An interesting book, but slanted towards its conclusion.
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 23 January 2015
The Eerie Silence is a book that is by turns fascinating and frustrating. There's no denying the credentials of the man who writes it, but in many respects the book is a lesson in the folly of generalising from a sample-set of one. To be fair to the author, he consistently makes this point himself, but I wonder from the conclusions he has drawn how deeply he has internalised it. If there was a second theme to the book, it is in the arrogance of presumption - again, a point acknowledged but repeatedly discarded. The author makes the reasonable point that in the absence of any real knowledge of what extraterrestrial life might be we have to work on the assumption that what *we* know about the laws of physics are treated as universal invariants. If those hold to be true it seems unlikely that there is any life in the galaxy, perhaps even the universe, beyond that which may be found in our own solar system. This he attributes to the fact SETI has heard no signals from ET, and that humanity's explorations of the solar system have not found evidence of life that would suggest that the genesis of such is a 'cosmic imperative'.
Don't get me wrong - I enjoyed the book a lot, but I felt that the argument he made was very much slanted towards that conclusion. For example, he talks of the 'eerie silence' and asks whether or not fifty years of silence is enough to decide that we're alone in the galaxy. Of course it isn't, and he concludes such (albeit grudgingly). He himself points out that given the likely timescales of putative extraterrestrial civilizations, the idea that they would use radio signals to communicate over interstellar distances is a anthocentric assumption that likely wouldn't be true. The Earth, in the early days of radio, leaked signals into the galaxy in an ever expanding shell of information - now, most of the signals that we send for a vastly more complex telecommunications infrastructure are handled via optical cables or reflected back to the earth via satellites. Despite becoming, arguably, more clever as a species, we have become almost exponentially quieter. Due to the distances involved, signal degradation and Doppler shifting, those early signals which we sent are likely indistinguishable from background noise to any civilization within our own cosmic back garden. Davis talks of the 'drunk at the lamppost', looking for his dropped keys in the circle of light, not because they're there but because the chance of finding them anywhere else is infinitesimally small. So it likely is with SETI, except the drunk isn't so much looking but waiting for the keys to call out to him.
That's not to say that I think SETI is a bad investment of time and effort - far from it - while the odds are long, the rewards would be massive. It is to say though that I think the 50 years of eerie silence is no reason to even start thinking that there is no life out there, and claims to the contrary seem to smack of the unbearable arrogance of anthocentric thinking.
Other arguments marshaled against the existence of extraterrestrial life are presented in a 'sleight of hand' manner - for example, that of the 'great filter' which is a wholly hypothetical thought exercise, the explanation of which which is concluded with the phrase 'Though Carter's argument may seem to knock the stuffing out of SETI'. If it is true, perhaps it does - but the *entire foundation* of the argument is based on the idea that we live in the last epoch of intellectual viability before the heat-death of our planet. Earth may be very typical in that respect, or it may be entirely unique. The great filter argument is no more credible than any other which generalises from our own tiny pool of experience. The argument that the scientific method is a pre-requisite of communication is fair, and comes after a very interesting discussion of astrobiology and the possibility of a second genesis on earth. After talking so long about evolution and how evolution seems like a good candidate for a cosmic imperative, he then ignores the implications of this when discussing our own intellectual evolution. He talks about how monotheism was instrumental in evolving the scientific method, and ignores the fact that evolution also works on social structures. I don't know if society evolves towards the scientific method over a long enough period of time, but neither does anyone else.
Perhaps the most important thing in this review is the fact that my comments relate to the arguments made, and not to the book itself. It's a really interesting, well structured discussion of both the state of the art in SETI and some of the factors that may contribute to an 'eerie silence'. He does not dismiss the possibility of life, and is at least fair-minded enough to acknowledge counterpoints to his own argument even if he doesn't truly give them the necessary time to develop. I would very much recommend the book to anyone interested in SETI, but I'd say first 'pair it up with a similar book from an optimist'. The nature of universal scale in both size and time means that the answer likely *won't* be found somewhere inbetween, but there's no reason to conclude from the silence that we are alone even in our own immediate neighbourhood of the galaxy.
 If life evolves, then it *evolves*.
 Generalising from a pool of one, once again
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