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Native Americans

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Don’t Talk to Them

29 April 2010

Don’t Talk to Them

By Gwynne Dyer

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans,” said the world’s most famous theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, late last month.

He warned scientists not to try to communicate with extra-terrestrials, pointing out that “We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.”

Hawking’s concern is shared by others in the field. They don’t object to passive SETI: it can’t do any harm to “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence” by listening with radio telescopes for the radio emissions of civilizations around other stars. However, they think that active SETI – sending out messages saying “Here we are” – is just asking for trouble.

“Active SETI … is a deliberate attempt to provoke a response by an alien civilization whose capabilities, intentions, and distance are not known to us,” wrote Michael Michaud, former Deputy Director of the Office of International Security Policy in the U.S. State Department, in 2005.

The recent discovery of at least 400 planets orbiting nearby stars makes the issue more urgent, for we now know that planets are very common in our galaxy.

There have already been attempts at active SETI. In 1974 Frank Drake, the astronomer who founded the SETI project, used the Arecibo radio telescope to beam a message towards the globular star cluster M13, which has over a million stars in it.

But M13 is 25,000 light-years away, so we have at least 25,000 years to prepare for any response to the message.

In 2008, however, a high-powered message was sent to the Gliese 581 system, a five-planet system that is only 20 light years away and has two planets in the “habitable zone” for life. The message will get there in 2029.

Several messages have been beamed to other nearby planetary systems since then, in the blithe assumption that anybody there will be friendly. Scientist and author Jared Diamond has said that “those astronomers now preparing again to beam radio signals out to hoped-for extraterrestrials are naive, even dangerous.”

Michael Michaud was equally concerned, warning that “an Active SETI signal … might call us to the attention of a technological civilization that had not known of our existence. We cannot assume that such a civilization would be benign, nor can we assume that interstellar flight is impossible for a species more technologically advanced than our own.”

One assumption embedded in all these warnings is obvious: that life and even intelligence are probably quite common in the universe.

But the other implicit assumption, made even by an outstanding theoretical physicist like Hawking, is that light-speed or faster-than-light travel may be possible.

If it isn’t, then there would be little reason to worry about hostile aliens. They would have no conceivable motive to engage in interstellar raids or conquest, or even interstellar trade, if travel between the stars takes hundreds or thousands of years. Our current knowledge of physics says that faster-than-light travel is impossible, but leading scientists in the field clearly believe that today’s physics may not have the final answers.

We will have to leave that question open for a while, but there are two ways to test the assumption that life is common in the universe.

It will be several decades before we can go to Mars and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn to see if life exists (or once existed) there, but if life really starts up almost anywhere that conditions are suitable, then it’s unlikely that it would have emerged just once here on Earth.

All the familiar forms of life on Earth have the same biochemical make-up, which points to a single, common ancestor.

But the vast majority of species on this planet are microbes, and we have scarcely begun to explore their diversity. Among them there may be species that have a different biochemical basis, perhaps living in isolated parts of the biosphere, or maybe even co-existing with mainstream life.

If we ever found microbes of a different biochemical lineage, we would know that life here has arisen more than once. If so, then it’s probably as common as dirt all across the universe.

If we find no “alien” microbes, on the other hand, we still cannot be sure that life on Earth is unique, for one theory holds that life is spread from planet to planet, and even from star to star, by asteroid collisions. Maybe we only had one collision.

There is another way to test for extra-terrestrial life. As our ability to examine the atmospheres of planets circling other stars improves, we should eventually be able to detect the characteristic changes that abundant life of our kind causes in an atmosphere. Failing to find those changes would not be definitive proof that life is very rare in the universe, but it would be a very strong indication.

In the meantime, maybe it would be wiser not to go looking for trouble. As astronomer Zdenek Kopal said 20 years ago: “Should we ever hear the space-phone ringing, for God’s sake let us not answer, but rather make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible to avoid attracting attention!”__________________________

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Ancestral Bones

15 February 2004

Preserving the Evidence

By Gwynne Dyer

“We should be learning from skeletons, not reburying them,” said Dr. Robert Foley, director of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies in Cambridge, England. “They are the remains of people still contributing to humanity and its knowledge of itself.”

Foley’s remarks were triggered by a recommendation to the British parliament to create a national advisory panel to decide on the return of bones from British museums to various aboriginal groups, especially in Australia and North America. But the case that really mattered was the one before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Oregon, where the eight-year struggle over the fate of Kennewick Man was settled (more or less) in mid-February by a ruling that science is more important than people’s feelings.

There were strong feelings on both sides. “If I could do handstands, I would do handstands,” said Paula Barran, one of eight anthropologists who went to court in 2000 to dispute a US government decision to hand over the archaeological find of the century — an almost complete set of human bones found in the Columbia River in 1996 that were 9,300 years old — to the local Indian tribes for ‘reburial’ without any proper scientific examination.

Many Native Americans, however, feel raped by the judgement. “(The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act)…gives tribes the right to prevent the study of remains,” said Rob Roy Smith, lawyer for the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. “What the 9th Circuit seems to have done is to require the tribes to prove the remains are Native Americans before the statute applies.”

Fair enough, you might reasonably reply. If the bones aren’t really their ancestors, why should they have any right to demand anything? But this is to ignore how mythology has mutated into ideology in the minds of many Native Americans. As far as they are concerned, any ancient human remains in North America are their ancestors, because they have always been there.

The trend for museums to return human remains to the people who care about them has grown fast in recent years, and for the most part it is entirely positive. When Manchester Museum handed over a collection of Aboriginal skulls to the representatives of the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action two months ago, it was overdue apology for the cruelty of 19th-century British grave-robbers who dug up the bones of only recently dead Australian Aborigines in an outbreak of amateur anthropology.

The same goes for the recent decision of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History to return the bones of Haida Indians that had been dug up by an American expedition to Canada’s Queen Charlotte Islands in the early 1900s. So far, so good. But Kennewick Man?

There is no human being on Earth who can say with any confidence who his or her ancestors were 9,300 years ago, or where they lived, or even what language they spoke. The claim that the four tribes who live in the Columbia River basin today are in any meaningful sense the descendants of the middle-aged man who died with a spear in his guts 9,300 years ago on the banks of the Columbia is simply incredible. There has been far too much coming and going in human history, too many invasions and migrations and victories and defeats. So why is the claim made at all?

Many, perhaps most aboriginal peoples have creation myths that explain how they have always had an intimate relationship with the land they now occupy. Yet it is most unlikely that their ancestors always lived where they do now, and in the case of Native Americans it is literally impossible: there were no human beings in the Americas until the first of the migrations across the Bering Straits, probably no more than 14,000 years ago.

In a radical younger generation of Native Americans, however, myth often becomes ideology and dogma. There were no migrations; we really were always here; we are not just the descendants of an early wave of immigrants who eventually got overwhelmed by later waves. It is a position based on pride and desperation, not on history, and as such it is completely understandable. But when it is used as a basis for laying claim to 9,000-year-old-bones and denying scientists access to them, it is not defensible. The court got it right.

We live in an extraordinary period when scientists are finally piecing together the true history of the human species: where we come from, how we spread across the planet, even what kind of animal we really are. It is an important project, and we need all the evidence we can get. It does not rely on the remains of those who have died in the past few hundred years, and those remains should be returned to their people if they can be identified. Normal human respect for the dead demands it.

But handing over truly ancient bones to the people who were the local inhabitants just a couple of centuries ago, as the US Department of the Interior tried to do in 2000, is political cowardice and political correctness run mad. The court made the right call, and with any luck it will establish a lasting precedent.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. “The trend…Kennewick Man)