Most of my readers know me as someone who writes about deafness, cochlear implants, neuroscience, and neurotechnology. So you might wonder, what am I up to in writing about astrobiology and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)? Let me explain.
In fact, my interest in SETI has been lifelong. As a kid I read science fiction (I still do now, of course), followed the space program obsessively (I remember reading New York Times articles on Skylab in 1973, when I was 9 years old) and was fascinated by movies like Close Encounters and E.T.
When I went totally deaf in 2001, got my first cochlear implant, and wrote my first book about it (Rebuilt), that pushed me into reading deeply in new subject areas: neuroscience and neurotechnology. The momentum of all that reading carried over into my second book (World Wide Mind.) But I’ve been interested in SETI all along. In planning to write a third book on SETI, I’m continuing an interest I had long before cochlear implants came into my life.
I'm not the only person in our family interested in SETI. So is our cat Harper.
But there will be themes in Book III that readers of my first two books will recognize: namely, isolation and communication. For deaf people, isolation is always an issue. Think how that compares to the situation of humanity on Earth. We have no idea if anyone else is out there. And we can only guess whether alien minds would have things in common with ours. Taken as a whole, the human race might as well be profoundly deaf.
In fact, I wonder if there are parallels between our planet’s isolation and solitary confinement. In a terrifying article in The New Yorker, Atul Gawande argued that solitary confinement is not just boring but unbearable. People need encounters with others to maintain their psychic integrity. Without it, people simply fall apart. Gawande writes of what happened to one prisoner held in solitary confinement in a supermax facility:
After a few months without regular social contact … he started to lose his mind. He talked to himself. He paced back and forth compulsively, shuffling along the same six-foot path for hours on end. Soon, he was having panic attacks, screaming for help. He hallucinated that the colors on the walls were changing. He became enraged by routine noises—the sound of doors opening as the guards made their hourly checks, the sounds of inmates in nearby cells. After a year or so, he was hearing voices on the television talking directly to him. He put the television under his bed, and rarely took it out again. (Article here.)
As a whole, humanity looks kind of like that prisoner: agitated, violent, distracted, irrational, delusional. Our history is saturated in horrifying violence. Our governments have almost no ability to fairly apportion resources and plan for the future. Societies pollute without a thought for the future of their own children. Barmy ideas about miracles and supernatural beings are rampant. Could it be that just as individuals go crazy in isolation, so do planets?
I can only argue from analogy here, of course. I don’t know if it is meaningful to speak of humanity’s seven billion people as a cohesive unit. There are hints that it might be. In their book Connected, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler show that people are apparently influenced, without realizing it, by the friends of their friends—whom they may not even know. They showed that statistically, if your friend’s friend is lonely, then you are 25 percent more likely to be lonely yourself (p. 58.) It’s not clear why this is; is there a mysterious causative effect, or is it merely a statistical correlation? I asked Fowler this at a conference in 2010 and he told me that right now, no one knows. In any case, they hint at a radical redefinition of the individual as an expression of a kind of “group mind.” They write, “A smoker may have as much control over quitting as a bird has to stop a flock from flying in a particular direction” (p. 116).
These are just hints that humanity is a cohesive unit, not definitive evidence. I think the analogy is pregnant and poignant, but unproven. Still and all: crazy prisoners, crazy planets. Contact and communication with other planets might have a calming effect on a civilization, giving it perspective and self-knowledge. After all, it’s mainly through interaction with other people that we get feedback on our behavior. We know ourselves by how people reflect us back to ourselves. The Other is a kind of mirror. Right now, humanity has no way to see itself in perspective. We just don’t know what’s abberational in intelligent species, and what’s normal.
In fact, we could be so lunatic that extraterrestrials are giving us a wide berth. I don’t think so, personally; the evolutionary process is intensely competitive, giving rise to frequent violence as individuals and groups fight for scarce resources. And it doesn’t encourage longterm thinking, since for billions of years individuals have been rewarded only for reproducing themselves. But I can only guess that these evolutionary rules are universal rather than just local features of Earth.
I think that deafness and planetary isolation have something in common. A deaf person knows how easy it is to become profoundly cut off. (If civilization collapsed and the electricity went out for good, my rechargeable cochlear implant batteries would last me about a week.) I think of our planet swimming in the starry blackness, studded with radio telescopes peering anxiously into the void—and hearing nothing. To me, that feels a lot like being deaf.
So I don’t think it’s surprising that I, as a deaf science writer, would be naturally drawn to the theme of finding and communicating with other species out there. And that’s why I’ve been posting tweets and blog entries about SETI, and working on a book proposal.
(If you liked this blog post, please read my other recent posts on SETI: Will Extraterrestrials Understand a Message We Send? and The Visitor from Planet X.)