Life Out There?

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.

8 Responses to “Life Out There?”

  1. Derek says:

    Deal with us? Doubt it, we’re not exactly prone to rational long-term behavior, and any space faring society likely has mastered that at some point in their evolution.

    If intelligent life were proven in other bits of the universe, I’m curious how the religious right would handle it. I’m curious how they would handle the topic with a universe created in 7 days ‘bible literal translation’.

    Interesting to think about.

  2. Bob says:

    I thought we were still looking for signs of intelligent life on Earth. :)

    The simplest solution is there is no life—intelligent or otherwise—in the universe, except on Earth. We’ve no evidence to the contrary.

    That’s why it’s called science and speculative fiction. Makes for interesting reading and good food for thought, but…

  3. Grant Edmunds says:

    My guess is that if we ever found another intelligent species (or they found us) they would have many of the same tendencies we do as humans. Their culture and traditions however, would be enough different for us to pretend that they were completely different (which as our own history shows us is far more popular than believing you have things in common).

    I don’t really see why a space faring society would have mastered rational long term behavior… After all our rational long term behavior appears to have improved only very slightly, if at all, with the advance of technology.

    One more thing I thought I would point out.
    What do we know about our theoretical intelligent alien species?

    1. They are intelligent.
    2. They have some form of technology that is more advanced than what we have

    What can we logically assume?

    They are very different from us (from a religious viewpoint you could make a strong argument against this (at least I could), but generally speaking we assume aliens will be very different if not physiologically than at least in culture and background)

    What, within our experience as a world, is the most similar to these aliens?

    The only answer is, of course, us.

    So the only way we can speculate, really, is to examine ourselves and try to figure out what we would be like with a different culture and background, and more advanced, or a different type of technology.

    Just so no one tries to say:
    “Well, you don’t know they would be like us”
    That’s true I don’t. But the only logical assumption we can make is that they would have similarities to us, after all we are the only intelligent species of which we know.

  4. Grant Edmunds says:

    *(from a religious viewpoint you could make a strong argument that this is not true (at least I could)

    My mistake I got ahead of myself and forgot to finish what I was saying.

  5. Daze says:

    I think I’m with the underlying assumption of David Brin’s work, namely that any species that made it as far as star-faring without terminally screwing up their own planet will be very ‘green’ indeed, and probably look down on us as stupid barbarians.

    Of course, there is always the alternative that they made it off their home planet just in time and now go round the universe screwing up other people’s planets. The latter would appear currently to be the future role for the human race, assuming we make it that far.

  6. AMos says:

    Mr. Modesitt — could you provide a link to the big-brained dinosaur? somehow that story slipped by me, and I’d love to read more about it.

  7. AMos says:

    Thanks. I managed to find a few things, one of which suggests a brain-to-body ratio around six times that of other sauropods, which is really interesting, though it wasn’t clear if that was specifically the Utah find or the Troodontidae family in general. Still, thanks for bringing it to attention; it’s a fun idea to speculate about.

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