Paul K. Wason


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Paul Wason

Paul K. Wason, Ph.D., is Vice President of Life Sciences and Genetics at the John Templeton Foundation, where he develops new research initiatives on the fundamental nature and evolution of life and mind, especially as they intersect with meaning and purpose. Prior to joining the Templeton Foundation, he was Director of Foundations and Corporations at Bates College. In The Archaeology of Rank (1994), Dr. Wason examines social evolution, inequality, and archaeological theory.


Inferring Intelligence: Prehistoric and Extraterrestrial

Different as they may be in other respects—sources of data, research tools, academic training—what the fields of archaeology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) do have in common is at the core of their respective enterprises—the study of intelligent beings without benefit of firsthand observation. Archaeological analysis is conducted without direct contact with living beings, with few if any written communications to aid the study; and it is accomplished by constructing bridging arguments that span great distances of time, space, culture, and, in the case of our hominid ancestors, biology. While we can imagine other kinds of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, these basic but important features of archaeology likely apply to SETI, too—at least for the time being. To the extent that approaches in archaeology uncover evidence of intelligence as a phenomenon per se, and not of humanness specifically, some insights from this discipline could be transferable to SETI.Uncovering evidence of human activity in the past is of course the primary goal of archaeology, but doing so often means inferring intelligence or some aspect of it, such as agency, purpose, design, choice, the expression of meaning, or the ability to communicate. Archaeological work can help to reveal one or another of these aspects of intelligence and, perhaps, not just human agency but agency itself. There may thus be some hope of generalizing, and these approaches may provide a basis for the development of analogous approaches in SETI.In this paper I offer a series of archaeological vignettes that illustrate some of the more promising avenues to explore and a few of the issues that may be faced. My examples are at a broad level and more in the manner of “lessons learned” than prescriptive advice. First, I consider briefly an instance in which archaeology may seem to have failed on its own terms. This is not very comforting for those of us who want to use archaeology in the service of SETI. But I also suggest a way out. My second vignette considers the equally troubling issue of ethnographic analogy. Protests to the contrary notwithstanding, I believe archaeology cannot be done at all without drawing analogies to known living human groups. This notion, too, would seem to make the relevance of archaeological approaches to SETI a very great stretch indeed—but, again, I don’t think this makes it impossible. The next vignettes, which explore the importance of intellectual context, physical context, expectations for a solid scientific argument, and the implications of symbolism for understanding communications, will perhaps help to close on a more optimistic note.