The Virtues of Concreteness: An Argument for “Settlement”

Sofia’s Official SETI Definitions v0.1

Settlement: “a process by which an intelligent species spreads to new areas”*

I have a pet peeve about concreteness. I have been to a few conferences now, and an overarching theme I’ve noticed is that someone will have a fascinating concept, but be kind of dodgy when asked about how to directly apply their concept to real methodology.

As an example, the idea of “ecoscenography” was proposed at an art + science + education conference I attended a few years back. The thesis is that theatrical performances can be extremely wasteful – sets are constructed, used once, and then discarded, and the entire process is disproportionately and unnecessarily harmful to the environment. I was involved in theatre for a long time, and was really interested, so I talked to the speaker about implementation (Reusing simple set elements by repainting? Using more recycled materials? A sharing program between schools for costumes/props/set pieces?), and they kept insisting that we should keep it broad, it’s more of a philosophy, and not define any specific techniques. Well, to be frank, that sounds like a great way for your idea never to be of any use to anyone.

A more “concrete” illustration of the power of ecoscenography

I bring this up because I wanted to clarify a point brought up in Taxonomy and Jargon in SETI as an Interdisciplinary Field of Study (the white paper that I presented at DAI 2018). Some of my peers, in telling them about my presentation, argued that one of the less useful-sounding and more pedantic arguments in that talk was the distinction between “colonization” and “settlement”. Here are three arguments I ran into:

  1. We shouldn’t worry about offending / being politically correct to a species we haven’t met yet, that we may never discover the existence of!
  2. Putting a nice skin on the idea of “colonization” by calling it “settlement” is a little bit offensive in a way – it delegitimizes and hides the ugly parts of the analogous historical situations
  3. It doesn’t matter at all to the actual science of SETI and seems like a quibble over synonyms

Here’s my response to those arguments, after a few weeks of on and off pondering. This is not a paper about political correctness, either in its favour or against it. This is a paper that argues that the lack of¬†precise and accurate terminology hinders the logistical workings of and the intellectual vibrancy/creativity of SETI more than in other fields, and we should recognize and take steps to fix that.

If I were as general as the talks that I berated for lack of concreteness in the earlier part of this post, I would leave it at that. But because I’m not, I want to take on this particular example.

The word “colonize”, according to Wikipedia, has some of the following connotations:

  • “a process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components”
  • Comes from the Latin colere¬†meaning “to inhabit”
  • Britain would consider new land as terra nullius (empty land) due to the absence of European farming techniques (regardless of the presence of other populations)
  • conflict between colonizers and local/native peoples
  • motivations being trade or “shorter-term exploitation of economic opportunities”
  • “absorbing and assimilating foreign people into the culture of the imperial country”
  • In science fiction, “sometimes more benign” – word is used very often

Here are some questions that this article brings up, for me (and, in parentheses, some search implications of each broken assumption):

(have I mentioned that I love Spore?)
Habitable worlds ripe for the picking… or not?
  • Why should we assume that an alien race would want to colonize in the first place? (searching for clusters of systems that have similar signatures becomes a poor search strategy)
  • What if ETI is NOT spreading for the purpose of resource acquisition and energy demand? (maybe black hole energy-farming is a bad thing to look for, shouldn’t look in places that humans would think are valuable (ex. asteroid belts), could be some underlying pattern in the spread based on religious/cultural/societal reasons behind it))
  • What if the ETI is conscious of their environment and co-exists with the surrounding land? (no technosignatures would appear during the spread)
  • What if the ETI is peaceful and co-exists with the inhabitants? (multiple different kinds of biosignatures or technosignatures could co-exist in a single area / N could be higher than one would calculate assuming “domination”)
  • What if the ETI puts von Neumann probes in systems for scientific or other purposes, but does not actually biologically inhabit it? (we shouldn’t just look at biologically-friendly environments like FGK stars)
  • What if a certain ETI has a very different idea of terra nullius? What if the presence of microbial life will limit the spread of an ETI because, to them, those environments are “already taken”? (we should look for technosignatures where there are no simple biosignatures already)
  • What if an ETI is a perfect, Sagan-esque archetype and lifts lesser species out of poverty/technological-infancy instead of causing conflict? (look for geographically-grouped, expanding technosignatures, rates of technological development become geographically dependent)
  • Is our acceptance of the more general, less problematic interpretation of “colonization” in SETI derived from our science fiction instead of our science? (we stick to a term that doesn’t make lexical sense based on stubbornness and end up making some of the other assumptions in this list)

The point of these questions isn’t that any particular suggestion I made is a good idea. A lot of them are not, or violate other fallacies (like the monocultural fallacy, for example). But it’s obvious that if we look closely at the relatively straightforward logical steps that follow from the dictionary definition of “colonization”, all sorts of SETI search strategies end up being implicitly excluded or assumed. Are we self-aware enough to say “well, I know what the word implies, but I wouldn’t let that affect my science in such obvious, drastic ways” and succeed in that quest? I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t think I’m self-aware enough for that. I’m sure there are some assumptions hidden in here that I’ve missed. I am, after all, only human!

So in your next publication, dear reader, please use the word “settlement” instead of “colonization”. Your science will thank you.


To add an additional complication at the end of this blog post: I discovered that in biology, colonisation or colonization¬†means “a process by which a species spreads to new areas”. This definition has the perfect lack of connotations that we’re looking for in SETI, and would be a strong argument to continue using the word. My response: SETI is a subset of astrobiology, so we will be interacting with people who DO use this definition. Most practitioners, however, will still have the historical connotations in their head (because that’s what we’ve been exposed to, socially, and humans aren’t very good at putting that sort of conditioning out of our heads). To get around this confusion, in SETI, we should take “settlement” to have the definition I posit at the top of the page.