Ask Dr. SETI ®
by Dan Duda
from the May, 2020 issue of Penn Central,
the monthly newsletter of Central PA Mensa,
used by permission
I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved, as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.
Darwin had a great idea. But maybe he didn’t extend it far enough. He said that life evolves in response to the environment in which it finds itself. Those who are “fittest” to address the challenges of their environment are the most likely to succeed and thrive. And, importantly, the ability to adjust to changes in the environment allows a species to prosper over time.
Let’s apply that concept to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. We feel that our earthly environment is special. Some say it was “designed" specifically for us. But Darwin’s idea turned that upside down. He felt that we developed to fit the environment.
I'm fascinated by this wild idea that the universe itself favors life. In fact, it might be that the universe is a conscious entity that somehow encourages the generation of life (and perhaps sentient life) throughout its domain (whatever that is).
Now, let’s put all that together into a question. Could the universe be encouraging life to spring up in environments that we label as hostile, or downright impossible? Remember, Life As We Know It (LAWKI) sprang from the environment in which we find ourselves. Maybe it's not so much that the environment was generated for us, but rather that we evolved in response to the environment that we inherited.
Right here on Earth we find life in surprising places, like the hot and poisonous vents at the bottom of the ocean; or in glaciers frozen for millennia; or just below the surface of tundral plains in Siberia; etc. As for life elsewhere in the universe, we could be making a big mistake by looking only for creatures like us (LAWKI). In fact, that sounds egotistical to me (or anthropomorphic, if you prefer).
The universe may very well have encouraged life to form based on a wide range of environments totally different, even hostile to us. The New Horizons Probe, for example, recently discovered what is believed to be tholins on Pluto. Tholins are complex carbon chains made when ultraviolet light strikes carbon-rich molecules like methane or ethane. Carl Sagan named the substance in his research to see how life may have started on Earth.
I had the great privilege a few years back of debating this topic with Neil DeGrasse Tyson at Millersville University. He stuck with his LAWKI argument at the time. But in recent television appearances he seems to have softened his perspective somewhat, allowing that we might want to broaden our search criteria.
Like moths to a flame, scientists are drawn to “classical” solutions to most enigmas. In other words, they prefer solutions that land close to their familiar range, and that works well in most instances. Talk about “unfamiliar”; Einstein was never awarded a Nobel Prize for his huge revolution in science - relativity, which rewrote our understanding of reality. His colleagues just could not bring themselves to take seriously an idea so distant from their comfort zone.
Likewise, we tend to look for familiar forms of life, and maybe sentience, elsewhere in the universe. This ignores an ocean of possibilities for the forms that life might take in different environments. In the words of Einstein “Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth. ” And the most significant advances in science and technology tend to be the ones that break the rules of authority at the time. Just ask Darwin.
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this page last updated 2 May 2020
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