Why Search for Extraterrestrial Life? Why Not Make It Ourselves?A NASA astrobiologist’s bold suggestion is likely to spark debate
Recently, we have been looking at the question of why we don’t see aliens, with as many as 75 hypotheses offered. But one astrobiologist has a bold suggestion: Why not just seed life on various suitable exoplanets, once we have the means to do it? We need not search for extraterrestrial life if we can learn how to create it ourselves.
There are a lot of reasons to think very carefully about doing something like that, as Betül Kaçar (pictured), director of the NASA Astrobiology Consortium MUSE, acknowledges:
Rather than regarding the overwhelming majority of planets and moons as failures unworthy of further study, we should instead recognise them for what they are: they’re not empty. In fact, a very high number of them might have been (and might yet be still) on the cusp of flourishing with life, if provided the specific potential to do so. What if a significant percentage of those planets and moons require only a few hundred kilogrammes of ‘the right chemical stuff’ to spark their own, unique biotic revolutions?Betül Kaçar, “Do we send the goo?” at Aeon
She is careful to point out that she is not talking about “terraforming” (blasting a planet into becoming more like Earth) but “protospermia”: “What if a significant percentage of those planets and moons require only a few hundred kilogrammes of ‘the right chemical stuff’ to spark their own, unique biotic revolutions?”
We would deliver a starting point, but the unfolding trajectory of this chemical system won’t be directed, it will be self-directed and self-organised. What occurs next will result from the coevolution between the chemical goo and the planetary body itself – a solution that is unrelated to our biology, and specific to that planetary system.Betül Kaçar, “Do we send the goo?” at Aeon
And she asks, “If humans are capable of instigating multiple origins of life under a broader array of circumstances than life currently exists, ought we to do it?” On the one hand, there is Star Trek’s Prime Directive (don’t interfere). On the other hand, are we walking away from knowledge of fundamental issues about the universe? Which ethical concern should take priority?
It might, she thinks, take thousands or millions of years because we aren’t trying to force Earth-type life on the planet, only to enable something that we would consider life to get started.
The ethics of trying to kickstart life on another planet sounds like a great debate club topic. But, of course, the reality is that we have no clear idea how life began on Earth. Today, for sure, life comes only from earlier life, as Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) famously observed.
Also, another question arises: Can we create the sense of purpose—in terms of desiring to stay alive—that is characteristic of life forms? If we created something that went through the motions of being alive but did not have an inner sense of self-preservation, it would not last long. It would just disintegrate. The good news is that, if astrobiologists succeed in some of their projects, they may get to tackle that question. Otherwise, it remains a great debate club topic.
You may also enjoy:
Particle physicist offers 75 reasons we don’t see aliens. But Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute gives high odds that we are the only intelligent beings in the galaxy. No matter whose theory about why we don’t see extraterrestrials is right, we are bound to go on wondering and searching.
Can we find purpose in a universe with no underlying purpose? That’s the ambitious goal of a prominent science writer. Philip Ball, author of How to Grow a Human, tries to generate purpose from nothing but leaves many unanswered questions.