by James Stefanile
It’s a popular pastime to wonder if there is intelligent life outside of Earth. It’s also an ongoing scientific discipline to search for signs of extraterrestrial life. Earthbound and orbiting telescopes help astronomers and cosmologists identify planets that may harbor an intelligent culture. We launch probes and beam greetings into the universe and wait for a response. We dream of inventing technology capable of taking manned vehicles vast distances into the universe in our continuing quest to find our off-world cousins.
During the week this post was written, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, a space based telescope monitoring about 150,000 stars in the Milky Way, provided scientists with 2 newly discovered, earth-like worlds which may support life.
It’s estimated there are hundreds of billions of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy and, therefore, probably, billions of planets in star systems such as our own. And there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe spread out over incredibly, mind-numbing distances. The scale of the universe seems to be designed to overwhelm our cognition as we ponder unimaginable size and volume.
Is this a design of God? Why is our universal environment so overwhelming? These are questions for theologians, philosophers, theoretical physicists and cosmologists. For me, the humble blogger, what’s interesting is humanity’s ongoing quest to find, contact and visit other life Out There and the reasons that quest is fraught with obstacles.
Distance is the main obstacle. For humans to investigate a living planet we’ve discovered would take many lifetimes to reach even the closest candidates. Another problem is the environment in space and on “exoplanets” is hostile to human life. Also, long duration travel in space, even in a controlled environment, is debilitating to many human functions, including skeletal and muscular systems.
For me, the obstacles hint at a larger purpose. Obviously, we have evolved to exist in Earth’s environment. But why is the rest of our universal environment so hostile to human life and so inhuman in scale and size?
The theologian will say that God has created this vast and varied panoply to demonstrate His divine genius and power. The cosmologist will say it’s a puzzling challenge to be conquered. The physicist will say it’s simply because of the laws of Nature. The philosopher will say it’s there to test our perceptions and to make us ponder infinity and our very existence.
I’d like to propose another theory: The universe is, by design, so vast and so hostile so that we will have to stay right here on Earth and not spread our contagion anywhere else.
I’m going to use a belief in God because I believe our isolation is purposeful and no accident. Try and see it from the viewpoint of the Almighty (no, I’m not claiming Divine insight, I’m merely posing a question). Given our history, would You allow humanity anywhere near the rest of the stupefyingly beautiful creation that is the universe? Have we been such thoughtful stewards of this planet that we should be allowed to inhabit others? And has our behavior throughout our history and into the present been such that we can be trusted with other species in interplanetary contact?
If your answer was “yes” to those questions then I suggest you re-consider. Imagine being a being on another planet, in another culture, part of a civilization quite different from ours – a society where, say, crudeness, greed, lust, violence, brutality, dysfunction, stupidity and venality are not the dominant cultural traits. Then, one day, humanity shows up. What do you think will happen? Ask the Incas, the Aztecs, the Native Americans or the Hawaiians. Ask anyone in the ancient world under the Romans, the western Africans when the slave traders showed up, or anyone in the colonial world when the Dutch, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Germans or British showed up. Ask the Jews under Hitler, the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge, the Chinese in the Cultural Revolution, the Afghans under the Taliban, the Ugandans under Idi Amin or the Eastern Europeans under the Soviets and on and on. We don’t need to search the universe for the answer – our brutal and thoughtless history provides it. We are not worthy of contact with any off-world species and we can’t be trusted not to turn the universe into the same junkyard we’ve created here on Earth, not to mention the tons of space junk we’ve placed in orbit around our planet.
This conference was concerned with what they see as the enforced government secrecy surrounding extra-terrestrials and its speakers were from the mainstream and not the lunatic fringe. “Something is monitoring the planet, and they are monitoring it very cautiously, because we are a very warlike planet,” said Mike Gravel, a former Democratic senator from Alaska. Amen, Senator Gravel. If I were a cosmic explorer I’d take one look at Earth then run the other way and hope the Earthlings hadn’t noticed me.
I’m going to assume, in fairness to humanity, that only our best and brightest would be on the vanguard of First Contact. Will the result of contact be like the makers of “Star Trek” envisioned it: the knowledge that we are not alone, but, rather, part of a brotherhood and sisterhood of intelligent life in the universe, will transform our culture, elevating it to another level and erasing poverty, hunger, disease, war and our other ills? I wish I believed that but, in order for humans to evolve on that scale, our current political, legal, military and economic systems, to name just a few, would need to be completely abolished and replaced with something else. Also, once the best among us achieve First Contact there is nothing to prevent the worst of us from following them, in time. Don’t tell me the Joseph Stalins and Kim Jong Uns of the world won’t eventually make it into space along with the good guys. They’ll be there bringing all their hate and lust for power with them. If not even the worst of the bad guys makes it off-world, if, say, members of Congress develop constituencies on another planet, that will be bad enough.
The explorers on “Star Trek” also had a fundamental policy called “The Prime Directive” which stated that, when new civilizations were encountered, humanity would do nothing to interfere with the evolution of that civilization. Do you really believe we would ever be able to abide by such a Directive? Has our history, without exception, supported that notion? The British sought to bring “civilization” to their third world colonies and missionaries, to this day, seek to bring the Christian God to primitive societies, to name just two examples. When we’re not conquering someone else for the straightforward reasons of greed and power, we attempt to do it for higher purposes as well. Never mind that we will erase their culture and heritage – it’s for their own good.
Science fiction has a common theme that humanity in space starts with the best of intentions and then something goes terribly wrong, usually because of alien monsters. I believe the monsters are within us already, ready to be unleashed, even as we approach the universe, supposedly, in peace. Movies like “Forbidden Planet” which talks about monsters from the subconscious, or “Avatar” which portrays humanity in all its greedy, gruesome glory make the case that our presence brings no value to worlds outside our own. I’m not suggesting we cease our unmanned efforts to understand the universe. We should, however, make our peace with the idea that we should never set foot outside of Earth’s planetary system. For example, whenever Mars is discussed by scientists, they speak of colonization and changing its environment to support human life. It’s called terraforming. In other words, take a magnificent example of natural planetary evolution and change it – corrupt it to suit our needs. That’s us in a nutshell – our wants predominate and everything else be damned. Who cares if there are, even, proto-life forms which might emerge if we left Mars or any other planet alone? We’ll thoughtlessly extinguish that possibility of alien life as we alter the planetary environment.
Science fiction usually portrays malevolent aliens preying on us. I propose that humanity, rather, would be the cosmic predator as we practice Eminent Domain on the universe at warp speed. But I think the heavens are already warning us to stay home. That meteor that broke all those windows and injured those folks in Russia recently was, in my view, a “shot across the bow” from the cosmos, saying, “Stay away or there’s more where that came from!”
Moreover, I believe the universe is sending another strong message about human space exploration. The inverse of the Big Bang Theory is the Big Crunch Theory which assumes that after the expansion of the universe from the Big Bang reaches its apogee, gravity will take over and the universe will contract in on itself, and return to sub-atomic size. That theory supposes the expansion of the universe will slow before the Crunch. But, lo and behold, it’s been proven that, not only is the expansion of the universe not slowing, it’s continuing unabated and actually accelerating. To me, that’s a clear sign that we are never going to catch up and be able to travel those increasingly immense distances. The expanses are growing larger and I believe there’s a force in the universe that’s purposely putting already distant planets farther and farther away, insuring we stay where we are and never reach them.
You may believe that we will evolve into a species that can be trusted over time. I wonder how long that will take as our off-world neighbors grow more distant? If the last few thousand years are any indication, I’m discouraged. When you think about it, there’s very little difference between the Pharaohs and the North Koreans except, now, the weapons are more efficient.
The cosmologist Stephen Hawking has said that humanity’s future will be extra-terrestrial. He believes that, in time, we will have outgrown and exhausted the resources of this world and will have to continue to exist on another. So, then, we’d have a hungry and desperate humanity hunting the cosmos for a new home. Do you think we will be able to observe any niceties when we find a suitable planet which, God forbid, is already inhabited? My mind shudders to think of the day we set foot on that world. I only take comfort in the fact that it will never happen. God, or forces in the universe, or whatever you want to believe in, will never allow it.
Here’s some interesting reading on the ethics of planetary exploration and colonization: