Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Search for Intelligent Life - On Earth

The idea that there is intelligent life on other planets is so compelling that millions of people still believe in UFOs, in spite of common sense, their ability to reason and evidence to the contrary. This enduring interest has inspired thousands of science fiction novels and movies, the hugely popular television drama X-Files and more recently a reality TV show called UFO Hunters.

According to their mission statement, the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestial Intelligence) Institute was founded to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe. The Institute comprises 3 centers, the Center for SETI Research, the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe, and the Center for Education and Public Outreach.


In all probability intelligent life does exist somewhere "out there," or once existed elsewhere in the universe. But the size and scale of the universe is so vast that the human mind can't comprehend it. Maybe that's why so many people think it's practical and realistic for alien species to "make contact" with each other.

I've written about this before. It's not practical, and it's not realistic. A thousand years ago, earth was in the "Dark Ages." Can you imagine what life on earth will be like a thousand years from now? If we launched a spacecraft that can travel 10 times the speed of the fastest space craft ever launched, that ship would still be on its way a thousand years from now. Or another space craft built 200 years from now would have passed it up. Or by then no one would care about life on other planets anymore.

It's too far to go.

A more urgent question: Is there intelligent life on Earth?

NASA photo
4.6 billion years ago. the earth formed from the debris of our star's birth. But single-cell life didn't appear on this planet until a billion years later. And it took another 2 billion years after that for these underwater cells to pump enough oxygen into our atmosphere to support life as we know it.

Multi-celled creatures didn't appear until 600 million years ago. Reptiles appeared 300 million years ago and dominated the planet for nearly 250 million years.

It wasn't until 50 millions years ago, after the dinosaurs were extinct, that large mammals came to dominate the planet. The first non-gorilla, non-chimpanzee humanoid creatures appeared 7 million years ago. But the first distinctly intelligent humanoids, the cro-magnons, didn't appear until 50,000 years ago.

Would you call them intelligent life? You could, even though they had no agriculture, no wheels, no written language, no commerce and no civilization.

These aspects of human culture weren't introduced until about 6,000 years ago.

The modern religions that exist today didn't get their start until about 2.500 years ago.

And humans didn't create the first printed book until 600 years ago. One of the first books to be printed was the Holy Bible. In it is this verse: "The Earth is firmly fixed; it shall not be moved." -Psalms 104:5

Back then, when humans gazed at the night sky, they didn't see "the universe." They saw "the heavens." They didn't know that our world is a tiny, insignificant speck of rock circling around one of the roughly 100 billion stars in our galaxy, which is one of untold billions of galaxies in the universe. Instead, they believed that everything visible in the night sky circled around the earth, that our world was the center of the entire universe.

It's not their fault. Science hadn't produced evidence to the contrary.

In fact, 600 years ago science was in its infancy. One of the great early scientists of that time, Galileo Galilei, had studied the stars carefully and concluded that Copernicus was correct, that the earth rotated around the sun. By teaching these facts, he dared to contradict this Bible scripture.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
In 1633 the Catholic Church tried him for the crime of heresy. They threatened him with torture if he didn't recant. Knowing that the church had burned mathematician and astronomer Giordano Bruno at the stake for the same crime, Galileo complied. As punishment, he was confined to house arrest and not allowed to leave or receive visitors for the rest of his life.

Are we there yet? Does this qualify as intelligent life?

In the year 2010, this same church still exists, more powerful than ever. Well over 90% of the 6 billion people alive on the planet still believe in an unseen deity who created everything, still worship and affirm the teachings of an establish religion, and still look at the night sky and see "the heavens."

In South Carolina, Kansas, Texas and elsewhere, conservative Christians are actively pushing to get the teachings of the Bible into school science courses.

Are we there yet? Do we qualify as intelligent life? If a life form can be both irrational and intelligent, then yes. But if so, how long has this kind of intelligent life existed on earth, really? The most generous estimate possible: only .000001% of the history of the planet.

And if you look at it realistically, we have a long way to go. Because the issue isn't whether intelligent life exists on Earth, is it? The earth is teeming with life. Even an amoeba may be said to have a primitive form of intelligence. The real question is, how intelligent?

It seems to me that nurturing intelligent life on our own planet is far, far more urgent than trying to discover it somewhere else.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .


Sarcastic Bastard said...

Is there intelligent life on Earth, indeed. That made me laugh. I'm sure you know what I think.

Please send Kathleen my love. I can't get to her blog at all now. It bounces me directly to the Dell search page.


Sean said...

SETI certainly does seem like a huge waste of time and resources. When one thinks of all the compute hours that have been dedicated to SETI instead of something productive like drug research, well... sigh.

But is there life on other planets? I believe so, in that the universe is a really big place. But what gets me is that if there is life on other planets, wouldn't one of them come up with a long-term solution to life? Or all civilizations doomed to die off after a few hundred thousand years?

Why wouldn't some civilization somewhere create a self-replicating, expanding system that could extend life, or evidence of previous life, for millions or billions of years? If one civilization managed that, then it's certainly possible it could spread through the galaxy. But we've seen no evidence of anything like that, at least, not with the weak tools we have so far. Still, if such a thing exists, I think it would have found us long before we thought to look for them. So there's probably no such thing.

But SETI isn't all bad. The technology behind SETI@Home was generalized and reapplied to more scientific pursuits, which is a huge benefit. Plus getting people interested in the science of radio astronomy is at least a little better than having them waste time in other studies, such as keynesian economics or socialism.

Anonymous said...

Cogito ergo sum. According to Descartes: I think, then: I Exist.
If We were cartesian thinkers We cpould rest assured We are alive.
If my belief system is not that of a positivist, according to their reasoning: I do no t think, then: I do not exist.
Sorry but I FEEL God exists.

Denny Coates said...

Anonymous, there's no reason whatsoever to say "Sorry" when declaring your belief in God. I know lots of scientists who understand and accept the realities of the vast universe and who believe in God. Your belief can bring profound benefits to your life, and you're in good company. I wish all these benefits for you. At the same time, I hope you, like my friends, maintain a vital curiosity for what's actually happening in the grand universe beyond our little planet.

Without Light Only Darkness said...

Science is still in its infancy: and may always remain as such.

Without Light Only Darkness said...

Science is still in its infancy: and may always remain as such.