Suggested: We need to think more about the sociology of aliens

One analyst suggests we are ignoring a big feature about aliens: what would their society be like?

“We keep complaining about the fact that we know so little about extraterrestrials in general, and even though sociology is mentioned in the Drake Equation, it is generally agreed that is the most difficult aspect to address,” said Morris Jones, an Australian who describes himself as an independent space analyst.

The Drake Equation is a set of variables proposed by astronomer Frank Drake that estimates how many intelligent, communicating civilizations there are in the universe. While speaking at the International Astronautical Congress Wednesday (Oct. 1), Jones pointed out that most talk about alien communications focuses on the basics – how they transmit, and where to search, and whether we can hear them. But to fully understand the message, we have to understand how their society works.

How a society functions is partly a function of biology, Jones argued. So if humans decided to incorporate machine intelligence in their bodies, it would be reasonable to assume that society would change because of that. “Machine society is an entirely different sociology, and that we cannot predict,” Jones said. An extraterrestrial civilization could use machines, drugs, genetic engineering or surgery to alter their basic nature (something that is used also with humans.)

Class systems could also be in place that are similar to the animal kingdom. Herd and hive sociology covers how animals behave. Pigeons, for example, flock together for mutual protection. In the insect world, beings such as ants tend to be born in specific physiological roles that prepare them for different functions — such as the queen ant that is the mother of other ants in the colony.

These are societies that we could predict, perhaps, but more intriguing are those that are difficult to extrapolate from human experience or observation. Jones is particularly interested in cryptosociology. That’s the concept that because we can’t predict yet how alien civilizations will behave, we can speculate what they are capable of.

Sounds like a potentially interesting topic but how is anyone supposed to do anything definitive?

Take the sociological approach and see your in-laws as an alien culture

Here is an interesting suggestion after the holidays: in order to improve a visit with your in-laws, approach them as an alien culture.

So, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, “What’s the deal with in-laws?” Why do they cause us so much stress? — I mean, not me of course, my in-laws, who happen to read all of my articles are awesome and exempt from all of the obnoxious statements that come next — perhaps I should re-phrase that — Why do your in-laws cause you so much stress?

The answer to this question is simple: Your in-laws are aliens…

Every family is a culture unto itself and all cultures develop rules of propriety, hierarchy and membership. For example, while some families insist on eating a formal breakfast that begins only when all members are awake, clean, and wearing monocles, others permit and perhaps even encourage thunderous belching of the national anthem while eating Cool Ranch Doritos in the family room — we don’t need to name names, you know who you are. There are families that are dominated by a single parent or grandparent and others that have a more egalitarian dynamic. Some parents might consider anyone who stops in on Christmas Eve to be a part of the family, and others require you to earn your place at the table by slaying a boar or porcupine, or performing some other feat of gallantry…

So, what do you do? Basically, I suggest an imaginary sociological approach to the problem. If you pretend that you are a sociologist trying to learn about an alien culture you will probably have less grief when you visit your in-laws and you actually might be able to enjoy yourself a bit.

This is a take on a classic sociological idea: if a Martian came to earth, what would they objectively observe?

If we want to go further with the idea of viewing your in-laws as an alien culture, we would also have to discuss the issues with being a participant observer. When visiting, it would be hard to simply sit and watch without being involved at all. (Of course, this could be easier in some family cultures than others.) At the same time, one could easily participate too much and not retain the objectivity necessary to understand what is truly going on. Finding this middle ground may be difficult but it would help in being able to hold both an insider and outsider perspective of your in-laws.

Explaining our social world to alien visitors

Sociology has a meme involving aliens: what would someone from Mars observe or conclude if they came to Earth and looked at modern society? Although it doesn’t come from a sociologist, here is an update on this idea that includes McMansions:

Since they haven’t answered, we could assume that the humans in space aren’t sophisticated enough to interpret our radio signals.

But just imagine how we can help them when we do find them. We can teach them everything we know and speed up their evolution into modern man in a flash. We could have them skip over the stone age, the bronze age, the iron age, the industrial revolution, and be flipping microchips and tweeting by sunset. How exhilarating it will be for us to teach them about fire and wheels. We could bypass the telegraph, and give them 3DTV! Imagine their excitement, moving from a cave to a McMansion with granite countertops? Once they learn how to use all the gadgets — iPod, iPad, iPhone — they would only need to learn the basics of reading and math.

The sequence of what we teach would be important. It would be terrible to show them how to accumulate stuff before we taught them how to defend themselves from those who would take their stuff away. Would spears be good enough or would we need to give them guns, guided missiles, or maybe an atomic bomb? And if they come from a tribal background, would every tribe need an atomic bomb?…

Of course, there is a chance that humans, way out there in space, have been receiving our signals. Maybe, they’re a lot smarter than we imagine. Maybe, they know all about us. Maybe, they have decided it’s better not to answer our call.

This may seem like a silly exercise but it has some value: it can be hard to take an outsider’s perspective of our own world. By trying to adopt the viewpoint of someone who might come from a completely different social system (and planet), it helps us take a broader and overhead look at our own actions and social relations.

I sense some satire here about showing our visitors 3DTV, McMansions, and iPads. This sounds like a suggestion that we pay too much attention to technological and physical comforts without remembering the foundation beneath them such as social structures, basic tools, government, and moral values. This seems related to the question of what civilization relies on.

Debunking the Transformers 3 movie trailer

While recently in the theater to watch True Grit (perhaps to be reviewed later though I am not well versed in either Westerns or Coen Brother’s films), I saw the new trailer for Transformers 3. The trailer takes some liberties with an important moment of history and is debunked by ESPN’s TMQ:

Philip Torbett of Knoxville, Tenn., writes, “In the just-released trailer for the third Transformers movie, the premise is that the Apollo missions were a cover to explore a downed alien spacecraft. When the moon spins and the Apollo landing area is no longer facing Earth, the astronauts climb a ridge and explore the massive alien craft which is mere feet away from the Lunar Module. When the moon spins back, the astronauts quickly return to the lander and pretend to be collecting rocks. But the moon revolves such that we always see the same side. This makes the opening premise of the movie impossible, because any alien craft that landed in the Sea of Tranquility would have been continuously observable from Earth with a decent telescope.”

TMQ’s rule of sci-fi is that I will accept the premise — enormous instantly transforming living organisms made of metal that require no fuel or other energy and can fly without lift or propulsion, hey, why not? — so long as action makes sense within the premise, while laws of physics are observed. The moon is turning on its axis, but the same side always faces Earth. If the moon did not turn on its axis, as it revolved around the Earth, we’d see the dark side just as often as the familiar light side. The moon is “tidally locked” with Earth — its gravity creates tides in the oceans, while Earth’s gravity locks the light side of the moon facing us. That the moon is tidally locked — rotating on its axis, but the same side always facing Earth — is the reason we see the same surface features whenever we look up at the moon but never see the dark side.

The entire time the Apollo landers were on the moon, they were visible from Earth. Hollywood assumes that with science literacy being what it is, most moviegoers won’t know this. Did the scriptwriters know it?

A good question. When I first saw the trailer, I was torn between thinking it was absurd (quite the hulking alien spacecraft) and thinking it was clever (by being tied to an iconic moment in history).

Pointing out the issues with this backstory leads to a larger question: should we be willing to overlook historical or scientific impossibilities for the sake of having an entertaining movie trailer or film? Should a movie like The Social Network be truthful or be entertaining? I tend to dislike such changes though they can be done better in some movies than others.

We could also ask about how many viewers of the Transformers trailer or film would even think about this issue of the moon rotating.