Could Biological Life Be Just A Passing Phase In The Universe?

Illustration for article titled Could Biological Life Be Just A Passing Phase In The Universe?

Steven Dick, a famed astronomer and historian, has completed a one-year residency at the Library of Congress, researching his next book, How the Discovery of Life Will Transform Our Thinking. In an exclusive interview posted on the Library's blog, he discusses such provocative issues as evolution on a cosmic scale.


[Image: NASA]

The entire interview is worth reading in full, but here are some highlights:

Could the discovery of something as tiny as a microbe have a seismic effect?

When we thought we found fossils in a Mars rock in 1996, it had huge effect. So imagine the discovery of living bacteria.

As part of my research this past year I've looked into the nature of discovery. Discovery is an extended process, which consists of detection, interpretation, and understanding. If and when we discover life beyond Earth, it's going to be an extended process. By studying the history of past discoveries, we can gain insights into how future discoveries may unfold. It's the same pattern each time: detection, followed by a long period of interpretation until, ultimately, we understand what it is. It'll take a period of years to know what we really found.

Would the change in our thinking unfold over a similar extended period?

Absolutely. The impact will take place over a long period of time. I've used the analogy of culture contacts, wonderfully documented here at the Library of Congress, to help in this regard. It's not a direct analogy, of course, but there are lots of interesting insights uncovered when you examine what Europeans thought the Native Americans would be like, and vice versa.

There are subtle lessons: problems in communication, how different brains or minds perceive experiences based on strongly held cultural beliefs and norms. This analogy more pertains to the potential discovery of intelligent life. I believe we're much too sanguine about our ability to communicate with any potential intelligent life beyond Earth.

Suppose we discover bacteria at the bottom of a lake on Titan. How do we fit that into our understanding of evolution and natural selection? How do we integrate cosmic evolution into our scientific way of thinking?

Everything in the universe is evolving, and has been since the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago. Biological evolution is one local example of cosmic evolution. We know the universe is evolving physically; we know species evolve biologically; and we know cultures evolve.

If the universe is biological and cultures evolve, then you get into the concept of post-biologicals. Maybe biological life is just a passing phase in the universe, and what we're looking for out there is quite different from biological life?

But to your question, I see no reason why evolution by natural selection would not be true elsewhere in the universe. If we found bacteria in a hydrocarbon lake on Titan, a moon of Saturn, I believe it would have evolved under natural selection, which means it will have evolved under the conditions of its natural habitat. We're searching for a universal biology and we're looking for principles, and I believe the number one universal biological principle throughout the universe would be natural selection.

Read the rest of the interview at the Library of Congress.


Kevin Street

One possible solution to the Fermi Paradox (Where are the aliens?) is that the party happened a long time ago, and the human race is one of the last to attend. Studies of other galaxies have led astronomers to the conclusion that the peak rate of star formation in the universe was between 7-11 billion years ago, so most of the planets out there may be really old, with aliens that were born, evolved into whatever, and then died out. And when we finally reach the stars we may find that they're filled with the graves of dead civilizations.