John Traphagan on Cargo Cults and Active SETI
Date: June 3rd, 2018

Hello, is there anyone out there?  Just nod if you can hear us.  What will happen if we are able to contact intelligent life elsewhere in the universe?  Prof. John Traphagan, professor and Mitsubishi Fellow in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Texas – Austin, examines this question within the framework of our knowledge about “cargo cults.” But before we get to cargo cults, we ask how a professor of religious studies with an interest in Japanese culture ended up writing about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and publishing articles in journals such as Space Policy and the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society.  John admits it probably had a lot to do with Star Trek and the fact that tenure allows him to boldly explore new topics.  Thankfully for us, the results of this journey are fascinating.

We next move on to discuss what SETI, Active SETI, and METI are.  Active SETI is the intentional sending of signals outward in the universe to let alien civilizations know we are out there.  METI — messaging of extraterrestrial intelligence — is synonymous.  This contrasts with “regular” SETI wherein us humans are just listening for others in the stars and not attempting to contact them.  Prof. Traphagan discusses some of the debate within the SETI community as to whether or not we should be actively messaging other beings, which sets the stage for the rest of our discussion.  John notes that much of the debate about SETI vs Active SETI rests upon a set of assumptions regarding what alien civilizations will look like, who will speak for Earth, and what will result from contact.  He points out that many SETI activists draw from a 19th century approach to cultural evolution that believes there is a singular progression of civilizations towards a more enlightened and peaceful future.  Any alien civilization that is likely to receive our signal, then, will probably be more ethically advanced than us and welcome our messages with benevolence … or so it is thought.  However, John argues that these assumptions are faulty, relying on a notion that an alien civilization will have a monolithic culture.  Merely looking at Earth, we see a myriad number of cultures that cross geographic, socio-economic, ethnic, and other lines.  There is no plausible reason to assume an extraterrestrial civilization will be any less diverse.  (We also note that many of these assumptions about the peaceful and monolithic nature can be seen in popular science fiction series like Star Trek.)

The discussion of Active SETI assumptions and what might be wrong with them sets up an interesting hypothetical example that moves us into our discussion of cargo cults.  In his paper “Do No Harm?” (see link below), Prof. Traphagan sets up a scenario where an alien — named Naron — intercepts one of our Earth transmissions.  He then speculates how this will affect the socio-cultural relations on Naron’s planet when their notions about their position in the universe are challenged.  He suggests that there is likely to be socio-economic and other stratifications (or castes) on this planet and contact with outsiders might upset the social balance on the planet that could result in disruptive changes in the way they live.  This analysis is based upon his study of what happens when “less technologically advanced” societies here on Earth encounter more advanced ones.  This is where we discuss “cargo cults,” religious or ritualistic phenomenon where individuals from the “lesser” society alter their beliefs in order to obtain something either from the outside civilization or, more importantly, to shift the balance of power within their own internal society.  John points to the “Johnson Cult” in Papua New Guinea wherein a group of New Guineans attempted to bring President Lyndon Baines Johnson to their island nation and serve as their leader.  While such an effort was wildly unrealistic and never did happen, the mere contact with outsiders revealed political fault lines within their own society.  Our attempts to contact other life forms in the universe may have a similar effect and this is where John raises his ethical concerns about Active SETI.

We finish our discussion with two critical questions.  First, Tony asks what John thinks would happen if we received a signal from another planet and how it might shape our global society.  He notes that like Percival Lowell’s claim of canals on Mars and the moon landing back in 1969, there may be a temporary moment of unification amongst humans, but this moment is likely to pass quickly.  While most of the world’s population will return to trying to eke out a daily living, there may be some elites that use this contact to leverage social changes that they desire.  Interestingly, John claims that Active SETI may be a cargo cult unto itself, even though contact with an extraterrestrial existence has not yet occurred.  Next, Tony prompts John to think about his own intellectual journey and what he would tell and 18-year old version of himself if he could travel back in time.  He notes that he wouldn’t tell him anything because he wouldn’t want to spoil the adventure of learning for the young John.  However, Prof. Traphagan also lets us know that over the years he has grown to appreciate that humans are complex beings that have difficulty in communicating with one another and that morality is really just a human construct.  Recorded: May 24, 2018.



John Traphagan’s bio at the University of Texas, Austin.

Science, Culture, and the Search for Life on Other Worlds, by John Traphagan.

Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Human Imagination: SETI at the Intersection of Science, Religion, and Culture, by John Traphagan.

Imagined Families, Lived Families: Culture and Kinship in Contemporary Japan, edited by Akiko Hashimoto and John Traphagan.

Rethinking Autonomy: A Critique of Principlism in Biomedical Ethics, by John Traphagan.

Cargo Cults and the Ethics of Active SETI” by John Traphagan in Space Policy (pay or institutional access required).

Do No Harm? Cultural Imperialism and the Ethics of Active SETI,” by John Traphagan in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (pay or institutional access required).

The SETI Institute.

The Johnson Cult (on Wikipedia).


Matt Moore on Buddhism and the Robopocalypse.

Leave a Reply

Listen or Download This Episode
Search The Podcast
To search the podcast, type a term and click the Search button.

Connect With Us