Here Be Dragons!

David Koerner and Simon LeVay. Here Be Dragons: The Scientific Quest for Extraterrestrial Life, Oxford University Press, 2000.

An astronomer and a biologist provide an overview of the current debate about ET life, and interview various key players on all sides of the various arguments going on in the field. Unlike some similar works, they keep their own personal views largely in the background, allowing the various factions to have their say. This also means that this book does not simply repeat what half a dozen earlier ones have said in slightly different prose, but does give a fresher approach. Allowing different people to have their say does, of course, reveal just how little is known about the many factors involved, and just how much speculation is little more than guesswork. There is no consensus as to how life on Earth began, the role of contingency in evolution, the range of conditions in which life might develop, how alien life might get, etc.

There is consensus, however, that UFO reports do not represent evidence for alien visitation, and, in a chapter devoted to ufology as a belief system, the authors talk to one of the members of the Sturrock Commision, and guess what his position is? UFOs of course have nothing to do with aliens, but it might be worth studying reports because among the dross might be reports of interesting natural phenomena. Far cry from the what the American Internet rumours were saying isn't it?

There isn't much joy for Michael Swords either, as there is a pretty good consensus that even if intelligent aliens exist, they wouldn't closely resemble us. Even David Conway Morris who rejects Stephen J. Gould's emphasis on the role of contingency, for much the same religious reasons as Swords, holds out no hope for human-looking aliens, and indeed doubts that aliens exist at all.

In many ways, though, reading the views of many of the participants in this field, I was still struck by their lack of imagination, their extreme difficulty in trying to envision "aliens" who are something other than people of a different shape, who would share not just our species' but our own culture's dreams and ambitions. Indeed they are really looking even more narrowly than that; they are looking, in essence, for themselves out there, as if their dreams and hopes were the dreams and hopes of the entire universe, and that if they can't make it, someone, somewhere out there will. Perhaps that is the ultimate appeal of the SETI project and belief in alien visitors. - Peter Rogerson, from Magonia Supplement 21, September 2000.

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