Anthropology, SETI, and the exotic other

seti_logo_blueThe SETI Institute, located in Mountain View, CA on Whisman Road, recently hosted Professor Traphagen from the University of Texas, Austin.  Dr. Traphagen spoke on Some Thoughts from an Anthropologist on Culture, Interstellar Communication, and the Construction of Interstellar Messages.  This is a small sample of the ideas discussed in the lecture.

A cornerstone of the lecture was on the ideas of intelligence, culture, and the exotic other.  In particular, anthropologists are by definition experts at studying alien, a.k.a. exotically different other, cultures.  How alien must a geisha have appeared to a European in the 1800’s?  By understanding how SETI, as a different sort of “antropologist”, is searching to understand and communicate with aliens, professional anthropologist can contribute perspective on these communications via a deeper understanding of “culture”.  Traphagen describes culture, in one sense, as being defined by the sensory capacities of a given being.  For example, human culture is often manifested via art because we can see.  Similarly, alien beings might have different cultural manifestations due to different possible sensory apparatus.  These differences in culture will greatly affect how we communicate with them.

Little is published on this by academic anthropologists to date, but it looks like Dr. Traphagan is looking for a lucky student to help him at the University of Austin.  Dr. Traphagan’s lecture was very nuanced and thought provoking so check here for the video of the lecture to be posted soon.