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How Should Humanity Be Remembered?

Richard Dawkins suggested earlier this month that humanity needs to broadcast a “cosmic tombstone” so that future civilizations can learn what we were about, in the event of our collective demise. It isn’t a terrible idea, or even a terribly new idea, but it raises some interesting questions. The biggest of these questions may be best summed up by the title of the final episode of Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos: “Who Speaks for Earth?”

Sagan had four opportunities to answer that question himself: when he helped design plaques for the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions (shown above), and when he helped select media to be stored on the “Golden Disc” on board the Voyager 1 and 2 missions. All four artifacts were very similar in spirit and function to the “cosmic tombstone” Dawkins proposes, and all four probes have subsequently left the solar system.

Approximate locations and trajectories of NASA's four interstellar probes. Photo: © 7Train (Wikipedia). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.

Approximate locations and trajectories of NASA’s four interstellar probes. Image: © 7Train (Wikipedia). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.

One of the most interesting things about the Golden Disc is that it represented a very real attempt to encompass all of the human experience in one place. It didn’t entirely succeed, and couldn’t have entirely succeeded given the practical limitations imposed by the medium, but an extraterrestrial civilization confronted with the Golden Disc would not see our planet’s civilization as narrow and homogenous. It reflected, at least, some of the spectrum of human diversity.

What Dawkins seems to have in mind is something that is both broader and narrower. Broader, in the sense that it will be communicated as a signal rather than as a single physical object; narrower, in the sense that it will convey a much more limited range of the human experience. In the admittedly short snippet of an interview he dedicated to the idea, Dawkins concerned himself primarily with preserving the greatest achievements of five white European men—Shakespeare, Bach, Schubert, Einstein, and Darwin—and not with accurately conveying the day to day experience of living on Earth.

This feels like a bit of a waste. There’s no guarantee that our science will tell extraterrestrials anything they don’t already know, or that our literature and music will speak to their spirits—but surely if they get some sense of how we are born, live, and die, and how we occupy ourselves in the interim, they will see some of themselves in that.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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