Out There and Not Here

Jeffrey Bennett. Beyond UFOs: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and its Astonishing Implications for Our Future. Princeton University Press, 2008.

Surendra Verma. Why Aren't They Here: The Question of Life on Other Worlds. Icon Books, 2008.

Books on 'life on other planets' face one major problem, there is no actual hard evidence that the subject of their topic actually exists, so most of what can be written on the topic consists of either pure speculation or other topics. Therefore much of both of these books is devoted to slightly different topics than the title suggests. Bennett, a science educator, takes in themes such as what is science, what is life etc, while Verma goes on a whistle stop tour of the history of belief in ETs.

Bennett's book takes in a study of possible habitats for aliens in the solar system, whereas Verma is more concerned with philosophical issues. As a child Bennett once believed that flashes of light seen around the house were aliens trying to communicate with him, and though he has given up this childish naivete, there is a strong core of faith in his writing, his believe in the aliens is as much a quasi-religious one, as that of any longer for the space brothers. Real aliens will be from a 'grown up civilisation’, i.e. one with a world government, no more wars and all the other 1960s dreams. They will have amazing technologies that we cannot imagine, but will also have radio and TV (and watch The Simpsons on the latter?).

Bennett's faith is based on rather old fashioned science. While at one level he does grasp that evolution proceeds through Darwinian mechanisms, old ideas of orthogenesis and Lamarkianism persist, the idea that there is a ladder of life, which organisms are crawling up, with us at the top, and that our kind of intelligence is inevitable.

If this is the case, where are all these aliens, why aren't the skies full of their handiwork. This is the so-called Fermi Paradox, which is the origin of Venna's title. Various solutions are offered, none perhaps wholly satisfactory, but most will centre on one obvious fact that writers like Bennett seem really unable to fully grasp, is that real aliens will be just that, alien, not people of a different shape who build cities and spaceships and watch TV. Enthusiasts for ETs tend to hold two mutually contradictory notions about them, on the one hand they are advanced, as 'advanced' upon us as we are upon the hair-louse or the barnacle. But on the other hand they are still preoccupied with the sort of projects which occupy our limited human imagination, such as radio telescopes, spaceships and the like. In other words they are.essentially us.

Of course that begs the question as to what can 'advanced' mean in a cross-species comparison. Just pose the question ‘is a giraffe more or less advanced than a hippopotamus’ and its absurdity is apparent. How much more absurd is a comparison with organisms far more biologically different from us than yeast or slime mould. If I were to make my own guess, I would suspect that in its broadest sense 'life' is common out there, mostly microscopic and simple, but there will be a fair number of rich, diverse and unique biospheres, scattered among them will be ones where something roughly equivalent to techno-linguistic intelligence has developed, organisms capable to transmitting and receiving complex abstract ideas and modifying their environment on a major scale by some means; there may even be forms of meta-cultural complexity, to which the whole of science, art, theology, literature, would be little more than woof woof miow, miow; but of human projects and human hopes, dreams and fears we will find none. Perhaps alien inventions made to serve alien needs, but no spaceships, no radio telescopes, no TV and no Simpsons. -- Peter Rogesron, from Magonia 99, April 2009.


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