This article appears in the April 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
Second Story Books in Bethesda has a good selection of out-of-print science books and I drop by from time to time. I was surprised to find recently that they had a whole shelf of books about the search for extraterrestrial life. Here are just some of the titles, all published in the 1990s:
We Are Not Alone (1993), Are We Alone? (1995) Are We Alone in the Cosmos? (1999), Is Anyone Out There? (1992), Extraterrestrials: Where Are They? (1995), A Brief History of Life on Other Worlds (1998), The Hunt for Life on Mars (1997), After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life (1997), Beyond Star Trek (1997). I could add half a dozen more, and others have appeared since, including Rare Earth (2000), Where Is Everybody? (2002), and on and on. Since 1981, four books have been published with the title Are We Alone?
So what’s this all about? The novelist Michael Crichton commented on one aspect of this comedy in an entertaining and instructive lecture at Caltech in 2003 — “Aliens Cause Global Warming.” There is “not a single shred of evidence for any other life forms and in 40 years none has been discovered. SETI is a religion,” he said. Then he gave us a brief tour of nuclear winter, second-hand smoke, and finally global warming, wherein science always defers to politics. We are seeing a “loosening of the definition of what constitutes legitimate scientific procedure,” he concluded.
But Crichton skirted what for me is the most interesting question: Why have we invested so much hope in SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence? Walter Sullivan, the late science editor of the New York Times, was a sober reporter. So why was his book titled We Are Not Alone, when there was no evidence for that claim? (The book’s first edition, in 1964, had the same title.)
Sometimes I wonder if SETI isn’t the respectable version of the search for unidentified flying objects. The late Carl Sagan, the most widely publicized SETI-promoter of recent times, was absorbed by flying-saucer reports in his teenage years. Then he moved smoothly into the SETI field, joining the astronomy department at Cornell. He chaired respectable conferences, appeared on the Johnny Carson show 40 times, and according to his biographer Keay Davidson “believed in superior beings in space, creatures so intelligent, so powerful as to resemble gods.”
At the first international SETI conference, held in 1971, Sagan declared that a new civilization is formed in the Milky Way galaxy every ten years, and affirmed: “There are a million technical civilizations in the Galaxy.” Davidson said of Sagan that “he believed in superior civilizations because he believed in Progress.”
But there is something else. Some of us want to believe in extraterrestrials because an article of our secular faith holds that there is nothing exceptional about human life. This is dogma, lacking any justification, but it has already been codified as the Mediocrity Principle. The Earth, life, mankind, and civilization are humdrum, routine developments; nothing out of the ordinary about them. And if that is so, we should expect to find such life all over the Galaxy.
Some scientists and philosophers go further, and take pleasure in denigrating the human race. They jeer at the rest of us for ever having considered ourselves to be important in the cosmic scheme. A little lower than the angels, indeed! Some of us still vainly place ourselves at the center of the universe without realizing that Science dethroned us long ago.
The longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer — he worked on the San Francisco docks for 25 years — noted that intellectuals of the past century had done all in their power “to denude the human entity of its uniqueness”; to demonstrate that we are “not essentially distinct from other forms of life.” He contrasted Pascal’s comment that “the firmament, the stars, the earth are not equal in value to the lowest human being,” with that of “the humanitarian” Bertrand Russell: “the stars, the wind in waste places mean more to me than even the human beings I love best.” Somehow, we take that as a sign of our maturity. Our philosophers want to rub our noses in the dust. Thou art dust!
That misanthropic essayist Stephen Jay Gould derided our “need to see ourselves as separate and superior,” and drew endless comfort from our downgraded status. He gloried in mankind’s supposed demotion.
We have spent so much time putting mankind in its place — in the basement — that it goes against the grain to think that we might actually be exceptional. Yet if we are alone in the Cosmos — well, you can’t get more exceptional than that. Perhaps that’s why the author of Where Is Everybody? called our possible solitude a “chilling” prospect. Another extraterrestrial seeker said that finding life out there would deal another blow to our “psyche” — a blow that he seemed to think was much needed.
Lawrence Krauss wrote that the discovery of extraterrestrial life “would be far more jolting — and not just to orthodox Christians — than was the revelation that the Earth is not the center of the solar system.” Actually, the Copernican system wasn’t jolting at all. That is a modern invention, promoted by people like Gould and Krauss. The center of the Cosmos was considered an insalubrious place, the point to which impure matter fell. It was “the physical correlate of humanity’s fallen state,” wrote John Hedley Brooke, a professor of religion and science at Oxford. “To be placed on a planet was to move upmarket.”
IN 1950, AT LOS ALAMOS, the nuclear physicists Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, and others were discussing the latest ideas about the universe — much larger and older than earlier thought; billions of stars evolving over billions of years, probably accompanied by more planets than stars. Billions and billions. And the physical laws that applied here also applied out there.
So, “where is everybody?” Fermi famously asked. It became known as the Fermi Paradox.
Enter Frank Drake, a Cornell astronomer who set up Project Ozma in 1959. Using radio telescopes, scientists could listen for signals from aliens. A listening post was set up at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in West Virginia. Drake also cobbled together the Drake Equation, which estimates the probability that, out there somewhere, there exist intelligent beings that can communicate.
You take the number of stars and multiply by the fraction that have planets, times the number of planets per star, times the fraction within a habitable zone, times the likelihood of life evolving, times the probability of it reaching a level where critters can build radio transmitters — and so on. But there is no real data to work with, so enthusiasts can go ahead and plug in their own numbers.
That’s how Sagan came up with one million civilizations. “Physics and chemistry are so constructed as to make the origin of life easy,” he said. He was whistling in the dark. If the origin of life is easy, why can’t we make it happen here, in our laboratories, by deliberate and ceaseless effort?
Then came the sleight of hand that Walter Sullivan called the “step by step dissolution of the difficulties.” Before you knew it, the probability of life evolving was said to be: If the conditions are suitable, evolution will happen, given enough time. Others have put it at close to zero, and that’s more likely. Frank Drake and colleagues have been listening in for almost 50 years now but they haven’t heard anything much beyond background hiss. A recent book, Rare Earth, concludes that conditions here are indeed “extraordinarily rare.”
The search for extraterrestrial intelligence started at about the same time as the search for artificial intelligence (here on Earth, beginning in 1956). So far both varieties of intelligence have proved to be elusive — much harder to locate by radio or re-create in computers than anyone imagined. Maybe it takes a designer? Or should I say Designer? Anyway, you can see why SETI makes us all a little anxious.
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