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Daniel A Kenney

A SETI Allegory

There is a forest valley surrounded by impassable mountains on every side. In it lives a single tribe of hunter-gatherers. How they got into the valley is lost in time and they have never had contact with any people outside of their tribe.

The tribe believes itself to be alone and that there are no other inhabited valleys. It is the duty of the shaman of the tribe to prove they are alone and thereby confirm their creation story. So every morning he wakes up early, climbs a tall tree and scans the valley for smoke from any campfires. He reasons that since his tribe always builds up their fire at sunrise this would be the best time to look for other tribes' fires.

After a period of time the shaman realizes that he isn't scanning the entire valley. He desires improvement in his observations so he can learn whether the tribe is truly alone. His crafter is able to build a primitive telescope and the shaman uses it to scan the valley better and further than before.With the telescope he can scan the entire valley for smoke.

Eventually he sees some fires. To check whether these fires are natural or artificial he turns to the hunter and learns how to make longer and longer trips throughout the valley. Soon, he has been to every part of the valley and verified that no man-made fires have ever been seen.

At this same time, a group of anthropologists becomes aware of the tribe's existence through aerial reconnaissance. They decide to study the valley tribe for its scientific value with an aim toward understanding their own primitive roots. They consider several courses of action for their first contact with the tribe.

They could simply fly into the valley and approach the tribe's members. But they would seem alien and might cause fear. And if the contact lasted and the tribe were shown modern technological items, the anthropologists might be considered gods. Further, the tribe's own inventiveness be stifled. The tribe would turn to quickly appropriating modern technology rather then slowly developing their own.The tribe's telescope would be their last innovation.

The anthropologists were also concerned that if modern societies were revealed to the tribe then the tribe's own society would be destroyed. As a primitive hunter-gatherer tribe of related individuals they had a communal and patriarchal social system. And if they must simultaneously deal with democracy, women's rights and other modern social concepts the tribe would be torn apart.

In another approach, a small group of the anthropologists could shed all evidence of their advanced civilization, even their clothes. They then could dress as the tribe dressed and make their introduction in a low key gradual manner, perhaps with a single tribe member at first.

The pitfall of this approach was that the presence of any visitors, no matter how cleverly disguised, would affect the tribe. The tribe's belief in their aloneness had become codified in their religion and law. Destroying this belief would profoundly affect the tribe. The anthropologists decided they must limit their impact if the valley tribe were to be scientifically studied.

Finally, they decide to remain unobserved and yet study the tribe in close quarters. They begin to listen to the tribe's private conversations, study their behaviors and come to understand their tribal society better than any of the tribe members understand it themselves.

First, a small team of field researchers trained in jungle survive and evade tactics enter the valley. They begin using miniaturized microphones and video cameras placed around the valley and especially near the tribe's encampment. Miniaturized video drones, disguised as flying insects, are deployed to the trees and follow the foraging parties. When needed the team even uses anesthetic gas and drugged food to render the entire tribe unconscious for the purpose of drawing blood and tissue samples. And as a precaution, the team eavesdrop on the tribe, tracking where and when the tribe might look for them, should its members become suspicious that they are being observed.

Upon reflection, one can see we are much like this isolated tribe of people, if the valley is the Earth and solar system. We have traveled to every part of the Earth and soon will have investigated all of our solar system. Yet no evidence of ETI existence has ever been found. We can not escape our own solar system because the speed of light makes interstellar travel unfeasible. This constraint, represented by the mountains, is a barrier we can not conceive of surmounting. 

The artificial radio waves from other distant civilizations are like the smoke from a tribe's campfire. Our massive radio telescopes are becoming more and more sensitive but at the current time still can not look for our level of radio emissions outside of the solar system.

The ETIs for whom we are searching are represented by the anthropologists. Their desire to remain unobserved while observing is a common approach for field research. The technology used by the observers is so advanced it can not be fully comprehended by their study subjects.

Once we accept that we are in the valley, then it is a short step to believing we are probably being observed by surreptitious and remote means. We can not initiate contact with any other people because of the limitations of our technology. We therefore are at the mercy of the more advanced civilizations. The lack of negative impact from them indicates they are at least tolerant of us, if not benevolent. Our continued existence shows that the more advanced civilizations are not a threat, at least not in the way we are a threat to our own less advanced societies.

When the team of anthropologists did enter the valley to observe, the tribe members were prepared medically. They were rendered unconscious and immunized against all of the diseases modern people carry. Some time later, a disease passed from the animals in the valley to the tribe and starting killing the tribe members, one by one. 

The anthropologists made a scientific evaluation before proceeding. First, if they did nothing they would have the chance to observe an entire people losing out to natural selection.This was considered to be of some potential scientific benefit but was less important than studying a tribe untouched by the modern world. Finally, they asked the question: "Do we have a moral obligation to intercede and save our fellow humans beings?"

This time when the tribe was rendered unconscious, blood was drawn. The sample was airlifted at night to a medical lab to identify the pathogen and formulate a cure. The resulting vaccine was transported back to the valley and the scientists administered it to the tribe members. All of this was unknown and unknowable to the tribe, it was simply too far ahead to be comprehended.

This is not to say the entire population of Earth could be rendered unconscious. Rather it is simply postulating that ETIs may have prepared the Earth for us or that they may have maintained its habitability during our early development. We have no way of knowing whether or not this happened.

Currently, there is no direct evidence of other civilizations outside of Earth. Therefore, our view must be that while ETIs most likely exist, we should proceed as though they don't. We are alone for as long as the ETIs choose not to reveal themselves.

From this story it seems clear that we will not have contact with ETIs until we find a transport method that exceeds the speed of light. At that point we may find an ETI at or below our level of civilization. By beginning contact with this primitive ETI we would force the more advanced ETIs to reveal themselves -- if they were to choose to isolate this less advanced ETI as we have been isolated.

If you like this page there are more. An expansion of the Drake Equation is explored in Calculating the Number of ETIs.