The Place of Evolution in the ETI Myth
you the reader might say: astrobiology is straight science! Why all this talk
about myth? I grant that the mythical structures may require a bit of analysis
to become visible. Let me provide that analysis now.
a myth would be a cultural construct, a window frame, so to speak, through
which we look in order to view the world out there. In ancient times, myths
were stories about how the gods had created the world in the beginning; and
this beginning explains why things are the way they are in our contemporary
experience. In the modern world, we think of ourselves as turning to science
rather than myth to explain the origin of things. Yet, what ancient myth and
modern science have in common is that they both provide a worldview, a frame
for understanding and explaining what we experience. Or, to say it a bit more
precisely, science contributes to the myths we modern people believe. At work
in modern culture is an identifiable framework - a myth, if you will--within
which we cast the questions we pose to the mysteries evoked by our experience
with outer space.
ETI myth begins to reveal its shape as Frank Drake gives voice to speculations
reflecting contact optimism. Everything we know says there are other
civilizations out there to be found. The discovery of such civilizations would
enrich our civilization with valuable information about science, technology,
and sociology. This information could directly improve our abilities to
conserve and to deal with sociological problems - poverty for example. Cheap
energy is another potential benefit of discovery, as are advancements in
medicine (Cited by Richards, 2003, p.5). Note how this optimism extends well
beyond mere contact with ETIL. It includes optimism regarding the solution to
sociological problems such as poverty and energy while giving us a leap
forward in medicine. What Drake believes is that science is salvific, and
extraterrestrial science would be even more salvific than earths science.
The ETI myth is structured around evolutionary assumptions.
Here is one of the assumptions: life must evolve wherever the conditions are
right; and there simply must be extraterrestrial planets where this is
possible. Life is the product of deterministic forces, writes biologist and
Nobel Laureate Christian de Duve. Life was bound to arise under the prevailing
conditions, and it will arise similarly wherever and whenever the same
conditions obtain. There is hardly any room for lucky accidents in the gradual,
multistep process whereby life originated. This conclusion is compellingly
enforced when one considers the development of life as a chemical process (de
Deuve, 1995, p. xv). As long as the right chemical conditions exist somewhere
in outer space - in the Goldilocks location--we can expect life to evolve and
develop and progress. And, perhaps, some day we will meet this extraterrestrial
life form. At the level of assumption, this evolutionary belief has worked its
way into the ETI myth.
Based on the Green Bank equation of 1961 (see the Drake
equation above), de Deuve speculates that the figure of about one million
habitable planets per galaxy is considered not unreasonable. Even if this
value were overestimated by several orders of magnitude, it would still add up
to trillions of potential cradles for life. If my reading of the evidence is
correct, this means that trillions of planets exist that have borne, bear, or
will bear life. The universe is awash with life (de Deuve, 1995), p.121). With
such contact optimists speculating without empirical evidence that the universe
is teeming with life, it is easy to imagine our culture developing images of
just what that life might be like.
This biologist continues to feed the growing myth with
apparent scientific veracity. My conclusion: We are not alone. Perhaps not
every biosphere in the universe has evolved or will evolve thinking brains. But
a significant subset of existing biospheres have achieved intelligence, or are
on the way to it, some, perhaps in a form more advanced than our own (de
Deuve, 1995, p.297). When science becomes mythologized, we speculate with
egregious confidence that our partners in outer space could be more highly
evolved - more advanced - than we are.
Now, speculation belongs to good science,
to be sure. Yet, when non-empirically founded speculations begin to frame a
worldview that fills the sky with projections of superior intelligence,
superior science, and perhaps even the power to save earth from the
inadequacies of its evolutionary past, then we can see how a framework for a
myth is being erected.
Carl Sagan similarly embraced the ETI myth. Yet, the
Cornell exobiologist recognized that this belief structure is based on
speculation rather than sufficient empirical evidence to deem it scientific. I
would guess that the Universe is filled with beings far more intelligent, far
more advanced than we are. But, of course, I might be wrong. Such a conclusion
is at best based on a plausibility argument, derived from the numbers of planets,
the ubiquity of organic matter, the immense timescales available for evolution,
and so on. It is not a scientific demonstration (Sagan, 1994, p.33).
These scientists have taken a number of
non-empirical and speculative steps from the Drake equation to myth-like images
of ETI more advanced in intelligence and even spirituality. Might these more
advanced intelligences represent our own future? Might they speed up earths
evolution and transcendence of our own past?
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| Contributed by: Ted Peters