I was shocked this week to learn that Jared Diamond is anti-SETI.
Despite the sound of it, SETI is not a piece of furniture that complements your chiffarobe (though Jared Diamond might disapprove of those, too). It’s an acronym for “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” The SETI Institute (www.seti.org) is a California organization that spies on outer space to see, among other things, if anybody is going to reclaim Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Jared Diamond is the Pulitzer Prize-winning evolutionary biologist whose book “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies” showed that, thanks to chain reactions and geographical luck, tiny tweaks to the weapons/cooties complex can mean dramatic swings in the way societies acquire cheese over time. While Diamond isn’t opposed to searching the skies for signs of life, he is one of a growing community of scientists who think contacting extraterrestrials might not be smart because aliens might be brutal jagoffs who’ll come here and turn us all into sex slaves. And they might not be attractive.
The thinking goes like this: Evolution (yes, this involves evolution, so you Fletcher voters can stop reading now) is basically a bloody crawl from the swamp of the fittest to the cesspool of the bloodthirstiest, so there’s every reason to believe that aliens are cunning, vicious aggressors. They might even be as bad as us. And they might have bigger guns, germs and steel.
Silly me. I always figured the one thing that would finally end wars on Earth was the discovery of life on another planet. The people of Earth would finally join hands and become one … in order to figure out how to invade the other planet. If we contacted a more advanced civilization, I sort of hoped they might have figured out that whole “love your neighbor” business and could maybe turn us on to some of it.
Not likely, say Diamond, Stanford astronomer Ronald Bracewell, Nobel Prize-winning biologist George Wald (well, he said it before he died, as did Carl Sagan) and other prominent astronomers, physicists and biologists. They all believe that by sending messages hurtling irretrievably into space — whether they are intentional signals or our old “I Love Lucy” and “Mork & Mindy” episodes — we might just be waving a red flag in front of a bull. They believe we should at least discuss the idea of squelching these signals.
CO2 emissions, hell — who’s going to sequester the vapor trail of “Geraldo
With terrorism, global warming, bird flu, bears, iPhone fatigue syndrome and nicotine withdrawal bearing down on you, alien invaders might not be a top priority on your worry list. But we’re discovering new planets faster than Al Gore III on a Vicodin bender. Just 15 years ago, we could count the known extra-solar planets on one hand. Now we know of 242 of them, many of which appear to contain precious water that might be suitable for bottling and selling for $6 at amusement parks and sporting venues.
At first glance, it might seem good that we’re discovering planets nearly every month, especially since we’re doing such a bang-up job of destroying this one. Even if we don’t wreck this one, we’ll eventually need room for more Qdobas. But what if those planets house extraterrestrials, and what if those extraterrestrials are mean sumbitches?
Microsoft cofounder and billionaire Paul Allen, who may or may not be an alien, doesn’t seem worried. He’s funding the Allen Telescope Array, which will point 350 dishes at the sky and sweep for alien signals. Then again, he helped launch the collective geniuses that put the Shut Down command on the Start menu.
While I don’t dispute Diamond’s conclusion that there’s a good chance extraterrestrials would want to harm us, I also believe in the inherent goodness of our extraterrestrial friends. After all, we’re just extra-whatever they call their planet. And we would never invade another people without reasonable cause, right? Right?
Still, we shouldn’t live our lives in fear of the heavens, which also threaten the asteroid, the gamma ray and the supernova (and its insidious sister-atrocity, the champagne supernova). Besides, if we worry about extraterrestrials, the extraterrestrials win. So I say, suck it, E.T.! Eat our Robin Williamses and our Lucille Balls!
And at the very least, please be gentle.
Contact the writer at