According to the principles of convergent evolution, life should be evolving on other Earth-like planets along the lines that it has on Earth. So where are the extraterrestrials? Why haven’t they contacted us, at least formally? A Russian tycoon joins forces with Stephen Hawking and offers $100 million for irrefutable proof that ET exists. What the heck is going on???
Professor Simon Conway Morris of the University of Cambridge, recently published his book, The Runes of Evolution in which he makes the case for life evolving according to the same principles and designs given the same or similar environment. He looks to the universe where other scientists have predicted that there are many Earth-like planets as far as the eye can see, and yet, we still haven’t contacted anyone else in the universe. At least not officially.
In an article on Science Daily, titled “Map of Life Predicts ET. (So Where Is He?)” Conway Morris is quoted as saying, “… convergence is not just common, but everywhere, and that it has governed every aspect of life’s development on Earth. Proteins, eyes, limbs, intelligence, tool-making […] are, he argues, inevitable once life emerges.” He believes that evolution is a predictable process that occurs according to a “fairly rigid set of rules.”
Conway Morris continues, “And if the outcomes of evolution are at least broadly predictable, then what applies on Earth will apply across the Milky Way, and beyond.” So he believes alien life would evolve to look like us with a head, limbs like our arms and legs, central torso and a host of other attributes. He believes convergent evolution almost guarantees the development of brains and intelligence.
To help make his case, the Professor cites these examples: “[…] examples such as collagen, the protein found in connective tissue, which has emerged independently in both fungi and bacteria; or the fact that fruit flies seem to get drunk in the same manner as humans. So too the capacity for disgust in humans – a hard-wired instinct helping us avoid infection and disease – is also exhibited by leaf-cutter ants.”
So why hasn’t life started to evolve on these other, so called Earth-like planets? Conway Morris says, “The number of Earth-like planets seems to be far greater than was thought possible even a few years ago. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they have life, because we don’t necessarily understand how life originates.”
What sets evolution in motion, then? What “originates life”? Philosophers can wrestle with that for a while. Science still contends there are so many of these planets that life must surely be evolving there as it did here on Earth.
So we raise the question again – why haven’t we detected any life or life forms?
$100 Million Should Do
In July of this year, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner, described as a Russian tycoon, announced a new project called “Breakthrough Listen.” Their goal is to ramp up the search for extraterrestrials in the hope they actually find something or someone. Milner is the one who actually donated the $100 million.
Scientist Frank Drake started the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) back in 1960. He is joining this new venture because the additional money will allow them to expand and amplify the search for ET.
What I didn’t realize is how underfunded the SETI project has been. They don’t get any government funds and their usual supporters (universities and private organizations) have been dwindling in recent years.
One of the co-founders of Breakthrough Listen is University of California (Berkeley) scientist Andrew Siemion. He says, “We would typically get 24 to 36 hours on a telescope a year, but now we’ll have thousands of hours per year on the best instruments. It’s difficult to overstate how big this is. It’s a revolution.”
Other scientists will be brainstorming how best to contact an ET civilization, how to reach them, and what to say.
Everyone seems to be making an awful lot of assumptions about these exoplanets that they believe resemble Earth. I’ve got one name for them – Tau Ceti! (See my article on this subject in the References section below.)
For years science has been studying this planet believing it would be a great place for humans to colonize, being so Earth-like and all. But what did we find out earlier this year? That due to geological and chemical processes on the planet and its sun, humans would be in great danger if they tried to live there. Cross that off the list.
This story could repeat itself over and over and over again on all of these exoplanets. We’re simply too far away from them to be able to make a snap decision whether we could live there, much less anything else.
Milner at least had the grace to acknowledge that the search may turn out to be fruitless, but he feels the very act of searching and learning will benefit science in ways we can’t even imagine yet.
I also think they’re making a mistake by assuming life on other planets is going to evolve very similarly to life on Earth. I keep dragging up this example, but it’s a gem – remember the old Star Trek episode where Spock had to mind-meld with that rocky life form, which I think was silicone based? We would have little to nothing in common with a creature like that. It could have evolved in a world vastly different from our own “Blue Marble.”
This passage from an article in Reason by Kenneth Silbur about astrophysicist Victor J. Stenger’s thoughts on life in the universe is very interesting:
“There is no good reason,” says Stenger, to “assume that there’s only one kind of life possible” – we know far too little about life in our own universe, let alone “other” universes, to reach such a conclusion. Stenger denounces as “carbon chauvinism” the assumption that life requires carbon; other chemical elements, such as silicon, can also form molecules of considerable complexity. Indeed, Stenger ventures, it is “molecular chauvinism” to assume that molecules are required at all; in a universe with different properties, atomic nuclei or other structures might assemble in totally unfamiliar ways.
—Victor J. Stenger, Reason, July 1999”
Another assumption made about aliens – if they’re intelligent then they’ll be benevolent. This one gets me hot under the collar because it’s such an obvious and glaring non-sequitur. It all comes down to universal values and even here on Earth we can’t come to an agreement as to what our universal values are – where would we even begin with an alien species so different from us that they may not breathe, they may not be able to see, they may live in a place where they never get cold or hot. I could go on and on, but you get the point.
We’ll just have to wait and see how this experiment goes. On the plus side, I like that a private sector foundation has put up the funds for the project, rather than the government. That means they can actually get something done.
But what that “something” is remains to be seen. Or not.
What do you think about all this?