As we discover numerous habitable planets around other stars in the Milky Way galaxy, including the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, one cannot help but wonder why we have not yet detected evidence for an alien civilization.
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True, a signal from an alien civilization might be subtle or sophisticated, but the disappointing silence of the sky may also indicate that long-lasting extrastellar civilizations do not use technologies that would make them visible to our telescopes. Based on our own experience, we expect that civilizations much older than ours will be scientifically savvy and hence technologically advanced. But it is also possible that a simpler lifestyle rather than scientific prosperity has dominated the political landscape on other planets, leading to old civilizations that are nevertheless technologically primitive.
Human history allows us to imagine the possibility that under a different political scenario, our planet could have remained dominated by the anti-scientific mindsets of the middle ages. Such a scenario is imaginable over the timescale of thousands of years, although the likelihood that it would prevail over millions or billions of years is unclear. Perhaps Earth was lucky to see technology arise in the spirit of the novel Origin by Dan Brown.
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Environmental or political disasters could have easily reset the evolutionary clock. Or perhaps the ultimate lifetime of civilization on Earth will turn out to be shorter than it would have been if humans remained technologically primitive. Technology poses long-term risks to our future in the form of climate change and nonconventional nuclear, biological or chemical wars. In this case, the surfaces of other planets will show either relics of technologically advanced civilizations that destroyed themselves in self-inflicted catastrophes or living civilizations that are technologically primitive.
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We could search for the remnants of technological civilizations from afar. But if we detect nothing through our telescopes, the only way to find out whether long-lived civilizations are technologically primitive is to visit their planets. Astrosociology could become a particularly exciting frontier of exploration as we venture into space.
Traditional astronomers would argue that it is much less expensive to remotely observe distant planets than to launch a probe that will visit them. We now have enough information to conclude that they almost certainly existed at some point in cosmic history. Frank writes that this probability is not an abstraction, not just a pure number. Each world is place where winds may blow over mountains, where mists may rise in valleys, where seas may churn and rivers may flow. Note our solar system has two worlds in the Goldilocks zone — Earth and Mars — and both have had winds, seas and rivers.
When you hold that image in your mind, you see something remarkable: The pessimism line actually represents the 10 billion trillion times the universe has run its experiment with planets and life. We have our just-so stories about lightning strikes and volcanic vents, but no one has come close to duplicating abiogenesis in a lab. Nor do we know whether basic organisms reliably evolve into beings like us. And, as neurobiologist and leading expert on evolution of intelligence, Lori Marino has argued, human intelligence evolved on top of cognitive structures that already had a long history of life on Earth.
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The denial of the Shona people of their intellectual ownership, among others of the Great Zimbabwe, Khami ruins, is theft of history. And while many may consider theories of ancient aliens to be an outlandish and ultimately harmless belief or meme, Benyera points out that there is an extant spectrum of western denialism whose occupants seek to rescind and reallocate great accomplishments from African civilizations in particular.
To Benyera, one example of western denialism lies in the writings of the historian Niall Ferguson. Benyera notes that Ferguson underscores the colonial gifts of parliamentary democracy and the English language to the countries that they colonized in his book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World.
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Arguing that aliens brought magnificent structures to many African civilizations erases accomplishments, but so does arguing that colonizers brought gifts rather than imposed obligations upon the nations they colonized. In recent years, academics have increasingly called foul on alien theories as cultural erasures outside of Africa as well. A year ago, Christopher Heaney , a professor of Latin American history at Pennsylvania State University, wrote an article addressing the racism behind notions that Pre-Columbian bodies were evidence for extraterrestrial life.
Others have sought to dispel the racist theories surrounding Native mound-building cultures.
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In comments to Hyperallergic, Morag Kersel , an archaeologist at DePaul University, noted the connection between ancient aliens and the idea that an ancient and superior race had originally built mounds like those at Cahokia in southern Illinois. The myth supported racist policies and has done lasting damage. Kersel noted that the use of pseudoscience revoking the accomplishments of Native American cultures is a sad part of American history.
It was used by Andrew Jackson and others to undermine the intellect and abilities of Native peoples as we removed them from their native lands. Since , the show has featured a mix of mostly white male conspiracy theorists posing harmful questions about the legitimacy of human involvement in archaeological structures. As of recently, they have at least begun to incorporate actual Egyptians such as Ramy Romany. Most Egyptologists see shows like Ancient Aliens as a program that capitalizes on the bizarre rather than endeavoring to be out-and-out racist.
For others, the attraction to books and television touting ancient alien conspiracies may be a bit more racially motivated. In comments to Hyperallergic, Robert Cargill , an assistant professor of Religious Studies and Classics at the University of Iowa who also served as an academic counterbalance on a number of episodes of Ancient Aliens , discussed the role of the program in supporting racist ideas of ancient capability:. This is not to say that belief in ancient alien theory makes one racist.
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As Cargill and many other right-minded academics now make clear, the necessity for scientists, archaeologists, and academics in general to talk to the public about the ethnic biases of pseudoscience is becoming ever more apparent. In , bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove already discussed the need for archaeologists to dispel pseudoscientific myths through public outreach.
Public-facing scholarship in the humanities and STEM fields can serve as strong rebuttals to pseudoscientific narratives broadcast on television and online.