Would finding extraterrestrial life matter?

2009-09-21

in Geek stuff, Politics, Science, The environment

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The most plausible explanation for the origin of life on Earth is that physical processes created organic molecules, such as amino acids, and some combination randomly assembled that could make copies of itself. This may have been somewhat akin to the way crystals form as the result of probability and their own chemical characteristics. From there, these ‘replicators’ became more diverse and capable, ultimately branching out into the entirety of life observed on our planet today. Richard Dawkins may have expressed these ideas best, in the opening section of The Selfish Gene:

Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the techniques and artifices used by the replicators to ensure their own continuation in the world? There would be plenty of time for their improvement. What weird engines of self-preservation would the millennia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators? They did not die out, for they are the past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rational for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.

If this explanation is basically correct, we should expect there to be a lot of life in the universe. There are millions of billions of galaxies out there, comprised of a phenomenal number of stars. We have already observed planets around some, including small rocky planets like the Earth and planets with orbits compatible with liquid water on their surfaces. The Kepler Mission may discover hundreds more. The Drake Equation expresses this idea mathematically, while the Fermi Paradox considers why extraterrestrial civilizations, which we might expect to be common, have not yet been found.

Finding other forms of life would certainly both answer and raise scientific questions (such as how different forms of life can be.) Would actually observing direct evidence of life (probably microbes) elsewhere have any effect on human perspectives or behaviour? It might for religious people who believe life on Earth to have been uniquely created, but that isn’t a terribly interesting consequence to me. Would it have any ethical, political, or moral ramifications for those who already believe that life essentially arose by accident? Would intelligent life have any effect above and beyond that of observing microbes, even if such life was too far away to ever really engage or communicate with? The question may not be such an abstract one. As described well in one chapter of Oliver Morton’s book on photosynthesis, there are several ways through which we might be able to identify unmistakeable signs of life at great distance.

Perversely, life elsewhere might actually somewhat diminish our perception of how important it is to preserve and protect life on Earth. Right now, as far as we know, we are the sole such example in the universe. Finding others might lend even more strength to the psychological pressures that make us favour immediate interests rather than long-term survival. On the other hand, it might help reinforce the point that we are here by accident and that nothing about the nature of the universe is ‘on our side’ when it comes to survival. Such a realization might prompt some serious thinking of what it will mean to endure in a universe that will endure long beyond the comparatively comfortable circumstances in which we emerged as a species.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

BuddyRich September 22, 2009 at 5:50 am

This is an interesting question. I guess it boils down to how close and how “capable” that life is to us. A few single cell organisms, a few million light years away would hardly matter but ET on Saturn might matter a bit more.

As far as face to face contact with a reasonably intelligent alien species, lets hope we’ve learned from our past “first contacts” and not act like our ancestors did when they first met native Americans in the new world for example.

Milan September 22, 2009 at 8:54 pm

I doubt we will find ourselves face-to-face with anyone. Light moves a lot faster than we can, and even light doesn’t move fast enough to meaningfully connect us with even the other side of our galaxy, much less other galaxies.

. September 23, 2009 at 5:00 pm

Is there anybody out there?

What is the chance that alien life exists? Nasa’s latest mission – the Kepler Space Telescope due to launch on Friday night to survey the heavens for Earth-like planets – could take us a step closer to an answer. Kathryn Westcott asks four experts whether mankind prefers the idea of being alone and unique or whether we long for cosmic cousins.

Sam October 10, 2009 at 12:28 pm

I’m not sure if we will ever discover life on a different planet any time soon but maybe some time in the future long past our time we will have a break through. When, (if) we do discover extraterrestrial life in the future i do believe it will only be the size of spec maybe even smaller than some bacteria on this Earth, but this is only my opinion I could be far of the actual findings.

. November 12, 2009 at 9:44 am

Vatican conference on ETs

We’ve posted before about the Pope’s chief astronomer Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes and his statements on possible extraterrestrial life. (ETs “don’t contradict our faith,” he has said.) The Vatican recently hosted a conference on the topic of astrobiology — the study of life in the universe — where a group of international scientists from a variety of fields discussed the possibility of alien life. From the Associated Press:

Funes said the possibility of alien life raises “many philosophical and theological implications” but added that the gathering was mainly focused on the scientific perspective and how different disciplines can be used to explore the issue.

Chris Impey, an astronomy professor at the University of Arizona, said it was appropriate that the Vatican would host such a meeting.

“Both science and religion posit life as a special outcome of a vast and mostly inhospitable universe,” he told a news conference Tuesday. “There is a rich middle ground for dialogue between the practitioners of astrobiology and those who seek to understand the meaning of our existence in a biological universe…”

The Church of Rome’s views have shifted radically through the centuries since Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1600 for speculating, among other ideas, that other worlds could be inhabited.

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