A call for proactive xenoarchaeological guidelines – Scientific, policy and socio-political considerations
Space Policy, Volume 26, Issue 4, November 2010, Pages 209-213.

Ben McGee’s paper in Space Policy calling for the development of guidelines for use in the event of the discovery of extraterrestrial artefacts seems uncontroversial to me. The SETI mainstream has its Declaration of Principles Concerning Activities Following the Detection of Extraterrestrial Intelligence after all. However from reading his blog I know that he received a strongly negative response from Linda Billings. I’ll discuss my own thoughts about McGee’s paper in this post, and get around to the response in the next few days.

My first impression is of some imprecision in terminology, particularly in use of the word “astrobiology”. Instead of  “artifacts of astrobiological activity” for instance, I would refer to artefacts of extraterrestrial intelligence or civilization. I don’t think that the term astrobiology is used as a general term for non-terrestrial life, but rather for the search for/study of it, and it seems that McGee uses the word both ways in his paper.

Also, I wonder about the word’s applicability in either sense to intelligent life, especially if the possibility of postbiological intelligences are taken into account (see Steven Dick’s work for instance).

Nevertheless McGee’s point is a good one. If extraterrestrial intelligent life exists and created artefacts then the study of those artefacts is arguably the domain of the terrestrial science of archaeology, or something like it, which is primarily concerned with the physical remains of past cultures. Of course such an endeavour would be broadly multidisciplinary, but archaeology already is.

Given the significance of such a discovery and the higher likelihood (which McGee and others before him have argued) that archaeological or palaeontological remains would be the first evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence found, it would be prudent to have some guidelines in place prior to discovery rather than having to develop them on the run.

Much of the paper covers uncontroversial ground which we’ve seen many times in SETI papers: the need to avoid sensationalism for example, or a rush to announce a purported discovery; application of planetary protection protocols, etc.

A strong point of McGee’s paper cautions against making assumptions about extraterrestrial artefacts out of context of the originating environment – he uses the example of an apparent cutting edge to terrestrial eyes which would be significantly less effective as such in a Martian environment. I’d like to see that expanded upon, not only with environmental examples, but with discussion of the range of sensory perception theoretically available to ETIs …

Another flaw in the paper lies in the lack of reference to some significant works – the Declaration of Principles mentioned above for example, which has been worded broadly enough to cover the discovery of extraterrestrial artefacts (or living aliens, for that matter!).

Other notable omissions include Freeman & Lampton (1975) or Armitage (1976) on the prevalence of past or extinct civilizations; also Bracewell (1960) or Dyson (1960), both of which are seminal works on extraterrestrial artefacts.

Of course, it’s not hard to miss groundbreaking work (look at Armitage’s paper) … as McGee points out, xenoarchaeology is a proto-science, at this point a very loosely cohering collection of separate research projects such as Freitas’ search for probes in the 1980s, Carrigan’s search for Dyson spheres, or Arnold’s proposal to search for transiting megascale engineering projects. Bringing these projects together is what I’d like to do with my poor neglected wiki, this blog, etc.

Next I’ll move on to Linda Billings’ critique of McGee’s paper. It will be interesting to see what she says.