I have my doubts a tribe as isolated as the “Straight Ones” would be likely to work out the sophisticated theology seen in the Old Testament.

Mundus Gubernavi October 31, 2013 at 15:06

Dan Everett actually translated the Gospel of Mark into their language and had them recite and make recordings of it. They are very able to understand the concepts of all of the Bible (to say they (or anyone else) might lack the sophistication is sort of condescending and biased, isn’t it?); they simply repel its teachings, because they realize it is contrary to their way of life, language, and culture (especially being that they don’t care for past or future occurences outside of their generational perpetuity [meaning, their understanding of the past, present and future as expressed through their biological and societal relationships with their community and environment--i.e. their balance with nature in the Amazon and the planet]). They have a concept for this, which they call “xibipiio”. You can find Dan Everett’s explanation of this in his presentation via The Long Now Foundation, found here at around 24 minutes in: http://fora.tv/2009/03/20/Daniel_Everett_Endangered_Languages_and_Lost_Knowledge

Also, when I say ‘evolutionary needs’, I mean what they (and we) utilize for day to day survival.

They are unwilling to compromise their culture without first-hand evidence, possibly much like how a 1st century Christian community would repel attempts to convert them to another faith or god besides Jesus Christ (in my opinion).

Sean M. Brooks November 1, 2013 at 2:39

Hi, Mundus Gubernavi:

I had no intention of impugning the intelligence of the “Straight Ones.” I was expressing, too clumsily perhaps, some doubt they would be able to quickly understand many of the concepts found in the Old and New Testaments. Plainly, I was wrong.

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