Life around the Universe

A recent visit to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff got me thinking about life around the solar system, and there are surprisingly many places that could support life. If we eventually find life in a multiple places, that makes it far more probable that biological life is widespread across the universe. This should banish our remaining thoughts of anthropocentrism.

The narrow meaning of life as something created by the God of Abraham doesn’t stand up when we start seeing the emergence of life as a natural feature of our universe. Instead of closing the door on finding meaning, this raises a host of new questions about consciousness and what defines life and culture.


If the search for life around the solar system only turns up clumps of bacteria, it’d be harder to shake our deep-seated anthropocentrism. Nonetheless, that’d still be the wrong conclusion to draw. Abiogenesis, going from molecules to life, is still opaque. Going from cells to consciousness is even more shrouded in mystery. If the right physical conditions are met, does that mean the emergence of life is inevitable, probable or something bordering on miraculous? The scale of time involved makes this untestable.

The curious cases of iterative evolution, a species going extinct only for it to evolve back into existence, suggests that given specific parameters, evolution has a probabilistic outcome. There are enough cases of extinct species not re-evolving to suggest that outcome of evolution is far from set in stone.

There’s a tendency to look back at history as inevitable, yet there’s no real evidence to suggest that determinism is quite so hard. I don’t see the transition of homo sapiens from minor bands of hunter-gathers to agrarian and industrial societies as inevitable. Whether the jump to agriculture was a random event or shaped by climatic and geographic forces, it’s entirely reasonable to envision humans — in the broad sense of the term — staying hunter-gathers on some timeline. Large swathes of humanity remained so until relatively recently, although uncontacted peoples are dwindling.

Suppose we find the universe is full of planets with human-like hunter-gathers living lives that they find meaningful without much of anything we’d call civilization. Would we judge them as somehow inferior to us? We like to think that the brutishness of Europe circa 1492 has passed. The current treatment of indigenous peoples says otherwise.

The question can be adapted to a world without human-like life. Would we consider whales to be an advanced civilization? As far as we know, whales use language to communicate, transmit knowledge and form dialect groups. The problem with consciousness is that we have no way to examine a whale’s first-person experience of the world. As of now, we’re left only with indirect ways to guess at cetacean intelligence.

Having a meaningful exchange with an alien culture is far fetched. There are many ‘alien’ cultures on this very earth that the industrialized West have no contact with. Papua New Guinea, with its patchwork of languages and ethnicities, is barely a blip on the radar, despite the fact that it offers a genuinely different perspective on the fundamental questions on the meaning of culture and life. I hope I’m wrong, but I find it even more unlikely that we’ll try to learn from animals with meta-cognitive awareness in my lifetime.

Further thought experiments

Besides looking out there for ‘alien’ civilizations, it’s entirely possible that an advanced, industrial civilization previously existed on earth. If such a society existed, we’d have little trace of it today. The river of time would wipe away all of their plastic, metal, and anything else they’d built.

In some sense, this is comforting. Humans can’t permanently deface the earth. Our planet could go through several cycles of complete biological extinction followed by a new course of evolution — all before the sun expands and then dies out itself.

This comes with a caveat. Venus was once little different than the earth in terms of climate. Life could have existed there before being wiped out by catastrophic climate change. Mars also used to have a similar climate to earth. The possibility of ‘alien’ life extends out temporarily as well as spatially. Imagining a venetian or martian civilization obliterated as their climate lost the ability to sustain life hits a bit too close to home.

Some would argue that these thought experiments are a waste of time — we’d be better off focusing on problems in the here and now. This is a cop out. Opening our minds to what is beyond the here and now is one of the most surefire ways to generate the empathy needed to solve the the crises of our generation. Whether it be learning from remote cultures on earth, realizing that the animals we see everyday have their own non-anthropomorphic cultures, or the possibility of life scattered throughout the universe — acknowledging our own humility before the majesty of the universe is a cathartic path that each of us should experience.