Are We Alone?

dung beetleEnthusiasts keen on the search for extraterrestrial life always present this justification for their interest: we must find out: Are We Alone?

This topic comes to mind again today (7/14/15) after reading a New York Times article (http://nyti.ms/1dWlI2y) on the proposed High Definition Space Telescope, 100 times more sensitive than the Hubble. It would be big enough to study nearby Earthlike planets that might support life.

According to Matt Mountain, a former director of the Hubble, “Only once in the arc of our species…will we turn a corner and be able to determine … whether we are alone. We can be that generation.”

If that’s the main motivation for the new telescope, I can save everyone a tremendous amount of time and money by providing the correct answer right now: We are not alone.

There are at least two million other species on our planet right now (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-we-any-closer-to-knowing-how-many-species-there-are-on-earth/). If you’re feeling extremely lonesome, you can dig up some beetles.

The problem with that perennial question, “Are we alone?” is the referent for the pronoun.  Who is “we?” Matt Mountain was clear that he meant “we” were the human species. That’s why I can answer his question definitively. Homo sapiens is not alone, Matt.

But perhaps the “we” is supposed to refer to something like “all of us living things on the planet,” as if we were all suddenly pals, homo sapiens drinking beers with phosphorescent algae and gazelles on Friday nights. If the ill-articulated question is really, “Is there life anywhere beyond Earth?” then the answer is still “yes,” with about 95% certainty. There’s plenty of scientific data to suggest that we might soon find bacteria on other worlds.

And if we did? If life we can recognize is found, dead or alive, on Mars, Enceladus, Europa, or elsewhere, then all of us drinking buddies here on Earth would finally be “no longer alone.” Why would that be important?

Such a finding would disconfirm some unspoken assumption that God created life exclusively on Earth,  though not even the Bible says that. It’s hard to believe that scientists who wonder publicly if “we are alone” are worried about interpreting the Bible.

Could the question arise from some atavistic urge to be “special?” If there is life on other planets, then we’re not special here on Earth. But in what way does your habitat make you special? You can live in Miami or Chicago. Is one place more special than the other? Everybody’s located somewhere, so in that sense, everybody’s special. Earth is one particular place to be, special for those of us who live here.

So are we, the earthbound lifeforms, unique in the universe? Statistically, it is not reasonable to think we are. I do admit, until extraterrestrial life is positively confirmed, life is, as far as we know, isolated here on Earth. However, speaking to  dung beetles everywhere, that’s inconsequential, so carry on as you were.


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