Kathryn Denning


Dr. Kathryn Denning


Associate Professor, Dept. of Anthropology, York University

Science and Technology Studies Program,

Graduate Program in History



Email:     kdenning@yorku.ca     Tel:  416.736.2100 x40136

Mail:      Dept. of Anthropology, York University,  Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M3J 1P3





My current research focuses on: the scientific search for life in the universe; social and ethical issues in space exploration and colonization; and the role of archaeology and the archaeological past in the present.


Bio:    Kathryn Denning is an anthropologist and archaeologist at York University, where she teaches courses including: The Living and the Dead: The Anthropology of Im/mortality from Ancestors to Zombies; Humanity's Journeys; Ancient Civilizations; Archaeology and Society; Social Lives of Places and Things; and the Anthropology of Outer Space, on topics ranging from humanity's biological and social evolution and expansion across Earth in the Pleistocene and Holocene eras, to our science and technology's expansion into our solar system in the Anthropocene era. She has also guest lectured in a Life in the Universe natural science course, and she teaches a graduate course in Anthropology and Science & Technology Studies called Anticipating the Alien, on SETI and astrobiology.

The unifying theme of her two decades of research is The Other. In short, her research examines scholarly and popular ideas about Others, how we can know them, and ethical ways of relating to them. The Others she has studied include the ancient (in archaeology), the animal (in zoos), and the alien (in SETI and astrobiology). Her work in archaeology has focused primarily on the role of the archaeological past in the present, and the history and philosophy of archaeology and physical anthropology.

For the last fifteen years, her work has been increasingly focused upon space. Her recent and current work with the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the SETI Institute includes co-leading projects on the evolution of intelligence on Earth (with Lori Marino), and astrobiology & society (with Margaret Race). She also studies Mars simulations, and current ideas about the human colonization of space, and the ethical issues emerging with multiple stakeholders in our solar system.  Her SETI-related anthropological work focuses on scientists' ideas about what alien intelligences would be like, the ongoing debates about active transmission projects, and the potential social impact of a SETI detection.

She has presented her work internationally, including at the Royal Society in London, ES:GC2 in Brussels, American Anthropological Association, several International Astronautical Congress meetings, Bioastronomy, AbSciCon, and Singularity University. Her published SETI-related research includes explorations of: scientists' conceptions of ETI, and how these are influenced by culture, history, and by the technology used in SETI; interstellar message construction; debates about ‘active SETI’; and, what civilizations on Earth tell us about the Drake factor "L" (a key variable in the Drake Equation).  She is an active member of the International Academy of Astronautics SETI Permanent Study Committee and its Post-Detection task group, and was co-Chair of the Astrobiology & Society Focus Group of the NASA Astrobiology Program, and co-PI of the NAI-funded Intelligence in Astrobiology project (affiliated with the NAI's Arizona State Astrobiology group and the SETI Institute). She greatly enjoyed being part of Crew 78 at the Mars Desert Research Station, and her several extended visits at NRAO Green Bank. On the interstellar front, she has collaborated with Icarus Interstellar, the Tau Zero Foundation, and 100YSS.  She has served on the Board of Contact: Cultures of the Imagination and the editorial advisory board of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society

She is active in public outreach and has been involved in debates on topics ranging from commercial space development to BodyWorlds, and she sometimes heads off to investigate the undead, mythical beasts, and ancient apocalyptic ideas for television programs, in adventures which have included interviewing vampire slayers in Britain and Romania, scuba diving in Fiji with bull sharks, and sailing in France with someone whose boat had been attacked by a giant squid. She has not, however, met any aliens.

Other sites:    (needs updating)







recent conferences / lectures / panels / workshops

2018: World Festival of Science, New York    /      "A Century of Engineering Life" ASU HPS seminar at MBL, Woods Hole  /      "Making Contact" at Breakthrough Listen /  SoCIA    /    "Decoding Alien Intelligence" at SETI Institute

2017: AbSciCon   /    International Space University  /    Library of Congress

2016: Zoos and the New Humanities, McMaster University


Recent publications:

White paper, "How Humans Mattter Now" for "Decoding Alien Intelligence at SETI Institute, March 2018:

"Hawking Says that Discovering Intelligent Life Elsewhere Would Spark Greater Compassion and Humility among Us... But Why Wait?"  in Theology and Science 2017

"Impossible Predictions of the Unprecedented", for Astrobiology, History, and Society, 2013


Recent media:  quoted in Steven Johnson's article, "Greetings ET, Please don't murder us"



2013: talks


Tuesday April 2, 2013: Talk to an Astrobiologist w/ Dr. Kathryn Denning .... S.A.G.A.N. Social Action for a Grassroots Astrobiology Network http://saganet.org/


Astrobiology evening with Seth Shostak (SETI Institute): Third Eye Talks, Toronto, 20 March 2013.




“Apocalypse Whenever.”  Keynote lecture for Art History Graduate Students Association of York University symposium, Fallout: Visions of Apocalypse, Toronto,  9 March 2013  http://ahgsay.com/press-release/ 

"A Human Being is Not a Technical Problem", and "New Stories of Space", papers in 100YSS sessions

"100 Year Starship: Understanding and Addressing the Scope of the R&D and Societal Challenges for the Interstellar Journey", convened by Mae Jemison, at “EU Science: Global Challenges, Global Collaboration” (ES:GC2) conference, www.globalsciencecollaboration.org/home, Brussels, European Parliament 4 - 8 March 2013.   VIDEO of sessions: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/ep-live/en/other-events/video?event=20130306-1300-SPECIAL-UNKN , time codes for my papers are  14:11:00 - 14:18:18, and 16:36:00 - 16:42:42

Commentary by Marc Millis here: www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=27056



21 February 2013, co-organized, presented at workshop on space ethics, Arizona State University



“Multitudes! Humanity and the future of life in space.” Lecture for Astronomy and Space Exploration Society symposium, “Life Beyond Earth”, University of Toronto, event featuring Dr. Sara Seager and Dr. Chris McKay. 25 Jan 2013. http://asx.sa.utoronto.ca/symposium/



Recent presentations include: 






February:  Intelligence in Astrobiology, virtual workshop, presented and co-organized with Lori Marino, NASA Astrobiology Institute-funded project, held at Arizona State University www.yorku.ca/astrobio/intelligence/ 

March:  "If you love this solar system" at  Contact: Cultures of the Imagination, SETI Institute   www.contact-conference.com/ch27.html

April: AbSciCon: Astrobiology Science Conference: Exploring Life: Past and Present, Near and Far. Atlanta, Georgia. April 16-20, 2012.  Multiple papers:





Margaret Race and Kathryn Denning (Denning presented).  “The NAI Astrobiology and Society Focus Group: Origins and Evolution To Date” in session “The Intersection of Astrobiology and Society”, chairs M. Race and E. Persson

Denning: “Anticipating the Alien”. in session “Societal Impact of Discovering Extraterrestrial Life”, chairs D. Vakoch and C. Bertka

Lori Marino and Kathryn Denning. (Marino presented). “Virtual Workshops on the Study of Intelligence in Astrobiology: A Status Report” in session “Integrating the Study of Intelligence Within Astrobiology”. Session chairs: Marino and Denning.

Kathryn Denning and Lori Marino (Denning presented). “A New Conversation About Intelligence in the Universe”  in session “Integrating the Study of Intelligence Within Astrobiology”. Session chairs: Marino and Denning.

Denning: The Logic of Ideas about Intelligence in the Universe” in session “Integrating the Study of Intelligence Within Astrobiology”. Session chairs: Marino and Denning..

April: second Intelligence in Astrobiology workshop, NASA Astrobiology Institute-funded virtual workshop, presented and co-organized with Lori Marino, held at Georgia Tech www.yorku.ca/astrobio/intelligence/ 

May:  Astrobiology 3.0: New Contexts, New Questions.” Guest lecture  for Astrobiology Seminar series, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute School of Science, New York Center for Astrobiology.  http://origins.rpi.edu/seminars/

27 May 2012.  AUDIO:  Related interview for Astrobiology series on WAMC, taped May 2012, airing on NPR “Best of Our Knowledge” science radio podcasts, and archived on the NYC Astrobiology page. Interviewer: David Guestina. Segment 191.here: http://origins.rpi.edu/wamc-interviews/, or click here for audio file: http://www.origins.rpi.edu/real/org191.rm 


June: If You Love This Solar System.”  Guest lecture for Space and Futures tracks, Singularity University, Sunnyvale, California. June 2012







“Be Here Now? Anthropological Musings on Being, Space, and Time”. Keynote lecture for the 6th Annual Psychology Graduate Students’ Association Graduate Student Conference, 6 May 2011, York University

“The Inertia of Past Futures.” in “Philosophical and Religious Considerations” track. 100 Year Starship conference, 1 October 2011, Orlando, Florida .http://100yss.org/symposium/2011(agenda)

“Lost and Found in Space: All-Too-Human Adventures in the Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Intelligence, and the Colonization of Space.”  Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Toronto Chapter, Ontario Science Centre, Oct 2011. http://toronto.rasc.ca/content/SN-2011-10-26.shtml

American Anthropological Association. Discussant for “Museumizing the Animal“ session, organized by Emily Porth and Tamar Scoggin. Montreal, Nov 2011.






“Is Life What We Make of It?” In Royal Society symposium The detection of extra-terrestrial life and the consequences for science and society”, Royal Society UK, Jan 2010.  http://royalsociety.org/detection-et-life-speaker-biographies/ , http://royalsociety.org/Event.aspx?id=1887  AUDIO:  Full audio for the session is available. (Click on each speaker’s name. Denning mp3.)

Short presentations as member of panels: Our assumptions about Life and ET; What are the consequences of detection? (chaired the latter panel).  Participant in “Ozma-50” workshop, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Green Bank, West Virginia. Organizers: F.J. Lockman, S. Shostak, R.C. Vaughan, G. Langston, S. Heatherly.  See agenda and participants.

“The History of Contact on Earth: Analogies, Myths, Misconceptions.” International Astronautical Congress of the International Astronautical Federation, the International Academy of Astronautics, and the International Institute of Space Law, Prague, September.

“Social Questions Raised by the Detection of Extraterrestrial Life”, for Royal Society Satellite meeting, “Towards a scientific and societal agenda on extra-terrestrial life”, Kavli International Centre, Milton Keynes UK, Oct 4-5, 2010.

“How can the Active SETI debate be constructive?” for joint Royal Society / International Academy of Astronautics meeting, Searching for Life Signatures, Kavli International Centre, Milton Keynes UK, Oct 6-7, 2010.


RECENT MEDIA / Multimedia:


PRINT: “The Anthropology of Searching for Aliens”. Interviewed by Adam Mann, Wired www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/04/space-anthropology/ , 4 April 2012.

PRINT: “Is it now time to save the Moon?” Richard Hollingham, BBC , www.bbc.com/future/story/20120305-is-it-now-time-to-save-the-moon, 5 March 2012

AUDIO: Guest on "More than One Planet" with Richard Hollingham, for BBC Radio World Service "One Planet" radio show: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00khv3v 10 Oct 2011 

PRINT: "Contact: The Day After" by Tim Folger, Scientific American, 2011 www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=contact-the-day-after 

PRINT: "Alien Notion" by Dan Falk, The Walrus, 2010  www.walrusmagazine.com/articles/2010.12-frontier-alien-notion

AUDIO:  Interviewed by Seth Shostak in seven episodes of "Big Picture Science", http://radio.seti.org/, (search there for Denning)




2013 “ Impossible Predictions of the Unprecedented: Analogy, History, and the Work of Prognostication”  for D Vakoch, ed. Astrobiology, History, and Society: Life Beyond Earth and the Impact of Discovery, Springer.

2012  “Learning to read: Interstellar message decipherment from an anthropological perspective.”  D. Vakoch, ed. Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication. NASA History Press.

2012  "Astrobiology and Society: Building an Interdisciplinary Research Community". Margaret Race, Kathryn Denning, Constance Bertka, Steven J Dick, Albert Harrison, Christopher Impey, Rocco Mancinelli, and Workshop Participants. Astrobiology vol 12 no 10, 2012. DOI: 10.1089/ast.2011.0723 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3484766/pdf/ast.2011.0723.pdf

2011  “Is Life What We Make of It?” In “The detection of extra-terrestrial life and the consequences for science and society”, edited by M. Dominik and J. Zarnecki.  Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 13  369(1936):669-678.  DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2010.0230  [published February 2011]http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1936.toc  AUDIO   Full audio for the session is available. (Click on each speaker’s name)

2011 “ ‘L’ on Earth” in Civilizations beyond Earth: Extraterrestrial Life and Society, eds D. Vakoch and A. Harrison. Oxford, UK: Berghahn Press, pp 74-83.

2011  “Unpacking the Great Transmission Debate.” In D. Vakoch, ed. Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence.  NY: SUNY Press. pp 237-252.  Also in:  Acta Astronautica 67: 1399-1405. cleardoi:10.1016/j.actaastro.2010.02.024    Available online 21 May 2010, in print Sept 2010.  www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0094576510000779

2011   “Being Technological”.  in H. Paul Shuch, ed, Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, The Frontiers Collection, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-13196-7. Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag/Praxis.  pp  477-496.  [published Jan 2011]   Book nominated for the American Astronautical Society's Eugene Emme Astronautical Literature Award. Also in Acta Astronautica 68 (2011) 372–380. DOI: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2010.02.027    Available online 21 May 2010, in print Nov 2010. http://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2F978-3-642-13196-7_25

2011  “Virtual Resource Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry into Intelligent Life.” at http://intelligence.seti.org .  The VRC is a team effort, directed and edited by Denning and Lori Marino (Emory University), funded by a grant from the NASA Astrobiology Institute, created in collaboration with the SETI Institute, and contributed to by five doctoral and postdoctoral assistants: David Gold, Sean Hanser, Ben Janzen, Daniel Lessin, and Maggie Wray.

2010  “Ten Thousand Revolutions: Conjectures About Civilizations.”  Acta Astronautica 68(2011):381-388. DOI: clear10.1016/j.actaastro.2009.11.019  Available online 20 Feb 2010, in print Nov 2010. www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0094576509005694

2010  “Rethinking Life: Astrobiology and the Future of the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences.” K. Denning and Margaret Race. White paper, response to National Science Foundation xNSF 10-069 request for input on next-generation challenges in the social, behavioural, and economic sciences. Available online: www.nsf.gov/sbe/sbe_2020/submission_detail.cfm?upld_id=280

2010   “Social Evolution: State of the Field.” In Cosmos and Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context.  Editors: Steve Dick and Mark Lupisella. NASA History Press. pp 63-124. www.nasa.gov/pdf/607104main_CosmosCulture-ebook.pdf



Selected presentations, 2005-2008

2008  “Unpacking the Great Transmission Debate.” Two versions presented: at the International Academy of Astronautics symposium, Searching for Life Signatures, Paris, Sept 2008; and at the 59th International Astronautical Congress of the International Astronautical Federation, the International Academy of Astronautics, and the International Institute of Space Law, Glasgow, October.

2008   “Confronting Strangeness: Anthropological strategies for astrobiology.” In session “Getting Smarter about Intelligence,” session coordinators: K. Denning and Lori Marino (Emory University). AbSciCon (Astrobiology Science Conference) 2008, Santa Clara Convention Center, California, April 15-17, 2008.  Paper abstract published in Astrobiology vol. 8 no 2, pp 389-391.

2007  “Being Technological.” Billingham Cutting-Edge Lecture. Selected by a vote of the SETI Permanent Study Group of the International Academy of Astronautics.  Presented in the SETI session, 58th International Astronautical Congress of the Int. Astronautical Federation, the Int. Academy of Astronautics, and the Int. Institute of Space Law, Hyderabad, India, September.

2007   “Cultural Evolution: An Introduction for Visionary Scientists and Scientific Visionaries.” Invitedlecture for NASA Ames symposium, “The Future of Intelligence in the Cosmos”. 30 June – 1 July 2007, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. Organizers: Drs. Stephanie Langhoff, Carl Pilcher, Gregory Laughlin, Seth Shostak, Jill Tarter.  http://event.arc.nasa.gov/future-of-intelligence/

2007   “Cultural Evolution At Home... and Away?” Bioastronomy 2007 conference, San Juan, Puerto Rico, July.

2006   “Ten Thousand Revolutions: Conjectures about Civilizations.” Paper for session “SETI II: Interdisciplinary Aspects,” 57th International Astronautical Congress of the International Astronautical Federation, the International Academy of Astronautics, & the International Inst. of Space Law, Valencia, Spain, October.

2006  “Becoming EveryHuman.”  Paper for Panel, “Unbecoming: Dehumanizing Projects.” Chair: David A.B. Murray. For CASCA (Canadian Anthropology Society) conference, Montreal, May.

2006  “The Adjacent Possibility of Music.” Paper for CONTACT: Cultures of the Imagination. NASA Ames, Mountain View, California. Organizer: Jim Funaro (Cabrillo). March.

2005  “Historical consciousness and sustainable futures.”  With Christopher B. Jones.  19th World Futures Studies Federation conference, Budapest, 21-24 August. Presented by Jones.

2005   “Unearthing Contact.” At CONTACT: Cultures of the Imagination. NASA Ames, Mountain View, California. Organizer: Jim Funaro (Cabrillo). March 18-20.





Various interviews concerning the "Mayan apocalypse of 2012" (which, of course, is interesting purely from a cultural perspective rather than from the perspective of actual cosmic doom).   Here's a special page about the "Maya 2012 Apocalypse".   

Appeared in feature on the “Mayan apocalypse”, OMNI television, December 2012; Global television morning show, on the “Mayan apocalypse”, 21 Dec 2012

“End of the world: How to survive Armageddon.” March 2012. Global Television. 16 x 9

“It's the End of the World”  TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin, 4 Jan 2012. TV Ontario.  http://theagenda.tvo.org/episode/141041/its-the-end-of-the-world


"TV Anthropology"

* Beast Legends series, 2009, aired on History Channel and SyFy and NatGeo for several years: www.beastlegends.com/  , http://natgeotv.com/ca/beast-legends 

* Anthropological commentator for 3 episodes of Rites of Passion television series, produced by Incubator TV (Los Angeles) for The History Channel. Topics: death rituals, cannibalism, rites of passage.  Filmed spring 2008 in New York.

* “Real Vampires.”  2007. Co-Presenter with Tim Taylor, consultant, and narrator for two-hour Discovery Channel television feature program directed by Daniel Richler, filmed on location in Europe and Toronto, airing on Discovery UK and Canada. Article by Tim here.