A 27 Year Old Letter

18 April, 1995

Dear Dr. Sagan,

In listening to your marvelous tape “Pale Blue Dot”, I was once again reminded of a recent discovery of mine regarding human conceits which seemed missing from your otherwise humble and well-informed view of mankind’s position in the cosmos.

The search for artificially produced radio waves coming from something other than a man-made source is currently called “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”. I submit that a subtle but grave error has been made in calling it that. What we are searching for is radiowave communication, which may not be a clear delineator of intelligence.

Take, for example, elephants, whales and porpoises. They sometimes do some confoundedly stupid things, just like people. They have sophisticated communication systems, names, moods, and changeable but strong social alliances. They are not technological.

A highly evolved society of water beings might be quite intelligent without having radio technology. SETI might erroneously conclude that there was no intelligent life on their planet. SETT (The Search for Extraterrestrial Technology) seems more appropriate and less likely to encourage this error. In naming our search SETI, we run the risk of overlooking non-technological but intelligent life.

Having conducted a futile search of the heavens for quite a while now, we are left with the conclusion that technological life is rare. I do not, however, believe that intelligent life is rare. The distinction becomes significant.

In the last half century, mankind has created and perfected the means to destroy itself and right now, those weapons are being dispersed among alarmingly irresponsible nations (our own being included).

I find evidence for the uniqueness of technological life in eastern Europe, in Asia, and in Africa; even in the United States. Technological life might have existed briefly in many parts of the cosmos. I think that the reason it no longer exists abundantly is made obvious by our own recent history.

My ultimate conclusion, however, is not that technology is bad but that, having created it, we have a rare opportunity to master it and beat the odds … that, for this brief moment in time, we may indeed be center stage (at least in this neck of the cosmic woods) as we precariously try to evolve beyond our self-destructiveness.

Sincerely, David N. Dodson

[April, 2022: It seemed an appropriate time to publish this letter with a man in Russia bent on subjugating people ourside his country and threatening the people in solidarity with Ukraine, a part of the world where Russian dominance left their ancestors to starve.]

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