Until recently, there was a broad consensus that all life on earth depended on the sun for nourishment. Photosynthesis, the miracle of Earth’s chlorophyll-ridden flora, provided for a celestial smorgasbord upon which more complex life forms could feed, up through the food chain to the apex predators, who, while feasting on the flesh of their prey, were really consuming the energy of the sun. That paradigm has now been discarded, upon discovering a rich ecosystem of life miles below the Pacific Ocean, where no sunlight is to be found and giant tube worms growing from hydrothermal vents derive energy directly from chemicals spewing from the earth’s core, in a process called Chemosynthesis. Just this month, several studies have suggested that the chemical composition of young Mars would have been more hospitable for the emergence of RNA, and might have been home to life long before it evolved on Earth. These arguments, though, fall short of what should be glaringly obvious to any observer: life exists anywhere and everywhere, it is pervasive, persistent, and seems to evolve out of nothing to survive on anything.
The tiny tardigrade, or waterbear, is a micro organism found throughout the world – typically in mosses or lichens. This miraculous creature is a natural born interstellar or interplanetary traveler. Able to withstand temperatures of near absolute zero, pressures three times that of the deepest depths of the oceans, and radiation that would turn most living things into Jell-O, the tardigrade could survive up to 10 years in the vacuum of space – long enough to planet hop around the solar system. I’m not contending that we are all the genetic offspring of some eight legged asteroid hitchhiker, but rather that even in our own backyard we are finding life that confounds the expectations of science, and expands that which we now know to be possible.
My point is, in the grand scheme of things, our scientific understanding of the universe is pathetic. Just as our forbearers believed the Earth was the center of the universe, only to discover that not only does it revolve around the sun, but that our sun itself is little more than a spec on the horizon of much more impressive stars and planets throughout the galaxy and beyond. The scientific continuum appears to be nearing its end with each successive generation of discoveries, but the deeper we look, the depth of the mysteries of the universe increase exponentially. Whether we understand something now, or think we do on false premises, or are merely grasping at straws – the fact that we don’t have the answer now has no bearing on whether an answer exists. Life is the ultimate mystery, but the evidence is bountiful that there is life everywhere.
Religion, and more so the narcissistic repercussions of a human-centric universal view, have left many with the mistaken belief – based on a lack of evidence to the contrary and fairy tales that delude simple minds – that Earth is a unique refuge for life in an otherwise desolate and lifeless universe. Living on a planet with such a diverse ecosystem, where entire species of ants evolve to survive on a single living tree in the great and ancient Redwood forests, where new discoveries await their discoverers each and every day, it would seem to be a greater leap of faith to believe we are alone, than that we are but a island of life in a flourishing universe. That is to say, we must reconsider the archaic notions that the Earth, its inhabitants, and most importantly humanity hold any special place in the great all-encompassing ecosystem. Abandoning those childish notions leads down a path to a coherent and more meaningful reality in which we are no longer alone.
We are not alone. Most likely we have never been alone. New astronomical techniques are now discovering countless Earth-like planets close to our solar system that could theoretically support life, or more properly Earth-like life. Assuming that all life would resemble ours, or require the same environment is itself willfully blind to the power of life to thrive in any circumstance. That said, even if it were, there are plenty of planets where similar life could evolve.
Whether there is life out there is of little doubt. Whether there is intelligent life, while less certain, would seem likely based solely on the sheer enormity of the numbers. Whether there is extraterrestrial intelligent life right here on Earth… well, that is a topic for next month’s issue: Conspiracy
Pic via deviantART