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Why Organized Science Longs for Extraterrestrial Life

Tom Bethell


Here’s a front-page headline from the December 10 print edition of the Washington Post:

Ancient Lake Buoys Hopes for Mars Life

The piece by Joel Achenbach is worth reading, but why "hopes"? The clue comes at the end:

There could be 4-billion-year-old microfossils in the Mars rocks, but finding them would probably require a sample-return mission, something NASA would like to pull off with international partners in the next decade.

Yum. NASA smells funding down the road.

Life on Earth is the only life that we know. None has been found elsewhere. What lies beyond the Solar System? Probably we’ll never know, unless extraterrestrials send us that sequence of prime numbers that Carl Sagan hoped to see. So a good case can be made for the uniqueness of life. And that would also entail the uniqueness of intelligent, human life. Both are highly unpopular with some people.

Let’s call the offended party Organized Science, in contrast to the oft-criticized Organized Religion. Organized Science longs to find extraterrestrial life. Why so? There are various answers, but the mundane one is indeed funding.

NASA is eager to find extraterrestrial life somewhere because that will increase the agency’s popularity with Congressional committees. Recently, there has been brave talk of privately funded expeditions — and long may those billionaires retain their optimism. But until they buy space capsules and launch them, I’ll remain skeptical.

Congress, meanwhile, is far more likely to fund extraterrestrial sorties to known outposts of life than to barren rocks. The search for taxpayer support is never far from the minds of those who live at the intersection of science and public policy.

Expeditions to planets outside the solar system are not even remotely plausible, thank goodness. Otherwise committees on Capitol Hill might be tempted to plunge us even further into debt. (On the other hand, Science magazine would cheer on such a development. It treats the government funding of science as its #1 issue.)

Another motivation is not at all mundane. Organized Science has long banked on the faith that life started by accident. That gets us into the Drake equation, a fantasy that lists a series of unknowns and decides that they add up to a certainty. No one really knows how life began here, or if it began anywhere else.

The thought that life on Earth might in fact be unique is unpopular, because that could mean that some source of intelligent design played a role. We can’t have that!

For additional reasons, the Darwin Brigades have also been eager to undermine human exceptionalism. Why? The alleged ordinariness of the human race was vital in establishing common ancestry as a plausible theory. Here is Darwin’s admirer and contemporary Thomas Henry Huxley, in 1863:

Is man a peculiar organism? Does he originate in a wholly different way from a dog, bird, frog, or fish? and does he thereby justify those who assert that he has no place in nature, and no real relationship with the lower world of animal life? Or does he develop from a similar embryo, and undergo the same slow and gradual progressive modifications? The answer is not for an instant doubtful, and has not been doubtful for the last thirty years. The mode of man’s origin and the earlier stages of his development are undoubtedly identical with those of the animals standing directly below him in the scale; without the slightest doubt, he stands in this respect nearer the ape than the ape does to the dog.

Huxley’s veiled argument is that structural similarities between man and beast encourage us to accept that we all blend indistinguishably into an animal series. All are our cousins at many removes. Man is merely part of a journey that will go on after he passes from the scene.

Here’s something else from Huxley:

It is not I who seek to base Man’s dignity upon his great toe, or insinuate that we are lost if an Ape has a hippocampus minor. On the contrary, I have done my best to sweep away this vanity. I have endeavored to show that no absolute structural line of demarcation . . . can be drawn between the animal world and ourselves. [1863]

Notice that he turns the tables on Organized Religion, accusing it of vanity — a sin! Stephen Jay Gould made similar accusations.

Soon after Darwin’s Origin of Species appeared, Bishop Wilberforce debated Huxley at Oxford University. Famously, it was the first clash between Organized Religion and Organized Science. Huxley was thought to have won — such was the temper of the time and of the following century.

But Wilberforce was known as a great wit, just as Huxley was. In a rarely heard account, the bishop said that if Darwin can "demonstrate to us our fungular descent, we shall dismiss our pride, and avow, with the characteristic humility of philosophy, our unsuspected cousinship with the mushrooms."

To this day such cousinship has still not been demonstrated; not by Huxley, not by Darwin, nor their well-funded successors. Richard Dawkins confidently asserted not long ago that turnips are our cousins.

One hundred and fifty years after Huxley’s debate with Wilberforce, the evidence of Man’s uniqueness continues to withstand every challenge.

Image: Yellowknife Bay Formation on Mars; NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.