Astrobiology and the End of the World

Consider three very different scenarios:

A) We are totally unique in the universe, the only intelligent life anywhere.

B) The universe teems with intelligence. Galaxies often form connected communities of different intelligent species.

C) Simple life is common, but intelligent life is typically very short lived. Intelligence is common enough, but doesn’t persist long enough for intelligent species to meet in outer space.

All of these are live possibilities, as far as we know. Nothing we know about the shape of the universe rules out any of them. But it’s curious what a different light each scenario casts on our struggle to not destroy ourselves.

A) If we’re the only intelligent species that has ever been, our survival is of paramount importance. Burning through a planet or two is immaterial in comparison. I find this scenario to be the least likely.

B) If we’re just a few generations away from being inducted into the Galactic Federation, destroying ourselves wouldn’t, in the grand scheme, be as tragic. It would be more tragicomic – still sad, but in an hilarious bumbling way. It would also be immoral for us to prioritize the survival of humans over other species. Stripped of our status as unique in space and time, it seems to me our importance relative to the rest of the biome would be diminished. Conservation efforts make the most sense on this scenario.

C) This is the most interesting scenario to me, and it strikes me as just as likely as the other two. Imagine that the universe is positively sodden with simple life; algaes, bacteria, fungi, etc. Our own planet spent a couple of billion years covered in not much more, as far as anyone can tell, than stromatolites.

Stromatolites, little heaps of minerals produced by microbes

Maybe that level of life is simply everywhere. More complex things like plants and animals could be much rarer, but still reasonably well dotted around the universe, appearing where conditions are favourable.

And now imagine that intelligent life shows up regularly enough, but inevitably is snuffed out shortly after it appears. Intelligence is simply too volatile to survive on geological time-scales. Sometimes it lasts a few few thousands of years, sometime nearly a hundred thousand. But inevitably, intelligence tears itself apart. Like a supernova, it expends itself in a magnificent flash. Or, dumb luck crushes it in its flower, blasted by a meteor or some other random event. Either way, intelligent itself is mortal.

With this scenario, our conservation efforts look noble enough, but ultimately misguided. It’s like a 95 year old trying to quit smoking. What we should be doing instead is really enjoying the view, savouring the little time we have left. It’s a rare and precious thing that we should have happened to wake up in the world, and the really tragic thing would be to waste that wakefulness on panicked clinging. A graceful exit would be preferable, without too much fuss. We should make reasonable efforts to keep ourselves going, but no extreme measures. And the stylish thing to do would be to avoid doing too much damage to the rest of the biosphere in the process of our extinction.

The amazing part, the really awesome, terrifying bit, is that there really is a real answer to the question of how much life there is in the universe, and how much of it is smart. And it’s a good bet that we’ll never know what it is. We have to figure out what to do with ourselves in this profound ignorance.


2 thoughts on “Astrobiology and the End of the World

  1. I’m not quite convinced of your image of humanity as the 95 year old smoker (longest lived woman ever recorded Jean Louise Calment quit smoking at the age of 119, three years before her death because she could not see to light the cigarettes and was to proud to ask for a light). First, I’m not sure I find humanity’s extinction anymore inevitable than the alternative view that humanity will achieve (either individually or collectively) a literal apotheosis thanks to massive inevitable technological advance granting us (or our trans-human progeny) unprecedented abilities to manipulate the world (the singularity). Both views look at some trends and extrapolate wildly (although certainly the singularity raises the possibility of new and more unstoppable ways to destroy ourselves even as it raises the possibilities for propagation, so the two are not unrelated).

    The degradation of the environment humans are causing certainly hurts human health and happiness and hurts our prospects (not to mention the effect on our roommates), but does that imply total extinction is the end of that trend or might some less total destruction be the end point? Similar human armaments (atom bombs, H-bombs and the elusive super bug) pose the threat of global destruction, but would it truly be total (let us hope we never find out)? Surely it is too soon to tell, although not to soon to work against these forces of destruction.

    Second (and more importantly) I’m not sure it’s ever too late to quit smoking. To me its the search for a compulsive material pleasure like smoking that smacks of desperation not the desire to quit. I’m reminded of the ancient Greek philosophical ideal of the Good Life ™. Aristotle tells us the requirements of the good life are limited unlike the naked greed of pursuing wealth and Epicurus suggests we avoid those pleasures that in the end only sharpen our pain and disappointment in life. Yet this view seems also to eschew hair-shirted aestheticism (although it might be charged with making a virtue of necessity). It seems to me that if we imagine a world were all of humanity has achieved more of the moderate ideal of the ancients (and too be fair plenty of the moderns also) then the self-made threats to human existence would recede from view. The self-destructive traits of humanity are surely antithetical to a life guided by reason and seeking greater harmony. The adoption of such a noble mode of existence may be a long shot, but still an ideal worthy of aspiring to even when it is to late to save us.

    • On the first point, I quite agree. It is most certainly too soon to tell.

      On the second point, you seem to have woven a couple of things together, and I’m not sure they sit perfectly well together. Your observation that it could perhaps be nobler to clean up our act even in the face of certain doom is well put, and certainly a valid take on the question. But to then turn around and suggest that it could be practically useful to seek moderation is to undercut the first point – the nobility of moderation precisely when it is clear it doesn’t afford our continuation.

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