I’ve never quite understood the mania for finding intelligent life in the universe, either out among the stars or here at home, with little gray men abducting innocent humans for intrusive and somewhat dirty (in the sexual sense) experimentation. An advanced civilization is more likey to colonize and enslave, isn’t it, than to bring us salvation, technological or otherwise?
At least that’s what human history on earth suggests. I can think of no instance in which a less advanced society survived contact with a more advanced one. Why would earth as a whole escape such a fate? If I’m right, then contact with alien intelligence is going to be more Independence Day than E.T.
These bloody minded ruminations arise in response to an alternately infuriating and fascinating London Times review of a new book by American cosmologist Paul Davies, entitled The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence (which will be published in the U.S. in April).
First, let’s dispense with the most irritating bit of Martin Rees’s review: Why do some writers take every opportunity, however thin, to slag religion and faith? Rees, drawing on Davies, snidely remarks that detection of alien life would “force some theologians into intellectual contortions.”
What’s most offensive about this statement is its smug tone, as though such “theologians” are not only already discredited but have it coming. In fact, alien life, let alone intelligence, is far from a given at this point. Besides that, theology, faith, religion, what have you, has already proven infinitely pliable in the face of scientific discovery.
Furthermore, regardless of the existence of God, human beings require faith, as surely as we require companionship, community and mother love. No amount of future scientific discoveries will alter that basic need.
And yet those, like Rees and Davies, who mock the gnat of religion gladly swallow the camels of such preposterous ideas as “quantum minds floating in the emptiness of intergalactic space, super-cyborgs commandeering comets, or brains hugging spinning black holes.” Oh, please.
First, there’s less evidence for this kind of alien intelligence than there is for the Resurrection of Christ, Buddha’s enlightenment or Muhammad’s visitations from the angel Gabriel. Second, any such beings would, as far as humanity is concerned, be indistinguishable from gods.
None of this is to suggest that Rees’s review, or Davies’ book, are not worth reading. On the contrary. Both provide illumination into the central question of whether the universe teems with life, or whether life on earth is a unique (or at least very rare) accident.
The argument for a teeming universe goes like this: The cosmos is so vast, filled with stars–many of them, we now know by direct observation, surrounded by planets. Conditions for the development of life must therefore be relatively common. Life is the universe’s default setting.
The argument against is best summed up in the words of the great physicist Enrico Fermi: “Why aren’t the aliens here?” Many of the detectable stars are billions of years older than our own, suggesting that life originating on their planets should have reached a fantastically advanced level of technology.
It seems to me we are probably alone in the universe, life on earth a pure accident unrepeated elsewhere. Until we have concrete evidence otherwise, I strongly suggest we behave as though this is true. Right now, we’re using up the planet like we can just toss it away and move on to another one.
But I’m sure plenty of people out there can explain to me why exactly the universe is just filled to the top with intelligent, and what’s more, benevolent life just itching to swoop down and save us from ourselves. Right?