Monday, August 20, 2012

The Gift of Life Elsewhere

Michelangelo's Creation of Adam, detail

We humans tend to see ourselves as the center of all things.  It’s understandable, as we haven’t encountered anyone else in this vast universe, not even a lowly extraterrestrial bacteria as of yet. What happens when we do find life elsewhere?  We will lose our special status as the bearers of a unique haven of life in the cosmos, but what will we gain?

It means something that we are trying hard to find out.  As I write this blog, Curiosity is digging in the Martian landscape hoping to discover signs of living matter.  We are searching the heavens for extra solar planets in that tantalizing Goldilocks zone, the place where the temperature is just right and liquid water may exist and so life.

If we do find we are not alone, history suggests we will get used to it eventually, but it won’t be easy to adjust.  It may cause strife and unease.  In Western civilization, I can think of three great happenings that shook the human, egocentric view of our place and status in the cosmos.  By now most of us have accepted we don’t have a special home in the universe, that we are really just animals, and we’re often prone to irrational behavior.  It was not easy for us to accept such things about ourselves.

The first shock to our “ego” occurred in the 1500’s when Copernicus announced earth was not the center of the universe, but rather revolved around the sun.  This radical view of the cosmos was condemned by the  Church and many others as heresy.  A century later Galileo was tried and placed under house arrest for his support of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory.  Many died and suffered greatly for espousing this belief.
In the middle of the 19th century, a young scientist came along and tried to convince the world that humans were really part of nature.  Darwin published Origin of Species which took away the special status of humans as spiritually apart and above the life around us.  We are still dealing with that one. The third blow to our human “ego” came from Sigmund Freud himself, who introduced the notion that we humans are driven by internal, mental forces largely beyond our control.  Not only are we bound in a physical chain of evolution and adaptation, as Darwin argued, but our very minds are subject to powerful drives that challenge the lofty idea that we are primarily creatures of reason and logic.

What happens when we find life elsewhere?  I think we will find it eventually, although I am human and subject to such whims.  My feeling is that we will deal with another blow to our uniqueness more constructively than we have in the past.  It’s not so important to consider ourselves apart and unique as it once was.  In fact, most of us like to think of ourselves as connected, as part of a large whole.

When we first saw images of earth from space we discovered a blue planet with no borders and boundaries and that did change us for the better.  I think knowing we are not alone will as well.  Finding life elsewhere in the cosmos will be a gift for all of us, perhaps in ways we can hardly imagine.