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An anthropologist looks at SETI the way SETI fans speculate about space aliens …

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Only, in this case, there are live subjects.

In “Q&A: The Anthropology of Searching for Aliens” (Wired, April 4, 2012 ), Adam Mann interviews anthropologist Kathryn Denning on the SETI phenomenon – why people search for extraterrestrial intelligences. Many interesting points, including this one:

Wired: What do anthropologists say when they look at the enterprise of SETI? That is, what does it say about us as humans that we are searching for others like ourselves in the universe?

Denning: It’s an interesting question and you can look at it in different ways. In one sense, its just the extension of a long tradition on thinking about what might be out there, which has just gone through a new technological manifestation.

Some people ask me: When did we first start thinking that there might be extraterrestrial life? And my reply is: When did we start thinking that there might not be? The sky has always been very busy, and the default position has always been that it’s populated. That doesn’t mean anything but that ideological substrate has always been there.

Only 200 years ago, we thought there could be people on the moon. Then, we got a good look at the moon and saw, well there’s no Lunarians there. And then there were the Martians — Lowell and all that — and it wasn’t very long ago, less than 100 years ago. As our range of vision keeps on moving outwards, the aliens keep on moving outwards too. And that’s one way you can look at SETI; it’s the logical trajectory of an idea that’s always been around.

And, of course, you can look at it within a religious framework. Our 20th century western culture includes Christianity and beings populating the Heavens. But anthropologically speaking, SETI also could be seen as being a reaction to the collapse of traditional religion.

In a universe where you’re no longer expecting God to provide the order, we are forced to ask: where is the order? Where’s the sense to it all and what are we then a part of?

Yes, folks, just at the end here, her line of reasoning sails off a cliff.

What collapse of traditional religion? Even in allegedly Godless downtown Toronto, there is considerable flurry when Easter coincides with Passover, as it does this year.

Denning is probably confusing the scene on the York University campus where she teaches with what she would find in the community at large. It’s called observer bias …

And where is the evidence that belief in space aliens is anywhere near as popular as belief in God, or at all likely to become so?

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