The Xenophobia of Avi Loeb’s Interstellar Xenia

Anyone struck by the recent announcement of Christopher Mellon’s and Luis Elizondo’s being appointed research affiliates to Avi Loeb’s Galileo Project may have been curious enough to visit the project’s website, where they may have been tempted to read an article linked there, “Be Kind to Extraterrestrial Guests“, by project head Loeb.

Loeb proposes that “we” (who are we? Homo Sapiens? Americans? Harvard faculty?…) adopt the classical Greek custom of Xenia, the hospitality extended to strangers as typified in the Homeric epics, except in an expanded, “interstellar”, sense: “Interstellar Xenia implies that we should welcome autonomous visitors, even if they embody hardware with artificial and not natural intelligence, which arrive to our vicinity from far away.” Why? “Our technological civilization could benefit greatly from the knowledge it might garner from such encounters.”

A problem with Loeb’s proposal is evident, first, in the example of mundane hospitality he offers and the exosocial implication he draws from it:

On a recent breezy evening, I noticed an unfamiliar visitor standing in front of my home and asked for his identity. He explained that he used to live in my home half a century ago. I welcomed him to our backyard where he noted that his father buried their cat and placed a tombstone engraved with its name. We went there and found the tombstone….

If we find visitors, they might provide us with a new perspective about the history of our back yard. In so doing, they would bring a deeper meaning to our life within the keen historic friendship that we owe them in our shared space.

Loeb’s anecdote is likely chosen as much for its concreteness and emotional appeal as for whatever features it might be said to share with a hypothetical encounter with ET. That being said, the scenario presents the encounter between Homo Sapiens and an extraterrestrial Other as one of immediate (i.e., unproblematic) mutual recognition (like that between Loeb and the “unfamiliar visitor”), which is both telling and fateful.

By what warrant does Loeb assume the unproblematic recognition of or by this Other? Aside from the obvious obstacle, that, while Loeb and his visitor, or the stranger and his host in Bronze Age Greece, share the same culture, which an interstellar visitor would not, consider the scenario depicted in the science-fiction film Europa Report. A team of astronauts is sent to explore the moon of Jupiter named in the film’s title, where it discovers under the ice a bioluminescent creature resembling an earthly squid or octopus. Does the creature use its bioluminescence to hunt or attract prey in the dark oceans under Europa’s ice, or, being “intelligent“, is it its means of communication? And, if the creature were “intelligent”, how would the human astronauts know and how would the creature perceive in the astronauts their “intelligence”? Why would the astronauts, rather than, say, their capsule, even be the focus of the creature’s curiosity? Even so shopworn a science-fiction franchise as Star Trek (in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) envisioned a technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial species blindly indifferent to all human civilization on earth in the search for its own Cetacean kind.

Even if we set aside the specific case of our encountering extraterrestrial intelligent life, the same problem persists. The Galileo Project’s first focus is the search for near-earth “extraterrestrial equipment“, whether a functioning artificially intelligent probe or piece of detritus. In any case, we must be able to recognize the artifact as an artifact, precisely the point of contention around ‘Oumuamua: was it a natural object or an artificial one, as Loeb et al. argue? Again, science fiction has touched on just this challenge, as the ability to perceive a piece of alien technology as such is pivotal to the plot of Star Trek: the Motion Picture. (Loeb seems more a fan of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact or its film version). The problem becomes even more intractable if we take seriously speculations that the very structures of the cosmos or its laws may be artifacts.

So, whether our interstellar interloper be a piece of technology, “intelligent” or otherwise, or biological, we are a far ways from the easy hospitality Loeb was able to offer his visitor, as we may not even know we are in the presence of a visitor and that stranger may not recognize they are in the presence of a potential host. How is it, then, that Loeb overlooks these grave obstacles to mutual recognition in his advocating Interstellar Xenia? I propose that Loeb, like all those obsessed with, fascinated by, or or otherwise inclined to indulge the idea of extraterrestrial, intelligent life, is on the lookout for an anthropomorphic “intelligence”, failing to recognize, at the same time, that encountering an exo-tic, extraterrestrial life form is an instance of interspecies communication.

One needn’t travel to an imagined Europa to discover the grave flaws in Loeb’s perspective. First, restricting “intelligence” to human intelligence in general or that teleological, problem-solving, technical intelligence, instrumental reason, is demonstrably perverse, de facto and de jure. One need only glance at the growing body of research into animal and plant intelligence to see that Homo Sapiens already inhabits a planet teeming with intelligent, nonhuman life. Philosophical reflection on the concept of intelligence, too, dissolves the identification of intelligence with human, instrumental reason. Justin E. Smith makes this case in both a lively and readable manner that I encourage interested parties to read for themselves; here, I attempt to condense his case…. Smith explains

…the only idea we are in fact able to conjure of what intelligent beings elsewhere may be like is one that we extrapolate directly from our idea of our own intelligence. And what’s worse, in this case the scientists are generally no more sophisticated than the folk….

One obstacle to opening up our idea of what might count as intelligence to beings or systems that do not or cannot “pass our tests” is that, with this criterion abandoned, intelligence very quickly comes to look troublingly similar to adaptation, which in turn always seems to threaten tautology. That is, an intelligent arrangement of things would seem simply to be the one that best facilitates the continued existence of the thing in question; so, whatever exists is intelligent….

it may in fact be useful to construe intelligence in just this way: every existing life-form is equally intelligent, because equally well-adapted to the challenges the world throws its way. This sounds audacious, but the only other possible construal of intelligence I can see is the one that makes it out to be “similarity to us”…

Ubiquitous living systems on Earth, that is —plants, fungi, bacteria, and of course animals—, manifest essentially the same capacities of adaptation, of interweaving themselves into the natural environment in order to facilitate their continued existence, that in ourselves we are prepared to recognize as intelligence….

There is in sum no good reason to think that evolutionary “progress” must involve the production of artifices, whether in external tools or in representational art. In fact such productions might just as easily be seen as compensations for a given life form’s inadequacies in facing challenges its environment throws at it. An evolutionally “advanced” life form might well be the one that, being so well adapted, or so well blended into its environment, simply has no need of technology at all.

But such a life form will also be one that has no inclination to display its ability to ace our block-stacking tests or whatever other proxies of intelligence we strain to devise. Such life forms are, I contend, all around us, all the time. Once we convince ourselves this is the situation here on Earth, moreover, the presumption that our first encounter with non-terrestrial life forms will be an encounter with spaceship-steering technologists comes to appear as a risible caricature.

Both fact and reason, then, call into serious question the very intelligibility of Loeb’s imagined, hospitable meeting, for there are no grounds to decide just what organism, extraterrestrial or otherwise, would count as an Other for us to greet (and vice versa: on what grounds would Homo Sapiens be picked out of all the other species on earth to be that Other’s Other?). It’s almost as if Loeb has taken his clue from mythology, not only that found in the epic accounts of xenia, but the Biblical Creation story, wherein Man is made in the image of God and given sovereignty over all other creatures, or the myth of Prometheus who gifts humankind fire or inventive ingenuity. Such a metaphysical idea grants Homo Sapiens a special characteristic (“intelligence”), which is then imagined to be possessed by other, similarly “ensouled” and gifted extraterrestrials we hope not merely to encounter but to meet.

This hope, however, is futile, as the only creature that meets the criteria we have set is ourselves. Were the problem grasped in its more thorough-going form, as one of interspecies communication, then we might turn our attention to all those other organisms with whom we share the earth and perhaps reflect on the nature and extent of the hospitality we extend to them and may perhaps be said to owe them. With this thought, the perversity of why we should extend hospitality to “autonomous visitors, even if they embody hardware with artificial and not natural intelligence” is revealed: “Our technological civilization could benefit greatly from the knowledge it might garner from such encounters.” First, Loeb narrows down civilization to its technology (as if technology were somehow meaningfully abstractable from the society and culture that produce it), then he restricts the interaction to what we, the hosts, might gain (“knowledge”), twisting his central idea of xenia out of all resemblance to the Hellenic custom he invokes, which is characterized in the first instance by the generosity of the host.

Loeb’s vision here is, first, narcissistic (i.e., it sees intelligence only as human intelligence, which he in turn seems to restrict to technical ingenuity, at that) and, second, self-centredly grasping (in conceiving of xenia only in terms of what we, the hosts, have to gain from our guests, “knowledge”). The supreme irony of Loeb’s position is revealed by this insistence that the discovery of a technologically-advanced, extraterrestrial civilization would precipitate a “Copernican revolution” that would disabuse humankind of its delusion that it is the only “intelligent” (and, hence, the most intelligent) species in its galactic neighbourhood, inspiring it to adopt instead a “cosmic modesty“, when in fact Loeb has conceived human instrumental reason as “intelligence” itself, the archetypal standard by which any other organism is determined to be intelligent or not, i.e., his stance is fundamentally anthropocentric. The narcissism of this conception entails that we will only ever be able greet and extend hospitality to ourselves. Loeb’s stranger is not strange enough….

Sightings: Monday 1 November 2021: Plus ça change…

As I observed in the last Sightings post, ufology as that myth-of-things-seen-in the-skies, despite apparent, dramatic developments (novelties), seems to orbit in an eternal-recurrence-of-the-same, which is characteristic of myth as such; myth posits an eternal (ever recurring) order…. That being said, some recent developments caught my attention.

The Galileo Project for the Systematic Scientific Search for Evidence of Extraterrestrial Technological Artifacts (headed by Avi Loeb) recently named Christopher Mellon and Luis Elizondo as Research Affiliates. (I assume these two names and their respective place in recent ufology are not unfamiliar.) I’ve elaborated a number of critiques of the thinking underwriting Loeb’s views concerning extraterrestrial technological artifacts (the most developed can be read here). However ideologically invested Loeb’s ideas, their scientific value remains an open question, depending on Project Galileo’s ultimate—empirical—findings. But it’s precisely the project’s scientific reputation that is thrown into question by its affiliation with Mellon and Elizondo, given their respective backgrounds in intelligence and their overt statements and innuendos concerning UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena). Given Mellon’s and Elizondo’s enthusiastic participation in the drama of “Disclosure”, the scientifically-minded might be excused for wondering just how much of value the two can bring to, e.g., “assessing the societal implications of the data, if any extraterrestrial technological signatures or artifacts are discovered.” One’s tempted to imagine that once History’s The Secret of Skin Walker Ranch has run its inevitable course it might not be replaced by a new reality series, The Galileo Project….

The appointment of Mellon and Elizondo to a research project searching for artifacts of extraterrestrial technology underlines, again, the near hegemony a certain thinking about extraterrestrial life (and, by extension and most importantly, life on earth) holds in both the popular and more specialized imaginations, e.g., that of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) researchers. Corey S. Powell’s Aeon article “The search for alien tech” reveals both in how SETI research has recently expanded in the wake of the discovery of exoplanets and most acutely in his own reflexive (unconscious) rhetoric just how strong the grip of this thinking is.

Powell describes how “each age has featured its own version [of] yearning for contact with life from beyond, always anchored to the technological themes of the day”. Roughly in the latter half of last century SETI was essentially the search for a demonstrably alien, artificial signal somewhere in the electromagnetic spectrum, whether visible (e.g., laser) or invisible (e.g., radio). However, with the discovery of how to detect and study exoplanets, the search was able to broaden its horizon to include the chemical fingerprints of life and technology, bio- and technosignatures. These latter include, for example, the specific light reflected from solar panels, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs, “highly versatile compounds that are used as solvents, refrigerants, foaming agents and aerosol propellants”), or “nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of combustion or high-temperature manufacturing,” namely, the kinds of technosignatures human activity leaves in earth’s atmosphere. However, as Powell remarks “Alien technology could take so many forms that it is impossible for the human mind to consider or even imagine them all.” The search for technosignatures, therefore, expands to include “mechanical technosignatures”, such as a Dyson Sphere, or the kinds of artifacts The Galileo Project is on the hunt for.

There is an irony, however, in, on the one hand, admitting that “Alien technology could take so many forms that it is impossible for the human mind to consider or even imagine them all” and, on the other, the tellingly offhand comparison Powell makes discussing technosignatures:

We spew pollutants, belch factory heat during the day, and light up our cities at night. We can’t help it, any more than bacteria can help emitting methane. By extension, any advanced aliens could be expected to visibly alter their planet as an inevitable byproduct of creating a manufactured, industrial civilization.

Powell’s comparison levels the difference between the waste products of an organism’s metabolism and those of social, techno-industrial processes, human or alien, whose societies are thereby (if not therefore) imagined (if not thought) to be organisms writ large. Powell’s rhetoric here (con)fuses the natural and the social, natural history and history proper (Adorno’s critique of the distinction notwithstanding).

Powell’s rhetoric is part-and-parcel with that thinking that governs SETI in general and the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis concerning the origin of UFOs, the (Platonic) idea that life is not shaped only by biology but by some teleology that launches it on a vector to develop the kind of intelligence homo sapiens imagines it possesses, which, in turn, necessarily expresses itself as tool-use and technological development along the lines laid out by “First World” historians (who imagine that the world’s present-day “advanced” societies represent a goal or end of history…). Astrobiologist Jason Wright et al. keep strange company when they imagine alien technology millions or billions of years old (and presumably as much in advance of our own); Maitreya Raël tells us, too, that his Elohim are 25,000 years in advance of us….

More gravely is how this confusion of natural history and history proper evacuates the possibility of even thinking of self-directed social change (societies are ultimately as mindlessly instinctual as colonies of bacteria) and thereby serves a politically “conservative”, reactionary function. David Wengrow makes a not unrelated point with regard to how reigning, inherited narratives of cultural development work as myths (there’s that word again) to drain away the potential for even imagining alternate futures or change. Wengrow rehearses this restraining view of human history as follows:

We could live in societies of equals, this story goes, when we were few, our lives and needs simple. In this view, small means egalitarian, in balance with each other and with nature. Big means complex, which involves hierarchy, exploitation and the competitive extraction of the Earth’s resources. Now, as the human population approaches eight billion, we are left to draw the obvious dismal conclusions. There is no sense fighting the inevitable. Between entrenched neoliberalism and the pressures of our grow-or-die economy, what hope do we really have of making progress? [my emphasis]

Or, as Fredric Jameson so memorably put it: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Happily, as Wengrow points out and explains “nothing about this familiar conception of human history is actually true.”

The myth that possesses the imagination of believers in or speculators about advanced, extraterrestrial civilizations is as scientifically and philosophically problematic as it is socially consequential. On the one hand, we don’t even know how life appeared on earth, but what we do know, however, is that its evolution has been a precarious, chance-ridden, unpredictable process. On the other, the story of human culture and society is even more aleatoric and varied, underwritten by what Wengrow terms “the spark of political creativity” or philosophers, more generally, “freedom”. Accounts of life, “intelligence”, “development”, or “progress” that merely posit the (self-serving) self-understanding of one culture on earth as the outcome of some natural, necessary, universal process serve to only reify, naturalize and entrench, the social relations of that culture, now at a moment when its unnaturalness, borne out by the daily mounting evidence of its unsustainability (to put it in the most “objective” terms), is most in need of unmasking.