Intelligent Life: The Search Continues

Humans continue to scan the cosmos for a familiar brand of intelligence while ignoring a deeper form that pulses here at home.

By Dorion Sagan | August 1, 2013

UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA PRESS, APRIL 2013“It takes one to know one”—this schoolyard retort has thus far guided the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), and the belief is reinforced by countless science-fiction portrayals of aliens as humanoids. Is it possible that cosmic evolution has converged on bipedal, big-headed forms looking somewhat like us and having their run of a bevy of Earth-like planets? If so, where are they? Why haven’t they, like us, broadcast their presence across the electromagnetic spectrum, contacting their brothers across the stars and mitigating our cosmic loneliness?

I ponder these questions and more in my new book, Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science.

SETI is complicated by the fact that intelligence is multiple and the possibility  that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a replacement for religion in a secular age. Instead of believing in a god who made us in his image, we are on the lookout for aliens who have evolved an advanced technical civilization on the human model.

Even great scientists fall prey to this anthropocentric and zoocentric tendency to imagine extraterrestrial intelligence as a reflection of ourselves in a cosmic distorting mirror. Stephen Hawking warns not only that aliens probably exist but also that we must be careful of broadcasting our presence because, if they find us, they may eat us. But wouldn’t aliens able to navigate the vast distances of interstellar space have the technical capacity to synthesize food directly from interstellar matter? Traversing the universe for a human snack makes about as much sense as booking a supersonic jet to Morocco to eat a single garbanzo bean. In contrast, physicist Michio Kaku speculates any aliens likely to arrive on Earth will be less like Christopher Columbus and company destroying Native American populations (as Hawking suggested) and more like the United States’s experience during the Vietnam War: one of conflict with no benefit, with the aliens ultimately hightailing it back to the stars whence they came.

Both of these scenarios show the difficulty Earthlings have imagining aliens who are truly alien: they always seem to take the form of thinly disguised versions of ourselves, slightly different races, perhaps human subspecies. Part of the problem is that it is hard for us to imagine communicating with beings that are too different from ourselves. At the end of Contact, written by my late father Carl Sagan, the aliens project themselves as humans in order to communicate with us. In Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, a planet with a living ocean beams images of familiar humans up to a human crew orbiting above. Lem’s “solution” to the science-fiction depiction of aliens underscores the depth of our interspecies communication problem.

I have an admiration for science but recognize it as a fallible human expression of a greater planetary intelligence that remains in some ways more alien to us than anything we seek in the stars. Life-forms—including our own bodies—generally regulate unchecked growth. But the unchecked growth and technological innovation of our civilization are causing problems of global pollution, starvation, war, and climate change. Ultimately, exponential growth, whether of spreading pathogens that kill their hosts, of the stem cells in our own bodies, or of our own technoscientific civilization, is unsustainable. Is a typical plateau in the growth of even the most advanced technical civilizations, including abandoning SETI efforts to address problems at home, the reason why we don’t see aliens? As physicist-cum-theoretical-biologist Josh Mitteldorf shows, aging itself looks like a genetic adaptation for regulating population—steady death rates keep ecosystems in balance, lessening the likelihood of populations booming to the point where they get wiped out by starvation and disease.

The search for life elsewhere continues to be a worthy scientific endeavor, but the greatest benefits to our species may lie in a renewed examination of terrestrial intelligence here at home.

Dorion Sagan, son of astronomer Carl Sagan and biologist Lynn Margulis, is an award-winning writer, editor, and theorist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, Natural History, and other publications. Read an excerpt of Cosmic Apprentice.

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Avatar of: Mary Finelli

Mary Finelli

Posts: 27

August 2, 2013

Thank you for this excellent commentary. If we are to treat extraterrestrial life anything like we treat our fellow sentient species here on Earth, then for their sake I hope that we never encounter them or that they have the power to civilize us.

Human beings quest for extraterrestial life while relentlessly torturing, killing and denying the very apparent abilities of the intelligent, personable, amazing other life forms who try to share this planet with us. As Carl Sagan explained:


Avatar of: Lance


Posts: 1

August 2, 2013

Humans are the only anamals that blush... or need to.

Avatar of: Wade_Schuette


Posts: 1

August 2, 2013

Hi Dorion!   Your dad was my graduate advisor for about a week at Cornell back in 1969 at CRSR.   A wonderful teacher.       In any case here's my take on xenobiology after pondering it for the last 40 years or so.

I think a chemistry-blind framework for life could be made around the concepts of closed-feedback loops and self-aware regulatory processes stabilizing those loops.

That kind of framework includes life on earth, but would also encompass "artificial life" ( such as computer systems ).  Also it would break a binding to a particular very limited region of scale of space and time,   allowing Asmov's intelligent cloud.

Another constraint that seems to be legacy and artificial, given the nested hierarchical arrangement of life (and the successful equivalent in computer hardware and software these days) is that "man" is at "the top" of some kind of pyramid of life.

The first principle of Cosmology is that we are not special, not in the center of the universe, not at the top or bottom or any extreme point on any scale.

The very reasonable implication is that humans are, in fact, quite literally in the middle of a larger pyramid of living entities,  with meta-life above us.    Corporations,  countries, and cultures are all alive within such a framework.

A barrier to exploring this rational default case is that it gets near the dreaded territory of "religion".    That problem has to be overcome to be true to Science.

In fact, it is increasingly clear that the "health" of "an individual" human is quite tightly coupled to the health of "other individuals" near that person, both mentally and physically, as well as to the health of the larger social active structures  ( family, company, town, country, economy) around them.

Paradoxically,  Scientific investigation of meta-scale-life is currently extremely hampered by Religion -- not by those who believe it, but by those who are spending so much energy avoiding anything that even might sound religious that they refuse to follow the Science.








Avatar of: Marcos Hardy

Marcos Hardy

Posts: 9

August 2, 2013

Shouldn't scientists extend this search for intelligent life to the US Congress? But... To do this, scientists will have to get funding from Congress. And we all know that Congress abhorrs Science as much as they are repelled by health care, art and Big Bird. Auh! Fuggedaboutit!

Avatar of: PastToTheFuture


Posts: 116

August 2, 2013

I have always said that if you want to understand other intelligent life whether the Martians on the next planet or a God on another plane, you must first understand the only intelligent speciaes of technologists we have access to, humans.... and I assure you, we are far from that understanding. I hope the SETI folks pay attention to the younger Sagan. Actually, if my gues is right, intelligent life "out there" will ahve a small footprint.

Avatar of: Roy Niles

Roy Niles

Posts: 115

August 3, 2013

Yo, Dorion,

My feeling is that the term "intelligent life" is a redundancy since all life by any reasonable definition either has intelligence of its own to use and/or was intelligently constructed to use it.  And my personal feeling is that we've already found evidence of life's version of intelligence elsewhere in the galaxy or galaxies, but haven't had the understanding to know it when we see it.

Avatar of: Sumodan


Posts: 5

August 4, 2013

Dorian Sagan has said it what we have been thinking all these years. Instead of wasting money on searching  ET life, it would be worth spending to discover a habitable planet and explore ways and means to reach there.

Avatar of: Dr. Jonas Moses

Dr. Jonas Moses

Posts: 22

August 4, 2013

Dr. Sagan,

In reading your article, and the comments thereafter, it occurs to me that perhaps we are all skating around the edges of a larger issue. Indeed, as "Sumodan" obliquely observes, perhaps we humans are the aliens we have been striving to discover. 

While I laud, respect and have even actively contributed to the search for extraterrestrial life (by sharing my own computer uplink with the SETI network), I do have to wonder at how alien humans are to one another, and how much work is left before us - in becoming more comfortable and familiar with the uniqueness of individual members of our own species.

There is also the intriguing, compelling and likely potential that - long before we discover alien life beyond our own solar system - we are destined to become alien to we begin colonizing other planets. It is my fervent wish (and prayer?) that Humanity embraces its own alien strangeness, and grows to the level of self-awareness necessary to the daunting undertaking of colonizing Space, before we end up strangers in another strange land (thank you, Mr. Heinlein).


Dr. Jonas Moses






Avatar of: Alexandru


Posts: 101

August 6, 2013

"A barrier to exploring this rational default case is that it gets near the dreaded territory of religion. That problem has to be overcome to be true to Science." (Wade_Schuette)

In my opinion, according to Revelation 3.14-22, SCIENCE is the seventh church and the truthful spirit.

The interface between seen and unseen is manageable trough "magnetoreceptors" because the mitochondria realise the "chemistry-blind framework for life that could be made around the concepts of closed-feedback loops and self-aware regulatory processes stabilizing those loops." (Wade_Schuette)

I am sure that there is an internal communication channel between the brain and the bio-antennas (mitochondrial DNA magnetoreceptors):as exist in the satellite telecommunications systems (LMSC - learning management system control).

Please, read the result of my research about this enigmatic sixth sense introduced by mitochondria: Adam%20mtDNA%20inheritance%20theory.pdf

Abstract: Brain and soul storming - The necessary and sufficient processes to a well function of the human body are meticulous arranged by specific organizational cells, so called process bio-managers, using interconditioned procedures, transmitted through three ways of communication: chemical or “protein channel”, electrical or “ion channel” and mitochondrial or “EMF wireless channel”. The third type is out of the visible and measurable spectrum and raises a new challenge to the scientist. For this type of bio communication we bring a new theoretical hypothesis, based on the managerial multidisciplinary analysis of a cybernetic model proposed by us, by simulating the human body function with the virtual computerized system based on the management of its total knowledge and its perfect quality way of function. The main bricks used for this virtual construction are: the brain, as main bio-processor, and Eve mtDNA and Adam mtDNA, as bio-antennas. This assembly of the total knowledge, build with “brain reasoning, biological feeling, and unlimited soul feeling”, is called by us “main decision triangle, IQ-EQ-CQ”. The main principle of the management of the total knowledge imposes us to not neglect the information produced by man during the time, even if it seems creasy at the beginning (see brainstorming definition). Because in the natural fertilisation the spermatozoids are naturally equipped with the paternal mtDNA (it looks like reflex klystron power amplifier, KPA = a veritable main bio-GPS), we consider that the paternal mitochondria DNA have a very important role in the evolution of the human being life quality and we have developed a new hypothesis, “Adam mtDNA theory”, in addition to “Eve mtDNA theory”. Keywords: brain, mitochondria, maternal, paternal

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