John Traphagan is Professor of Religious Studies and Anthropology and faculty affiliate of the Population Research Center. He received his PhD from the University of Pittsburgh in Social Anthropology, holds an MAR degree from Yale University in ethics, and a BA in political science from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. His postdoctoral research was conducted as a National Institute on Aging Postdoctoral Fellow at the Population Studies Center of the University of Michigan.
Dr. Traphagan's research interests center on the relatinoship between culture and science. His past work has focused largely on medical concepts and religion in Japan. Currently, his primary research focuses on the application of anthropological ideas within the field of astrobiology.
Prof. Traphagan’s most recent book is Extraterrestrial Intelligence and Human Imagination: SETI and the Intersection of Science, Religion, and Culture (Springer 2014). Previous books include Rethinking Autonomy: A Critique of Principlism in Biomedical Ethics, (SUNY 2013), Taming Oblivion: Aging Bodies and the Fear of Senility in Japan (SUNY 2000) and The Practice of Concern: Ritual, Well-Being, and Aging in Rural Japan (Carlina Academic Press 2004).
In this paper I explore one avenue through which anthropology and, more specifically, the subdiscipline of cultural or social anthropology can contribute to SETI research. I want to suggest that one of the most potent ways the social sciences in general and anthropology in particular can contribute to SETI is through analogy, using an analysis of anthropology’s own history of contact as a framework for thinking about potential contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. While it is extremely important to contemplate the content and type of interstellar message we might construct, it is equally important to consider the context of interpretation in which such a message will be conveyed and interpreted, as well as how any response might be interpreted by scientists and others on planet Earth. Rather than simply an act of discovery, initial contact with any extraterrestrial intelligence will also create a new context in which knowledge is generated and understood. The context of initial contact will be formed on the basis of very limited data and, inevitably, interpreted through the lenses of our own cultures and the theoretical frameworks that are in vogue among intellectuals and others at the time contact occurs.
In order to explicate this point, I will consider the type of “anthropology at a distance” evident in the early and, to a lesser extent, middle years of the discipline, focusing on the work of Ruth Benedict during World War II as an example of how the complex interplay between assumptions, data, and misinterpretations can become established as authoritative knowledge about and understanding of an alien civilization. The central point of this paper is that Japan, as a culture and a civilization, was not simply revealed by Benedict; it was in many respects created out of this interplay, at least as far as the American perspective is concerned (and, although not specifically relevant to this paper, to some extent the Japanese perspective as well). I will argue that the initial contact and subsequent interaction between extraterrestrials and humans (including SETI researchers, politicians, scholars outside of SETI, and the general public) will involve a similar production of knowledge about the alien other. Awareness of this hazard and the ability to reflexively think about our own role in constructing an alien culture, particularly where great distances and time delays are insurmountable with current technology, are of fundamental importance in reducing the risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation.