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Cultural Diffusion and SETI

What happens to us if our SETI efforts pay off? Numerous scenarios come to mind, all of them speculative, but the range of responses shown in Carl Sagan’s Contact may be something like the real outcome, with people of all descriptions reading into a distant message whatever they want to hear. Robert Lightfoot (South Georgia State College) decided to look at contact scenarios we know something more about, those that actually happened here on Earth. His presentation in Huntsville bore the title “Sorry, We Didn’t Mean to Break Your Culture.”


Known as ‘Sam’ to his friends, Lightfoot is a big, friendly man with an anthropologist’s eye for human nature. His talk made it clear that if we’re going to plan for a possible SETI reception, we should look at what happens when widely separated groups come into contact. Cultural diffusion can happen in two ways, the first being prompted by the exchange of material objects. In the SETI case, however, the non-material diffusion of ideas is the most likely outcome. Lightfoot refers to ‘objects of cultural destruction’ in both categories, noting the distorting effect these can have on a society as unexpected effects invariably appear.

Consider the introduction of Spam to the islands of the Pacific as a result of World War II. The level of obesity, cancer and diabetes soared as cultures that had relied largely on hunting, farming and fishing found themselves in the way of newfound supplies. Visitors to some of these islands still note with curiosity that Spam can be found on the menus of many restaurants. Today more than half of all Pacific islanders are obese, and one in four has diabetes. On the island nation of Tonga, fully 69 percent of the population is considered obese.

Lightfoot mentioned Tonga in his talk, but I drew the above figures from the World Diabetes Foundation. Can we relate the continuing health problems of the region to Spam? Surely it was one of the triggers, but we can also add that the large-scale industrialization of these islands didn’t begin until the 1970s. Imported food and the conversion of farmland to mining and other industries (Nauru is the classic example, with its land area almost entirely devoted to phosphate mining) meant a change in lifestyle that was sudden and has had enormous health consequences.

Objects of cultural destruction (OCDs) show their devastating effects around the globe. The Sami peoples of Finland had to deal with the introduction of snowmobiles, which you would have thought a blessing for these reindeer herders. But the result was the ability to collect far larger herds than ever before, which in turn has resulted in serious problems of over-grazing. Or consider nutmeg, once thought in Europe to be a cure for the plague, causing its value to soar higher than gold. Also considered an aphrodisiac, nutmeg led to violence against native growers in what is today Indonesia and played a role in the creation of the East India Company.

But because SETI’s effects are most likely going to be non-material, Lightfoot homed in on precedents like the ‘cargo cults’ of the Pacific that sprang up as some islanders tried to imitate what they had seen Westerners do, creating radios out of wood, building ‘runways’ and calling for supplies. In South Africa, a misunderstanding of missionary religious teachings led the Xhosa people to kill their cattle, even though their society was based on herding these animals. Waiting for a miracle after the killings, a hundred thousand people began to starve. Said Lightfoot:

Think about contact with an extraterrestrial civilization in this light. There will be new ideas galore, even the possibility of new objects — plants, animals, valuable jewels. Any or all of these could be destabilizing to our culture. And just as they may destabilize us, we may contaminate them.


Image: Cargo cults reacted to advanced technology by trying to emulate it with their own tools, a reminder of the perils of contact between widely different cultures.

I think the most powerful message of Lightfoot’s talk was that this kind of destabilization can come where you would least expect it, and have irrevocable results. Tobacco, once used as a part of ritual ceremonies in the cultures where it grew, has become an object of cultural and medical destruction in our far more affluent society. Even something as innocuous as a tulip once became the object of economic speculation so intense that it created an economic bubble in 17th Century Holland and an ensuing economic panic.

What to do? Lightfoot told the crowd to search history for the lessons it contains about cultures meeting for the first time. We need to see when and why things went wrong in hopes of avoiding similar situations. If contact with an extraterrestrial culture someday comes, we’ll need a multidisciplinary approach to identify the areas where trouble is most likely to occur. A successful SETI reception could be the beginning of a philosophical and scientific revolution, or it could be the herald of cultural decline as we try to re-position our thinking about the cosmos.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Wojciech J February 13, 2013, 14:28

    Hmm, I wouldn’t say that the tribes and cultures mentioned are comparable to us All of them had contact with others and thus already some experience with relations with other cultures.
    Our planet is at best like Sentinelese who are still isolated from the rest of the world and mostly without contact

    And if these people have technological gap of 10,000 year, imagine the relations with civilizations millions of years ahead in development.

    Anyway-I think that our contact, if it ever happens, would be most likely limited to observation of mega-engineered structures or energy emissions from deep within galaxy. I think if we did observe some artificial constructions, like in a cargo cult, we would try to copy them.
    Such observation though would be beneficial for one reason-a rapid interest in space colonization and exploration.
    A two-way contact seems highly unlikely to me.

  • Ariff February 13, 2013, 14:39

    Do you know if Lightfoot’s presentation is available somewhere?

  • Paul Gilster February 13, 2013, 16:10

    Ariff, the videos of the various talks are being made available, though I don’t know if they’re complete. You can check here, though last time I looked they were still showing last year’s conference. Maybe by now the new ones are up:


  • Thomas Hackney February 13, 2013, 16:40

    There’s no question that the free and open transmission of social institutions, objects, knowledge & skills, and myths between one or more intelligent lifeforms can radically alter the reality paradigms of all participants. But is this really the most likely scenario or would the situation really depend on who actually discovered whom first?

    An experienced star traveller would no doubt have very well thought out protocols to guide them with the tricky process. I mean, a lot of circumspection, care, and even strategy will be involved. You don’t necessarily jump head-first into what could be very messy waters, at least not without dipping a toe first. Better to float (beta-test) rather than precipitously sink into some nasty morass or unalterable predicament. This would probably mean that alien operations would conduct, as best as it could, preliminary investigations into the mind and very soul of the “Others” before offering conclusive proof of their co-existence. Surely, such an heuristic and hands-off approach would initially be the best course, and offer the most options to its user.

  • mike shupp February 13, 2013, 17:57

    On the flip side, we need be be conscious — to remain conscious — of the potential rewards of ETI contacts. And the paradigm example is again that of humans with humans, in particular Medieval Europeans with Classical Greeks. Virtually all we actually know of the Greeks, at least in the form of written texts in Greek, from the time of the Trojan War (1400BC? Homer – 900 BC) to Plato and Thucydides (400 BC) to Euclid and Archimedes (200 BC) and Polybius and Arrian (100 AD), could fit on a single 700 MByte cdrom. The equivalent of 15 minutes from a copy of a modern movie.

    And from that 15 minutes, we have modern science, we have philosophy, we have Ulysses and Oedipus, we have Socrates and Pericles and Alexander, we have the Olympic Games, we have Sparta and the Persian Wars and The Peloponnesian War. We have an ideal image of education from our glimpse of the Academy. We have the notion of disciplined military force which underlay European political and cultural supremacy for centuries. We have the fear of totalitarianism, and the — measured — respect for republics and democracy.

    There’s a huge foundation of Greek culture underneath our own, I’m trying to say. A message from beyond our present world of data equivalent of one CD disk — which some future astronomical satellite might hope to record in less than a handful of minutes. And who today would care to forsake the message of the Greeks and insist our modern existence would be transformed for the better if we had totally forgotten them in the Dark Ages?

  • Alex Tolley February 13, 2013, 17:58

    Tangentially, Clarke once said that C20th humans would be unsurprised by future technology (“indistinguishable from magic”) compared to our ancestors from the C10th exposed to the C20th. In similar vein, while it is likely that some of us would respond as the example peoples given, I would have thought that many of us would not be so swayed. Our civilization is very diverse, and arguably quite prepared by exposure to such encounters in fictional media.

    If anything, my greatest concern would be the contents of an Encyclopedia Galactica that gave us clues to technologies that if utilized could destroy us with premature use. We are already facing this with our own technologies, really advanced tech might prove to be irresistible shiny objects.

  • David J February 13, 2013, 18:05

    The problem of cargo cults is really one of a failure of reason. If your culture embraces reason, then this kind of problem would be minimal. If your culture rejects reason, then you will be susceptible not only to that kind of problem, but many more kinds of problems. Unfortunately even our “modern” Western culture is one based on rejection of reason. But perhaps some will learn something in such a process.

  • railmeat February 13, 2013, 18:24

    Paul, they do have some of this years conference video’s at that site. However they are not well labeled so you cannot tell what they are about before you start listening. In addition the audio of the ones I listened to was pretty bad, it sounded like it was recorded by a room mic instead of a mic the speaker was wearing. The topics are interesting though so I have found it worthwhile to try to watch them.

  • Dan Ibekwe February 13, 2013, 19:10

    Sf has fed the public’s imagination with everything from wise space brothers to invading BEMs, often reflecting the prevailing social and political climate of the time. It’s probably safe to say that whatever an alien culture’s perceptions of and intentions towards us (if any), most people will project their own fears and desires first and ask ethnographic questions later.
    Think of Star Trek’s Prime Directive – non-interference with other cultures (broken at roughly weekly intervals), the catastrophic results of contact for Avatar’s Na’vi or the unknowability of 2001’s obelisk makers.
    My favourite alien is probably Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (the novel, not either of the two variously unwatchable films). Lem’s idea was that the challenge upon encountering alien life might not be determining if it is sentient, but determining whether it is actually alive. Alive or not, Solaris’ ocean has a shattering effect on the humans that encounter it.

  • tom February 13, 2013, 19:22

    The most interesting prediction is… the masses might not notice it? The collective life of humanity doesn’t have free elections or 3 meals a day. The work-a-day life of an advanced alien civilization might have their equivalent of doldrums? Its hard to believe, but what if you find that ‘intelligent’/sentient’ lifeforms could be in the ‘Alf’ category? No noble ultraterrestrials, rather the outer space equivalent of that slacker roommate you had in freshmen dorm?
    Or the emotionless policeman who writes you a parking ticket?
    How do most modern people look at the under-developed folks of our planet? Aliens might be more interested in how different we are compared to their ancestors at the same level of technology? Would they have money, religion or war? What if they see us a ‘longshot’ species… swiftly rising, quickly extinguished? The SETI thing really seems to be how we ‘see’ ourselves; aliens may not foster neurosis over obvious concerns.

  • NS February 13, 2013, 19:46

    If all we get from ET is an energy signature or radio signal that we are unable to decipher or understand, there may be almost no impact at all. That might be best. Some people say that if they send us something we can comprehend, head for the hills.

    If they come here “in person” (and we notice) there are any number of scenarios. The “Roadside Picnic” is one possibility, where an apparent alien visitation leaves behind some occasionally useful but often deadly artifacts. Or there might be some bizarre events/sightings but no real contact (UFOs, anyone?). Or their presence (or a side effect of it) might be so overwhelming that everything falls apart. Or (if they keep to themselves) they become a curiosity but little else. Or, or…

  • railmeat February 13, 2013, 19:51

    I have not watched this presentation yet, but I plan to. This is a fascinating topic.

    We should keep in mind that the first contact with ETI will probably be from a distance. They might be ten, hundreds or thousands of light years away. Any conversation will take a very long time. Also we will probably have a hard time deciphering each others signals.

    I would think first contact will start with a lot of debate about whether or not they are really intelligent, of if their signal is a natural phenomena. Then we will debate what it means.

    Of course the discovery of other intelligent life in this universe will have profound consequences.

  • jadestar February 14, 2013, 1:53

    I suspect our first “knowing” of other intelligences in the galaxy will not be from receiving some complex radio message or artifact but by seeing the lights of their massive cities or structures on the night side of their planets as we build ever more powerful telescopes to closely examine and eventually image terrestrial sized exoplanets.

    The effect of just knowing that there are others out there will be one of big news for a few years and then simply another branch of astronomy after the layperson has incorporated the fact that we aren’t alone into their general knowledge of space.

    Those alien cities won’t put more fuel in their car’s tank, dinner on the table or money in their pocket so that other than a source of wonder like the Hubble Deep Field it won’t really be a disruptive discovery at least at first.

    Perhaps as these planets and the areas around them are further scrutinized by ever more sensitive instruments we’ll notice communications or the signatures of spacecraft propulsion, artificial wormholes or something else more interesting but this information too would be news for a few years and then become a part of most people’s general knowledge of the universe.

    In other words I suspect that “contact” would be distant and very gradual.

    By the time we could derive anything useful/dangerous from it we’d likely have become well aware of any potential pitfalls.

  • Anthony Mugan February 14, 2013, 5:45

    Whilst it is tempting to think that we might react in a different way to more traditional societies we need to remember that the range of educational level even in the west is very great; that a surprisingly high proportion of the population believe in a whole range of superstitions and that emotion rather than logic tends to rule in popular debate.

    Even allowing for a difference in possible reaction to contact between and within cultures we live in a globalised world and will be effected by changes accross the world, particularly in cultures in key strategic areas.

    In addition there was an interesting paper by a couple of anthropologists (Wendt and Duvall, but I forget the exact reference) which considered the implications of contact in terms of the anthropocentric basis of sovereignty. That may be a bit less obvious and more subtle but actually they made a persuasive case that it could be extremely destabalising over time to current power structures and institutions.

    Overall therefore I do feel that direct contact with an advanced ETC would not be in our (various) national interests at this time. On a more optimistic note, if we assume that there may be some limits to technolgical development from fundamental physics, the technological gap may not be unclosable (if that’s a word) over a prolonged period.

  • Thomas Hackney February 14, 2013, 6:11

    How things unfold will depend on who discovers whom first. Those who discover first control. Only if first discovery is simultaneous and mutual — that is, discovery comes as a surprise to both parties at the same relative time — do the kinds of issues generally imagined and discussed come into play. This scenario seems the least likely, however.

    If the extraterrestrial finding were conclusively made from deep space via radio waves (i.e. via the SETI paradigm), strenuous attempts would probably be made by the governmental agencies concerned with national security of the country detecting the communications to keep the “intelligence” top secret on the grounds of national security. The secrecy would be in hopes of obtaining some military or economic advantage over other nations from the decoded information, especially over other nations deemed unfriendly. Even if the detection of the incoming communications by a non-government research group were announced over the news media, the government could easily disclaim it as an erroneous report or a hoax the next day.

    If on the other hand, the news were made somehow publically obvious (as in the movie “2010”), the press and media would immediately launch into “24/7” mode (at least for a while) with wild and gloomy, albeit addictively entertaining, speculation. Religious leaders and soothsayers would pawn impending doom from the “evil” aliens. Corporations would angle for deals and stop at nothing to get a contract. Intelligence agencies would throw every dirty trick in the book toward the mission of penetrating and stealing whatever hightech secrets they could lay their hands on. Big governments that control their respective medias would spin the Big News to justify whatever agendas they were pushing at the time — larger militaries, higher taxation, totalitarianism, and so forth.

  • Christopher Thrash February 14, 2013, 9:13

    Timely and pertinent to the topic:

    Penny, A. The SETI Episode in the 1967 Discovery of Pulsars. EPJH, Feb 13.


  • Dmitri February 14, 2013, 10:03

    “Dan Ibekwe February 13, 2013 at 19:10
    …. My favourite alien is probably Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (the novel, not either of the two variously unwatchable films). ….”
    Purely from curiosity, Dan Ibekwe, you also refer to Tarkovsky version of Solaris?

  • Dmitri February 14, 2013, 10:21

    From the discussion here and on previous posts I see that the main topics still are 1) They seek us 2) We seek them 3) Variations between 1) & 2) but in principles remain same w/ happy end. Let’s assume Great Silence is real and our incapability to see THEM leans toward notion “We are the first”. Well at least in 100 ly we know for sure there is no technological ETIs. Let’s base our thinking on that assumption.

    That would meen 2 things 1) We *really* are alone 2) ETI(s) are not technologically advanced. This will lead us to the position where we have to be The Visiting Technological ETIs. The first star faring civilisation.

    If we consciously aknowleding the fact, send out, do the first step, (manned) space scout missionit, that would force us to come up w/ a plan / protocol what actually we want to say to the first ETIs? Rather than expecting guests we are paying the visit. It would be more solid approach than on opposite end – let’s wait and react.

    The fact that we are lonely and we must take the first step will ignite space explorations in the same way as the imaginary first contact.

  • ljk February 14, 2013, 10:47

    The Physics arXiv Blog

    February 14, 2013

    The True Story of a 1967 “Contact” Incident

    The story of the SETI discussions during the discovery of pulsars has never been fully told—until now.

    Full article and link to paper here:


  • Thomas Hackney February 14, 2013, 12:09

    It occurs to me that an extraterrestrial civilization (x) already aware of our planet (y) might cancel their communication embargo with y if there were some third extraterrestrial party and threat (z) more advanced than x. Other than this, I can’t conceive very many circumstances that would compel an advanced space-faring intelligence to fully disclose itself to a naive and planet-bound intelligence with a record like ours. But since this has not been the case, I reason that the galaxy (at least) is relatively free of super-advanced predator civilizations. Evidence for this seems, if anything, bolstered by the fact that we haven’t been previously consumed by such a race.

    I still think it likely that there are super-advanced intelligences out there, and not far from us, at least by their technical standards. The (near) absence of evidence for this theory does not obviate or undermine it. Like space, time is just so big.

  • Dan Ibekwe February 14, 2013, 13:34

    Dimitri – yes, sorry, I wasn’t impressed by the Tarkovski film either. Although it is many years since I saw it and my memory may have been coloured by a harshly negative reaction to his film of the Strugatski’s novel, Stalker. Basically neither his nor the Soderbergh version seemed to pay any attention to the nature of Solaris itself as presented in the book, concentrating instead on Kelvin and his ‘wife’. Soderbergh’s trite ending manages to rob even that of its pathos. (Just my POV).

    I was going to post a reference to Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the discovery of pulsars but I just spotted that Ijk beat me to it.

  • Dmitri February 14, 2013, 15:15

    In addition to the 1967 event paper there is a more up-to-date publication from 2010. Italian astronomer Claudio Maccone published in the journal Acta Astronautica the Statistical Drake Equation (SDE) where he concluded several intresting findings – http://phys.org/news/2012-12-alien-civilizations.html.

    1) besides human society, zero to 15,785 advanced technological societies could exist in the Milky Way.

    2) If those galactic societies were equally spaced, they could be at an average distance of 28,845 light-years apart.

    3) the average distance we should expect to find any alien intelligent life form may be 2,670 light-years from Earth.

    4) There is a 75% chance we could find ET between 1,361 and 3,979 light-years away.

    5) NB! ** 500 light-years away, the chance of detecting any signal from an advanced civilization approaches zero. And that is exactly the range in which our present technology is searching for extraterrestrial radio signals. So, the “Great Silence” detected by our radio telescopes is not discouraging at all. **

    Just considering these facts, how theoretical the calculation don’t seems to be, they give guidance where and how to look for, but seems we must make the first step by just colonizing the Solar System. It will lead to the next logical advances.

    I think microbial results from the under-glacial Antartic lakes will answer how probable microbial life in remote and isolated place is. If the results will be positive there is first time possible do DNA study to assess how different have they evolve.

  • Dmitri February 14, 2013, 15:51

    Dan Ibekwe, no need to be sorry. I wasn’t sure is there more than these two versions of the movie. I remember Tarksovsky version beign too depressive and heavy for a kid. The only reason I watched it was due to our countryman Jüri Järvet being in the role of Dr. Snaut. Never had desire to re-watch or have a look at Soderbergh’s version.

    Anyway I just got inspiration to take the book and read it. Never before that crossed my mind :)

    FIY Mosfilm and Lenfilm made the deal w/ Google to show all their movies free on YouTube, therefore Solaris is available w/ English subs. Nice pretext
    to refresh memory.


  • Thomas Hackney February 14, 2013, 15:58

    Dmitri, you cite: “1) besides human society, zero to 15,785 advanced technological societies could exist in the Milky Way. 2) If those galactic societies were equally spaced, they could be at an average distance of 28,845 light-years apart.” (huh?)

    If the Milky Way is 100,000 or even 200,000 light-years across on a fairly flat plain, how does it follow that 15,785 societies would be an average of 28,845 light-years apart? At the galactic core, where many of the stars in the galaxy are situated, the stars are packed very close together. Even in the outer-spiral-arm-boondocks where we are, 15,000+ evenly spaced inhabited planets would be a lot closer than that cited. Those at the galactic core should have a lot of experience in interplanetary affairs, while those at the outer rim might be considered just too far away to feasibly contend with, unless they posed a threat (which we don’t, at present).

  • David J February 14, 2013, 19:13

    “Of course the discovery of other intelligent life in this universe will have profound consequences.”

    I think the biggest impact will be amongst religions that maintain we’re special and unique. They’ll either have to deny the evidence, or adapt somehow. If the evidence is overwhelming, we could see some religious and thus social upheaval.

    For most of secular humanity, I suspect the reaction will be something like, “Oh wow, that’s cool”, and then after a week or so when the excitement has died down, everyone will go back to watching sport and drinking beer and yakking about the latest celebrity news and political scandal-of-the-week.

    “Other than this, I can’t conceive very many circumstances that would compel an advanced space-faring intelligence to fully disclose itself to a naive and planet-bound intelligence with a record like ours.”

    Because (and I suspect) that other than perhaps having more advanced technology, they’re probably also going to be little more than a bunch of plonkers futzing about, just like us.

  • Thomas Hackney February 15, 2013, 5:16

    Tom writes: “The most interesting prediction is… the masses might not notice it?”

    The masses should include scientists, governments, the media, and therefore the masses. If ET signals were plausibly deniable (natural), anecdotal (happening only once), or in some unexpected format (not radio-waves), the chances are very great that the scientists would miss it, or eventually dismiss it (like the so-called “Wow!” signal). Governments and media would therefore ignore it, which means the public (masses) would never hear of it.

    Such a floated signal could be used to beta-test the subject world population in terms of reaction, readiness, or what have you.

  • Dmitri February 15, 2013, 8:33

    Thomas Hackney, although I can’t fathom the sheer size of Milky Way this putting into perspective makes it more comprehendable the wasteness of our galaxy. How exactly Maccone made the estimation could be read in his paper. I’m still impressed SDE coming to same ballpark civilization upper limit as classical Drake Equation. Actually what I was strike the most was the lower and upper limit of Gaussian distribution for ETI. Tried to search what constellations lay at 500ly, 1400 ly, and 4000 ly but unfortunately didn’t find much.

    Claudio Maccone do lectures on SDE and his findings and here is his paper w/ sufficent explanation of methodology and reasoning behind results.

  • Wojciech J February 15, 2013, 8:52

    “I think the biggest impact will be amongst religions that maintain we’re special and unique. They’ll either have to deny the evidence, or adapt somehow. If the evidence is overwhelming, we could see some religious and thus social upheaval.”
    All major religions, including Roman Catholic Church, accept existence of other life in the universe. Particularly Mormons and Islam are very open to this idea and it can be found in their religious texts(regarding Islam-it’s due to influence of Greek philosophy which was open to the idea of other worlds with life).
    I can write about in more detail later if somebody is interested.

  • Thomas Hackney February 15, 2013, 11:01

    Dimitri, I don’t doubt that even galactic space is unimaginably big. And yet an alien civilization really serious about space exploration (unlike humankind) would have explored much if not all of the galaxy by now. The Milky Way galaxy is about 13.2 billion years old, almost as old as the universe. This is a lot of time. Even if you consider the average age of about half of the current stars in our galaxy – about 6.5 billion years – you’re still talking big time here, more than enough time for a seriously curious intelligence to slake their curiosity about a galaxy with a diameter of about 100,000 light-years. This is why I tend to think more about this problem in terms of time, or space-time if you like, rather than space.

    Since species longevity is partly contingent upon space travel, here is another powerful motivation for species to extend themselves in space, beyond just curiosity. Given these facts, I should be very surprised if our very local space has not been visited, or at least mapped, at some time in the past.

  • James Jason Wentworth February 16, 2013, 6:20

    Thomas Hackney wrote (in part):

    “Since species longevity is partly contingent upon space travel, here is another powerful motivation for species to extend themselves in space, beyond just curiosity. Given these facts, I should be very surprised if our very local space has not been visited, or at least mapped, at some time in the past.”

    In his 1968 non-fiction book “The Promise of Space,” Arthur C. Clarke wrote that the Earth could have been visited many times in the distant geological past with no traces surviving into our time; he also stated that even up until just a few centuries ago, space travelers could have landed on most of the Earth’s land masses without being seen by humans. Also:

    He added that the discovery of the Antekythera wreck (without which we would never have known that the ancient Greeks possessed sophisticated mechanical astronomical computers) suggests that the ocean bottoms–and perhaps even airless natural satellites–may contain artifacts of alien interstellar expeditions to our solar system in the remote past.

  • ljk February 16, 2013, 20:20

    It will be interesting to see how human bias comes into play with a truly alien intelligence – and vice versa:


  • ljk February 16, 2013, 20:25


    “Ancient languages reconstructed by computer program”


    Rebecca Morelle

    February 12th, 2013

    BBC World Service

    A new tool has been developed that can reconstruct long-dead languages.

    Researchers have created software that can rebuild protolanguages – the ancient tongues from which our modern languages evolved.

    To test the system, the team took 637 languages currently spoken in Asia and the Pacific and recreated the early language from which they descended.

    The work is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science .

    Currently language reconstructions are carried out by linguists – but the process is slow and labour-intensive.

    Dan Klein, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said: “It’s very time consuming for humans to look at all the data. There are thousands of languages in the world, with thousands of words each, not to mention all of those languages’ ancestors.

    “It would take hundreds of lifetimes to pore over all those languages, cross-referencing all the different changes that happened across such an expanse of space – and of time. But this is where computers shine.”

    Rosetta stone

    Languages change gradually over time.

    Over thousands of years, tiny variations in the way that we produce sounds have meant that early languages have morphed into many different descendents.

    Dr Klein explains: “These sound changes are almost always regular, with similar words changing in similar ways, so patterns are left that a human or a computer can find.

    “The trick is to identify these patterns of change and then to ‘reverse’ them, basically evolving words backwards in time.”

    The scientists demonstrated their system by looking at a group of Austronesian languages that are currently spoken in southeast Asia, parts of continental Asia and the Pacific.

    From a database of 142,000 words, the system was able to recreate the early language from which these modern tongues derived. The scientists believe it would have been spoken about 7,000 years ago.

    They then compared the computer’s findings to those of linguists, finding that 85% of the early words that the software presented were within one “character” – or sound – of the words that the language experts had identified.

    But while the computerised method was much faster, the scientists said it would not put the experts out of a job.

    The software can churn through large amounts of data quickly, but it does not bring the same degree of accuracy as a linguist’s expertise.

    Dr Klein said: “Our system still has shortcomings. For example, it can’t handle morphological changes or re-duplications – how a word like ‘cat’ becomes ‘kitty-cat’.

    “At a much deeper level, our system doesn’t explain why or how certain changes happened, only that they probably did happen.”

    While researchers are able to reconstruct languages that date back thousands of years, there is still a question mark over whether it would ever be possible to go even further back to recreate the very first protolanguage from which all others evolved.

  • jkittle February 16, 2013, 21:35

    The Kittle Paradox.
    If there are so many civilizations out there.. Why are they not trying to contact US? ( ok it is an obvious knock off of the Fermi paradox.. but subtly different. )
    1) they do not exist
    2) they are too far way
    3) we are boring

  • Keith Cooper February 16, 2013, 22:03

    I think something to remember is that Lightfoot also cites the examples of tobacco, nutmeg and tulips, the direction of which was from the less advanced civilisation to the more advanced civilisation, showing that it wasn’t all one way traffic. If ET is cautious about protecting their culture, they may be hesitant to initiate contact for that reason.

    David Brin often talks of having something to trade with ET, maybe our art or culture. But one can draw a comparison with chocolate – when the Spanish returned from Mesoamerica with chocolate, it became so popular in Europe that the Mesoamericans began to be enslaved by the Spanish to make more chocolate to meet demand. So having something to offer might not be a good thing if the more advanced civilisation likes it too much.

    But this all looks at the pessimistic side of contact. What about the positive aspects of cultural diffusion? Taking the example of chocolate, if aliens like chocolate then perhaps they’ll want to buy it from us rather than enslave us, depending on their ethics and morals. So contact can potentially boost an economy by opening up new markets – assuming that buyer and seller assume their roles responsibly. Contact has also seen things like medicine and industry spread to less developed nations. Contact will be a transformative event and new, alien ideas will inevitably be subsumed into our culture, for better or worse. But new and transformative technologies and ideas are constantly arising and being subsumed by our culture anyway, from the Internet and smart phones to air travel and nuclear power, and we often don’t always understand the consequences of their widespread use until it’s too late, but they can be used for good or bad depending on how responsibly we approach them.

  • Eniac February 17, 2013, 13:52

    The real killer is not going to be nutmeg or chocolate, but that hand-held device with the destructive power of a thousand H-bombs. Ka-boom.

  • Eniac February 17, 2013, 13:59

    In his 1968 non-fiction book “The Promise of Space,” Arthur C. Clarke wrote that the Earth could have been visited many times in the distant geological past with no traces surviving into our time;

    This would only apply if the aliens always came just to visit. For vacation, perhaps, or a quick look around? And then left, without leaving any living descendents or outposts behind. Not even one single renegade tribe. Or vermin. Or plants, or bacteria.

    In my opinion, if you are bridging the gulf between stars, you would not do it just to visit. At least some would stay.

  • ljk February 18, 2013, 2:56


    Aliens…might want to reconsider


    The possibility that extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs) could be hostile to humanity has been raised as a reason to avoid even trying to contact ETIs. However, there is a distinct shortage of analytical discussion about the risks of an attack, perhaps because of an implicit premise that we cannot analyze the decision making of an alien civilization.

    This paper argues that we can draw some inferences from the history of the Cold War and nuclear deterrence in order to show that at least some attack scenarios are likely to be exaggerated. In particular, it would seem to be unlikely that the humanity would be attacked simply because it might, some time in the future, present a threat to the ETI. Even if communication proves to be difficult, rational decision-makers should avoid unprovoked attacks, because their success would be very difficult to assure.

    In general, it seems believable that interstellar conflicts between civilizations would remain rare. The findings advise caution for proposed interstellar missions, however, as starfaring capability itself might be seen as a threat. On the other hand, attempting to contact ETIs seems to be a relatively low-risk strategy: paranoid ETIs must also consider the possibility that the messages are a deception designed to lure out hostile civilizations and preemptively destroy them.

    “MAD with aliens? Interstellar deterrence and its implications” by Janne M. Korhonen


  • Dmitri February 18, 2013, 8:48

    Thomas Hackney, I totally agree w/you. We are talking about the same thing. Difference is just in an angle of the vantage point.

    Milky Way colonization simulation by Monte-Carlo method, very high upper limit for ETIs in Classical and Statistical Drake Equation, the Great Silence, lack of indirect evidence of ETI despite the age of Milky Way or Earth inevitable lead to conclusions:
    1) We are alone
    2) They (in singluar or plural) are not sufficently advanced (prokaryotic / eukaryotic state, technically)

    Comments on this and other posts give impression we just expect the invitation rather than acknowledge the negative outcome. Claudio Maccone work explains the likely reasons behind status quo, which must make act towards better planet (& beyond) faring capability. Otherwise we will stuck and just reason why *they* don’t call us. As next step, acknowleding high likelihood of an unexpected ETI discovery event due to sheer discrepancie of theoretical results and current state, leads to need have a Greeting Protocol beside the Detection Protocol . That is a much difficult task as we have to figure out what we want to message about us. Current listening in situation makes complacent ones who decide on fundings and progress in the area. Actually we are too much into finding ETI rather than exploiting our capabilites and becoming the ETI itself.

    This is the stand point I’m trying express – rather wait for the invitation let’s move on a set the party going.

  • Dmitri February 18, 2013, 8:55

    Wojciech J February 15, 2013 at 8:52
    “I can write about in more detail later if somebody is interested.”

    Wojciech, I do, write about it.

    Just a thought crossed my mind that the Orion constellation is 1400 ly away and can’t explain why the Egyptians had a such fixation on it. Just a random thing, I don’t presume you might something know.

  • Tarmen February 18, 2013, 10:04

    We have no specifc data about the Others in this galactic ocean. We have to assume that the laws of nature are the same everywhere. The evolved trait of intelligence has helped us cross long Ice Ages and spread to all 7 contients . We have become more than an animal, but the animal is still inside us. Just read the news any day. Fear and greed. The same trait of intelligence will have helped other animals on other worlds rise above their origin . But their animal will still be inside them. So the Others may act instincually, if we do cross paths. Perhaps our warm ocean world is iresistably perfect for them to colonize and reproduce themselves. If an intelligent wolf covets a cunning fox’s den, do they discuss it? No , the fox dies.
    That could be us. It is possible, though we’d like not to admit it.

  • James Jason Wentworth February 18, 2013, 20:15

    Eniac wrote:

    “This would only apply if the aliens always came just to visit. For vacation, perhaps, or a quick look around? And then left, without leaving any living descendents or outposts behind. Not even one single renegade tribe. Or vermin. Or plants, or bacteria.

    “In my opinion, if you are bridging the gulf between stars, you would not do it just to visit. At least some would stay.”

    Clarke wasn’t implying that visitations in the remote past were necessarily brief, but rather that if aliens did visit our solar system way back then, evidence of their visits to Earth would likely have been obliterated by the endless recycling of the Earth’s crust, volcanic activity, landslides, erosion, oxidation, etc. Also:

    That is why he suggested that keeping an eye out for abandoned alien equipment and even deliberately-left-behind monitoring instruments on airless satellites (where such objects would be preserved, especially in caves) would be prudent once robotic and/or human exploration of those worlds got underway. His statement that “we may yet discover that ours are not the first footprints on the Moon” is still entirely plausible, as we have barely scratched the surface of Luna, especially the as-yet-unvisited far side.

  • Rob Henry February 18, 2013, 22:37

    Allow me to speculate that if an advanced ETI’s perchance had an economic system like one we have used, it is most likely to resemble our most successful one: capitalism. If so they will show a devotion to the following two proposals.

    1) A belief in the rights of a sentient individual to some form ownership.
    2) Obsessive behaviour in regard to addressing externalities.

    If so, we would “just” have to concentrate on understanding their take on the second proposal to integrate with them. Without this understanding our long-term prospects would be negligible. The time delay in receiving and sending messages would greatly help here.

  • ljk February 19, 2013, 11:59

    Jadestar said on February 14, 2013 at 1:53:

    “I suspect our first “knowing” of other intelligences in the galaxy will not be from receiving some complex radio message or artifact but by seeing the lights of their massive cities or structures on the night side of their planets as we build ever more powerful telescopes to closely examine and eventually image terrestrial sized exoplanets.”

    I would sincerely hope that a more sophisticated species would have learned to curb their urban light pollution, unless they all prefer to live underground or beneath their oceans.

    Of course current SETI is primarily about finding intelligences similar to ourselves at least in terms of thinking and behavior. Here is a Centauri Dreams article from 2011 about just this scenario of detecting alien cities:


    FYI: If folks can find it, I highly recommend Frank White’s book from 1987 titled The SETI Factor. He calculates how much humanity would be affected by various alien discovery and contact scenarios. They range from finding ancient fossils in the Sol system to detecting signals from distant ETI to direct contact via visiting starships.

  • Dmitri February 20, 2013, 15:35

    Spot on article about a science paper on ecolution and its predictability. It suits ETI discussion but not in sence directly / indirectly prove or disprove their existence. It’s rather contamenation issue w/ interplanetary robotic mission and how widespread it might be in case of panspermia. Just food for thought.

    How predictable is evolution? – http://phys.org/news/2013-02-evolution.html

  • Eniac February 25, 2013, 4:44

    James Jason Wentworth: You (like Clarke) are still assuming that the aliens will all leave one day after visiting. All of them, leaving no viable colony, or even just viable biological contamination, behind. My point was that is not going to happen. They (or rather: something alive that descended from them) would still be here today.

    Look at it this way: Today’s relics of previous civilizations are most often found underneath city blocks, during construction projects. Relics, yes, but not abandoned. Rather, just continually replaced by bigger and better “relics”.

  • Dmitri February 25, 2013, 16:49

    If we still strive to find ETI, which by some definition is regarded outside of our planet / solar system I would rather advise to derive from Earth’s past.

    1) Neanderthal was closest intelligent on earth and a separate species. Extinct by now but we had a competitor by intelligents.
    2) Dolphins are next to hominies, and only non-primate, mammal whose brain has increased 3x over last 50 million years and theyr brain is not divided into lobes as humans. Also dolphins have fully pictographial language meaning they actually talkig by incorporating pictorial interpretation of discussion in the sound wave. Flower pot is actually a flower pot visual interpretation how they perceive by echo locating it first place. In case of danger by shark they send out *exact* pictographical representation of the shark.
    3) There is a project undergoing w/ goal to map Dolphine’s language to be able *communicate* between us and them as the basis of the language we use are different.
    4) Homo floresiensis (Indonesian hobbit), which fiercly discraded as scrubby humans not as a separate sapiense spiecies is strangely in the debate as their brain size is way too small for established science. Were they intelligent or just degenerates?

    Extinct neanderthals and dolphines makes again wonder why they existed / exist and can we investigating this more thoroughly understand variations of non-human intelligent.

    Actually my point is that are we really the only survived intelligent capable spieces and have always been so on Earth? I actually came across the dolphin project recently and Centauri-Dreams made reason about this. Very peculiary it just gleaned by time, wasn’t purposley searching for it.

  • ljk April 29, 2013, 10:41


    By Justin Isherwood, Peninsula Pulse

    April 26, 2013

    SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, has fallen on hard times with current federal cutbacks to space science and research. The downside of these cutbacks is they come at a time when new detection strategies enable us to discover planetary bodies around stars to a distance of about a thousand light years. Planets that are detected by the wobble of the star imposed by planetary gravity. Planets found by comparing the light values from the transit of the planet over the face of the star. Starlight can be analyzed for planetary gas signatures, possibly even the pollutants of civilization. Darn precise stuff is this recent evolution of stargazing.

    What we have in these revolutionary methods of finding planets includes “sweet spot” locations, the so-called Goldilocks Zone, neither too close nor too far from the solar parent for radiational comfort, better defined as liquid water. The means are available to identify the parent chemistry on the planet, whether or not it has water, which in our experience is the main arbiter of life systems. A planet we might hone in on for radio signals, and whether or not they have yet evolved to rock and roll and Elvis is another question. At this critical juncture is where SETI could be used to target specific rich system stars…and it’s having its funding reduced.

    Full essay here: