One of the MSN headlines today says that scientists have discovered a new "Goldilocks" planet that may be capable of supporting life. Correction. Upon reading the article, astronomers have discovered a planetary system 41 light years away which appears to have giant gaseous planets. Though the planets themselves are gaseous and giant, similar to Jupiter and Neptune, they are in the right temperature range for liquid water and therefore might have an orbiting moon somewhere that could possibly be capable of supporting life.
Forgive me, I always ask stupid questions. But here’s my stupid question where searching for life on other planets is concerned:
Isn’t it a bit hypocritical to be searching for some unknown life on other plants, when we don’t even bother to take care of the life that exists here and now, on this planet?
Species right here on earth, real living species right under our noses, are going extinct now at a rate higher than any rate in the known history of the earth. We don’t bother to care about massive extinctions on earth, and we don’t seem to value life that is right here already on earth, so why are we so concerned about some hypothetical life on other planets when we don’t even know if life even exists there? Especially since we could never realistically reach it?
If we destroy the climate on earth, do they think a billion people are going to pack into a space ship, survive space radiation, and travel 41 light years to colonize some theoretically inhabitable planet? If one spaceship were to be packed up with humans, or with other forms of life facing extinction, or with genetic material, well, who among the would-be-gods would decide which genetic material to include?
Or, is this human interest theoretically for medicinal use or some other kind of small scale exploraton (and exploitation)? Since something like 60% of my genes are identical with those of a banana, and some other form of life would have developed independently and therefore would most likely have a completely different type of chemistry, can’t we pretty much assume that knowledge about life here is going to be more illustrative than knowledge about some completely unrelated life form?
And that’s even assuming that we would recognize some other life form when we found it. Because, well, heck: we can hardly even define what life means on earth. I mean, there are still people who assert that fish or earthworms, or baby boys being circumcised, don’t feel pain. If we can’t even agree what consitutes basic life experience on earth, how could we agree on what it is when it took an entirely different and possibly unrecognizable form? So, assuming we found life, how would we anthropomorphic humans even be able to decide whether it really was life or not?
I can imagine a debate similar to the one on whaling, except how much more profoundly sophmoric: "You claim that whales are intelligent and endangered, but you can’t really prove it to my satisfaction, and I choose to disagree, so I’ll just continue to hunt (for scientific purposes of course, and then eat) whales so long as I feel like it, and if you disagree with that decision then it’s simply because you don’t respect my culture." Good grief, and this is a position regarding the largest mammals on earth, already barely surviving the challenges posed by ship propellers, polluted seas, plastic and long lines, and sonar that confuses echolocation. In fact, I read recently that they think the last pink river dolphin has disappeared from Shanghai and Hong Kong harbors. When I look in the river here, I’m amazed that any fish live in it, let alone marine mammals.
Well, so much for my stupid questions. I’m sure the Carl Sagan geniuses of the world are delighted. I just can’t quite see what the fuss is all about, in terms of balancing the values.
Here’s my illustration of what I mean by valuing life: