Scientific findings in two areas seem almost in conflict, at least with regard to the question of whether there’s other intelligent life in the universe and how frequent it might be. The first set of findings reports that life exists across a far greater spectrum of temperatures and pressures than most biologists dared to hope. The second set of findings comes from astronomers, who are finding that, at least so far, other solar systems appear far more bizarre than ours, with planets in odd orbits, planets circling their suns in retrograde orbits, massive gas giants in tight solar orbits, all creating conditions that appear less favorable to life, or to complex cellular life, than in our solar system.
At this point, it’s clear that we are far from knowing enough to speculate knowledgeably about the frequency of life in the universe, let alone intelligent life… and yet…
Could it just be that life, of all sorts and kinds, arises under all ranges of conditions and under strange suns and stars? Given the billions and billions of planets in the universe, and given the range of conditions under which life has evolved on earth, how could there not be life elsewhere?
But… given the immensity of the universe, and the distance between stars, will we ever know for certain? And does it matter?
I’m afraid it does. It matters because too many people in too many cultures have come to believe that somehow “we” – homo sapiens – are special merely because we exist, that some deity created the entire universe and put us at the center of it.
Yet… how special are we? In almost every decade over the past century, archeologists and paleontologists have discovered yet another variety of human forebear – homo neanderthalensis, homo floresiensis, homo africanus, homo erectus, etc., and many of these were not our ancestors, but cousins. And all of them are extinct, with the exception of the Neanderthals, who live on in the genes of much of the world’s population.
Recently, a team of archeologists discovered a big-brained dinosaur, one they believe was on the way to what we would call true intelligence – except it ran out of time when the climate changed. Perhaps it, too, thought it was special, merely through the fact of existing.
Will it take the discovery of alien artifacts and signals to prove that we’re not that unique in the grand scheme of the universe? Or would that discovery just trigger xenophobia and racial paranoia?
I don’t know, and I doubt anyone does, but what I do find intriguing as a science fiction writer is that the majority of novels written in the genre and dealing with such subjects tend to deal with humans trying to prove they’re special or acting as if we are. All that, of course, raises the question of whether, if there are aliens out there, they’d even want to deal with us at present.